Despite scoring back-to-back wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1927 and 1928, W.O. Bentley and his star driver Sir “Tim” Birkin realized those victories were too close for comfort, and the only way to secure the hat-trick of three victories in a row was to build a faster, stronger car for 1929. The 4 ½-litre model that won in 1928 may have crossed the line first, but it did so with a cracked chassis, a bone-dry radiator, and an overheating engine. In the quest for ever more speed and durability, Birkin proposed they strip down the 4 ½-litre even further and add a supercharger. However, W.O. Bentley was skeptical of forced induction, and he felt that the flagship 6 ½-liter Standard Six could be developed into the next winner.
Bentley’s instinct proved correct, as the new 6 ½-litre Speed Six “Old Number One” handily claimed the top step of the podium at Le Mans in 1929. Many detail changes differentiated the Standard Six and Speed Six, first of all with the shorter, 11’ 6” wheelbase. Under the bonnet, the big inline-six received a bump in compression and twin SU HVG5 carburetors, boosting output from 147 horsepower to an impressive 160. Further revisions came in 1930, in the form of new cylinder block porting and manifolds (devised from Old Number One) increasing the output to a full 180 horsepower. Handing improved with the addition of Bentley & Draper hydraulic dampers to the rear axle. Depending on the coachwork, a Standard Six was capable of an incredible 90 mph; therefore the more powerful Speed Six was a true supercar of its day, and today is one of the most coveted of all W.O.-era Bentleys.
It is with pride that we offer one of the most extraordinary of all surviving Speed Sixes, chassis number LR2778 with Sportsman’s Saloon coachwork by H.J. Mulliner. As a 1930 model, this motorcar incorporates all of Le Mans-inspired improvements, and it wears marvelous, lightweight and sporty closed coachwork. The history of LR2778 is truly remarkable; fully documented by the respected marque historian, Dr. Clare Hay. It retains its original chassis, engine, drivetrain, and bodywork and has never been significantly modified.
According to the Hay Report, LR2778 was finished at Cricklewood with a 13/50 rear axle, C-Type gearbox (case #6826), Bentley & Draper friction front/hydraulic rear dampers and a chrome-plated radiator. The order also specified chrome fittings, 33 x 7.00 tires, and a rectangular Hobson Telegauge. The powerful six-cylinder engine bears number NH2748 with an “S” denoting this as a factory Speed Model. Interestingly, the coachwork was not built to special order by the first owner; rather, records indicate it was built for Bentley stock – with the build records noting “Our Own Body Order.” The four-seat coupe coachwork by H.J. Mulliner was in fashion for the time, with Barker and Gurney Nutting offering their own variations, known interchangeably as a sportsman’s coupe, close-coupled saloon, or fixed head coupe. For their interpretation, H.J. Mulliner employed the ultimate refinement of the patented Weymann technique, utilizing a light, flexible structure skinned in alloy to the beltline, and in grained leathercloth on the roof. Light in weight, it no doubt imparted the powerful Speed Six chassis with breathtaking performance.
Records show the completed car went first to Jack Barclay Ltd. yet was ultimately sold by Duff Morgan Ltd. on October 17, 1930, and exported to India very soon after on behalf of its first owner, the Maharaja of Jaipur, Sawai Man Singh II. Just eighteen years of age when he purchased his magnificent Bentley, Singh no doubt had impeccable taste in motorcars. The young Maharaja was an avid sportsman, with an impressive record in polo, winning the World Cup in 1933. Despite assuming power at just 11 years old, the Maharaja was no mere playboy, and he matured into an astute politician. His efforts to build infrastructure and modernize his home of Jaipur later led to its selection as the capital of Rajasthan, and later, he then served as Ambassador to Spain. The choice of this stunning Bentley reflected his exceptional taste and love of sport. Records indicate the car remained in India through at least 1935, and most likely until two years later. The next entry appeared when it was registered as DUU618 for the new owner, Denis Becker of London. Documents indicate The Maharaja may have consigned the car to Barker’s London showroom, where Becker purchased it in 1937.
In the Becker family’s hands, the Speed Six underwent some servicing including fitment of a new-old-stock front axle in 1938. Inexperienced Indian mechanics may have damaged the original. Also, while in India, the car sported a flamboyant Lalique crystal cockerel mascot, likely transferred to another of the Maharaja’s vehicles before the sale. Replacing it was a dolphin mascot fitted by Mr. Becker, no doubt a nod to his wife, Delphine. In 1942, the Speed Six was still with the Becker family, reportedly with Geo Becker. There is even mention of his fifteen-year-old daughter Jane learning to drive in it, with one lesson ending with her putting the mighty Bentley on top of a roundabout!
