Your classic: Bentley R-type

| 17 May 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

My first car, or rather vehicle, back in the early 1970s was a Ford Anglia van, which had the dubious distinction of costing less than my father’s new lawnmower – although top speeds were about the same.

Even so, it opened up a whole new world to an 18-year-old.

There followed a succession of varied and esoteric choices including a Citroën Dyane, Triumph 1500, Lancia Fulvia, a series of Volkswagen Golf GTIs, Alfa Romeo GTVs and eventually a couple of Maseratis.

However, it has taken nearly 50 years to discover the very special world of Bentley, initially in the form of a 1997 Turbo RL.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

This Bentley R-type’s interior is in fine condition but retains the charming imperfections of age

Perhaps it’s the combination of advancing years and a slower pace of life that has drawn me back to an almost forgotten world of motoring and helped to inspire the acquisition of another, considerably older Bentley.

This one is just two months younger than me: it’s sobering to think it has been on the road for as long as I’ve been on this planet.

The car in question is a 1954 R-type automatic, a Standard Steel saloon in Oxford Blue over Shell Grey with original cream leather.

Paperwork, including many MoT certificates, indicates that only 76,000 miles have been travelled in its 66 years.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

The Bentley’s engine appears as well-finished as the rest of the car

I bought it just before the 2020 lockdown and, while from my perspective collecting a classic Bentley was an ‘essential journey’, I felt duty-bound to comply with government rules and had it transported from Worcestershire to its new home in the Peak District.

The previous owner, a precision engineer, had carried out an excellent restoration 20 years ago, and it had travelled little since, but, like most old cars, there are always things that can be fettled and hopefully improved upon.

My approach has been to carry out work to ensure it remains looking very presentable but, above all, drives like a Bentley R-type should.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

This Bentley R-type is finished in Oxford Blue over Shell Grey

One area that demanded careful consideration was the leather.

It was badly cracked, but I was reluctant to opt for replacement because it appeared to be totally original and an important link to the car’s past.

Leathercare Ltd in Cheshire agreed that stripping and refinishing with a close colour match was the way forward. The result looks excellent: it has retained the original character and happily avoids perfection.

Even more thought was given to tyre choice: the existing rubber was essentially unworn, but very old.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

The rear-hinged front doors provide easy access to the Bentley’s comfortable seats

Dunlop RS5 crossplies had been fitted after the restoration and, while these would have met with Bentley Motors’ approval, I found it was like driving on marbles.

This was entertaining at first, but the fun factor soon waned.

After a call to Longstone Tyres, near Doncaster, a set of Avon Turbosteel radials was fitted.

They look the part and have all but eliminated the tramlining, and the ride quality is unaffected.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

This Bentley R-type’s leather was restored by a specialist in Cheshire

The latest task has been fitting period-style seatbelts, the rear ones mainly to keep our spaniel, Humphrey, safe.

The supporting framework in the boot has been configured by a friend who designed landing gear for Boeing, and I’m assured the fixing points are sufficiently robust to restrain a baby elephant in an emergency.

Part of the joy of owning an old car is finding out about its past keepers.

Fortunately, the R-type came with files of old bills, letters and even a couple of telegrams.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

This Bentley R-type arrived with a stack of paperwork that explained the car’s history

The first owner was a Henry C Martineau, born in Chicago in 1904.

Martineau’s mother divorced when he was five and he travelled back with her to England, where she met and married Hubert Martineau, a first-class cricketer who organised tours to Egypt and New Zealand in the 1920s.

Henry attended Eton and then Trinity College, Cambridge – as, it seems, did most offspring of the well-to-do during that era.

He was a keen sportsman, specialising in winter pursuits.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

This Bentley R-type now enjoys a slower pace of life in the Peak District

By 1928 Martineau was a bobsled captain and represented Great Britain at the Winter Olympics in St Moritz.

Credited with designing a new ‘skeleton’ sled with a lower centre of gravity, Martineau strove for even faster times on the Cresta Run.

With the outbreak of WW2, he trained as an RAF pilot and then transferred to the Welsh Guards, before being drafted into Special Operations as an agent, serving in Belgium and France.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

The Bentley’s toolkit hides under the dashboard

Martineau was a dedicated Bentley fan, having owned several models during the 1920s and ’30s including a 3 Litre, a 4½ Litre and a 6½ Litre before purchasing my R-type in April 1954.

He sent telegrams to Jack Barclay requesting that the car be fitted with a switching arrangement so the headlights dipped to the correct side when travelling abroad, and instructed that the driver’s seat be lowered by 1in: he must have been taller than me because I had to have it raised back up again to see out.

In 1956, Henry sold it back to Barclays with 19,000 miles on the clock.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

Owner Nigel’s taste in classic cars has slowly matured: the Bentley R-type joins his previously purchased 1997 Turbo RL in the garage

It was bought by Major Thomas S Hohler, a descendant of a courtier who accompanied George I from Hanover when he ascended the throne in 1714.

Like Martineau, Hohler came from a wealthy family with diplomatic service connections and he, too, had a distinguished war career: as Captain Hohler he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry.

After the war he bought a flat in London, having married a Belgian comtesse.

From there the Bentley would have commuted between ‘Swinging’ London and Hohler’s country retreat in Hampshire.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

The Bentley R-type has a huge chrome grille

An invoice indicates substantial repairs were required in 1958 as a result of an accident – perhaps he struggled due to the lack of power steering (as, indeed, do I on occasion).

Thomas and his wife had a daughter, Isabelle, later the Countess of Erroll.

I was hoping to contact her to see if she had any memories of her father’s Bentley, but sadly she passed away in 2020.

Classic & Sports Car – Your classic: Bentley R-type

The Bentley R-type with Humphrey the chauffeur-driven spaniel

Owning an old car is a privilege, and I derive great satisfaction from uncovering its history.

Some physical signs of the Bentley’s past remain, such as nicks on the driver’s doorhandle where the owner’s ring has caught the chrome.

Did the ring belong to Martineau or Hohler, or someone later in the car’s history?

My delvings have unearthed a little of the past, and I have concluded two other things: one is that the Bentley is, thankfully, in far better condition than I am; the other is the irrefutable fact that its current owner is unlikely to match its earlier keepers’ illustrious achievements!

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