The 3 ½ Liter marked the beginning of a new era for Bentley, which was founded just over a decade earlier. In its few short years in business, Bentley established itself among the finest motor car companies in the world, dominating endurance racing in the process. As with many talented engineers, Bentley was less successful as a businessman and despite the impeccable reputation the marque had earned, the enormous cost of cars such as the 8-Liter would ultimately cost him control of the firm that bore his name. In 1931, Rolls-Royce Ltd. would acquire Bentley the company as well as the services of W.O. himself. While some traditional Bentley enthusiasts and racers were dismayed at the thought of their beloved company falling under the auspices of Rolls-Royce, the sale proved to be a very successful venture for both firms.
The first new Bentley to be released under the Rolls-Royce umbrella was the 3 ½ Liter of 1933. While the Cricklewood-built Bentleys were focused on outright speed and performance for the sportsman, a new ethos of “the silent sports car” was introduced by Rolls-Royce, who was unsure of how to satisfy traditional Bentley buyers. With the new car, the sporting spirit of Bentley remained, but now with greater comfort and refinement to appeal to a broader audience. The 3 ½ liter was powered by a new inline six, pushrod engine of 3,669 c.c. that was derived from the Rolls-Royce 20/25. To maintain Bentley’s sporting image, the engine was upgraded with a crossflow cylinder head, higher compression, a sportier camshaft profile and twin S.U. carburetors, all fitted to a new, purpose-built chassis. The result was approximately 110 horsepower, which allowed the car (depending on coachwork) to reach a very respectable 90 miles per hour. Very much a different car from thundering 8-liter, the 3 ½ liter was much easier to drive and maneuver in the ever-increasing modern traffic conditions, and proved to be very popular with buyers.
In keeping with tradition, Derby Bentleys were shipped only as complete rolling chassis to be bodied to order by dealers or individual buyers. The light, strong double-drop chassis allowed for low-slung styling and most of the top coachbuilders of the era graced the 3 ½ with their work. Of the 1,177 examples built, more than half were bodied by Rolls-Royce’s favored Park Ward. But Vanden Plas of London was long the preferred coachbuilder for Bentley, having bodied 700 Bentley chassis through the 1920s and Vanden Plas were eager to continue that relationship. Vanden Plas bodies were typically quite elegant, with understated sporting appeal and exceptional attention to quality. They had a unique ability to shrink the big Bentley chassis with keen attention to form and line and would produce some of the prettiest designs to grace the Derby Bentley.
This outstanding Bentley 3 ½ liter is an early example from 1934, wearing stylish four-seat tourer coachwork by Vanden Plas. Chassis number B59BN was first registered in London in 1934 with the number plate BLF 870. This car spent much of its life in the UK before making its way to the USA in 1974 where it resided in the northeast for many years. According to the V5C documents, it returned to the UK in the early 2000s and was treated to a comprehensive cosmetic and mechanical restoration, including an engine rebuild in 2011.
Fully restored to a very high standard by English Automotive Services in the UK, this Bentley presents in impeccable condition. The coachwork by Vanden Plas has been artfully restored with high quality finishing and outstanding paintwork. The 2-door, four-passenger touring body is beautifully proportioned for the low-slung chassis, with long and sweeping skirted wings; clean and uncluttered in its elegant navy blue livery. The fit and finish is exquisite, with precisely aligned panels and doors that close with an effortless click. The Vanden Plas body takes on an entirely more purposeful character once the blue canvas hood is stowed in its low-profile position, the side curtains stowed in the boot lid, and the windscreen folded flat – becoming almost racy in appearance, ready for rallies and tours.
As with the rest of the coachwork, the quality of the interior trim is first rate, with beautiful dark blue Connolly leather on the seats and interior panels. Blue Wilton carpets are excellent and precisely fitted, and the dash has been restored with the appropriate satin-finish varnish. Original dials and switches are in fine order, with receipts showing particular care given to ensuring electrical and mechanical functions work as they should.
The 3.5 liter inline six is equally well turned out with correct finishes and hardware used throughout. Records show the engine was completely rebuilt in 2011 by English Automotive Services, with rebuilt ancillaries and a new clutch fitted at the time of installation. It runs strong, and delivers impeccable performance as one would expect from The Silent Sportscar. In addition to the refurbished engine, an overdrive unit has been discreetly fitted ahead of the rear axle to aid in high-speed cruising ability.
This Bentley 3 ½ liter is simply exquisite, a beautiful and finely detailed example ready for the concours field or for Bentley Driver’s Club and Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club events. It is also an approved CCCA Full Classic and would be an outstanding choice for use on CARavan tours or events such as the Colorado Grand. The sale includes a factory handbook, V5 certificate with original registration number, as well as receipts related to the restoration. This is a rare and exciting opportunity to acquire one of the finest early Derby Bentleys available today.