The Beautiful Bentley 3 Litre Red Label that Dominated Motorsport

Many of the roars from the ‘roaring 1920s’ came from the back of a Bentley 3 Litre. It’s a machine affiliated with flapping skirts, jazz, and daredevil aviation pioneers. Its very name conjures up thoughts of the brash and carefree spirit of the inter-war years. With good reason, too – these cars were exceptionally famous in period and remain so today. They dominated motorsport in their heyday with outright wins at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1924 and again in 1927, among their crowning achievements.

That second win is perhaps the most famous. After the pair of leading works Bentley 4 1/2 Litre cars were wiped out in a big crash, the following 3 Litre referred to as ‘Old Number 7’ got off with lighter, yet still significant, damage. It took the lead and was nursed to the end of the race. Later, battle-scarred and bent Old 7 was rolled into the Savoy Hotel dining room during its own victory dinner. That’s something Bentley would pay homage to at a similar event in 2003, with its new Speed 8 the guest of honour.

I saw and pictured this singular 3 Litre at the Concours of Elegance in 2020. It may not have been a Le Mans winner, but it’s still a special factory model built to celebrate Bentley‘s success at the 1922 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. It’s also an extremely rare survivor, retaining many of its original bodywork (Vanden Plas), frame and mechanical components. It left WO Bentley’s works in Cricklewood, North London in September 1926 as a Red Label ‘Speed’ chassis. Speed models sit on a cut-down frame with a 9ft 9 1/2-inch wheelbase and are powered by a high-compression engine, driving the rear wheels through a close-ratio A-type transmission.

Registered YR 509 in London, its first owner Eric Loder soon took it touring in the South of France, where it was photographed in Cannes for an article in The Autocar. It was originally finished in silver over maroon, and was repainted in green in the mid-1930s. Having survived the war unscathed, it was bought in the 1950s by well-known Bentley enthusiast Phillip Mann, who used the car to take its current owner to school. The car spent some time in the 1960s and 1970s in the US, and was repatriated in the mid-1980s. The most recent of its two restorations was carried out to an exceptionally high and sympathetic standard by vintage car specialist Thornley Kelham.

ENGINE

3.0-litre, inline-four, water-cooled, OHC, 80bhp twin ‘sloper’ SU carbs

CONFIGURATION

Front engine, four-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive, separate steel chassis, aluminium bodywork by Vanden Plas on an ash frame, semi-elliptic leaf springs all round with Hartford shock absorbers, rear drum brake

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