History Of Bentley R-Type B87UL

Purchase Background

Many car owners have a habit of calling their cars by name, B87UL has no such name, but an appropriate one would be ‘Chance’.

In February 1988 I attended a Rotary dinner and by chance was seated next to an acquaintance and near neighbour of mine, Richard Hill, who knew of my involvement in automotive engineering. He asked if I knew anything about a model called a Bentley R type and immediately followed with the comment that he had to dispose of one from his late father’s estate. It appeared that he had driven the car a few miles and could not work out why the windscreen misted up, nor could he understand why the car did not handle quite as good as his then current Peugeot GTI! I could help him with the former, as he had left the dashboard chrome demister eyelids in the closed position thus closing off the airflow to the windscreen, a common practice with new owners. I declined to comment on the comparison with his GTI, as the models were separated by some 35 years!

He admitted to being ill at ease with anything mechanical and also in respect of the likely potential sale value of the car. After asking further questions on different mechanical aspects of the R type he commented that, as a solicitor, he found it strange that I could relate to him mechanical details of a car long since out of production, and from a model name, which until seven days previously, he had never heard mentioned. I must admit to winding him up a little, and then I told him that I had spent a good part of my apprenticeship working on the Bentley R type. In fact it was a little more than that, as throughout I had been trained by ex-R-R mechanics who had spent their time at either Belper car experimental or R-R Derby and the former knew Bentley MKVI /R type chassis back to front. I had also been fortunate in receiving automotive day release technical training at Derby College, staffed entirely by ex R-R instructors and where the training engine hardware was almost 100% R-R material. By the time of the final dinner course I had made arrangements to inspect the car and provide him with some idea of its likely value.

Chance intervened at this point once again. Two weeks previously a very good friend of mine, Mike Davies, who actually had liquid capital, had asked me to look out for a suitable classic car for him to rebuild. He had always wanted an Aston Martin DB2/4 and we had both been to inspect one but upon arrival had found it had been sold, however some time later he was to obtain his Aston Martin, as the unfolding story will relate.

The two needs were met, one wanted to sell the other to buy. Inspection of the R type showed a well worn out motorcar needing all the usual R type / MKVI replacements. In a fashion the car was driveable, at least to the end of the street, where my guarantee of its further ability to progress would be withdrawn. A sale was however agreed, yours truly being volunteered as purchasing agent, general mechanic, adviser, and consultant, in fact any job or title that would enable this R type to safely wander England’s highways once again.

Between initial discussions and final purchase a few weeks passed, meantime Mike Davies moved from Peterborough to Hereford on the other side of the country. Two years passed during which the errant purchaser, now working for a different employer, requested me to carry out all the major unit overhauls, with the exception of the engine. The arrangement followed the pattern of travelling between Hereford and Peterborough. Then starting from the front of the car and working rearwards, stripping off major units including the front suspension and steering. All these items were returned to Peterborough, overhauled, returned to Hereford and refitted to the car, quite a task.

Chance now really took a part. Mike, with itchy feet, decided to move once again to Manchester. Work on the R type had now reached the area at the rear of the engine. Said friend had taken my comments literally when I had told him, after the disappointment of missing the beloved Aston DB2/4, to purchase the next one that came up for sale. This particular model had climbed in price from circa £13,000 to around £140,000 in two years, and furthermore they were not thick on the ground. During a telephone call one evening he informed me that at last he had purchased a DB2/4. Questioned upon its condition he informed me it was in a number of cardboard boxes, but the engine was in one piece! Would I rebuild the Aston engine? He knew I had just completed building a purposely-designed garage that would hold two R-R Phantoms, and I had some spare space. Mike neglected to inform me that the Aston Engine had been standing outside for 16 years, on its side and with the manifolds removed. What damage water can do! Just to make the job more interesting, the engine was the Lagonda variant as this engine type was fitted to both Aston and Lagonda under the David Brown flagship. “Would I convert it from Lagonda to Aston and not forget to also convert it to the high powered Vantage specification?” Some 1700 hours later my friend had the answer, a completely refurbished Aston 2.6 litre Vantage engine, incidentally originally designed by W.O. Bentley, but not one of his better ideas.

Chance intervened again, one of Mike’s cars had got to go, a deal was worked out and the R type was mine. Officially ownership changed hands in January 1992. In truth, except for panel work, at this time I had completed basically all the major work and ownership was ingrained almost from the summer of 1988.

