Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

| 13 Dec 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

It’s the 1930s.

You’re someone of considerable substance – earned by the sweat of your brow, or inherited from Daddy – and you want a fast, dashing motor car of quality.

Rolls-Royce? Too staid, too ostentatious. Lagonda? A bit flash.

Alvis? Sunbeam? Admirable in their way but, well, rather middle-class.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The two-door Vanden Plas tourer was the lightest and fastest Derby Bentley

Then the new Bentley takes its bow at the 1933 Olympia Motor Show, and at last you’ve found a car that meets all your needs: high performance, elegance and style, with your choice of bespoke coachwork.

Despite costing almost as much as a dozen terraced houses, that Bentley went on to become a remarkable success.

More than 2400 examples were sold in the following six years.

They were bought by tycoons and politicians, racing drivers and bankers, test pilots and band leaders, actors and aristocrats, until WW2 forced its maker to concentrate on building aircraft engines such as the peerless Merlin.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The Vanden Plas-bodied Bentley 3½-litre has a long, flowing profile

That maker, of course, was Rolls-Royce.

In 1931, WO Bentley’s valiant firm in Cricklewood, with its thunderous sports cars and string of Le Mans victories, had collapsed into the arms of the receiver.

Napier, Rolls’ rival in the aero-engine world, had stopped building its fine luxury cars in 1924; but now it could bid for Bentley, retain WO’s engineering genius, and return to the car market with a Napier-Bentley.

It would be a serious rival to Rolls-Royce’s Phantom II.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

Derby Bentley coachbuilders chose varying spare-wheel locations – the Vanden Plas tourer wears it on the boot

When rumours of these plans reached the Rolls-Royce directors they were panicked into immediate action.

Hiding their identity behind a hastily registered shell company called the British Central Equitable Trust, they topped Napier’s bid of £125,256 by a mere £20,000.

So now Rolls had Bentley: what to do with it?

Managing director Arthur Sidgreaves liked the idea of a smaller Rolls, and a prototype had been built, codenamed Peregrine.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The four-spoke steering wheel of this early Bentley 3½-litre

Rather oddly this had a supercharged 2.4-litre engine, which did not show well in trials.

Ernest Hives, then head of the Experimental Department, followed a more sensible route.

He took the well-tried 3669cc Royce 20/25 engine and modified it radically, with a high-compression crossflow cylinder head, different camshaft, lighter pistons and twin SU carburettors.

This produced a healthy 115bhp (although Rolls-Royce never published power-output figures).

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The Bentley 3½-litre Vanden Plas tourer was a true four-seater

It sat in a conservative but quite light chassis with half-elliptic springs all round, a gearbox-driven brake servo and one-shot chassis lubrication.

Switchable twin fuel pumps and twin coils ensured reliability.

The proud radiator was a close copy of the Cricklewood Bentley’s prow, and had thermostatically controlled shutters.

Development testing in France, on English roads and at Brooklands continued right up until the launch date.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

This Bentley 3½-litre by Thrupp & Maberly is one of just two made

What made the new car stand out were its standards of engineering and build quality.

To take just one example, the road springs were enclosed in leather gaiters: each spring leaf was cadmium-plated and separately polished, and lubricated by the one-shot system.

Every part of the chassis and running gear was similarly detailed, beautifully made and meticulously assembled.

Someone in the sales department dreamed up a slogan for the new model: ‘The Silent Sports Car’.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The winged ‘B’ mascot on the Thrupp & Maberly two-door saloon

It was neither silent nor a sports car, but by the standards of the day it was a sporting motor car of unrivalled smoothness and refinement.

As with its Rolls-Royce cousins, the Bentley was only available in chassis form, although that included the radiator, bonnet, bulkhead and untrimmed dash.

Over its six years of production the majority became four-door saloons, 813 of them to a standardised design by Park Ward.

But no fewer than 55 other firms in Britain and Europe bodied Bentleys, and the owners commissioned a wealth of styles: Art Deco fastbacks, razor-edge saloons, sedancas, two-seater sports cars, dramatic dropheads, close-coupled coupés and more.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The Bentley 3½-litre by Thrupp & Maberly features a hefty luggage rack

People called the cars Rolls-Bentleys, which Rolls-Royce itself disliked.

