Toys for big boys with big budgets (and egos) made the headlines during Britain's Goodwood Festival of Speed when a pair of bidders dug deep to come up with $16-million to acquire the most expensive Rolls-Royce sold at auction and a legendary racing Bentley that commanded the highest price ever paid for a British built car.
The phrase “boys and their toys” perhaps attained its highest level of expression at the Bonhams’ auction held as part of the recent classic car festival.
The 1929 4-1/2-litre “Blower Bentley,” which went under the hammer for few thousand quid over £5-million ($7.85-million), was the favorite toy of Sir Henry Ralph Stanley “Tim” Birkin. Baronet Birkin was one of the racy “Bentley Boys” who brought the marque's name to fame in the 1920s with wins at Le Mans and on the Brooklands circuit.
The 1912 Rolls, which sold for £4.7-million, is famous as the car on which was based the Corgi Silver Ghost die-cast models that 1960s British schoolboys played with. The two final battling bidders engaged in their own version of schoolyard braggadocio bumping bids by £50,000 and £100,000 a time to more than 2-1/2 times the pre-auction estimate.
The car that became known as “The Corgi” was acquired from Rolls-Royce in 1912 by Londoner John Stephens who had purchased the first vehicle sold under that soon-to-be-famous name established in 1906.
The 40/50 model chassis provided by RR was a massive affair with solid axles front and back, powered by a 7.0-litre inline-six that produced 50 hp at 1,50 0rpm, and came with a four-speed gearbox. It could reach a top speed of 60 mph (97 km/h), but its steam-engine torque allowed top gear flexibility between three mph and that top speed. Fuel economy? Not so good at about 6 miles per gallon. And it was expensive at about £1,000, the equivalent of about 10 times that much today.
And that was before Stephens turned it over to coachbuilders Barker & Co. for its bodywork. Barkers, which had been around since 1710 and built coaches for British royalty, created a luxurious Double Pullman Limousine body, inspired by the luxury railway coaches of the period. And defenestrated restraint when it came to fenestration, the Corgi topping Volkswagen's 23-window Microbus with a total of 29 bevelled glass apertures that include curved-glass at the corners and clerestory “lights” above the side windows.
Inside Stephens' taste ran to Edwardian elegance and he chose embroidered silk for seats, door panels and the tasseled window shades, and interior fittings in silver and ivory. Under one of the footrests is a picnic set with a china tea service for four, an alcohol burner to heat water for the tea and six decanters for those looking for something a little stronger.
Following Stephens ownership, The Corgi spent most of its 100 years in collections and is one of the few 40/50 Rolls-Royces that remains in virtually as-delivered condition.
You can have your own Corgi Silver Ghost for bids in the $5 range on eBay.
The £5-million pound racer sold by Bonhams at its Goodwood sale was the product of a coming together of some of the great mechanical minds and heroic racers of Britain's 1920s and one of its better known eccentrics.
First up was W.O. Bentley, an aircraft engine designer turned car maker who produced cars that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times between 1924 and 1930, driven by a group of drivers who became known as the “Bentley Boys.” Among them was Joel Woolf “Babe” Barnato, a wealthy financier who was a Bentley financial backer and later chairman.
Another Bentley Boy was “Tiger Tim” Birkin – nicknamed after a comic book character of the day – who was a fighter pilot in the First World War, began his racing career in 1921 and, after a hiatus, resumed it in 1927, at the wheel of a 3.0-litre. A year later, he got his hands on one of Bentley's new 4.5-litre racers and finished fifth at Le Mans, and a year later won it with co-driver Barnato in a larger-engined Speed Six.
Engine designer Bentley was a displacement enthusiast and his 4.5-litre made a respectable for the day 130 hp, but Tiger Tim felt some forced induction puff would liven things up and keep the smaller engine competitive. Over Bentley's protests, but with backing from Barnato, he began developing what became a series of 50-plus supercharged cars known as the “Blower Bentleys” whose engines produced 240 hp.
The final human character in the drama was Dorothy Paget, daughter of Lord Queenborough and noted race horse owner, who backed horsepower of another sort as Birkin's racing stable sponsor. She reputedly hated the very sight of men and called her servants by assigned colours rather than by name.
Birkin's blown-Bentleys never won at Le Mans as he intended but the single-seater track racing special he created made a name for itself at the notorious Brooklands circuit, an Indianapolis 500-style rough concrete bowl.
The small-framed, dapper, flying-helmeted, be-goggled and polka-dot silk scarfed driver won races and set a new lap record for the outer circuit at a tick under 138 mph (220 km/h) at the wheel of the “Brooklands Battleship.”
With Bentley's purchase by Rolls-Royce, Birkin made a switch to Alfa Romeo (his 1932 8C-2300 Long Chassis Touring Spider sold for £2.5-million at the auction) before an infection resulting from burning his arm on an exhaust pipe at the 1933 Tripoli Grand Prix ended his life at the age of 35.
Click here for this week's picture gallery In pictures: The most expensive Rolls ever and a Bentley legend