1936 Bentley 4 1/4 Litre Airflow Saloon

March of 1936 saw the introduction of Bentley’s latest model, aimed at providing buyers an unparalleled experience of virtually silent, high-speed motoring. The 3 ½ liter “Derby” of 1933 had already proven to be strong seller, remaining in production when the 4 ¼ liter joined it three years later. The 4 ¼ in essence shared a chassis, gearbox and rear axle with its smaller-engine sibling but provided improved performance, a broader torque band and exceptionally silent operation at virtually any speed. For just £50 more than the 3 ½, the 4 ¼ was an obvious choice for buyers and it soon fully replaced the smaller car. As with before, Bentley supplied only a rolling chassis while a myriad of bodies was offered by any number of British coachbuilders. Many cars were built with “standard catalog” bodies by the likes of Freestone & Webb, Park Ward, Mulliner, and Gurney-Nutting. Of course, many special bodies were also built to order and, depending on the tastes and loyalties of the clientele, ranged from conservative saloons to flamboyant streamlined cabriolets. Between March of 1936 and May of 1939, 1,241 examples were produced at the Derby works over two series, and thanks to the vast array of coachbuilders that supplied bodies, a great deal of variety remains among surviving cars. Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the MkV was set to replace the 4 ¼ (of which just 17 were built) and the post-war MkVI ultimately became the next true “production” Bentley.

Chassis B118HK is an early 4 ¼-liter; produced in 1936 and completed in time to be exhibited on the Gurney-Nutting stand at the Olympia Motor Show in October. The streamlined “Airflow” saloon body was penned by Gurney-Nutting’s enormously talented chief designer, A.F. McNeil, and is one of just two such cars built to this design. Originally finished in “steel dust” over grey leather upholstery, B118HK’s presence at Olympia has been confirmed by noted Bentley historian Michael Ellman-Brown and it can be seen in its original specification on page 206 of Johnnie Green’s book Bentley: Fifty Years of the Marque. The streamlined design is beautifully balanced, avoiding the sometimes awkward or unnaturally flamboyant lines that can afflict similar designs. It is conservative yet still immensely stylish, with every angle proving well resolved and finely detailed. Today, B118HK wears a set of rear wheel spats, which were not originally fitted on this car, but were inspired by the ones fitted to its sister car. It retains wheel discs and a single side-mount spare wheel as per original specification.

Following the Olympia Motor Show, B118HK was delivered to its first owner, Major C. Watson Smythe of Cornwall, via The Car Mart, Ltd of London, in March of 1937. In 1940 it was passed to C.J. Oppenheim, and then to V. Motion of London, himself a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force. Copies of the DVLA records document subsequent British owners through the early 1960s. It then passed through the famed London dealers Frank Dale & Stepsons to Art Mullaly of Carmel California who would keep the car for a further 14 years. In the late 1980s it was restored to the specification you see today, and exhibited by then-owner Malcolm Schneer at a variety of events including the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1995 and the RROC National Meet of the same year.

It presents in fine condition today, still wearing its first and only restoration. The red paintwork is in good order, showing some patina in places but remaining pleasing and overall very attractive. It still displays its original British registration number, DXN 401 and remains very correct with only the rear spats being a later addition to the stunning body. The chrome is in good order, and it wears fabulous Lucas headlamps and central spot lamp. Body fitment is good, and panels are straight and sound. The body features an array of interesting details, including a sunroof, multi-panel boot, a distinct lack of a rear bumper and a split rear window.

The cabin is trimmed in tan leather piped in red, with tan carpets all presenting in good order. The restoration has held up well, with some signs of use while remaining pleasant and inviting. More fine details abound, such as a recessed headliner to accommodate taller passengers in the streamlined roofline, a lovely restored dash panel and even a driver-operated rear privacy shade. Like the exterior, the restoration has held up well and still presents in respectable order remaining very suitable for a car that could be toured regularly or shown at a local level.

The engine (K2BY) and drivetrain are in fine fettle, with an honest and tidy presentation. The engine is mated to a four-speed manual gearbox with Bentley’s right-hand floor shift, a delightfully tactile and mechanically positive device that is a signature joy of driving a Bentley of his era. Usable and even showable as is, the historical significance and beautiful coachwork also make B118HK an excellent choice for tours, as these 4 ¼ liter cars offer outstanding performance for the era.  Whichever path is chosen, it is sure that this gorgeous and important streamlined Bentley will continue to be the show stopper it always has been.

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