Take 24 Vintage Bentleys, a bunch of Bentley devotees, add some of the most beautiful roads in the world with top-notch accommodations and lavish libations and what do you get?
The West Coast Bentley Tour!
In April 2018 two dozen Bentleys gathered in Santa Barbara, California, for the ultimate tour. And it wasn’t just any old Bentley jamboree, this tour was reserved exclusively for the pure of heart. Only true “W.O. era” Bentleys — so called because they were built under the founder of the company between 1919 and 1931, — were invited to participate.
While not a race — or so participants claim — the West Coast Bentley Tour was certainly a nod to the halcyon days of road racing when Bentley took the chequered flag at Le Mans in 1924 and then four more times from 1927 to 1930. This was the era of the “Bentley Boys,” a group of marque aficionados including an aviator, a journalist, a steeple chaser, a Lord and an army captain, who raced their Bentley motorcars around Brooklands’ banked track and across Europe to help stamp the mighty “Winged B” into the annals of automotive history.
When Luxury Rally Club directors — Craig Ekberg, a flier of World War II planes and a Bentley disciple, and Trevor Johnson, a former professional hockey player for the Italian National Team and a luxury travel guru — put their third Bentley Tour together, they wanted to provide an opportunity for modern-day Bentley Boys and Girls to exercise their automobiles and enjoy a truly opulent experience.
The four-day, 800-mile tour celebrated the 99th anniversary of the founding of Bentley Motors Limited. Starting at the Hotel Californian in Santa Barbara, the route wound its way northwards to Paso Robles, then looped back down to Santa Barbara where participants reveled in their achievement over a celebratory dinner at a private collection in Montecito, California.
Some concours award points for the presentation of original manuals and tools, but not the Pebble Beach Concours. Chief Judge Chris Bock points out that while manuals and tools might be very relevant to a Ferrari, such items are less significant to a unique vintage automobile. “Take the 1904 Holsman Model 3 Roadster that was at Pebble Beach in 2017,” he says. “The two great-granddaughters of Henry Kerchner Holsman were there to tell the story of the automobile and that was more important than any accompanying items.”“There’s a great juxtaposition here,” says Craig, who drove his 1928 4½ Litre Tourer with his wife Hanne. “These Bentley Boys are drivers. They will splash through puddles and get their million-dollar motorcars all covered in mud and still keep smiling. And they’re not out there polishing the fenders next morning. Despite the grime, we wanted them to experience an exceptional standard of accommodation and luxury, with full concierge service every mile of the way.”
Indeed, the West Coast Bentley Tour was a veritable “mobile feast” with seven course lunches, tequila cocktail parties, lavish wine tasting events and exclusive hotels. But according to entrant Joel Laub the exquisite amenities paled in comparison to the thrill of arriving at a sign indicating that a road was closed due to a flooded causeway, and then powering on through with water up to the knock-offs and goggles splattered with mud. “I think it’s the most fun I ever had!” says Joel who drove a 1929 4½ Litre Le Mans. “There is something primeval about driving one of these machines.”
Primeval and challenging. W.O. Bentley was originally a railway locomotive engineer, and later designed aircraft engines, and he built his motor cars accordingly. The iconic crash-gearbox has no synchromesh and requires double de-clutching for every gear shift. The process to start the car is much like a vintage airplane — power on, fuel on, magnetos on, set the mixture, set the timing and press Start. “Then they threw the steering and shifter on the right-hand side and reversed the gas and brake pedals, just for good measure,” grins John Barrett, a Bentley buff from Georgia. “It takes a few scary stop signs to figure it out!”
John, who describes himself as “tired, not retired,” was driving his 4½ Litre which was purchased new by a wealthy Australian in 1928 for his daughter on her 21st birthday. The car remained in Australia until 2014 when it arrived in London and John bought it already fully restored with the original engine, chassis and transmission. “Car people are car people,” says John, “but people who own real Bentleys are truly passionate. A Bentley is an acquired taste.”
It is universally agreed that while a W.O. Bentley might be taxing to master, once conquered there are few driving experiences to match. “This is not a car you can just jump into and drive,” says Craig. “But once you are competent, it’s not difficult at all. And it gives you a great sense of accomplishment.” The convoluted start and shift process may actually offer a hidden advantage — security. “People ask me if I am afraid someone will steal my Bentley when I leave it parked on the street,” says Joel. “I say if they can start it and get it into second gear — they can keep it!”
Many Bentley purists favor the true cockpit experience, using small Brooklands windscreens and donning leather helmets and goggles to fully appreciate the nostalgic full-frontal sensory assault. Sitting high behind a long louvred hood, flying through the countryside at 90 mph with all senses firing, is as close as one can get to piloting a biplane with the throaty burble of an airplane engine, the sweet aroma of rich exhaust and the bone-breaking vibration reverberating through hands, feet and buttocks. As if to underscore the direct bloodline between the airplane and the automobile, Craig arranged a flyover by the Tiger Squadron — of which he is Squadron leader — at the Daou Winery. “It was unbelievable,” says Bruce Massman. “We are standing on the hillside tasting fantastic wines when all of a sudden a squadron of World War II planes flew overhead, trailing smoke across the clear blue sky and doing aerobatics for a full 20 minutes! A personal fly-over just for us!”