History Of B87UL

During September 1953 the R type production chassis sequence had reached the UL series, which consisted of some 125 cars. The company were due to release the automatic transmission as an option on the home market in the Bentley and R-R models at the October motor show. The press were to publish articles on the transmission from 14th October 1953 extending the virtues of the automatic transmission to the home market. Production of the automatic transmission had in fact commenced at Crewe some weeks previously, but all trials cars issued to dealers were not destined to receive Crewe built transmissions. In fact production problems were so severe that no export car received a Crewe built automatic transmission for another year. Perhaps the words of Harry Grylls, Chief Engineer, who was writing to his opposite number at G.M in the U.S.A, might sum up some of the troubles. When he said, “ we have a remarkable ability to build automatic transmissions, which change from second to top gear without every having been in third gear”

During 1952 the company had purchased around 325 transmissions direct from G.M Detroit and these had been used for export chassis fitments. In 1953 a similar number were purchased, again for export, but a number were retained for home market dealers’ trials cars. These Pontiac transmissions were fitted with R-R rear extension housings, shafts, brake servos and hydraulic pumps at Crewe. Each was numbered, prefixed by ‘X’ followed by the year number ‘52’ or ‘53’ and then by the serial number from 1 to approximately 325. These Detroit built transmissions are easily recognised by their pressed steel oil pan and side cover whilst the Crewe build had alloy castings in lieu. In the event B87UL received transmission X53 298.

With two exceptions, automatic Bentley cars in the UL series all received Detroit built transmissions and 42 chassis out of the 125 were designated automatic trials cars and issued to dealers. Only some 35 of these cars reached dealers before 14th October, the transmission launch date. Chassis B87UL was issued as one of the trials cars and was collected from Crewe on 9th October 1953 and registered on 13th October by Myers & Burnell the York dealer.

The dealer retained the car until 25th August 1954 when it was sold to a Mr. B. Machin, Old Thornville, Kirk Hammerton, York and, at least during that ownership was registered HDN 1. The next recorded ownership change was to R. K Abram, Seaward, Strone, By Dunoon, Argyll on 24th October 1963. It is most probable that the car received its present registration NSB 139 about this time as this number sequence was issued at Oban, Argyll in 1964. Certainly the car held this registration on 26th January 1966 when the last recorded DLVC registration book was issued.

The first entry on this registration document, dated January 1966, shows the owner as Ian Fair Ltd, 206 / 218 Eglinton Street, Glasgow. C.5. The next change date is not clearly readable but appears to be 20th Jan 1970 when the owner was Robert Hurd & Partners, 13 Manor Place, Edinburgh. The signatory for this latter owner was John Preston, who received the transfer of ownership into his name on 11June 1971 with an address at Holland Park Ave, London WII

Some time before 23 May 1974, the date is indistinct; the car was in the hands of Geoffrey William Dixon at Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. On that date the owner moved to Bourne, Lincolnshire and the documents were clearly date stamped. On 13th June 1986 the ownership passed to Col. Peter. K. Hill of Longthorpe, Peterborough, and then to Mike Davies at Hereford on 23rd July 1988.

B87 UL was final registered in the joint names of Sue and I, on 27th January 1992, the tenth owners with the longest continuous ownership record.

Inspections, Rectification And A Few Things More!

The initial cursory inspection on behalf of Richard Hill had shown up some 30 or so glaring faults, including petrol pumps that were not even bolted to the chassis. Experience applied a factor of eight or so, my apprenticeship tutors always instilling in the pupil that hidden faults on a car are about eight times worse than can be seen. This certainly applies to these early Crewe products and probably many more. A complete inspection of the vast majority of serial numbered components showed them to bear the original production build numbers. The intact leather interior and the fact that the chassis was a UL series made a purchase worthwhile. Generally Bentley R types after the TN series have more to offer in modification fixes, including a welded chassis, higher engine power and different woodwork layout than earlier series, so a UL series was a bonus. In short the car was actually complete, except for the under seat tool tray, another U series modification, but B87UL was well worn and completely tired out. The boot lid was free of corrosion, not unexpected as it is a magnesium alloy but the rest of the body below the waistline had more than its fair share of tin worm. This was not so obvious to the uninitiated eye as filler had disguised the dreaded tin worm and the body had been repainted only one year ago.

When B87UL was delivered by truck from Hereford to Peterborough, all the panels that could have been removed and all the trim were loose. This provided a better opportunity to inspect both the body and the panel work, which had supposedly been completed by a panel expert. Suffice it to say that it took some two and a half years to rework the panel work that had been completed. This panel work had comprised renewal of all the door skins and sills plus adjacent panels. Temporary fixing of the bare doors into position showed a complete inability for the doors to enter their apertures and it was obvious that the doors had been re-skinned without regard to even a trial fitting. That was not the worst as every renewed panel was rippled. One front wing had a two-inch overlap at the sill end and the other wing was two inches too short.

The rear three body mountings down each side had been repaired quite successfully, but the repairer had failed to realise the importance of correctly aligning and shimming all of the body mountings before carrying out further body repairs. On these models, including the coachbuilt, it is absolutely vital to level off and align all the mounting and unwind the chassis before any major body repairs are attempted. Many thousands of pounds are spent on body repairs on these post war models, both R-R and Bentley and the importance of the body mountings and chassis pull are neglected. It is quite common to see the most drastic effect of this problem on coachbuilt cars when the roof and scuttle panel tries to Part Company with the windscreen surround at the “A” pillars. Literally the body is being torn and twisted apart just because it is not supported on its mountings, which have sunken or collapsed. Usually the rearmost three body mountings have collapsed, placing the entire load on the other mountings that are forward of the rear doors. These remaining mountings sink as they take more of the load. As the rear end of the body is fairly rigid in the vertical plane, but the body sides are in effect cut out to take the doors, the door apertures suffer from distortion. No good trying to adjust door shuts in this case! Once the apertures have either resisted further distortion or against all odds retained their integrity, the tension is usually applied to peeling the roof panel off the windscreen or cracking the pillars. Even the famous Continental R types are not immune from this trouble and many have suffered cracking of the roof panels above the “B” pillars as the rear end sag attempts to tear the roof panel into two sections! All due to neglect in carrying out a fairly simple rectification. The best that anyone can say is that people never seem to learn or at least apply common sense, for the trouble is still common even 50 years after the cars were produced.

In the case of B87 UL realignment and shimming of the body mountings was needed. In the event it was decided to complete all the mechanical work initially and complete the bodywork as the final stage. Unknown at the time this finishing stage would be some 8000 hours later.

A more detailed inspection when in the ownership of Mike Davies had only proved what had already been suspected. Although the car was indeed mobile it was easier to list units that were fairly serviceable than produce a full list of the faults. After brake band adjustment the transmission operated in the better fashion one would expect from the experienced Detroit makers, as against the newcomer from Crewe.

The engine had only covered 1000 miles since being rebored and fitted with new pistons, the work having been completed by an East Anglian specialist. Unfortunately inspection with an endoscope showed that the original troublesome top cuff liners had been retained, but bored oversize. In view of the recent engine work it was decided generally to leave the main engine body alone and await the anticipated piston failure some time in the not too distant future. Eventually the expected piston failure did occur some 14,000 miles later.

Some minor work was required to assess the rest of the engine and further inspection of both invoices for recent work and the engine revealed that a water leak was still present, even though the specialist had attempted to cure the problem. A little investigation showed up the leak as originating in the rear tappet chest wall behind no 4 exhaust valve, a common enough fault on this engine. The cure was to remove the valve spring and collars in situ and then to line drill, tap and overlap plug the very minute crack.

Whilst the front wings and inner side panels were removed the entire removable engine and bulkhead accessories, including carburettors, dynamo, starter, wiper motor and chassis lubrication pump, were overhauled and reconditioned back to a new standard. Under bonnet wiring checked and a complete strip of the fuse box was completed and all nuts and bolts either nickel-plated or renewed with nickel-plated brass items. Advantage of the accessibility was taken at this stage to test the continuity of all wiring at the fuse box from its source to the final switched electrical part. In particular the terminals on the two-speed wiper switch were soldered as originally they are riveted and are a source of trouble. To reduce the possibility of future electrical breakdowns all electrical connections were remade throughout the chassis and the earth bonding checked and reworked by the interposition of copper washers on the chassis earth links, including all the exhaust joints and body mounting earth bonds.

