B39ZX, a late series R-Type Bentley, standard steel saloon, was delivered by Jack Barclay, London, to its first owner on 29 October, 1954. Down through the years the car was purchased and sold by another three British owners, eventually being acquired, in December of 1972, with 107,000 miles, by an American stationed in London. This owner then shipped the Bentley to America, where he continued to use is as his personal car, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sold again in 1993, with 130,000 miles, to the sixth owner, the car was entering the darkest period it has yet seen. Relocated to New Orleans, the next two years were to reduce the car to a shocking condition, suitable for the breaker yard.
It was during this period, that the original radio was discarded in favor of a modern unit, which included four-way speakers crudely cut into the interior door panels. An air-conditioning system was added, by a local shop lacking either knowledge of, or respect for the car. The resulting system was a horribly, butchered-up installation, which never even functioned well from new. A lack of needed maintenance, or regular servicing, only exasperated all the usual wear points in the suspension and the several weak areas which are common to high-mileage engines of the type. But, the real tragedy during this sad period of time resulted from the outdoor parking situation, in one of the worlds most humid climates. For many years, going right back to the days in England, all four of the corner, rubber hoses for the sun-roof drain had perished, allowing all the water finding its way into the drain pans, to run directly into the car. This condition is always a disaster, but in New Orleans the resulting destruction is rapid indeed.
This is when I first caught sight of B39ZX. In the parking lot of a New Orleans apartment building it sat, with for-sale sign in the front window, a blue plastic tarp over the sunroof opening, and dripping in the afternoon down-pour. Such a sad sight it was, and so very out of place in that crowded lot, that for reasons of pity more than anything else, I stopped, waited for the shower to pass and inquired into the situation. A day or so later found the car across town, at my house and under a roof. Actually, that is all I really intended to provide, just a dry berth until a new owner, interested in such a restoration project, could be found. I myself had no knowledge of Crewe products at that time, and not much interest either. But all that was to change.
I soon grew accustomed to look of that Bentley form and came to appreciate the fine lines of the body style. I read through the old owner’s manual, became intrigued by the mechanical approaches used, and immediately was struck with admiration for the careful attention which had gone into every detail. In short, I fell under the spell, and eventually determined to have a go myself at saving the car. With the interior leather/broadcloth upholstery moldy, rotted and ruined, the wood veneers peeling away, the many rust-bubbles pushing up under the paintwork, this clearly was no candidate for a show-car restoration. These conditions usually lead either to a body scrap and conversion to one of those Bentley Special (hot-rod) efforts, or to a breaker yard. Still, I wondered if it might not be a good hobby for me to see whether I could return it to a reliable, comfortable car suitable for regular day-to-day use. So it began. With that modest goal in mind, I slowly began to seek out technical data on the 4 _ Ltr. Bentley, and to search for the missing tools and parts. I joined both the RROC and the RREC and started scheduling technical seminars whenever possible, and I did attend two or three of the MK VI weekends at Hunt House. These events, I believe are the very best way to gain an understandings of the mechanical aspects of the cars, to see the systems explained by true experts, and to talk with like-minded enthusiasts.
On one such visit to Hunt House, I had the great fortune to become acquainted with Norman Geeson. As the years have gone by, Mr. Geeson has literally talked me through every mechanical system on the car. It now has been eight years or so since I started this hobby. During that time we have moved from New Orleans to Las Vegas, in Nevada. Meanwhile, throughout the restoration of B39ZX, Norman has been unbelievably generous with his time and an invaluable source of advice. Countless numbers of detailed letters, instructions and e-mail directions have become a regular way of life. During the rear axle overhaul, he even sent over the tooling for correctly setting the pinion depth, and he has actually traveled here on more than one occasion to inspect the progress.
At this point (springtime of 2005), most of the work effort is completed. Far too much detail to start into here, as that would require a book; it will suffice to acknowledge that B39ZX needed it all, and then some. All of the cutting, welding, painting, overhauls and parts-searching have become a normal part of life’s pattern for so long now that I sigh to realize the project is nearing its end. The interior wood panels are finally retrieved from the attic storage and this represents the last step. The new veneers are on now and the wood finishing is underway. The story will continue of course, for after restoration, the scheduled maintenance and improving will go on and on.
Thanks to Ashley James for allowing me to attach this tale to his fine web site. This Bentley restoration has turned out to be far more than just the hobby I expected at the outset. It has been an education from the start, leading me to the firm belief that these particular models, the early post-war six cylinder cars, just may be the very best products that Rolls-Royce ever built. Certainly they seem so to one happy owner. The project has also brought me into contact with some of the nicest people on earth.