How many 86-year-olds own a car that’s older than them?
The chances are, it’s a very exclusive club, which may well shrink to just one member if you whittle down its joining criteria that it must also be the first car they bought, and still used all year round.
But then Ian Douglas is not your average motorist, and his 1922 Bentley 3-litre Sport is no ordinary car.
A proud Scot now living near Lichfield in the Midlands, Ian bought chassis number 23 in June 1960 as a cheaper option than a much newer, second hand Ford Popular.
He thought he’d keep the car for a few years, but quickly formed an unbreakable bond with W.O. Bentley’s first production car and still owns it 59 years and upwards of 200,000 miles later.
In that time, the venerable Bentley has carried Ian all over the UK, as well as Brittany, Le Mans and the Loire Valley in France, and still averages between 3,000 and 4,000 miles a year as it nears its 100th birthday.
Bentley’s centenary will be celebrated at this July’s Silverstone Classic, where Ian has been invited to join other owners with a parade on the world-famous circuit.
Come rain or shine, Ian and his partner of 16 years, Sue, are regulars at Bentley Drivers Club (BDC) and Vintage Sports-Car Club (VSCC) events and race meetings, Ian having dabbled in historic racing himself in the 1960s and ’70s.
And it’s that regular use that’s been the key to keeping the old car running sweetly for all these years, and in sustaining Ian’s enthusiasm through nearly six decades.
“That’s the fun of the car, using it regularly,” says Ian, who is in his timber-built garage, topping up a radiator that sprung a leak after an outing the day before our photoshoot.
“People who only go to shows don’t get the full ambience of having an old car, there’s so much you miss out on. And people are always coming up to say it’s super to see it being used.”
It takes him a little longer to climb up into the cockpit these days but, once there, Ian presses the foot-operated starter button and the roar of the straight-four, 16-valve engine shatters the tranquility of the Staffordshire countryside.
In a haze of exhaust smoke, he’s off, the car’s flamboyant boat-tail rear end emphasising the Bentley’s sense of style and drama.
With the radiator drip quickly turning into a steady trickle, we cut short our photoshoot and return to a cottage festooned with Bentley photographs, paintings and magazines.
Born just south of Glasgow in 1933, Ian flew Avro Ansons out of Bahrain while on national service in the RAF before returning to Scotland and training as a quantity surveyor.
He got about using a combination of motorcycles and public transport until marriage forced him to start looking for a car.
“I didn’t need a car in those days because public transport was so good,” he remembers. “I lived seven miles out of Glasgow and there were two different tram cars, four different bus companies, and the railway.
“I always had motorbikes, but I got married and my then-wife didn’t fancy motorbikes.”
The hunt for a car initially focused on a Ford Popular, but fate intervened when Ian met a doctor with an old Bentley for sale.
“In the late 1950s, as well as working I was also going to the Glasgow School of Art, and we used to decorate the children’s wards of various hospitals at Christmas,” he says.
“I met one of the doctors and we got talking. He was going to sea as a medical man on the early cruise liners and he was selling the car for £170.
“A second hand Pop was £200 and I thought ‘I can save £30 by buying a Bentley’.”
The decision didn’t go down too well at home, however.
“My wife wanted the Ford Pop, and when I came home with the Bentley she didn’t approve,” says Ian. “She was possibly slightly more sophisticated than me – she wanted a car with a roof!
“At the time, I thought ‘I will keep it for five years’ and now, 59 years later, I’ve still got it.”
On the day Ian bought the Bentley – June 25, 1960 – it was already 38 years old, but there were still plenty of pre-war cars on the roads in the early 1960s.
“So many people were using pre-war cars, and the roads were much more interesting as a result,” he says.
“They were still usable cars, the traffic was not so heavy and it was easier driving. It was my everyday car for about two years, and I’d drive it to work and back in all weathers.
“I wasn’t alone – one of the partners in the consulting engineers where I worked drove a 3-litre Bentley, as did a partner in a local architects firm.”
Having too much fun
In 1962, Ian graduated to a company car, a new Hillman Minx, but he was having far too much fun in the 3-litre to consider selling it.
“By that point I had joined the Bentley Drivers Club and quite enjoyed doing what they did, so selling it was not in the plan,” he says.
