This is an atypical “CCC” post – a Coachbuilt Curbside Classic. It’s the real deal, not a museum piece. I found this old dear in the very swanky neighbourhood of Roppongi, out where most of the embassies are, parked under an overpass. The things people leave out in the open, eh? Reminds me of the old joke about the guy who woke up and thought it was nice out, so he left it out all day. I don’t go to that part of town very often, as it’s quite far away from my digs, but if this is any indication, it could be a great source of future CCs.
Custom-made Bentleys are not my strongest suit, so it took me a little while to identify this one with certainty. It was immediately clear that this was a special car – the only “off the peg” body available on ‘50s Bentleys and Rolls-Royces were of the four-door variety. Question was: what chassis was this and who made the tailoring? It’s tricky to figure these things out unless you’re a hard-core Bentley enthusiast. I cannot spot the difference between a Mk VI, an R-Type and an S1 just like that, nor would I be able to reliably tell a Park Ward design from a Freestone & Webb or whatever. And that’s assuming it was a British one – Bentleys were exported far and wide, some got their tailoring done in France, Switzerland or Italy in the process.
It took a moderate amount of online sleuthing, but I tracked down this red Bentley’s last seller, a Japanese exotic car dealer who must have sold this one off a few years ago – but well into the Internet age, so the advert is still visible, and full of precious detail. Of course, it was all in Japanese, but Google kindly translated it for me into English-adjacent gibberish. But this advert also contains a very complete set of photos, including a very thorough look at the interior, the trunk and the engine bay, so it’s worth a click.
The gist of it (hopefully in slightly more comprehensible English) is that in November 1953 chassis #B8WH left Crewe for the James Young’s Bromley works in South London. Eventually, it emerged from there clad in a spanking new two-door saloon body, made of hand-beaten aluminium panels over a wood frame, and painted in a daring two-tone green combination. This very car was on the Rolls-Royce-Bentley stand at the 1954 Geneva Motor Show, in March of that year. It then belonged to the Geneva Bentley dealer, the Garage de l’Athénée, which is still active as one of the main luxury car dealerships there, who must have sold it shortly after the Salon closed.
We recently saw a late-model Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, which is the very same car as the R-Type. The TL;DR of it is that these cars hark back to the first Bentley to feature an in-house body, the 1946 Mark VI. After a few modifications, the Mark VI became the R-Type in 1952. By this point, the car’s 4.6 litre straight-6 was fed by two SU carbs and churned out something like 130hp. The overwhelming majority of the 2300-odd R-types made between 1952 and 1955 came out as conservative “Standard Steel” saloons like the one above; just under 300 chassis were fitted for a custom-made body.
These bespoke R-Types are quite apart from the famous Continentals, which were high-performance lightweight coupés – just over 200 of those were made, most with an all-metal H.J. Mulliner fastback body. The standard chassis R-Type specials were clothed by all of the fading glories of the bespoke coachbuilding era, which was then well into its nadir. The lion’s share of the 300-odd R-Type specials had British tailoring, as might be expected, and James Young accounted for 69 of these, making that venerable establishment the most popular choice for the connoisseur – even edging out Rolls-Royce’s own Park Ward branch.
So what’s the story with James Young then? Glad you asked that unprompted, as it so happens I looked it up. James Young was one of the UK’s historic coachbuilders, having opened their wood-framed doors back in 1860. The first car with a James Young body came in 1908, 48 years later. All in good time.
By the ‘20s, James Young was one of the major players in one-off and small-run car bodies, specializing in both lightweight tourers for sportier mid-range cars and the more stately coupés and saloons on prestigious chassis. Naturally, I cannot pass up this occasion to show some pre-war beauties, so clockwise from top left: 1928 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Sport, a 1935 Talbot 110, 1939 Bugatti 57C, 1936 Rolls-Royce Phantom III, 1937 Bentley 4½ litre, 1938 Lagonda V12. In 1937, the coachbuilder was bought by Jack Barclay, the oldest and largest Bentley dealership in the country, who also handled Rolls-Royce and Bugatti.
After the war, business continued unabated, even if small-run clients, which before 1940 included the likes of Sunbeam or Daimler, increasingly went for in-house body-makers. Still, thanks to Jack Barclay, there were plenty of R-Rs and Bentleys to keep the place busy throughout the ‘50s. Work slowed down markedly by the ‘60s though, especially since the house specialty, sports saloons, fell out of favour. Aside from the odd Phantom limo, the last cars sporting James Young coachwork were a small run of Silver Shadow / T-Series coupés in 1967.
So what might the well-heeled and style-conscious Bentley customer consider when choosing a James Young two-door body in the early ‘50s? Well, they had a number of designs to choose from, of course. Anything from a very English razor-edge, to something in a more bulbous and French vein, to a Buick-esque pontoon were on offer. And if you couldn’t make up your mind about a drop-top or a fixed-head, a three-position sedanca de ville was also possible.
Our feature car is apparently the only one (or possibly one of a pair, as I did find a trace of a so-called “sister car,” but no photos) made in this exact style, though a few others with a very similar the same body, but a different front end, were made. The 1953 Touring Saloon above is one such car, for instance. There was also a four-door saloon version of our CC’s design, depicted in line drawing James Young advert seen earlier.
It’s true that the lower hood line and longer nose do wonders for the balance of this car, which looks a lot less old-fashioned than the Standard Steel from the front, but the rest of the design, such as the semi-integrated fenders, also help a lot. Quite a few mid-‘50s James Young Bentleys also had their headlights mounted high at the top of the fender, which only looks good with a wide or horizontal grille. Given the Bentley’s classic vertical grille style, in-board headlights like our feature car look much better. Jaguar came to the same conclusion around this time too.
From this angle, the Bentley could pass for a contemporary Mercedes 300 S (W188) – a far cry from a jet-age futurism of a Cadillac or the taut avant-gardism of a Lancia, but no longer stuck in 1939. Unlike the Standard Steel saloon version…
The interior is just as lovely as you’d expect from a Bentley of that period and full of delightful details. The huge steering wheel is still very much in the pre-war style, with a hub-mounted chrome switch to adjust the ride (dampers?) from “Normal” to “Hard.” Another throwback is the gear lever, which I could not see but is located, as per R-R/Bentley tradition, on the right, just by the door. Incidentally, this was one of the last Bentleys to have a manual transmission – the GM automatic was standard on all late-model R-Types.
It’s a bit crowded back here! Guess you have to have a panama hat to go with your ‘50s Bentley…
While it’s true that a James Young (or an H.J. Mulliner, Hooper, Abbott or whomever) body often had a bit more presence (though not always), sometimes weighed less and usually was flawlessly finished, it was also the case that these bespoke bodies took ages to make and cost a small fortune. Typically, they cost over 50% more than a Standard Steel saloon, which was already not a cheap car. No wonder Rolls-Bentley sold nine off-the-peg saloons for every chassis they shipped to a coachbuilder.
So let’s be thankful that some obscenely rich person paid Jack Barclay a ridiculous amount of pre-decimal dosh for James Young to make this one-off two-door R-Type. And for the eagle-eyed Japanese aficionado who bought this car back in 1991 and shipped it here, where it has lived – apparently rather well, by the looks of it – ever since. I really should go walking around that Roppongi area more often.