Like many large classic cars of the time, LR2778 was put up during the war when petrol rationing meant virtually all private automobiles were rendered useless. In 1946, the LR2778 was relicensed under a new business name – yet still within the Becker clan. Young Simon Becker inherited the car and became its next long-term owner, enjoying it to the fullest while also acting as a fine custodian and ensuring its long-term survival. In 1954, Simon entered LR2778 in a Bentley Driver’s Club meet, handily winning his group and proving the car had lost none of its performance. The first rebuild followed later in 1954 and Simon continued to use the car regularly, using it for Grand Touring around Europe and even employing it as his daily driver for some time. The car was a regular fixture around London even as the value and running costs began to mount.
In 1974, after thirty-seven years in the Becker family and another refresh of the cosmetics, Simon Becker consigned LR2778 to a Christie’s auction, where it sold for £17,500. The new owner, Ian Finlator, handed the car to Tony Townshend in 1978 for a ground-up restoration. As was typical of the period, some minor detail changes were made, and while not to today’s exacting standards, it was nonetheless a comprehensive project. The livery was changed again, the green body sides it wore during the entire tenure of the Becker family changed to dark red; however, it retained the black wings and bonnet that the car has worn since new. Finlator enjoyed the Speed Six for many years to come, including on the 1985 Rallye Monte Carlo historic, and it making occasional appearances at BDC concours events throughout Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994, LR2778 was chosen as the representative British car for the opening of the Channel Tunnel rail line and displayed proudly alongside a Bugatti Royale at the Place de Defense in Paris.
After thirty years of ownership, Ian Finlator sold LR2778 to a German collector, and by 2010 it returned to the UK via famed dealer P&A Wood. Shortly thereafter, the current owner acquired the car and commenced a no-expense-spared restoration to original H.J. Mulliner specification with the renowned Vintage Bentley specialist Graham Moss of R.C. Moss. Before the start of the painstakingly researched restoration, Clare Hay inspected the car and found it to be a remarkably sound and original car, with the front axle being the only significant component changed (by Bentley in 1938). The engine, gearbox, clutch assembly, and rear axle were all found to be original to this car. As specified in the service records, the car retains its originally-equipped Elektron crankcase, with aluminum covers and fittings, correct to 1930 specification.
For the body restoration, a tremendous amount of research went into recreating the techniques used by H.J. Mulliner at the time. No company records exist from the time, so Graham Moss carefully studied an original, untouched Mulliner body built for the 1929 Olympia motor show, as well as other unrestored cars to learn precisely how the bodies were crafted and trimmed. Every aspect of the interior was restored employing original techniques, with hidden stitching, and horsehair stuffing of the seats to ensure purity and originality. The chassis restoration was somewhat more straightforward, with the proper materials, fittings, and details a largely known-quantity thanks to the survival of factory service documents. While the chassis retained a high degree of original components, it was necessary to carefully reproduce certain items, including the previously unavailable Bentley & Draper dampers. The chassis alone is a work of art, and the restoration record includes dramatic studio photos in its bare state. Now returned to its original livery of black with ivory side panels and a marble-finished oxblood red cabin, the presentation is breathtaking. The final flourish was the addition of an original-style Lalique cockerel mascot – complete with genuine Lalique switch for the illumination, sourced by Clare Hay.
With such care and attention to detail, it is of little surprise that the finished product is so spectacular. LR2778 is one of the most elegant representations of the sporting Vintage Bentley, presented in its original specification and beautiful colors, as delivered to Maharaja Man Singh II. Upon completion of the restoration in 2012, the car debuted on the lawn of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance where it earned a 2nd in class, the coveted J.B. Nethercutt Trophy for the Most Elegant Closed Car and the Lord Montagu of Beaulieu Trophy for the Most Significant Car of British Origin. The same year, it returned to England and appeared at the Windsor Castle Concours. It remains in exquisite order and the concours success has continued, with a Best in Show and Best Bentley at 2019 Cavallino Classic Sports Sunday, and is fresh from scoring Best in Class, Pre War European at the 2019 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
Thanks to the efforts of the long-term custodians who lovingly cared for and preserved the car without modification, LR2778 survives as one of the most elegant and visually arresting Vintage Bentleys extant. The meticulous, painstaking restoration and complete history have been documented by Dr. Clare Hay, presented in a beautiful leather-bound book matching the upholstery. In fabulous running order, and a sure entry into virtually any event worldwide, the Maharaja’s astonishing Speed Six will stand as the crown jewel of any collection.