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The Speed Six
The story of W.O. Bentley and his team of Bentley Boys is exuberantly well known today. The reality, however, is that the contemporary fascination with the legend has lost focus on the greatest product Bentley ever produced: the Speed Six.
Although fewer of each were built, the Blower and the 8 Litre have grown in popularity given the fascination with supercharging and increased displacement, respectively. The Blower was Birkin’s personal home-grown product and never managed to win a single race it entered outright. On the other hand, the 8 Litre was not a sports car but intended for formal use in direct competition with Rolls-Royce. Not to discredit either, for they both have outstanding qualities, but to understand Bentleys is to know how the Speed Six surpasses each of them.
The factory confidently extolled the Speed Six as the “World’s Greatest Sporting Car,” which was simply engraved on a silver plaque affixed to the front cover of the sales brochure.
The foremost authority on Vintage Bentleys, Clare Hay, summed it up beautifully when she wrote, “W.O. himself regarded the Speed Six as his finest creation, and it deserves its legendary status. It is the ultimate development of the design that W.O., F T Burgess and Harry Varley laid out in 1919 when they sat down to design the 3 Litre Bentley car. The 3 Litre and 4 1/2 Litre Bentley cars were successful in competition in 1923-28, but in 1929-30, with the Speed Six, Bentleys absolutely dominated.”
While any victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is commendable, it is simply a test of reliability unless you have a worthy competitor pushing you to fail. The Speed Six brought W.O. his most significant victories and won the company their hardest fought fights.
While the race cars and their playboy drivers captured the spirit of the company, Bentley’s clients desired a quality product capable of delivering great performance without sacrificing comfort. The Speed Six was ideal. Even with the most luxurious of coachwork, it was an impressively fast and agile motorcar. The Speed Six quickly became one of the most glamorous cars of the era. It was popular yet exclusive and, fitted with some of England’s finest coachwork, it was a statement of taste and stature.
As such, the Speed Six was the essence of a coachbuilt car and, with just 182 cars produced, the number of unique bodies was nearly the same. Some received sporting open coachwork, many others formal closed saloons; but the most popular body style, ideally suited to the Speed Six, was the coupe. As a true driver’s automobile, the coupe offered comfort for drivers and passengers alike and allowed coachbuilders to implement weight-saving techniques. Furthermore, in either making or adhering to fashion, many of the coupes became an exercise in styling. It is also worth noting that both Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston, Le Mans winners and integral Bentley Boys, had Speed Six Coupes specially ordered as their personal cars.
One coupe design of particular quality and style was the so-called Grafton Coupe built by Freestone & Webb. Freestone & Webb was one of London’s finest coachbuilders–in total, the firm clothed nearly 20 Speed Six chassis. Just two of these chassis, however, were fitted with the handsome Grafton Coupe. Another Grafton Coupe was built on a Blower chassis, which was displayed at the Olympia Motor Show.
The precise details of the order for FR2630 are unknown, but period photos of the sister car, BA2591, show the striking design of the closed coupled coupe mated to a long bonnet and scuttle fitted to one of Bentley’s short chassis offerings. The body itself was rexine fabric over an ash frame, which saved weight. The body sat low and enveloped the chassis rails, giving the car a more modern appearance. Desirably helmeted fenders were fixed front and rear and a very tidy trunk with a rear spare were fitted aft. The fenders, in conjunction with a profile void of spare wheels, elongated the car and enhanced the overall proportions. In detail, a small triangular rear-quarter window was added, accentuated by faux landau irons.
Freestone & Webb’s interiors matched the era’s styling with quartered veneering on the dash and door panels. The cars were generally well appointed with premium materials and passenger amenities. For example, the Grafton Coupe includes a fold-down ashtray for the rear right-hand seat, which was generally the gentleman’s position, and when folded up has a metal liner and chute allowing for ash to drop out by the back wheel.
Invoiced to Anglo-Scottish Textiles Ltd., a maker of woolen goods for both men and women with retail locations in the heart of London and Paris, the car was intended for the firm’s director, Henry C. Turner. The Speed Six was purchased for £4,600 but a £2,300 allowance was given for the trading in of a Victor Broom-bodied 4 1/2 Litre. This was the second of two Grafton Coupes bought in mid-1929 by Turner, the first of which, chassis BA2591, no longer exists.
