1925 BENTLEY 3-LITRE VANDEN PLAS STYLE TOURER (single family ownership since 1963)
Offered from the important automotive collection of the late Dr. David Watson Snr.
Chassis No: 1001
Engine No: 1014
The love of all things automotive in the Watson family spans over a century and three generations, starting with David Walker Watson (1st) who was apprenticed to Fred Brodribb in 1912 as a fitter and turner in his St Kilda Rd workshop. Later David would serve under Fred in the 3rd Motor Transport Division in the Great War ending up in France and not far from the front. After the war, Fred Brodribb became the sole agent for Bentley Motors and Hispano Suiza operating from 372 – 376 St Kilda Rd Melbourne. It was from these premises in the heady 1920s that chassis 1001 came through. By 1936 the tide had turned, and the Great Depression had taken its toll. Fred was now working for David Walker Watson in his business, which he established in 1927 at 14 Queen St Melbourne (a large Chrysler, Plymouth and Morris car & truck agency).
At the age of 12, David Edward Watson (2nd) vividly recalled speaking with Mr Brodribb about his exploits with Bentleys, and in particular the 3 litre Supersport 100 MPH car he imported and drove himself (1925 model chassis number 1126, 3rd of the 15 or 16 short 9’ chassis made). Fred recounted that “it was a cranky thing I couldn’t steer at speed because of the short wheelbase, I had to take my foot off the accelerator to correct it and then go again”. Remembering, that this car in its day was probably the fastest production sports car in the country!
David Watson Jnr. (3rd) told Donington’s that he also recounted a story his father told him about this car and Fred from their mutual friend Jack Day, one of the founders of Light Car Club and first to drive and layout the Australian Grand Prix circuit at Phillip Island. “Jack was an old friend of my grandfather and father. At Kosciuszko while on the 1926 Alpine Trial, Fred had decided to keep the exposed sump of the Bentley warm overnight by packing straw around it; as a practical joke some lark decided to pinch some of the straw and set fire to it away from the car and rouse Fred to alert him that his car was on fire – Fred was not amused!. There is little doubt that the 3-litre Supersport and Bentleys in general left an impression on my father from an early age. When it came to picking a collectable car in his late 30s it was a Bentley that he first sought out.”
Early History of car ‘1001’
In May 1925 a 3 Litre standard long (10’ 10”) chassis number 1001 with engine number 1014 wearing a slightly ungainly 5-seat Freestone & Webb saloon body was delivered to a Mr P. R. Rodgers sporting an unpainted aluminium bonnet but with a very smart maroon with contrasting black guards colour scheme. Like most saloons of the period it was quite heavy, weighing in at 36 cwts or 1.8 tonnes. Regardless of its weight, Mr. Percy Rogers wrote a highly complementary letter on the 15th June 1925 to W.O Bentley (letter c/o Clare Hay as depicted on page 287 of the wonderful newly published book, ‘Vintage Bentleys in Australia’.
In 1932 the car was owned by Mrs Effie H. Ablitt of Middle Brighton and obtained its current registration number “210” (A 3-digit registration was not unique. There were at least 3 other founding Bentley Drivers Club of Australia (BDCA) member cars, 236, 246 and 260). The original registration papers from 1932 are with the car and they show 13-recorded owners since then, with the car remaining in or around Melbourne for its entire life except for a short spell in Geelong.
By the early 1950s the car having been in constant use, was starting to look quite tired. The last photo of it in its original saloon form exists from John Hewison’s ownership between 1952 to early 1954, where Tim Hewison (a Melbourne solicitor) remembered it as his mother’s car. It was probably under the 6-months of ownership by master mariner Jim May that the car underwent a significant transformation. The chassis was shortened, and the heavy saloon body was scrapped. Jim attempted to build, but did not finish, a new body for the car utilising the original scuttle from the Freestone & Webb body.
“1001” then only lasted another 6 months in the hands of John Hunt, a university student, before it passed to Graham Thorley in 1955. Graham was one of the early founding members of the BDCA and he served briefly as president in 1958. Graham was no doubt passionate about his car - he wrote to David Watson Senior in July 1968 having seen his old car at Kalorama of that year. Graham was apparently hailed as an artistic genius at 17 and he had started to carve out a nice living as a figure painter. In his early 30s living at “Miyako”, his artistic retreat at Olinda in the hills, he acquired “1001” and commenced to build a new body for her. “I aimed at the brutal functionalism of a Sopwith Camel of World War I because the Bentley always impressed me this way.” After many hundreds of sketches a skimpy two-seater, with a simple rounded back appeared with a light frame of ash and laminated beach covered in a thin sheet of marine ply which in turn was laminated with a green vinyl. It was a minimalist affair indeed. Apparently, S. C. H. (Sammy) Davis, famous for his miraculous “White House Crash” Le Mans win in 1927 and well known at the time as sports editor to Autocar, was shown the car during a visit to Melbourne in 1956 and commented “now that is a 3 Litre!” Brutal functionalism indeed as “1001” had shed 16 cwts or nearly 600 Kg and now weighed in at a 1.27 tonne.
