The Three Litre and the Continental GT
Words by Bob Zannetti
The other day I had the opportunity of having supper with the President of the Bentley Drivers Club, Jimmy Medcalf. You will be astonished to learn that the conversation soon strayed onto cars, Bentleys in particular. We are both lucky enough to own examples of both the earliest and latest models of the marque. These are, of course, the Three Litre produced at Cricklewood and the Continental GT from Crewe. It emerged from our conversations that we both held the same opinion of the justification of comparison between these two models. Some may accuse us of heresy but there is, in my view, an enormous similarity that makes the GT a modern embodiment of the very first Bentley. Forget all the soft saloons, mostly inspired by Rolls Royce, that have come between the Three Litres and the GT. These two cars are, unquestionably, very close relatives.
This in no way denigrates the many fine vehicles that have been produced and the current Mulsanne is a magnificent, fast and luxurious motor vehicle. It is just that it, and many of its predecessors, bear little adherence to Walter Owen Bentley’s original premise. The bloodline of the first concept had been all but lost and many thought that we would not ever see again a car that could carry on the initial idea. Mercifully the Bentley Motor Company was wrestled away from Rolls Royce at the end of the last century and the new owner, VAG, laid down plans for the Continental GT.
So what are these similarities? The first is that they both have a clear design objective of being sporting cars. They must be well planned to be fast and comfortable with sporting abilities. Neither car was considered as a racing car, though both have gone on to be developed into such. It is, as the great man put it, an objective “to build a good car, a fast car, the best car in its class”. The concept was not to build what is known these days as a track day car but the potential was spotted by many and the respective factories were drawn into proving the cars on the track. This is a concept that received very little consideration in the period between these two cars and you do not see many Mulsannes on the track! I am intentionally ignoring one or two pure racing cars that were not factory units nor were based on factory cars that came along spasmodically over the years even though they had a Bentley badge.
In their respective days they are both insanely fast. In 1925 nearly every vehicle on the road was fortunate to get anywhere near 50 mph and most cruised, if they were lucky at something like 40 mph. The Peugeot 177 was flat out at 47mph and that would have been enough to see off the, then current, Humber. And then there was the Bentley Three litre. It did not have anything like the biggest engine at the time, the humble Crossley was 3.8 litres, but its power output was twice that of just about everything else. It was insanely fast. Pretty well every standard car could do 80 mph and plenty of them could be lightly modified to do 100mph. Remember that this was at a time when some scientists were predicting that doing more than 60 mph would result in instant death! There is a strange phenomenon that driving the Continental GT imparts on its driver. You are in a car that has, in the order of 600 bhp and a top speed of some 200 mph. You are waiting at the traffic lights and some city trader or banker pulls up beside you in a German or Italian sports car, He wants to race. You know that the power available to you, put down through a four wheel drive system, would enable you to humiliate him and knowing this allows you let him go. He roars off leaving enormous amounts of expensive P Zero rubber on the tarmac and you can just be disdainful. You are empowered by calm but certain knowledge that the Bentley badge requires you to be more of a gentleman or gentle lady.
I felt certain that the same thing happened in the 20’s but judging by the number of crashes the early cars had I have to conclude that some of the drivers of the time might have been drunk with power, and possibly other substances. It would appear that a number of them drove a little quicker than their abilities. Bearing in mind there were precious few cars on the road to hit, a lot of these crashes must have resulted from a coming together with a static object.
Both cars were designed to impart a feeling of luxury and comfort. They were, and are, luxuriously equipped with excellent instrumentation. They were both, nominally at least, four seaters. In Vanden Plas Tourer form the Three Litre has two doors as does the Continental GT. They both have the poise and road holding to allow their respective prodigious power outputs to be used. They can both cover great distances and tours to Scotland or the South of France can be achieved with alacrity. They both have an extraordinary thirst for fuel but not many people bought them to do the Mobil Economy Run. Whilst both can return 18/19 miles per gallon when driven with a view to keeping one’s driving licence less restrained enthusiasm will result in quite a bit less. Each car has 4 valves per cylinder, 21” wheels, wheelbase & tyre pressures are much the same, at 70 mph both do 2200 rpm and the Team Car has the same size fuel tank. Each car has a high level of exclusivity and the cost was commensurate with, allowing for inflation, each being similarly priced.
The DNA of the Three Litre that was thought lost for 70 years has re-emerged. They may not look like it but they are twins.
My Continental GT
My Three Litre
Jimmy's Three litre as it currently looks
Jimmy's Three litre having just passed scrutineering for the 1926 Le Mans