The front suspension and complete steering had been overhauled whilst the car was at Hereford. In the process the king pins, bottom yoke bearings, top silentbloc bush, lower arm inner bushes, front shock absorbers and steering idlers had all their worn components renewed. In addition the front brake cylinders were lined with stainless steel sleeves, although in truth bronze sleeving is a better and easier option. Unfortunately, some years ago I had given away my tooling, which was required for this work, and king pin pullers had to be remade, as were dies for removing and replacing the various silentbloc bushes.

The rear axle and springs were completely removed and the axle split into the main components of the tube assemblies and differential. The tube assemblies were overhauled, including replacing the rear wheel bearings with a modified type, overhauling the brake assemblies including reconditioning the actuators, adjusters, equaliser and renewing the equaliser bar rubbers and brake linings. The rear springs were stripped, the leaves being cleaned and nickel-plated and replaced using new shackle pins, bushes and mounting rubbers. Recesses on the top of the spring saddles, which are welded to the axle tubes, normally block with dirt and retain water like a trough, whilst the tubes were accessible these recesses were filled with bee’s wax. This forms a good protection against water and prevents the troughs refilling, whilst at the same time continually resealing itself under the influence of high ambient temperatures and heat from the axle and brakes. The differential was the easiest part, as these R-R units are part of my day job, I had all the specialised setting tools at hand. As B87 UL had left Crewe with the higher ratio axle, 3.42:1, the unit was rebuilt and reset with the original crown wheel and pinion utilising new bearings and thrust washers. At the time of writing the chassis is shortly due to be fitted with a 2.92:1 axle ratio. This is easily handled by this later high compression Continental combustion chamber R type engine powering an automatic transmission with a first gear start, as against the later versions that had a second speed lift off.

Reconditioning all of the remaining brake rods, master cylinder and balance levers completed the brake overhaul. In the process the brake servo was rebuilt together with renewal of the servo drive gear and cross shaft bearings inside of the rear gearbox extension.

A multitude of chassis mounted components were removed and overhauled, including all the pedal assemblies and fuel tank. Included in this miscellaneous section was the very important gearbox mounting and tie rod assembly, which indirectly govern the safety, reliability and handing of the chassis in many ways. This is not always appreciated until one has witnessed one of these engine and gearbox assemblies bore its way through the radiator core whilst the car is braking, or have had the automatic gearbox in gear when the selector shows it is, or should be, in neutral. Owners of manual gearbox models are usually fortunate enough to experienced overridden and locked gearbox selectors before a much more dreadful occurrence happens.

Having completed overhaul of the main chassis components but having left the full overhaul of the engine for another day, attention turned to the body. As mentioned previously the setting of the body mountings was paramount and before this could be attempted the chassis needed to be “unwound”. In effect the unwinding is done to ensure the chassis is exerting both consistent pull and support to the body mountings and therefore endeavouring to neutralise any distortions at the apertures, like door openings. The combination of chassis unwinding, body angle attitude and body mountings also control to some degree the parallel gaps formed between the main body and removable front panels.

To undertake the chassis unwinding exercise each body mounting was slacked off slightly and the chassis loaded to a normal kerb weight situation. For example, as the fuel tank was empty an equal amount of weight to a full tank of fuel was placed in the boot, as was weight to allow for two front passengers in the front area. The front loose panels, including side panels, bonnet, radiator full of water, shell and shutters, front wings and apron were all attached and loosely aligned. In addition new tyres with wheels were fitted. The chassis was then supported and levelled lightly under the rear spring hangers and under the front springs and levelled with small packing pieces but with the main weight still being taken on the tyres. The object was to have a correct chassis attitude in the normal running position. At this point the body was lowered down until all the body to mounting gaps were almost equal but having regard to which mounting took the most weight and allowing for the overhang flexing of the rear end aft of the axle centre line. The resulting gaps now of around 1/16th inch were then shimmed and the front loose panels aligned for gap adjustments. Later R-R Silver Cloud and Bentley S series cars had their bodies floated on air rams to conduct a similar exercise when they were assembled at Crewe.

Panel and door fitting were continued and the complete body was trimmed with fittings, except for the interior and all the parts were rechromed, which had been originally chrome plated. In fact a complete running car was assembled, less the interior and windscreen but otherwise all of the glass. At that stage everything was disassembled once again including all the loose panels and the chrome trim. This rebuilding and stripping exercise entailed many hundreds of hours of work but was necessary to ensure that all the fittings assembled correctly. It is no good finding that a fitting up problem exists after the body is painted. In my case it was doubly necessary as the bodywork had been re-panelled before my rework by another person who obviously had done no trial component fitting.