Liberated from the cumbersome weight of a saloon, “1001” wanted to stretch her legs and so Graham proceeded to hill climb and test her. Fitted with a straight out exhaust (seen in the early photograph), unbelievably it achieved the 2nd fastest time at a Templestowe Hill Climb, beating Austin Healeys, a TF MG, Holdens and similar aged cars such as a 2 litre GP Bugatti, and even a 7 ½ litre 32/220 Supercharged Mercedes Benz. It was second only to an Austin Seven special (so hot that it had to be jacked up to start the engine according to Graham!). Perhaps even more enviable was Graham’s claim to having once achieved a top speed of 92 mph (148 kmh)! “1001” ran on 20’ wheels and even though the tyres looked oversized from the photos of the period she then still carried the sedate 4.231:1 diff of a standard chassis, meaning that Graham would have to be doing something of the order of 4100 plus revs to achieve this feat!
Graham’s artistic exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1958 was a financial failure according to a 1980 Age article, and it was this that caused Graham to sell up and take a very different tack. He went on to run a cattle station in the Kimberly in Western Australia. Graham remarked in his 1968 letter from Doogan Station that with 4 ½ inches of sump clearance, “1001” would have not lasted long up there “but would be marvellous for a burn on the airstrip when one was depressed by the flies or the loneliness”. Frank Robinson, the prime mover of the foundation of the Bentley Drivers Club of Australia took over ownership in 1957 and in late 1960 he sold the car to Ernest Ireland, who, after little use, offered it for sale in 1963.
On 4th May 1963 after parting with £225, “1001” became a cherished member of the Watson family. As the early photos show after nearly 40 years, “1001” was in a bit of a sorry state when she came into the family. David Watson Jnr. (3rd) said;
“Restoration of “1001” started in 1972 when I was aged 12 and Dad finally succumbed to my nagging to make “1001” look like a proper Bentley. I don’t think Dad could believe just how quickly I managed to remove the body from the scuttle back (the scuttle later went too). From that point on, there was no other option but to look at creating a new body for her. Plans for a replica Van den Plas body were obtained from Tony Robinson in the UK. The idea of having one built was thwarted by the prohibitive cost then”
As previously mentioned, “1001” was shortened from a standard 10’ 10” chassis, but it was not shortened to the short chassis 9’ 9 ½ “length. It was most probably done by eye and so the result was a wheelbase of 9’ 7 ½ “. Two inches was not enough at the time to make a difference. While the body was being panelled and covered, the chassis was cleaned and painted alongside it. All of this occurred in an open gravel floored shed. David Watson Jnr (3rd) recalls being an enthusiastic teenager helping his father with the restoration “there are many stories to tell of working through the challenges, frustrations and joys of a restoration and it was a great family adventure, and by 1979 “210” was ready to go again”
After two engine rebuilds, a gearbox upgrade to the BS 25/43 constant mesh spec, a 3.5 diff and many thousands of miles covered the Watson family Bentley has been well cared for, used, and most of all loved. This well documented car is present with continuous Victorian history since being sold new to Percy R Rogers, Brighton in 1925.
An array of spares accompanies the car (as per images); including magnetos, dynamo, oil filter, Bendix drive and springs. The original Smith lights and headlight stanchions are included along with the original updraught manifold. Also included are a new set of hood irons and parts from Tony Robinson with hood bows to complete a hood if required and a set of remanufactured G5 sloper SUs. A manifold to suit purchased from Rod Warriner in 1996 is also present.
It has been in the Watson family for nearly 60 years, being now ready for its next custodian to derive as much enjoyment as it has given the Watsons. The W.O Bentley owners of Australia are most active, and presented here is a wonderful opportunity to be enjoy some of the best motoring events in the world in a true bucket list car like a 3-litre Bentley.
The Watson family would love to see a possible future owner adorn the Bentley with its historical “210” registration plate for many more years to come. This is being offered separately.
This vehicle is sold unregistered.
References: Vintage Bentleys in Australia by Clare Hay, Bob Watson, Phillip Schudmak and Tony Johns.
Thank you to Callum Walsh from Vintage Auto Life for a selection of photos.