Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


AUTOMOTIVE JOURNALISM of 100 years ago offered freshness, nay, romance. “A Test of a Three Litre Bentley” in The Autocar, January 24, 1920, is a wonderful example of this.

This and the following images and text are from The Vintage Bentley Book, a Brooklands Books collection published in the 1950s.

The Autocar article opens with “Although frowned upon by the authorities, limited by law, and penalised when discovered, speed is the greatest attribute of a car, and from the car alone is it possible to realise to the full that peculiar feeling of greatness, soaring almost to poetic heights, consequent on high speed traveling.”

“There are, however,” it continues, “certain private roads in our own country, and nearly all the national highways of fair France, on which a racing machine and an open throttle are not only allowed, but encouraged, to the great joy and thankfulness of those drivers who know really where the true pleasures of motoring exist.”

The car in question was a Bentley works prototype: “Not very handsome to look upon (test bodies seldom are), not altogether free from straps and string, the car yet bore an air of something indefinable, just a suggestion, perhaps, of what was to come, a knowledge, maybe, of its own power; at all events, something which showed its breed through the external rough, work-a-day disguise.”

“The three-litre Bentley car fitted with a test body, with Capt. W.O. Bentley, who is also responsible for the design of successful aero engines, at the wheel.”—The Autocar.

“Cars undoubtedly have a personality to the real enthusiast, to whom they are not mere collections of steel and aluminum, but, animal like, show their spirit just as soon as the clutch bites home and feeling comes to the driver through the narrow steering wheel rim.”

“Our start was typical,” The Autocar testers wrote, “the engine, responding at once to the electric motor, emitted a steady roar from the exhaust; the crew, well wrapped up, soon settled down to the comfort of the seats, and, with one or two of those little dabs on the throttle beloved by all Brooklands drivers, the car moved off.”

Brooklands, about nine miles south of today’s Heathrow Airport, was the home of British motor racing and aviation.

“Each member of the crew,” the testers reported, “as if by instinct, settled further down into the seat, drew in a sharp breath, and inwardly said, ‘Now!’ ”

“Instantly the exhaust changed its note from a purr to a most menacing roar…. To such an accompaniment the pulse beats quicker, there comes an almost irresistible desire to burst into some wild war song, greater even than the immortal song of Roland—in defiance of the demons that howl invisible without.”

“Rear view of the three-litre Bentley on the Barnet-St. Albans road.”—The Autocar.

“The reader may say, ‘This is all very well, but what of the car?’ There are, of course, numberless small things of note. The gears of the double oil pump drive are noisy, somewhere in the engine something emits a peculiar penetrating grate ever now and again, while much good oil is sprayed over the engine by the breather pipes. These are faults, inseparable from the first chassis of a new design, are easily overcome, and are no impediment to success.”

The Autocar testers summed up their experience in the article’s subhead: “A Car which combines Docility in Traffic with Exceptional Speed Potentiality on the Open Road.” And, to the best of my research, they also coined “The Engine’s Full Song.”

Thanks to The Autocar and to John Dowdeswell’s fine Brooklands Books reprint, we can savor automotive poetry and prose of yore. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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