Henry Turner was a colorful character who quickly became a regular client of Bentley Motors and Jack Barclay Ltd., Bentley’s premier London dealer. Between 1928 and 1930, Turner had purchased seven new Bentleys of which three were 4 1/2 Litre models, and the remaining four were Speed Six variants. Chassis prices for the Speed Six neared £2,000 new, putting a completed car at £4,500 if not more. Having seven Bentleys in just three short years was no doubt a luxurious expenditure, and certainly one few could afford. Interestingly enough, in 1931, Turner and three others were remanded in an alleged conspiracy to defraud Lloyds Bank. Turner alone was charged with 120 counts of fraud to the amount of £51,519.
Prior to these allegations, however, the Grafton Coupe was sold to Dr. Joseph Le Fleming Burrow in September 1930 with service records indicating just under 12,000 miles. Dr. Le Fleming Burrow of Leeds, a doctor in the field of neurological psychopathology, was noted for his research on tabes dorsalis, also known as syphilitic myelopathy.
The service records for FR2630 document the doctor’s regular use of the Speed Six and consistent maintenance through 1934. Of note is the replacement of the cylinder block in December 1930 and minimal repair after a minor accident in June 1932. In October 1934, the Grafton Coupe was fitted with Lucas P100 headlamps, which still remain on the car. The final service entry notes the fitting of a reconditioned front axle bed, the front axle numbered KD2112, which also remains on the car today.
As a member of the Bentley Drivers Club, it is known that Dr. Le Fleming Burrow retained the car until 1949 if not longer. Further club documentation shows that by 1974 the Speed Six was in the ownership of Sir Jack Stewart Clark. Sir Stewart Clark, a Scottish baron, was a British member of the European Parliament in addition to being a BDC member. In 1984, the Grafton Coupe passed to Mervyn Frankel, a noted Bentley enthusiast, club member, and marque author. The car changed hands more recently, coming into the care of yet another Vintage Bentley enthusiast.
Today, the Grafton Coupe presents as an incredibly pure and unique example of the venerable Speed Six. Retaining all of its original, major mechanical components, the chassis of FR2630 was found by Clare Hay, at the time of her report, to be exceptionally correct. Furthermore, inspection of the car’s chassis leads one to believe that this is a low-mileage example, which has never suffered from disassembly or poor repair practices.
The coachwork is also extraordinarily correct, retaining its wonderfully patinated, yet very well-cared-for, original interior. Even the interior woodwork is original and emblematic of the period craftsmanship of Freestone & Webb. Additionally, the Bentley retains its original instrumentation, generally a sign of long-term care, or rather, an indication contrary to the car having fallen upon hard times. As one would expect, some renewing was undertaken, including the carpeting, but the interior has a genuinely inviting feel, which cannot otherwise be replicated. With the understated black finish of the exterior, the coupe is a proper looking Speed Six, with an elegantly powerful appearance.
Most recently, Graham Moss, of noted R.C. Moss Ltd., has prepared the Grafton Coupe for use as a long-distance touring car, suitable for events such as the Flying Scotsman Rally, which the car completed this past year. The work was heavily focused on the driving pleasure of the car; notably, the gear change, brakes, and clutch have been adjusted to that end.
Furthermore, conservation work was conducted on the interior and engine compartment. One particular challenge was the completion of various work to ensure the continued safe use of the original interior without the need for concern by the owner. Leather covers have also been made to further protect the leather on long tours, which are simple to remove should it be required. Under bonnet work has included the repair and re-commissioning of the original carburetors and manifold even down to the manufacturing of the Ripault priming cups, rarely seen on Vintage Bentleys today.
Upon completion of the work, Moss found the car a joy to drive and “one of the most original examples of the Speed Six Bentley we have had the pleasure to work on.”
The Speed Six presented here remains the only Grafton Coupe extant, and one of just five original-bodied, matching-numbers Speed Six Coupes. For that matter, this is one of an approximate and scarce 25 cars that can make any such claim. As with any Vintage Bentley model, a significant portion had been lost by the end of WWII, but more unfortunately, a vast majority of Speed Sixes failed to survive the butchering of cars to make Specials and Le Mans replicas.
FR2630 can be counted amongst the finest remaining examples of the marque. Its contemporaries have found ownership in the greatest collections the world over, and the opportunity to acquire such a pedigreed example is few and far between. This is an opportunity worth considering, and a car deserving of the attention. The Grafton Coupe is an exceptionally genuine example of the legendary Speed Six.