But after the war, with the Derby factory then devoted to aircraft engines, car production moved to Crewe, and since then the products of those six pre-war years have been known as Derby Bentleys.

In the 1940s, when new cars were impossible to find, Derby values remained high.

But by the 1960s most – the four-door saloons at least – had become unloved and cheap.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The interior veneers varied according to coachbuilder, but they were always elegant

They were bought by owners who could not afford the proper care needed to retain the cars’ charm.

Wood-framed bodies rotted, running gear wore out, engines scraped along on old oil.

Going into the 1990s the better cars gradually recovered their value, although restoration costs rose sharply, too.

Since then one or two Derbys with the most flamboyant bodies and the best histories have changed hands for £500,000 or more, but you can buy a usable Derby saloon for a 10th of that.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The Thrupp & Maberly plate on the Bentley 3½-litre

Most of today’s remaining examples are hale and hearty, and continue to provide rewarding period motoring.

To mark the 90th anniversary of that 1933 launch we assembled five of them, from four different coachbuilders, each one charmingly different in character.

Vanden Plas bodied 67 Derbys as two-door, four-seater tourers, which was the lightest and least expensive body.

In 1934, Vaughan Wheeler’s example cost £1380.

His grandfather bought it in 1941, then sold it six years later in part-exchange for a later Bentley.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

Most Derby Bentleys were bodied in London, but this saloon was bodied in Manchester by Cockshoot

His uncle found it in a poor state in Bournemouth in 1969.

In the 1980s it was refreshed by Fiennes, but it retains its weathered original blue upholstery and is superbly turned out in mellowed dark green.

In its 89 years it has done a genuine 98,000 miles.

From the hallmark Bentley radiator through its cutaway doors to its open spare wheel, its lines are simple and graceful, its low build emphasising its length.

This very early car has the smaller Lucas headlights, which were soon replaced by P100s.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

A sunshine roof and spacious seating inside the Cockshoot-bodied Bentley 4¼-litre

Jeremy Marshall Roberts’ attractive two-door saloon by Thrupp & Maberly, one of just two made, also dates back to 1934.

Many Derby designs were styled to benefit from two-tone colour schemes, but during the cars’ cheap period some were painted in lurid liveries, especially in the USA.

This car looks perfect in its sober black and dove grey, with a tan interior.

A luggage rack sits over the small, top-loading boot and tail-mounted spare.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The Bentley 4¼-litre with its first owner (left), and the current owner’s uncles

Jeremy paid £46,000 for it in 2009, and it has had new wiring and a total engine rebuild by Ristes.

In the 1950s it belonged to speed record-breaker Donald Campbell, and its other claim to fame is appearing in a TV thriller that involved the car being destroyed by fire after a small boy dropped a match into the petrol tank.

Fortunately, a substitute car was used for the stunt: another Thrupp & Maberly body was found, put on a makeshift chassis and painted the same black and grey.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

This 1937 Bentley 4¼-litre saloon clocked up 100,000 miles in its first 16 years

Robinson’s Brewery has made beer in Stockport for 175 years, and in 1937 profits were good enough for the boss, FE Robinson, to take delivery of a new Bentley.

The previous year the Derby’s engine size had grown to 4.25 litres, adding 10 more bhp and a bit more torque to deal with the increased weight of the more luxurious bodies being commissioned by customers.

For his coachbuilder Robinson stayed local, going to Cockshoot of Manchester for the four-door saloon body.

His chauffeur drove him to work during the week, and at weekends he drove himself.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The Cockshoot saloon looks great in its original two-tone colour scheme

After 16 years and 100,000 miles, he replaced it with an Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire.

His grandson William discovered it 63 years later.

It has needed nothing major, but he refers to it as a rolling restoration.

In its original dark and olive green, with green interior, beautiful veneers and a sliding sunshine roof, it’s very handsome.