Bruce, a rally veteran, was driving a 1926 “Big Six” that he acquired in the United Kingdom. It had been sold to actor Nicholas Cage, but Mr. Cage was unable to take possession of the car and Bruce acquired it shortly thereafter. Originally a 6½ Litre saloon, the car was reconfigured as an 8 Litre with a Le Mans body, and according to Bruce it is his wife’s favorite car. “Sandy really loves this car,” Bruce enthuses. “When it’s dialed in correctly it just flies along. These things are indestructible!”
That said, the Tour was discretely accompanied by a Trouble Truck complete with Bentley mechanic David George, who took care of anomalies along the way. Joel is used to changing the oil and tires of his Bentley himself, but when he blew an exhaust gasket, he was delighted to have David come to the rescue. “While we sipped cocktails and had dinner, David cut me a new manifold gasket—and the next day we ran all out!” says Joel. “Things can go wrong but they are rarely catastrophic. These automobiles just keep on going!”
To facilitate their forward progress, the “full concierge” service included a regular run to the nearest auto parts store by Trevor Johnson to pick up an assortment of requested accessories — oil, car parts, etc. — which would be delivered to the cars early next morning. Despite best efforts, there was bound to be a couple of casualties, as Jakob Greisen, a Motorcar Specialist for Bonhams, and his companion Xavier Magnan will attest. Their 1929 4½ Litre Vanden Plas suffered a bearing problem in the generator. “Driving a Bentley is like driving the world’s fastest lorry,” says Jakob. “And when we lost a bearing, it sounded like the whole thing was falling apart. Unfortunately, we had to retire the car!” Nevertheless, the Luxury Rally Club had planned for just such an eventuality, and Jakob and Xavier finished the tour in a 1950s Bentley Flying Spur. “It wasn’t so bad after all!” admits Jakob. Craig and Trevor also provided a small entourage of more comfortable rides for anyone needing a break from the bump and thump of hours of vintage Bentley driving. Four new luxury Bentayga SUVs, supplied by Bentley Motors, trailed the group and were enjoyed by all. As Bruce commented, “The Luxury Rally Club provided closed cars, warm blankets, hats and even umbrellas — all kinds of creature comforts. We really appreciated that extra thoughtful gesture. It’s rare on car tours.”
Hanne Ekberg agrees. She was always a tomboy growing up, until she swapped her patched jeans for a leotard and became a serious figure skater in her home country of Denmark. Nevertheless, she still loves hanging out with the car guys and has accompanied her husband Craig on many tours. “Some tours are really tough — it’s just drive, drive, drive, in the rain, wind, hail and snow,” she says, “This was much more enjoyable. If I could only do one tour a year, this would be it. Although I might be a bit biased, as wife of the organizer!” Hanne likes to take the wheel on rallies and tours, but so far, she has delegated the Bentley driving to Craig. “All that double de-clutching, etcetera, is a nightmare! I prefer to bundle up and participate from the passenger seat.” But she is quick to point out that riding shotgun in a right-hand drive Bentley comes with its own perils. “I duck every time I see a car coming in the opposite direction. It can be pretty scary perched up there in the middle of the road!”
Between the pre-tour visit to Jay Leno’s garage, complete with police escort across Los Angeles, and the private fly-over, it is a challenge to pinpoint a single moment as a highlight. But for Joel an impromptu lunch-stop stands out as symbolic of the ethos of the tour: “We were cruising down towards Solvang, northwest of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynes Valley, fantastic countryside, and I had my mate Hayden Groendyke in front of me in his 1929 6½ Litre. Suddenly he sees a Mexican gal open up a taco stand on the side of the road. He pulls in, I follow him, and soon there were 15 W.O. Bentleys lined up in the middle of nowhere — and everyone jumped out and ordered tacos.” Serendipitous passers-by must have marveled at the unlikely sight of a pageant of the stately British beasts quietly cooling on the side of a Californian byway. Only 3,034 W.O. Bentleys were built during that magical 12-year period in Cricklewood, North London, and here were 15 of them, each with almost a century of history under its hood. “It was such an incongruous scene — our very own Bentley taco party!” says Joel “Something I’ll never forget.”
Four days, 800 miles and a dozen epicurean revelries later, the Bentley Boys and Girls congregated for their farewell feast at Craig McCaw’s collection. They dined in his car barn, where some were seated on a slowly revolving car turntable, which allowed perusal of the world-class automobile collection without having to move a muscle — other than lift a champagne glass.
Having celebrated the 99th anniversary of the founding of Bentley Motors Limited, there was only one thing left do. “Next year it’s the 100th Anniversary. Now that is something to celebrate!” says Bruce, an early entrant signee for the West Coast 100 Years of Bentley Tour, which includes the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance as its central focus.
“Roll on August 2019!”