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Today, most cars are capable of topping 100mph, but back in 1925 ‘the ton’ was a spectacular speed that very few had experienced.
Any road car with this kind of performance potential was a sensation, none more so than the rare Bentley Super Sports, the first model given the iconic green-winged ‘B’ badge.
Just 18 of these high-performance, short-chassis machines were built between 1925 and ’27, and each came with a factory guarantee of 100mph.
Lighter, shorter, more powerful and faster than any other 3 Litre, its performance came at the exclusive price of £1050 – compared to £925 for the Speed Model.
This chassis-only deal then required further outlay for a body by your preferred coachbuilder.
With a 9ft wheelbase, 9½in shorter than the Speed Model, this more trim 22½cwt (1143kg) machine shaved off 25kg and was instantly recognisable to enthusiasts in 1925 due to its more compressed profile.
Also enhancing the Super Sports’ style were a tapered radiator and scuttle to reduce wind resistance.
Under the bonnet, the final development of WO Bentley’s handsome overhead-cam, twin-plug ‘four’ was tuned with a lightened flywheel, increased 6.3:1 compression, drilled valve-spring caps, lighter ‘hourglass’ pistons and twin SU Type G5 ‘Sloper’ carburettors.
With a 15/53 axle ratio, the chassis was driven down from the Cricklewood works to Brooklands in exposed form for its 100mph test prior to delivery.
Super Sports survivors rarely come on to the market, but the news that William Medcalf was offering the most original of these machines, chassis 1174, had me racing down to his impressive showroom on the old A3.
Today, many 3 Litres have been uprated to 4½ Litre power with dramatic results, but this Will Short-bodied two-seater with dickey is as authentic as they come.
The flat black paint finish and worn leather trim have immense character, yet mechanically it’s fresh from the workshop.
Recent fettling has been thorough, but the Vintage Bentley team has been careful to preserve this wonderfully original car’s patina.
Medcalf has also driven 1174 on a 500-mile tour along some of England’s finest roads.
Entry is best via the passenger door, the angle of which neatly echoes the black windscreen’s rake.
Sliding your legs under the steering wheel is tight due to this car’s special lowered column, which also makes the pedals cramped.
Double-declutching in your country brogues would be a challenge, but the seat is snugly supportive due to the central division.
The staggered seat design also provides a clever opening for handy access to the storage behind without deploying the dickey, a detail I’ve never seen before.
The wooden dashboard has a fine array of black Smiths and AT gauges, with a large handle in the centre to prime the fuel pressure – a manual operation that Bentley felt was more reliable than an Autovac.
This engine still has its original crank and rods, so I have no intention of confirming its famed performance today, but out on the road the engine feels surprisingly eager thanks to the lightened flywheel.
In top it pulls strongly and gurgles along at 60mph showing just 2000rpm.
The steering is more responsive than Speed Models I’ve driven, with faster turn-in.
Some vintage Bentley enthusiasts claim the Super Sports is tricky to handle and liable to break away, particularly in the wet, but Medcalf reports there’s nothing like them on the road.
Once you’ve tuned into the timing – slow up to second and quick across to third – the gearbox is superbly smooth.
The lever is set to the right inside the body, with a hook to engage reverse.
Medcalf favours the action of original A-type gears, and this is one of the best vintage Bentley changes I’ve tried.
Altogether the Super Sports feels sharper in every aspect than its longer, heavier Cricklewood stablemates, and had Ettore Bugatti driven this rare performance model he’d never have made his much quoted Bentley ‘lorries’ analogy.
The Super Sports was only built to special order, with a two-to-three-month delivery time for the chassis.
No car was displayed at a motor show and none were road tested by the press.
Of the 18 built, all had bespoke coachbuilt styling.
The majority were sporty designs that best matched the short 9ft wheelbase, and they included the work of the Albany Carriage Company for Audrey Kidston (1159); and Jarvis & Sons of Wimbledon (1192), which featured an unpainted, pointed tail and Zeiss lights.
During the 1930s, this dramatic machine was fitted with an experimental 4½ Litre engine.