At the front are the correct central foglight and twin horns, and the elegantly swept tail carries the spare wheel.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

This Bentley 4¼-litre’s profile is a thing of beauty

‘All-weather’ was a term used to describe a four-door open car with wind-up windows, and the Vanden Plas version was popular on the Derby, with 19 built.

It has a slender, elegant look, and Vaughan Wheeler’s is flawless in black, with chocolate leather.

It was discovered more or less as a pile of bits, and was totally rebuilt by Fiennes.

Wire wheels devoid of discs enhance the sporting look; the spare wheel is carried on the right-hand front wing.

The slim tail features a two-piece bootlid, the bottom half folding flat to carry extra luggage.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The Vanden Plas ‘all-weather’ was a tourer with wind-up windows

Driving any good Derby is more or less the same.

If every key part is in good shape it will drive wonderfully – silky, precise, surefooted and effortless.

But it only takes one element to be not quite right and the whole experience is spoiled.

Climbing in, it’s best to enter from the left and slide across, to avoid the obstructive right-hand gearlever and handbrake.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

Lovely veneers in the Bentley 4¼-litre by Vanden Plas

The style of veneers on the dash, doors and scuttle varies in each car, but in every case it’s a work of art, and the upholstery and door trims are restrained but beautifully done.

Most have full toolkits built into their bootlids.

In the quite narrow cockpit you sit low: most of the closed cars have lots of headroom, even for very tall drivers.

The large matching speedometer and rev counter sit to the right of the steering column; in the centre is a circular switchplate and the subsidiary dials.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

This Derby Bentley substitutes some boot space for its all-weather versatility

Switches are metal with a milled edge and have a crisp, engineered movement.

The big, black steering wheel – four-spoke on earlier cars, three-spoke later – has four controls around the central horn for hand throttle, choke, ignition advance/retard and soft/hard damper settings.

If the car is cold, retard the ignition, give it a bit of choke, then push the big metal button in the dash.

The engine starts at once, ticking over quietly.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance
Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

Derby Bentley engines have gleaming black enamel finish, including the SU carburettors, and paired coils and fuel pumps

Push down the light clutch, snick the right-hand gearlever into first in its open gate, and once on the move take second gear because bottom, like in most cars of its time, is very low.

The steering, very heavy at parking speeds, lightens up at once.

It’s one of the Derby’s best points: you can steer with your fingertips.

The gearlever moves up and down its gate with a satisfying ‘click’.

There’s synchromesh only on third and top, but get the revs right and a swift, double-declutched downchange is child’s play.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The Bentley 4¼-litre by Vanden Plas has firm and agile handling

The brakes with their mechanical servo feel smooth and strong – although this is another Derby element that can deteriorate if not properly serviced.

The lighter VdP tourer accelerates noticeably quicker than the saloons, and its handling is precise and assured.

From the driver’s seat it feels smaller than it is, and pressing on over country roads its rigid front axle only shows if you brake late into a tight corner, which produces strong understeer.

The heavier saloons gather speed steadily and smoothly, with the majestic view down that long bonnet towards the ‘Flying B’ mascot giving a feeling of lordly control.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

Smaller wheels and Marles steering make the M-series Derby Bentleys feel subtly different

If you push really hard through corners there will be roll and even tyre squeal, but this is not the right way to proceed in a Derby.

Driven as it asks to be driven, it can cover the ground rapidly and effortlessly.

A comfortable cruise is 3500rpm, which is almost exactly 70mph. At that speed the throttle opening is small and the engine is quiet.

The rev-counter’s redline is at 4500rpm, and when The Autocar tested an early four-door saloon it achieved a timed 96mph.

In 1934 this was pretty sensational stuff for a luxurious saloon weighing almost 1700kg.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

This Park Ward-bodied classic Bentley has an opening windscreen

Apart from the switch to 4.25 litres, the Derby’s only major change came in 1938 with the M-series.

With more owners then touring the long, straight roads of France and the emergence of the German autobahnen, its maker was worried about the effect on the engine’s bottom end of running for long periods at high revs.