“We’d meet at a pub for natters and noggins, standing at the bar talking and boring yourself senseless about Bentleys! But I learned new things about them all the time.”
And there was plenty to learn, the 3-litre model having a rich history – not only was it the first Bentley, but it also famously won the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1924 and 1927, the latter in supercharged Super Sport form.
W. O. Bentley conceived the 3-litre before the end of the first world war, with the original experimental chassis constructed in the stable of a Baker Street mews in 1919.
It was shown at that year’s London Motor Show, but the engine required further development and production chassis number 1, married to engine number 3, wasn’t completed and delivered to its customer until September 1921.
As was customary at the time, the 3-litres were supplied by Bentley as a rolling chassis to the coachbuilder of the buyer’s choice.
Chassis number 23
And Ian’s, chassis 23, engine 42, didn’t always sport that distinctive boat-tail; originally clothed in a doctors coupe, it was rebodied in green as a Vanden Plas in the 1930s in somewhat unusual circumstances.
Rolls-Royce’s takeover of Bentley in 1931 led to the founding of a new service department for existing Bentley customers, which inherited a large cache of stock and reconditioned parts.
When business began to tail off in 1936 because of expired warranties, a limited number of “RC” cars were assembled from parts and registered as new – including just four 3-litre cars.
As Ian explains, “these RC cars sold for about £500, while a secondhand 3-litre sold for about £200.”
“A garage in Redditch got hold of my car, rebodied it and re-registered it as a new car, and pretended it was one of these RC cars,” he adds.
“He did it for a quick buck, and it was not very well constructed.”
Ian only discovered this thanks to a book called Bentley – The Vintage Years, first published in 1986 by Michael (now Clare) Hay, which forensically details the history of every pre-war Bentley.
It helped him reunite the car with its original registration number, YL 1041, changed to BWD 467 when the ‘fake’ RC car was re-registered.
“I wrote to the DVLA with my evidence and they let me swap the registration for the original one,” he says.
After moving to Cheshire in 1964, driving the Bentley the 200-plus miles south, Ian continued to use the car regularly before embarking on a full rebuild, and a new look, in 1969.
“The body was shot and needed replacing,” he says, “and I decided I was not going to have a Vanden Plas replica painted green like everyone else who rebuilt a Bentley.
“I thought ‘I’ve got to do something different’ and I had a drawing of a Jarvis boat tail. Jarvis were very good coachbuilders and made flamboyant bodies, such as boat tails, and I thought ‘that’s what I’m going to do’.”
Working on the chassis himself, Ian enlisted the help of renowned coachbuilder and master woodworker Tony Robinson, who had a background in building theatrical stage sets, to bring his vision to life.
In November 1969, Ian drove the car as a rolling chassis down to Robinson’s workshop outside Reading.
“There was no bodywork on the car at all, and it snowed the whole way,” he says. “People must have thought I was mad.”
The car was ready for collection about nine months later, with brown paintwork surrounding the exquisitely-engineered wood panelling, and the next chapter in Ian’s ownership began.
The 1970s saw Ian embarking on European tours with the BDC, with anniversary runs to Le Mans to celebrate the 3-litre’s wins in the 1920s.
“The club organised the trips, as they still do, and the car was fine travelling down through France – it’s what they are made to do,” he says.
“The roads in France weren’t so busy as in Britain, you could go miles without seeing anybody – it was great.”
On one of those trips to Le Mans, Ian was “between wives” and persuaded a friend who owns a vintage Delage to come with him.
“We were planning on stopping in Tours, and when we got there I said: ‘Peter, I’ve left all the hotel bookings at home’,” he remembers.
“This fellow was such a confident man, but he went to pieces. The main hotel was the Mercure, and we stopped outside this bar just before the hotel, Peter jumps up and rushes into the hotel, but can’t make himself understood.
“A friend of mine then walked out of the bar and said ‘what are you doing down here?’ I told him what had happened, but he said ‘my daughter’s got the list’, so I got out of the car because he offered me a beer.
“I was sitting in the pub when Peter comes back and says ‘I don’t know what you are doing in the pub, we’ve got nowhere to stay’. So I told him the story and he completely relaxed!”
