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|Edwin Drood's Column
|6 July 2016
|The Bentley Diaspora
|In which Edwin, after a long absence, avoids discussing Brexit but rather chooses
to deal with something tangential to it and equally curious, the quintessentially
British obsession with loss of greatness, as expressed in this case by the disquieting
disappearance of a large number of Bentleys during the aggressive eighties:
we reopen a hitherto little-researched chapter of UK automobile history.
An article in issue N° 2 of The Spirit (an internal publication of the SZ-type chassis chapter of Rolls-Royce and Bentley aficionados) drew this gentle reader’s attention to a curious and fatal condition that seems to have struck the UK luxury motor population of the late 1980s: the apparently systemic loss of more than two thousand highly conspicuous vehicles of a most noble marque to the illness I call Bentley Decimation Syndrome. For those unfamiliar with Rolls and Bentley motors, I should point out that a vast majority (80%) of all the vehicles ever produced by these illustrious brands are still running today, which makes BDS a very particular and choosy ailment.
|Adieu, Miranda, adieu!
Only two models, based on the highly successful SZ chassis, were affected with this strange disappearing disease, the Bentley Eight and the Bentley Turbo R, so we can safely discount pesticide abuse, fungal attack or a mutating virus as causes of the phenomenon, since any of these would have had a similar effect on other models in the series. Now, what could possibly lie at the source of such a hecatomb? And I do not use the term idly, because the numbers are scary. Of 1880 Turbo Rs originally registered for UK roads, only 505 (27%) are still on the books and the picture is even grimmer for the earlier Eight, of which only 8% (how prophetic!) survive today, a mere 61 cars out of a total of 738 UK registrations.
As I have recently myself become the proud owner of a ‘time-capsule example’ from the Bentley Diaspora of that period (one of the ones that got away, one might say), leaving my treasured and very much regretted Miranda to face the auctioneer’s gavel all alone (a difficult, heart-wrenching but necessary decision, given the increasingly horrendous price of spare parts for Alvis cars and the greater availability of spares for Aja, as I have decided to name my beautiful, metallic blue Bentley Eight), I feel a deeply proprietary interest in ensuring that my chariot is not crushed, spindled, evaporated, oxidized or otherwise “disappeared”. To this end, it would be a fine thing if I could find out what actually happened to the missing vehicles. These are large motors, not easily hid, destroyed or conjured away. So let’s consider some of the possibilities.
|Death by Bentley
Since these were the two models most directly marketed at a younger, carefree and sportier clientele, we should consider the most dramatic option first: the terrifying vision of two thousand Bentleys hurtling off cliffs into the cold ocean, engaging frontally with tank-transporters at the brow of some nameless hill, flying off sideways in a grim Newtonian ballet of forces seeking inevitable equilibrium in the middle of a pasture full of unimpressed cows. Crumpled, buckled, crushed or blown to smithereens ... annihilation, immolation, was this their glorious end? Probably not, someone would have noticed. There would have been a string of celebrity funerals, talk of recalls, the beginnings of a sulphurous reputation. Death by Bentley: the stuff of legends.
To contemporary observers, who were used to seeing every possible kind of Jaguar wrapped tenderly around roadside trees up and down the country, was the bosky Bentley ever an equally familiar sight? Assiduous research in press archives reveals no such thing, at best a few minor arguments with municipal property, dry-stone walls and straying deer. And since driving headlong into swimming pools seems to have been an activity exclusively reserved for Bentley’s elder sister, the Rolls-Royce Shadow, we are forced to drop this line of inquiry too.
|Keenness and the corduroy crew
Then did the missing Bentleys perhaps fall prey to hoards of overpaid footballers, whose hunger-driven brilliance on field became so spoiled by too much luxury that their teams all dropped a division or two, leaving them impoverished and unable to keep their cars in the accustomed style, which vehicles then rotted away in dingy garages where they still lie today, each awaiting a brilliant prince who never comes? That’s a lot of dingy garages, and a lot of valuable metal. Anyway, the 61 surviving vehicles include those officially registered as untaxed and off-road under a SORN certificate.
Or were these magnificent cars quite literally driven into the ground by leather-elbowed, corduroyed enthusiasts, so smashingly keen to rip up the highway that they never got around to essential maintenance? Starved of vital unguents, worn down to their metal core, did they desiccate, seizing up in mid flight? Did their pistons burn though in the agony of one climb too many? Is there a graveyard somewhere? It must be a rather large one, 2000 Bentleys is an awful lot of car. No, even this quite prosaic theory has to be dismissed as unlikely.
|Alien abduction and Arthurian legend
What options are left to us in the search for a clue to the origins of BDS? How about a massive exodus to the colonies? This would have to have been in secret, of course, as officially exported vehicles, like mine, are checked out of the DVLA manifest in Swansea. Are they now lurking in the deserts of Australia, painted in dark and motley hues, stripped down to their frames, those great 6.8-litre engines rumbling, ready for action in some harsh, apocalyptic future? Or how about alien abduction? Were they discreetly beamed up when no one was looking to serve as research material for eager students of mechanical archaeology on Ziguri 2057A? In which case, didn’t anyone ever report them stolen, or at least list their owners as missing persons?
It is my belief they have been driven in convoy, deep into the heart of some sacred mountain in the Lake District, to emerge at the end of time, trusty steeds to King Arthur’s two cohorts of pure and faithful knights, destined to fight beside them in the Last Battle against the massed legions of evil. If this scenario is going to work, I only hope the Once and Future King entombed a few good mechanics and a quantity of extra hoses, tyres, gaskets and seals - and if you’re relying on Druids, take plenty of fluids. One can hardly leave such vehicles on chocks for a few millennia and then expect them to work perfectly. The Last Battle might turn out a bit of a damp squid and where would England be then? Up the creek without a paddle, that’s where … so what else is new?
© Edwin Drood
Photo © Martine Passagez
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