The answer was a new gearbox, with direct third and fourth at 0.85:1, giving 90mph at 3500rpm and allowing the car to be cruised at full throttle.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The beige-leather interior of the Bentley 4¼-litre M-series by Park Ward

At the same time, the worm-and-nut steering box was switched for a Marles cam-and-roller, and other changes included a revised dashboard layout with central speedometer.

Laurence Bleasdale’s M-series was first registered in November 1939, two months after war had been declared.

It has the Park Ward four-door saloon body, but the traditional ash frame under the aluminium body panels had by then been replaced by square-section steel tubing, which was lighter and more rigid.

In single-tone dark green, with exposed wire wheels and a front-wing-mounted spare, the car has great presence.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

M-series Derby Bentleys have fixed radiator shutters

All four doors are hinged at their trailing edges.

The leather is beige, and the windscreen is hinged at the top so that the bottom can be wound open to help vision in icy weather – no demisters then.

It, too, has a large sliding sunshine roof.

It goes, corners and stops just like the other Derbys, but in an indefinable way it does feel different from its predecessors.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

A neat side mirror sits on this Derby Bentley’s wing-mounted spare wheel

The steering needs less effort at low speeds, and the steel-framed body feels very solid.

The M-series cars have 16in wheels with 6.50-section tyres rather than 17in x 5.50s, and maybe the ride is a bit smoother on rough roads.

The M would have been followed by the MkV, with a stiffer chassis and independent front suspension, but after a handful had been built the war stopped everything.

Most of its features reappeared in 1946 on the MkVI.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

The Bentley’s standard toolkit comes in a drop-down boot tray

Today, any Derby Bentley that has been properly looked after is a lovely car to drive and enjoy.

Ninety years ago – when most cars were noisy and uncomfortable, when 60mph was fast, when brakes were vague and cornering could be hazardous – it must have been a revelation.

But in our 21st century, when all classic cars, good, bad and indifferent, are cherished, the Derby Bentley hasn’t had the credit it deserves.

Maybe that’s because in its day it was so successful: it has never been rare.

Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

This Park Ward-bodied Derby Bentley is lovely to drive

A dealer trying to make me consider an offer for my own car (which is not for sale) reckoned: “If they’d only made 35 Derbys instead of 2400, if they were as rare as Bugatti Type 57s, they’d be worth millions.”

As someone who was just about able to scrape together the funds to buy my Derby Bentley 30 years ago, I’m very glad they’re not.

Don’t call me biased, but as a classic motoring experience, and a glimpse of how the rich lived back then, the Derby Bentley is one of the great cars of its time.

Images: John Bradshaw

Thanks to: Bernard King and the De Vere Cranage Estate


Classic & Sports Car – Derby Bentleys: 90 years of brilliance

Bentley 3½-litre

  • Sold/number built 1934-‘36/1177
  • Construction steel chassis, aluminium body on ash frame
  • Engine iron block and head, alloy crankcase, ohv 3669cc straight-six, twin SU carburettors
  • Max power 114bhp @ 4500rpm
  • Max torque not quoted
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front semi-elliptic leaf springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; hydraulic dampers f/r with driver override
  • Steering worm and nut
  • Brakes finned drums, with servo
  • Length 14ft 6in (4420mm)
  • Width 5ft 9in (1752mm)
  • Height 5ft 2in (1574mm)
  • Wheelbase 10ft 6in (3200mm)
  • Weight 3540lb (1605kg)
  • Mpg 17
  • 0-60mph 18.4 secs
  • Top speed 93mph
  • Price new £1100 (1934, chassis)
  • Price now £50-450,000*


Bentley 4¼-litre
(where different to 3½-litre)

  • Sold/number built 1936-‘38/1033
  • Engine 4257cc
  • Max power 125bhp @ 4500rpm
  • Weight 3752lb (1702kg)
  • 0-60mph 15.5 secs
  • Top speed 96mph
  • Price new £1150 (1938, chassis)


Bentley 4¼-litre MR/MX series
(where different to 4¼-litre)

  • Sold/number built 1938-‘39/201
  • Transmission four-speed manual with direct third and overdrive top
  • Steering cam and roller
  • Price new £1150 (1938, chassis)

*Prices correct at date of original publication

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