Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Classic Cars: 1921 Bentley Chassis 3

World’s oldest Bentley caused a stir when it sold for $965,500 Add to ...

Playing the role of gadget-meister “Q” in 17 James Bond movies likely came easily enough to Desmond Llewelyn after being exposed to interesting things of a mechanical nature early in life, including the first production car delivered by the Bentley marque.

Llewelyn, who in later years recalled the car well, would have been about seven when in 1921 his father Ivor, a Welsh coal mining engineer and car enthusiast, became Bentley Motors Ltd.’s first paying customer after handing over a cheque for ₤1,150 to purchase Chassis No. 3.

He had ordered it clad in sporty-looking aluminum two-seater bodywork with a “canoe stern” and a raked and vee-d two-piece windshield that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a speedboat. And neither would the brass fittings. The aluminum panelling was originally “scratched” and varnished, producing a unique sort of metallic wood-grain finish.

The impression car this would have made on a schoolboy like Desmond isn’t hard to imagine but dad must have been highly chuffed too. Prior to the Bentley’s arrival, he’d often gotten his driving jollies by relegating his chauffeur to the back seat of his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and driving it himself. Soon after taking delivery of the Bentley, he was urged by his wife and likely young Desmond to have the rear bodywork altered to accommodate a “dickey” seat.

Llewelyn senior doesn’t sound like he was the impulsive type but he had been so impressed by EXP 2 – the second experimental Bentley and first to be shown publicly – while visiting the Olympia car show that he placed an order with the then-new car company. It had been founded in 1919 by W.O. Bentley, an early car enthusiast and importer, who’d won acclaim in the war by designing rotary aero engines.

Bentley and his crew spent the next couple of years designing a single-overhead-cam, four-valve, four-cylinder engine and a chassis to go with it, testing them with a pair of prototypes and in 1920 building a factory that would make the town of Cricklewood in North West London forever famous.

The Bentley 3-litre engine produced 70 hp and came with a four-speed gearbox. This was fitted to a sturdy steel chassis with solid axles front and rear, with brakes on the rear wheels only. Bespoke bodies were fitted to suit customer requirements. Short Standard Chassis cars could reach speeds of 130 km/h and high performance versions 160 km/h.

Only 29 chassis were built in 1921, but the 3-litre would go on to race in the Indianapolis 500 finishing 13th, compete successfully at Brooklands and, in 1924, give Bentley the first of its six wins at Le Mans (the last in 2003). It would remain in production until 1929, by which time 1,613, had been built. Two of them were purchased by Llewelyn.

Llewelyn kept Chassis No. 3 until 1928 before passing it on to a fellow Newport resident who sold it a few years later to Earnest “Cracky” Williams of Bristol, who added it to a stash of interesting cars he managed to preserve through the Second World War. It was sold after the war and the first attempts made at bringing it back to life, which included a new front axle with brakes.

It’s next custodian was a Duncan Beaton who after extensive and expensive negotiation – he apparently spent some ₤4 on beer at 10 pence a pint – reduced the asking price of ₤125 to ₤120. “A wonderful bargain because every trip in it was joyful.”

Other owners followed and it eventually made its way to North America in 1957 where John Riggs picked it up on the docks in New York and drove it home to Elmira, N.Y. But it was soon being shuffled from owner to owner again. A restoration was begun in the early 1970s but not completed, and once again in the mid-1980s after it had been purchased for $50,000.

Chassis No. 3 finally arrived in the hands of a true Bentley enthusiast in the mid-1990s who completed a “well documented and sympathetic” rebuild of the car, which saw it returned to driving condition for the first time in three decades in 1999.

The car that emerged so long ago from W.O. Bentley’s Cricklewood factory and that likely had his fingerprints on its wheel at some point, is currently finished in polished alloy coachwork with black wings and the correct beaded-edge tires and medium-green leather interior. Some parts, including the brass fittings have been left in original condition, resulting in what has been described as a delightful patina accompanied by a wonderful exhaust note worthy of a car of this historic importance.

No public fuss was made over this first delivery of a Bentley to Llewelyn as Chassis No. 1 was waiting in the wings to make its public debut and was handed over to wealthy peer of the realm, racing driver and the money behind KLG sparkplugs Noel Van Raalte about a month later. Chassis No. 2 remained, and still does, in the possession of the company.

But the sale of Bentley’s oldest surviving production car 90 years later at Gooding & Co.’s Pebble Beach auction this summer for $965,500 caused bit of a stir in collector car circles.


Back in 1921

The first East/West Grey Cup game is played when the Edmonton Eskimos travel east to Toronto take on the Toronto Argonauts and lose. Ottawa’s Senators beat Vancouver’s Billionaires to capture the Stanley Cup.

The Bluenose is launched, Bantam and Best discover insulin, women exercise their right to vote for the first time and Agnes MacPhail becomes first female member of parliament.

Brock Motors of Amherstburg, Ont., announces plans to produce 10,000 of its Brock Six touring cars, but goes bust after building only one.

The first radio broadcast of a baseball game is aired from Forbes Field in Pittsburgh with Harold Arlin on the mike calling a match between the Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies on Westinghouse KDKD. The first World Series broadcast happens later in the year.

Sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman wins the Atlantic City Pageant and a three-foot-high Golden Mermaid Trophy; the beauty contest is renamed the Miss America Pageant – and Gorman retroactively the first Miss America.


In the know

Most popular video »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories