The story behind the 1921 Bentley 3-Litre, the world's oldest production Bentley

Even though "recession" and "double-dip" are familiar to anyone au courant with headlines, to the bidders at Pebble Beach auctions, the first is a lexicological sibling of "recede" and the second is dessert. That's why Gooding & Company was able to make the till ring like a fire alarm again his year, selling 106 of 127 lots for more than $78 million and setting 19 records for cars sold at auction.

One of those lots was a 1921 Bentley 3-LItre, Chassis #3, and the oldest production Bentley in existence. Follow the jump for the story behind it...

The oldest surviving Bentley in the world is Experimental Chassis #2, or EXP2, housed at Bentley's factory in Crewe, England. The second of the three experimental cars that Walter Owen Bentley built before he began production of a customer version, when it was shown at the 1919 Olympia Motor Show it convinced Welshman Ivor Llewelyn to put down a deposit. You probably don't recognize the name Ivor Llewelyn, but you might recognize that of his son, Desmond, who played Q in the James Bond films from 1963's From Russia with Love to 1999's The World is not Enough. That's more Bond connection for The Flying B, since the literary 007 drove a 4.5-Litre Bentley in Fleming's books.

In August of 1921, two years after putting down his deposit, Llewelyn took delivery of the first customer car, Chassis #3. The third chassis became the first delivery partly due to PR and partly due to production methods in the early days of the automobile. Chassis #1, delivered a month later, had been promised to a Bentley investor who also happened to supply Bentley's spark plugs. (Walter Owen was obliged to provide the 'first' car to one of his financiers.) On top of that, Llewelyn's 3-Litre was bodied with simple, elegant, two-seat roadster coachwork. In the days when these things were fashioned by hand, the more involved coachwork for Chassis #1 and Chassis #2, delivered later in 1921, simply took longer to build.

Chassis #3 was offered up for auction by New Englander Thurston Twigg-Smith, Jr, who also owns a 1928 4.5-Litre Bentley and bought the 3-Litre in 1994, complete but in pieces, after having followed its ownership for years.

"I was aware of this car through the club magazine. My dentist was also an enthusiastic 'closet' dealer of vintage Bentleys, and I knew when he got this car (Chassis #3) back in the late 1980s. I often spent time at his shop... and become enamored of its many early features. When I heard the dentist was getting a divorce, I figured the wife would take the cars. When she did, I offered to buy the car – which was partially apart and not running – and she accepted my offer. That was in 1994."

The car was noteworthy even in pieces. "I think the most special aspect of Chassis #3," Twigg-Smith said, "is its survival in essentially original condition and its place as the first production Bentley to have been delivered."

Original condition isn't easy to come by when dealing in coachbuilt cars: those able to afford an original car were usually able to afford to have that car rebodied, and often did.

Paul Hagenan, a Gooding specialist who helped Twigg-Smith prepare the 3-Litre for auction, said "With high-performance cars of that era like Bentleys and Bugattis and Alfas, you often saw body swaps and engine swaps. Especially after the war, people were ripping bodies off cars – not a lot of cars from the 20s and 30s survived to see the postwar period. No one seemed to care for keeping something original. It wasn't until the last 30 or 40 years that it became especially noteworthy to have an original body, and not until the last ten years that it became prized. For this car to have remained in original condition for 90 years is special."

Of the three experimental cars built, only EXP2 remains and it has been rebodied more than once. Of the first five customer cars built, only #3 and #5 exist, and only #3 retains its 1921 specification.

The years-long restoration of Chassis #3 was made more challenging by the fact that in 1921, Bentley was just beginning customer production and hadn't yet standardized his parts suppliers.

"Essentially this was the fourth car built," said Hagenan. "On a car this early – the first car Bentley ever got paid for – he was working with different suppliers of parts like gauges and carburetors, so early cars have components that are unique to that chassis only, or 3-Litres only.

Twigg-Smith spent years scouring catalogs and employing the resources of the Bentley Driver's Club to figure out what was correct on the pieced car he bought, and determining the exact specification of Chassis #3 in 1921.

Then, wherever possible, he didn't replace body parts with brand new components; instead, he repaired the fixtures that the car came with. The brass, for example, is the same brass that was pounded out in 1921. As noted in the Gooding catalog, "All major components except the front axle, which was replaced by the brakeless unit from Chassis 261 [early 3-Litres weren't fitted with front brakes], are original." The aluminum bodywork – scratched alloy with varnish – is original forward of the canoe-stern rear end. The rear was produced by Bentley in aluminum, but was redone in 1921 in steel when Mrs. Llewelyn requested a dickey (rumble) seat. Twigg-Smith maintained the configuration, but replaced the steel with varnished, scratched alloy. This makes Chassis #3 more of a restored Preservation Class vehicle than a 100-point restoration job.

The work paid off. "It drives like a dream," said Twigg-Smith, "and is an absolutely perfect example of what WO Bentley wanted the cars to be: fast, comfortable and capable of transporting two people in comfort for long distances at high speeds."

"I think what would surprise most people," he continued, "is the ease with which you can shift gears (no clutch is needed to shift up or down, once you understand the gearbox), and how well the two wheel brakes match the car's drivability. Starting the car is the toughest thing to learn, as a precise process must be followed if you want to bring the engine to life, primarily due to its early Smith's carburetor, which is only found on very early Bentleys."

We attended Pebble Beach as a guest of Bentley, and asked the firm's head of interior design, Robin Page, if the modern cars had any connection to examples like Chassis #3. "Definitely" he said. "The knurled knobs in our current cars, and the way the gauges come to rest at 1 o'clock, are details taken straight from the early cars." That, to us, is the proper use of one's automotive heritage.

The auction of #3 was held for a full house, meaning a thousand people in assigned chairs inside the Gooding tent and others filling the standing room. It took just a few minutes and began at $500,000, the few bidders who knew what they were getting took the hammer price to $875,000, for a total of $962,500 after the buyer's premium. That was a little less than Gooding's pre-sale estimate, but still roughly three times the amount a typical 3-Litre might fetch at auction.

"I believe the buyer got a great deal at the price realized," said Twigg-Smith, "and although I am not disappointed, I was certainly hoping for a higher sales price! I think the fact that this car was essentially unknown outside of the Bentley circles may have limited its interest to collectors at this sale. I would not be surprised to see it sell for substantially more down the road a few years."

Even so, he appeared satisfied that the car found a good home. "My understanding is that the family that bought it are enthusiastic Bentlists, so it's just as likely that the car will remain in their collection for decades. In any case, I hope they drive it, as that is what it is all about."

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