Dabbled in motorsport
For more than a decade, Ian dabbled in motorsport, in common with many BDC members, winning the Harry Rose tray at Silverstone in 1967 and continuing to race in BDC and VSCC events, as well as hill-climbing at Shelsley Walsh, until quitting because of increasingly strict safety regulations.
“I was never serious about it, and in the end you had to wear special clothing and it got too expensive and too technical,” he says.
“In this picture at Silverstone I’ve just got my normal mac on! We would drive the car down and all you needed was a helmet. Then every other year they changed the specification and you’d have to spend nearly £1,000 on clothing with flameproof this and that.”
Although sedate by modern standards, the 70hp motor – in untuned form – was rapid for its day, and Ian achieved a top speed of 84mph on the circuit.
“I normally just sit at 50mph on the roads, which is fast enough because you’ve got to think of stopping,” he says. “It amazes me that people put overdrives in these cars and go down the motorways at 70mph. You’ve no hope of stopping quickly if you have to in a car that weighs 2 tons with drum brakes.”
The Bentley came with Ian when he moved to Burton-on-Trent in 1978, and then on to Lichfield where he now lives with Sue, who plays a full part in the Bentley’s adventures.
“The best grease monkey”
“She’s the best grease monkey you can have,” he jokes, and she also has no problem riding in an open car, whatever the weather.
“You don’t get too wet if you’re going along because of the V screen, which keeps you basically dry,” she says. “There’s no point in carrying waterproofs because by the time you’ve stopped and put them on, you’re soaked anyway.
“If it starts to rain we pull into the nearest pub!”
“We always have the Good Beer Guide on us,” smiles Ian.
While out and about, Ian says the car provokes a mixture of reactions – from those who just love to see an old car in use, to jealous motorists who assume he must be loaded, and those who will bend over backwards to help.
“There was one man I met in the local wine shop, with the Bentley parked outside,” he says. “He said ‘what year’s the car?’ I said 1922, and he said ‘I joined the AA in 1923 and I’ve still got the badge. I don’t have a car now but if you ever want to come up to the house you can have the badge.’
“I gave him a lift home and he gave me the badge, and it’s now on the car. Somebody else gave me an original AA key.”
Then there was the man the couple met at a pub in Evesham, who feared for the Bentley’s safety parked outside overnight.
“This chap came into the pub for a beer, was talking about the car and said ‘if you’re stopping overnight you’re not leaving the car there, in Evesham?’” says Ian.
“I said ‘there’s no other place’, and he said we could leave it outside his house. He was in a gated complex, and he opened the gates and we left it there for the night.”
And then there are those for whom the sight of a man driving such a car, these days worth upwards of £180,000, is more a cause for jealousy than admiration.
“Sometimes the best reaction that I love to get is when someone says ‘it’s all right for you, having a car like that’,” says Ian.
“It’s envy coming out”
“It’s envy coming out, but I always turn round and say ‘how much did you pay for your first car and how many cars have you had in your lifetime?’ I tell them the Bentley has cost me about £6,000 over 59 years, and he may have spent half a million on cars. That puts it in perspective to them.”
Over the decades, the Bentley has proved as resilient as its owner, with only a couple of breakdowns – one at Porthmadog and one near Prescott – plus an unfortunate incident involving a horse.
“I turned this corner and this horse was doing a pasodoble, so we skidded to a halt and the damn thing’s thrown the rider and kicked the radiator in,” says Ian.
Thankfully, the metal was the only thing to suffer any damage.
As Ian ponders another repair to that same radiator, he looks ahead to what the future holds for this ultimate partnership between car and driver.
“I’ve never even thought about it selling it,” he says. “I just think to myself, there’s still good fun ahead. I’ll keep enjoying it and then, like everything else, one day we will have to stop.”
One thing’s certain, all the while he can still climb up into those worn leather seats, Ian will continue to enjoy the unique thrill of firing up this glorious piece of motoring history.
Ian and his Bentley have been invited to join the Bentley centenary celebrations at the Silverstone Classic 2019, taking place on July 26-28. Visit www.silverstoneclassic.com for more information and to book tickets (which are available in advance only). Adrian Flux is proud to be the event’s official vehicle insurance partner.
Photos by Simon Finlay Photography.
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