The History of a Hobby, The End of an Era

Archived drawing of newly styled Bentley in 1952.

I have a well-known passion for ​classic cars of a certain vintage and, generally, for working on older cars. My first “proper” vehicle ​(after cutting my teeth and knuckles on ​rebuilding a ’65 Corvair from scraps) is a lacquered black 1953 Bentley R-Type. I inherited this head-turner of a car from a friend at the US Embassy after tooling around Tokyo in it with him ​over ​30 years ago​. ​I’ve kept it ever since.

My 1953 lacquered black Bentley R-Type

Since that time​, I have fallen in-and-out of love with other beasts of Bentley or Rolls-Royce marque​s​. I joined the established clubs, rubbing shoulders with others who collected, maintained, or worked-on these magnificent pieces of rolling art; where there wasn’t a club, I started one​, bringing to the community new initiates and hobbyists​; I bought ​the ​books and studied history​, familiarizing myself with the genius of Sir Henry Royce and Chales Rolls.  In a word, I was smitten, d​igging​ ever deeper​ into the how and why these cars are considered the best in the world.

Since I don’t come from money, the only real way for me to pursue this hobby was by rescuing old and broken-down models, and now, over the years, I have done this more than 15 times. ​It is also a nice compliment to the gratification I generally don’t receive from efforts devoted in my ​chosen field (Public Affairs in Japanese government/industry collaboration): on that side, any sense of satisfaction or success typically only emerges after a long period of effort: sometimes ​I (and a team!) can toil for months before ​​daylight ​can be seen. But with a car​, it is a completely different relationship.  When everything you touch was built by a master craftsman with the intention that it would not only never fail​ but be visually beautiful, too(!), incremental efforts produce such stunning results that one is self-propelled to pursue even more touch-up and upkeep!​  And thus down the rabbit hole one tumbles.

There is something deeply satisfying, spiritual even, about working on a car​. Spend​ an hour here​,​ a few more there, and ​magically, incremental​y​, the fruit of your labor​ is revealed to you​. This fruit is sometimes measured by ​the ​simple pleasures that​ the effort affords​ which can, ultimately, seem quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Drifting down the street, sunbeams cutting across the way, listening to the engine hum, all the while knowing “I did that” ​provides a specific and powerful ​sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, one that comes far too infrequently in this ​non-stop, globally connected world of ours.​

Whether it is freshening-up the engine compartment, having weathered pistons machined (not to mention first discovering this need), recalibrating the timing, cleaning the hand-stitched Connelly leather​…​ it is a project that never ends​. But, perhaps most astoundingly of all, even in an unfinished state, these vehicles never fail to impress​. It is difficult not to smile to oneself and be mildly proud as a custodian of something that will outlive me and still run like a clock ​when ​properly maintained.

There is a delicate link here that is woven into the marque’s legacy: man and his predecessor, man and machine, man and self. Amazingly, all of these considerations ​conspire in the mere act of ​dedicating care ​and love to something ​that is the product of ​intense devotion. Consider the history of the engineers of the car that came before our time; the smooth transfer of energy from liquid gas, through the pistons, and onto the road; and the knowledge necessary to take the tool in your hand and apply it to all that’s in front of you. If only with a toolbox and some daring​ (skill helps, too)​, one can learn volumes about oneself while cursing alone in a grease pit.

Outside my great grand uncle’s plantation-estate, John Adair (6th governor of Kentucky).

I discovered yesterday that the fellow who designed my first and favorite proper motor vehicle passed-away very recently; his obituary is here. This news jolted me upright because of the history of Rolls-Royce, which now puts this particular artisan much closer to my heart. I too mourn his passing.

​Figuring prominently in the history of Rolls-Royce​​, they originally only produced ​a chassy​ on wheels​, ​anchored with ​engine and electricals​​. Oh, and the distinctive ​Pantheon ​radiator grill​​. ​Back in the day, to properly finish a car, you needed to employ a coachbuilder​​​. The coachbuilder would build the body and interior around the unfinished rolling stock delivered from Rolls-Royce​,​ according to your preferences and specifications​. ​S​everal of the​ established​ custom shops became very well-known for their own distinctive flair given to things like the leather interior, the elaborate woodwork, the suspension, and the curvy bodywork​. Good examples of these establishments include:

Arthur Mulliner Freestone and Webb J Gurney Nutting & Co Limited Harold Radford H. J. Mulliner & Co. Hooper James Young​ Mulliner Park Ward Mulliners (Birmingham) Park Ward Thrupp & Maberly Vanden Plas

​Only recently (~1950’s onward) were the chassies and bodies integrated into the RR facility. This photo is essentially what you got from the factory:

It turns out that my first car was one of the last carriage-house designed cars outside of RR. And it so happens (I learned from reading the Obituary) that my car was designed by this poor fellow who just passed away!

His model was called the R-Type and, after experimenting with several variations, this design was adopted as the first fully completed car to roll out from inside the Rolls-Royce factory. While it was very popular, it had (by Rolls-Royce standards) a very short production run: technology in the automobile industry was just moving too rapidly​ that it was soon replaced​.

This kind of background and ever revealing history gives depth to the hobby of finding, restoring, and cherishing these old beasts. It is sad to see this related piece of history pass on.

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