It’s one of the most famous classic events and the Blower is a legendary machine – here’s the tale from the driver’s seat in Bentley’s centenary year
It’s Monday afternoon and Brian Gush sounds surprisingly chirpy down the phone. He shouldn’t be so.
He’s just spent the past weekend manhandling Bentley’s most important Blower up, down and around Italy contesting the Mille Miglia, trying to remember the central throttle arrangement, during long stints that would make ‘Tim’ Birkin proud.
“Days started around half past six and rarely finished before 10, sometimes 11 at night,” he says. “They were long, long days, with no respite.”
Bentley returned to the Mille Miglia this year (15-18 May) with two Blowers to be driven by Gush, the company’s director of motorsport, and Robin Peel, head of Royal and VIP relations.
In 1930, Birkin and Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato entered the Mille Miglia but aborted the attempt because the cars were ill-prepared for such a long and gruelling road race.
The following year, Bentley was in no fit state to trek to Italy and do something as frivolous as racing; its books were sinking in a deeper and darker red. So this year, Crewe went to finish what it hadn’t started.
“It was amazing,” says Gush, the awe still tingeing his voice. “Just to be able to drive an original entrant from 1930 in the event – Birkin had entered that particular car – was incredibly special.
“There was the sense of responsibility of running our car, which is probably the most significant one in existence.
“That and four days of intense driving, and having the responsibility of delivering it back home intact? It weighs heavy on the shoulders.”
This was the Blower that Birkin drove to expiration at Le Mans in 1930, the Blowers being tasked to break the back of the Mercedes-Benz SSK of Rudolf Caracciola and clear the path Barnato to win in a Speed Six.
On the streets of Italy this May, the passionate crowds knew what they were seeing when the Blower cruised past, reckons Gush, helped no doubt by its sheer enormity.
“It is absolutely a national event; the whole country applauds classic cars. I never, in the whole four days, saw a negative reaction to the cars; just pure joy and appreciation.
“The car is impressive anyway – it’s an imposing sight, especially when you’re running alongside a Type 32 Bugatti – but a lot of people asked about it, and a huge number of photos were taken of it. The car created quite a stir.
“Its performance is just amazing, the low-down power pulls virtually from nothing. You have this wave of torque that you can ride. It never missed a beat and ran like clockwork from start to finish. We were certainly never wanting for any power or torque.”
Weather made life difficult, with rain pounding the weather-protection-free Blower and rendering its Brooklands ’screen redundant.
Its size caused a few sharp intakes of breath, too, as the route winded its way through small villages not used to Fiat Pandas, even, let alone a bruising Blower.
“On the narrow mountain passes, where you had to take a wide berth, you had to turn in, hold it on the lock and just hope it would make it round!” he laughs.
“They were very narrow and real switchbacks, among the most incredible scenery.
“Along the route you were visiting these villages on the top of mountains that normally had no vehicle access. They were full of very, very narrow cobble-stone alleys, where you’d take a deep breath, put the right-hand mudguard as close to the wall as you could and just hope and pray that it was slightly wider than the Blower!”
It was a competitive run as much as it was a celebration – “As soon as the flag drops and there’s a timesheet you want to do the best you can. We were pushing” – and that gave Gush a real sense of the enormity of Birkin and Babe’s challenge.
“That was constantly on my mind. These guys raced these cars around Le Mans for 24 hours with two drivers on extended stints,” he admits, awe still noticeable. “They were heroes.”
“The steering effort is quite something,” continues Gush. “On the mountain passes it was both hands on one side of the rim to haul it round. It was almost always a two-handed grip to get around the tight hairpins. It’s a brute of a car.
“Driving a car with a central throttle pedal is also something, it focuses the brain. I guess Birkin drove no other pedal layout, but for someone who has had 40 years of instinctively moving your foot to the left to brake it takes some presence of mind to move to the right.
“You have to drive covering the brake pedal consciously, trail braking so you are there ready, then hope instinct doesn’t take it back onto the gas!”
The two Bentleys came home midway through the 400-plus field, 153rd place for Peel, 243rd for Gush. This being that famous 89th anniversary, Bentley will surely be back in future on a round number.
“It’s an event well worth doing,” confirms Gush. “There’s a great appreciation for the brand in the very knowledgeable public. Bentley has a place there because the car was entered.
“It’s a great place to be, and there are so many cars in it that are so special. The Moss-style Mercs to the Maseratis, including one in original Ferrari team colours, the Bugattis are so impressive, too; it’s a rolling concours really of classic, significant cars. It’s awe inspiring.”
The July issue of Classic & Sports Car – on sale on 6 June – celebrates Bentley’s centenary, and features an exclusive drive in the first Blower. Don’t want to miss an issue? You can subscribe here, while if you want to buy a single issue you can do so here.