Woolf Barnato’s first Bentley was another Jarvis design (1106), a stripped-down, wingless racing machine with polished-aluminium bodywork that he raced through 1925-’26 before selling to Land Speed Record legend JG Parry-Thomas.
In contrast, just one Super Sports was fitted with a closed body style by HJ Mulliner, which sacrificed low weight for refinement.
Arguably the most beautiful of these machines was by Surbico, a small coachbuilder based in Surbiton, which created for Eastbourne butcher Henry Leeson a boat-tailed two-seater with a special tapered bulkhead and sweeping full-length wings.
Two further cars were styled abroad, a striking streamlined design, created by Felber in Paris, and chassis 1126, which was shipped to Australia in August 1925 for Melbourne dealer Fred Brodribb.
For its sports two-seater body, Brodribb instructed James Flood to create a rakish design with dramatically flared wings and a low tail.
Footplates and aeroscreens enhanced its racy look, with the body painted blue and a bare-metal bonnet.
Brodribb used the spectacular machine in Australian events, and just missed out on victory in the tough 1500-mile RACV Alpine Contest around Victoria and New South Wales due to a penalty for early arrival.
The Super Sports was the fastest sports car in Australia and set record times at the Black Spur and Talbingo hillclimbs, as well as winning the Flying Mile acceleration tests at Lake Entrance.
After many years in the Harrah Collection, this fabulous 3 Litre has returned to Australia, where it has been restored to the original style built by James Flood.
William Geoffrey Barlow, a wealthy barrister who was well known by the Brooklands set, was another tempted to order a Super Sports.
A regular competitor, Barlow had previously owned one of the earliest Bentley 3 Litres, chassis 22, which was also fitted with a body built by Short.
Later, Barlow had the works experimental department prepare the car for competition.
Stripped of wings and windscreen, chassis 22 lapped Brooklands at 96mph.
Highlights of Barlow’s early outings included a Short Handicap Race in which he beat founder WO in another 3 Litre.
Barlow competed in several cars including a Tourist Trophy Sunbeam team car – which, coincidentally, was a big influence on the Bentley design; the ‘Tuck’ Humber; one of the first Aston Martins, OR1; and the Halford Special.
Born in Cheshire in 1892, Barlow enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War.
By 1917 he’d joined the 200 Depot Squadron, which specialised in night attack missions with Royal Aircraft Factory FE2 ‘pusher’ biplanes.
Looking for a fast road car, Barlow purchased chassis 1174 through the Grosvenor Garage Ltd in Bournemouth in July 1925, whereupon it was dispatched – just like his first Bentley – to Will Short Ltd in Winchester for bodywork.
Despite its exclusive price, the Super Sports had sold well in 1925 and Barlow’s order was the ninth of 11 produced that year.
As with his first car, the enthusiast had a hand in the styling of 1174. A sketch survives of Barlow’s instructions for chassis 22 with unpainted bodywork, flared wings and a side-mounted spare.
Special features for his Super Sports included a lowered steering column, an extended accelerator pedal and seven rather than eight ‘road’ leaf springs at the rear.
Barlow specified a two-seater body with slightly staggered seating, flared wings and high running boards with a battery box suspended underneath.
The rounded tail and spare wheel mounted low at the back were protected by a neat hinged bar.
There’s no record of the body colour, but in the only pre-war photograph it looks like black.
With the windscreen removed and minimal silver plating for just the radiator, the Super Sports looked very purposeful and, being a pilot and racer, Barlow wasn’t bothered by the exposed cockpit.
Even competing at Brooklands he ran bare-headed with no ’screen.
Registered TR 829, the Super Sports was kept at Barlow’s impressive home, The Hatch in Kingsley Green, near Haslemere, and was no doubt used for the high-speed commute up the A3 to the London courts.
Barlow appears to have given up racing by the ’30s, when he joined Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
Such was his involvement with the party that Barlow and his associates were judged a security risk and locked up during the Second World War under Defence Regulation 18B.
Like several English aristocrats, Barlow had great admiration for Adolf Hitler and even after the war he financially supported the Kingdom House group.
After a much-publicised raid by protesters in December 1945, he kept a low profile and died aged 83 in 1975.
