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A £1.5m Bentley Blower vs... a drive-through

Can we master driving Bentley’s continuation Blower in a morning? Can we get fast-food? Stay classy, TG

Published: 31 Oct 2022

California's Monterey peninsula has a penchant for the theatrical. Each morning cloaking itself in a thick shawl of sea mist that rolls in off the Pacific, then whipping it off around 9am to reveal a Hollywood set on 17-Mile Drive – immaculate fairways on the Spanish Bay links tumbling down to a rocky coastline teeming with pelicans, seals and pockets of blonde sand. Occupying the higher ground, enormous showboat mansions battle it out for the best view. “Those are all £25m houses up there,” Mike Sayer, head of Bentley’s heritage collection and the world’s most patient driving instructor, points out. That’s a lot of dinero.

Precisely the same amount as the jewel in Bentley’s collection, the Number Two ‘Team’ car, just one of four supercharged 4½-litre Blower racers ever built and favourite of the most famous Bentley Boy, Sir Henry Birkin. This is not that car, this is Car Zero, the development prototype for a run of 12 continuation cars announced back in 2019, costing £1.5m each. So the fiscal risk is lower, but the machine is true in every possible way to the original. Handcrafted, for 40,000 hours, using original tools and 3D scans of Number Two, it is every inch as beautiful... and every bit as truculent to drive.

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Which is why I’m up with the pelicans, for a crash course in how to pilot a 100-year-old motor car. If Mike deems my efforts to be less shocking than I suspect they will be, I shall progress to my full driving test at about lunchtime, ferrying my examiner (Adrian Hallmark, CEO of Bentley) around Laguna Seca. If Mr Hallmark surmises that I didn’t make a complete pig’s ear of it, then I shall celebrate in traditional American fashion, by taking the Blower to a drive-through for a delicious meaty snack. I know how to live.

Photography: Kelly Serfoss & Richard Pardon

We begin with the basics. Firing it up involves turning the ignition key, flicking on the fuel pump, turning on two magnetos to provide sparks for the engine, then hitting a button. I nail it first time. Immediately I’m lulled into a false sense of confidence. Mike drives first, calmly explaining that the throttle and brake have swapped positions and that the brakes aren’t so much stoppers as gentle decelerators, before launching into the principles of double declutching. You pull away in first as you would in any manual car – lifting the clutch to find the biting point, sparing on the throttle and you’re away. Now the complexity ratchets up.

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Each shift up or down the synchro-free four-speed gearbox requires a dip of the clutch to visit neutral, then another dip to select the next gear. For downshifts, a gentle squeeze of the throttle helps to match engine to road speed, on upshifts it’s all about timing. First to second requires a pause in neutral before proceeding, second to third is as quick as you can, and third to fourth is much easier because you’ve got some speed under your wheels. I’m concentrating furiously, but still fear the majority of this has whistled in then straight out of my brain. I cling to crumbs of comfort – even Mike-the-old-Bentley-maestro is crunching the odd gear, something he’s entirely at peace with. “If you get a gear at all, you’re doing well,” he tells me cheerily.

Mike hops out, I slide across and start to make myself comfortable. I say comfortable, but with the seat far enough forward for my stumpy legs to press the clutch fully the enormous wheel is in contact with my thighs, and the gearlever is having an argument with my right leg. We set off and my first attempt at first to second is a crunchy but ultimately successful affair, second to third a fraction smoother, and third down to second as we approach a tightening right hander a flailing mess of mistimed throttle application and heaving at the wheel – my first taste of just how heavy and low-geared the steering is.

No matter, because I’m finding gears and making progress and absorbing the most important lesson for driving a Blower – planning ahead is everything. Constant scanning at least 200 metres up the road is required to give yourself a fighting chance. It’s beginning to dawn on me that they who raced this thing (Birkin recorded a lap of Brooklands in 1932 averaging 137.96mph) weren’t just brave and highly skilled, but gods, because this two-tonne lump appears to have zero inclination to go round corners. Yes, 240bhp at 4,200rpm doesn’t sound particularly potent these days, but taking into account the absence of dynamics, it must have been terrifying.

Bentley Blower

Dial it back to the rather gentler 30mph to 40mph speeds I’m hitting today, though, and the experience is totally magical. The mechanical ballet required to make it move absorbs every fibre. I’m entranced because I want to improve, want to improve because there’s nowhere to hide. This car only does what you tell it to do – if things go wrong (you miss a gear, say, and have to stop and start again) that’s on you. But if things go well, that’s your glory for the taking, too. Which is why tiny victories – a slick downshift or a smooth three-point turn – have me punching the air and whooping like a fool. The take-home message is clear – we’ve become obsessed with power and performance figures, and reliant on electronic assistance to unlock more mindless speed, but we’ve got it all backwards. You don’t need to be going fast to have fun, just involved in the experience.

I proceed to Laguna Seca and hop in next to Hallmark, who’s driving first. As we wait he tells me about the time he left the tarmac at Laguna in the £25m Number Two Blower, at the left-hander after the corkscrew, but gathered it up like a pro. Not filling me with confidence here Adrian, but he cruises a lap with aplomb before making way for muggins. I discover several things: having the Big Boss next to you as you smash your way through a non-synchro gearbox on the multimillion pound car he owns, isn’t the most comfortable experience. Not sure I’ve ever said “sorry” that many times in the space of a few minutes, but he seems to be enjoying himself and doesn’t try to throttle me, so I call that a pass. I also learn getting a twin tracking shot of an old smoker next to a Le Mans-winning Speed 8 racer is a spectacular mismatch – one wants to chug along, the other constantly straining at the leash. Still, I follow the old automotive photography mantra that if it doesn’t feel like you’re about to have a crash, it’s probably not a good photo, and position myself uncomfortably close. The result I fully intend to get framed.

Then, with the sweet taste of success getting my juices flowing, we arrive at In-N-Out Burger for a victory lap, queue up behind a series of perplexed Prius and Altima drivers and claim thy prize. Would Birkin be proud? Not sure, but I bet he’d take his double-double animal style.

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