The painted areas had been prepared up to undercoat stage and at no time had panels been left bare overnight during the whole exercise. A quantity of cheap spray cans had been purchased at the beginning solely for over spraying bare panels overnight. The object was to reduce the chances of rust taking hold before the top paint coats were applied. For a similar reason all the necessary welding had been T.I.G welded in stainless steel and, whilst in my care at least, any inserts had also been accomplished in stainless steel. I should mention that it is helpful to have a friend who is a full time T.I.G stainless welder, and in this respect I was lucky, I did the preparation and George Ritchie the welding.

Now that the body had been fully rebuilt and stripped again with fits and gaps to an agreed standard except for the bonnet, which had been shortened by some individual in years past, the body was ready for topcoat painting. It was always intended that top coating would be completed in a proper paint shop and the car was transported along with all the loose panels to a paint shop. Originally the car had left Crewe in all black with a gold stripe but it was intended that the repaint would be black over glacier blue with gold stripe. The glacier blue is very descriptive as it changes colour depending on the amount of light and the angle of the sun, it still remains the most remarked upon point of the car to this day and is particularly popular with the ladies!

Some five weeks later the body was returned fully painted inside and out, the inside of the bonnet being matched in beige to the bulkhead original colour, which appears identical in match to the 1950’s V.W Beetle beige. Refitting the body parts and loose panels continued apace and a new cloth headlining was fitted. This might have been a problem as the original lining was in no shape to obtain a pattern but as luck would have it, I was well aware of the fitting procedure for this particular header. All the leather received a leather treatment, sold by Woollies at Market Deeping, who also provided the head lining cloth. Some ten years afterwards the leather treatment is still holding up. The only real item missing, other than a few tools, was the actual under seat tool tray. The under seat tray position was introduced on the 1953 UL series Bentley chassis when the tray was moved from under the dashboard where it had been positioned since 1946. Obtaining a suitable tray could be harder than expected, the drivers seat in the automatic and manual R types are different as are the under seat tool trays, which are also different from the under dash type! Coming to the rescue once again was Brian Thompson our spares guru, as he had done on many occasion during the rebuild, he had the carcass of an under seat tool tray from a Silver Wraith, which had been burnt out. This carcass provided a perfect pattern for making a new tool tray after which the front was covered in leather and dyed with the contents from the leather kit. Replacement of the interior woodwork and glass completed the bodywork except for the coach lining. The coach line was replicated in gold coach lining paint with a single wide 1/8th inch line using an American line roller, which is easier to apply the line freehand than using a camel hair brush. It does however provide a freehand line without the appearance of a masked line and masking is unnecessary.

Final road testing of the finished car showed up two major faults. One was the necessity to add more castor shimming between the lower wishbone and torque arms to produce a hands free type steering and stability at brisk road speeds. The other was crankshaft vibration, which could be felt through the floor pan and was the result of a bowed crankshaft. As previously mentioned the overhaul of the main engine assembly was deferred until later whilst road mileage was built up to correct minor adjustments and linkages. The crankshaft potential troubles had been recognised as the sump had been removed and the sludge traps and bearings checked. New shells had been fitted only 1000 miles previously by the specialist who undertook the engine work, sometime around 1986. Observation of the main bearing wear on no.2 and no.6 main shells and a dial gauge check showed that they had failed to recognise, or a previous owner had disregarded their advice, that latent problems lay in the crankshaft area. The crankshaft was exhibiting the bowing very often found on these particular shafts.

The later engine overhaul of B87UL and the rectification together with the modification of the crankshaft damper is a complete story in itself. In short the crankshaft was rectified during an engine overhaul. Many hundreds of hours of research were undertaken at Hunt House on the R-R later crankshaft damper modifications and tests during the late 50’s. Chance once again prevailed enabling the extraction of drawings and written material that has never as yet been published in spite of thousands of words on the subject. The damper was subsequently modified applying both the results of these tests and the experience gathered during my apprenticeship. A story for another day on an engine that runs like a turbine!

Chance must have played a part in the registration number NSB 139, Norman and Sue’s Bentley. Chance has invaded the history of B87UL on more than one occasion; perhaps it is indeed the hidden name for this car, just where the story began!

Norman Geeson