William Medcalf isn't a vintage Bentley dealer, he's a specialist. The difference in terms may seem like mere semantics, but an hour and a half at his Sussex workshop reveals exactly to what extent it isn't. We join him there under the pretext that, with Silverstone Classic nearly upon us, PH ought to learn a little about what goes into owning and running vintage racing machines. The competitions which he and his clients enter, however, often throw up far more gruelling conditions than anything which might be encountered on a sunny Juforly day at Chapel, Stowe, or Copse...
William's father was a toolmaker by trade, and ran an MOT garage in North London. A passionate motoring enthusiast himself, he once took his family, a five-year-old William included, on a nine-month, 28,000-mile expedition around the United States in a pre-war Bentley. The rest, as they say, is history, and with such childhood memories having shaped him, it's perhaps no surprise that he has striven to build himself a career in this line of work. Nor is it one to see his own 1928 Mulliner-bodied 3.0-litre saloon, one of fewer than ten remaining in the world, sitting in the corner of his showroom, a child's car seat strapped into the back. "It's the perfect family car," he says, "I can use it for school runs, trips to Tesco, anything I need."
Up until recently he owned and ran the first of just 18 Bentley 3.0-litre Super Sports to be produced, as is still entering both his own and his clients' cars into various historic rallies around the world. 'Around the world' also being the route that these events often take, with rallies from Peking to Paris, across the Andes and through India a common occurrence. It's no wonder then, that when people want to ensure their car is going to go the distance, he's the man they turn to.
To step into his workshop is to step back in time. The internals of about a dozen historic Bentleys lay out on work benches, clamped into metal lathes or being fettled by hand. The smell is that unmistakable one of oil, leather and petrol which hangs evocatively around places and machines such as these and irresistibly transports those who inhale it back to an era of Bentley Boys, fighter aces and derring-do. Turn to your side, though, and immediately return to the 21st century, where state-of-the-art technology like 3D-printing helps to hone these historic machines, extracting every last ounce of performance and reliability for their present-day custodians.
A full engine build takes 200 hours, including eight to twelve spent testing the completed unit's mettle on the dyno. "Reliability is key," says William, "but these are also 100mph missiles, so we can't afford for anything to go wrong." Where possible, he'll seek to repair and restore cars, keeping them as close to original as he can but, through years of competition, William has identified a hit list of components which are most susceptible to failure. This gives customers the option of having them replaced with custom-fabricated, uprated equivalents when they first bring their cars to him, or waiting to need them - and whatever else their destruction has damaged - repaired when they inevitably fail during an event. The choice, he says, is up to them.
With their 75-year copyright expired, William and his team have the freedom to duplicate, improve and install components almost at will, with almost everything you could possibly need (or imagine) for a vintage Bentley up in the store room: "If you walked into a Ford dealer today and asked for these they'd probably have to order them," he says, "here we have them for a 100 year-old car, on the shelf, ready to go."
And it's not just the components which are ready to go, either. To cater for this echelon of motorsport, where millionaires race £800,000, century-old machines across entire continents, Medcalf's engineers have their visas and vaccinations taken care of for each country on route before the event begins, allowing them to fly to a customer in need at a moment's notice.
Back in the workshop William talks us along the line of cars he currently has in for maintenance. With 50 per cent of Bentleys still on the road, the marque's reliability makes it the holy grail for vintage rally enthusiasts. It's a sixty-forty split, William reckons, between clients who bring him a car for servicing before simply taking it away again, and those whose machines live in a constant state of flux; being transported to, competing in, returning from or being prepared for another rally. If you think historic cars are better off being used - and we do - then a trip here is a heartening experience.
On the day we visit there are more than a few special cars present, even amongst such rarified company. There's Bentley's first ever factory Le Mans entrant, driven by BRDC-founder Dudley 'Benjy' Benjafield, the only known Speed Weymann Coupé ever built and W.O Bentley's own EXP 4 development car, in which he first tested many of the innovations he later brought to his production machines.
Before we leave there's just time for a spin in one of these incredible machines. A beautiful burgundy 3.0-litre model so thoroughly restored that it could be brand new. The biggest shock isn't how easily it starts, or how incredible it sounds, however, but just how bloody fast it can actually go. With William at the wheel we blast furiously down country roads, a dart of colour and noise and commotion amongst the calm fields and trees. The tyres squeal, the engine roars and the wind whips around your head, all without ever breaking the speed limit. If there's an empirical scale of most fun that can be safely had on the public road, this tops the charts. It's a thrilling, enthralling, exciting combination of speed and style that no modern car could ever really hope to match. It's easy to see why, then, that driven in such a fashion, even 28,000 miles could never be enough.
See vintage Bentleys for sale here.
A century of Bentley is being celebrated at the Silverstone Classic, 26-28th July, with a host of activities and cars to mark 100 years of this iconic brand. If you have an eligible car, you can join us in the PistonHeads club area herefrom just £52 for two tickets. For general tickets from £45, click here.
[Photos: Dafydd Wood]