Barlow owned the Super Sports for three years before it was sold to 27-year-old Roland Seward, the founder of a huge garage business in Southampton that later became a satellite factory for Supermarine Spitfire components.
The Bentley returned to the works several times for engine work during the early 1930s, and later owners included Ernest Alfred Jacobs, a motorcycle specialist in Southend.
The Super Sports survived the war, despite a close shave with an incendiary bomb, and by 1956 had been acquired by Miss Judy Coates, the daughter of well-known Bentley Drivers’ Club member James, who also owned a Gurney Nutting 8 Litre saloon.
With just 41,000 miles on the clock, 1174 had been smartened-up with fresh green paint and chroming before L-plates were affixed and Judy learnt to drive in the rare Bentley. Perhaps it provided inspiration for the 1962 comedy caper The Fast Lady.
The car remained with the Coates family until 1993, when it was acquired by respected connoisseur Bill Lake and joined a remarkable collection of Bentley team cars, plus a TT Sunbeam, 9.2-litre veteran Mors racer, Aston Martin DB3S, the Michelotti Jaguar D-type and a Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle.
Lake had a great appreciation for highly original machines, and for the following three decades 1174 remained in the family stable.
Two years ago, Bonhams discreetly offered the Super Sports as a private-treaty sale and it was swiftly acquired by Vintage Bentley.
Before any work was started on the maintenance of 1174, Medcalf invited foremost marque historian Dr Clare Hay to his Hampshire workshop to examine the rare machine.
The remarkable discovery of matching numbers throughout further confirmed its originality.
“I’d only seen the car in books, so it was fascinating to study such a well-preserved, low-mileage Super Sport,” enthuses Medcalf. “It’s the only unrestored car of the 18 built, and one of just four still with original bodywork.”
Once the inspection was completed and details photographically recorded, Medcalf and team went right through the car’s mechanicals.
With the chassis and engine refreshed, the focus turned to the cosmetics.
Using the one period photograph of 1174 during Barlow’s ownership, the body and wings were corrected: “The running boards were too low, so we raised them by 2in.
“We also dechromed the brightwork, including the rare Smiths sidelights.”
From the 97-year-old photograph, Medcalf judged that the finish needed to be darker and eventually repainted it black including the lights, ’screen frame and wheel spinners.
Using a mixture of brush and spray paint, the result perfectly enhanced 1174’s originality.
The leather trim was repaired and a new battery box was made to fit accurately under the passenger running board.
A fresh set of triple-stud Blockley tyres was fitted, which transformed the car’s stance.
After testing, Medcalf entered the first Generations Rally and, fresh from victory on the Flying Scotsman with his own Super Sports recreation, he invited his wife Kate to drive 1174 while he navigated.
With the three-day route around the Lake District, the North Pennines and Yorkshire blessed with spring sunshine, the new event proved a great introduction.
“The Super Sports was in its element on these roads, particularly the mountain passes, and Kate drove it superbly,” says Medcalf.
“With the 9ft wheelbase the car handles like a dream, and you can just chuck it into corners like a go-kart,” he continues.
“Once rolling the steering weight eases and it’s very direct.
“With the lighter flywheel, the engine is much more responsive.
“It’s a hooligan version of a vintage Bentley and the difference is stark.”
Like many marque enthusiasts, Medcalf knew the Super Sports existed but had little idea how different they were until the first, chassis 1046, was found in a garage near Lewes.
“It hadn’t been used for years, but I dragged it out and got it running,” he recalls.
“I kept the revs below 3000rpm and drove it home. It was a choice between a mortgage and rebuilding the 1046.
“When it was finished I did a few hillclimbs and autotests, and soon realised how special they are. Then I started tracking down the other cars.”
As well as rebuilding eight of the original 18, Medcalf has developed five short-chassis specials based on original parts.
With 200bhp powering 1450kg, the continuation Super Sports make phenomenal historic rally cars as he has proved with three Flying Scotsman wins and second pre-war car home in the gruelling 2010 Peking to Paris behind a ’39 Chevrolet ‘Fangio’ Coupe: “The Super Sports put our business on the map, and I love showing what they can do.”
Images: James Mann
Thanks to: William Medcalf and historian Dr Clare Hay