Time travel is afoot in England’s storied car factories, which are revisiting their greatest hits. But are these remakes the real deal, asks Adam Hay-Nicholls.
The whiff of motor oil from the antique-looking 41⁄2-litre ‘Blower’ engine is the bouquet of an era one yearns to have witnessed. I flick down two magneto switches behind an immense steering wheel, engage the fuel pump and press fire. The effect is like that of a pre-war flux capacitor, transporting me back to the rakish era of the jazz-age Bentley Boys.
This car, however, was not built in 1929. It was built in 2021. A replica, then? Rinse your mouth out, please. This is a ‘continuation’ Blower, built officially by Bentley and forensically based on a car still in the company’s possession, the 1929 Team Car No 2, as raced by its inventor, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, in the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours.
Upon its centenary in 2019, Bentley stripped and restored No 2 (valued at £25 million) down to the nuts and bolts. In so doing, the team digitally scanned each component and micro-analysed each fibre, then reproduced the 1,846 bespoke parts that go into the 2021 re-release.
The continuation car’s heavy-gauge steel chassis is hand-formed, beaten and hot-riveted by a Derby company that makes locomotive boilers, using the original tools; the frame is ash; the paint is cellulose; the cock-pit is clothed in Rexine; and the oxblood leather seats have been stuffed with horse hair. All the old tricks.
Some non-existing items have needed sourcing, such as the three-stud tyres and No 2’s dashboard lap counter, which was ‘liberated’ from a Paris billiard room during post-race celebrations. One can even specify a Birkin-heel-sized depression marking the wood under the accelerator.
It’s taken 40,000 man-hours to make the prototype a reality. In addition to ‘Car Zero’, the dedicated test and development car I’m driving, Bentley is building 12 customer cars, priced at £1.5 million each.
Ask any ageing rock star and they’ll tell you concertgoers never want new material — they want to hear the hits. Premium car manufacturers, obsessed with unyielding innovation and carried along with regulatory progress — most recently, the transition to electric powertrains — are starting to identify a niche. People love vintage and nostalgia.
Classic cars have been soaring in value for decades, but they’re a nightmare for anyone with OCD. They’re imperfect and they’re unreliable. Yet, what if you could have your dream classic car sans the need for restoration, without a single mile on the clock, delivered from the factory without a crease in the leather, its engine running on its first sip of Castrol? A car that is, in every sense bar provenance, faultless.
“In essence, it is a painting indistinguishable from a da Vinci, painted in da Vinci’s studio by da Vinci’s best apprentices”
Jaguar was first out of the blocks. Since 2016, it has delivered six brand-new Light-weight E-Types, nine XKSSs, 25 D-Types and eight C-Types. These are the race-ready cars that the Coventry company engineered from 1951 to 1957 (and 1963–64, in the case of the Lightweight E-Type) in exceptionally small numbers. Priced in excess of £1 million, the new continuation cars represent a saving on the price of a used original.
At Aston Martin’s heritage workshop in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, there are cars older than Sgt Pepper scattered around, but this isn’t a museum — this is a working atelier. In 2017, Aston produced 25 1959-spec DB4 GTs with a price tag of £1.5 million each, followed by 19 Zagato-bodied DB4 GTs. That doubles the 19 Zagatos that were sanctioned between 1960 and 1963, which now command up to £10 million each.
Arguably the most iconic Aston is James Bond’s first and favourite company car: the ‘Goldfinger’ DB5. Aston Martin Works’s president, Paul Spires, hands me a box enclosing remote-control switches and buttons, suggesting I start with the machine guns. The silver birch coupé, registration BMT 216A, awaits. We’re standing yards from the office where David Brown — the DB in DB5 — met with film producer Cubby Broccoli in 1963, to decide on the car that would star with Sean Connery.
I click a rocker switch, commanding the DB5’s indicators to flick down and a pair of barrel muzzles to whirr forwards. At the press of the red button, the machine guns crackle with sound and light. A flick of a toggle switch makes a cloud of theatrical smoke issue from the rear, to distract tailing baddies. There’s a button that triggers an oil slick (well, harmless black-coloured liquid), front and rear ramming devices emerge from the chromed bumpers, there’s a bullet shield, an ejecting roof panel and the number plates rotate to reveal foreign decoy registrations.
Whoever has bought this car — a grown-up multi-millionaire, presumably — will instantly feel 10 years old again, as will his friends.
“Can a car be a classic when it doesn’t have a past?”
Twenty-five Bond cars have been built and sold for £2.75 million each. All the parts are new, but based on digital scans of the originals. Bar smaller panel gaps and better brake pads, you’d be hard pushed to spot the difference between this and Connery’s car.
The craftsmen use artisan skills that have been passed down through generations and are training new apprentices, who will be able to keep these coachbuilding techniques going for decades to come and maintain the preservation of classic Astons. As for the gadgets, these have been executed with the help of 007’s special-effects supervisor, Chris Corbould.
In essence, it is a painting indistinguishable from a da Vinci, painted in da Vinci’s studio by da Vinci’s best apprentices using the same brushes. So, should it hang in the Louvre?
It would be ineligible for concours such as Pebble Beach or Villa d’Este, where original cars are fêted like Oscar winners. The Mille Miglia rally through Italy will only accept models of which at least one specimen raced in the event between 1927 and 1957. It’s unlikely, with owners of originals hankering for an invitation, that a continuation car would be accepted. Goodwood, too, is reticent. It will gladly showcase continuation cars at the Festival of Speed, but, when it comes to historic racing, the ambition is always to attract original cars with period competition history.
There’s an even bigger headache: unlike chassis from the 1960s and earlier, 2021 cars need to meet manufacturing type approval and legislation for safety and emissions. Continuation cars, therefore, don’t qualify for number plates. Unless you can wangle some trade-plate-type solution or event exemption (or you own the country in which you drive, as I believe several of Aston’s patrons do), you will not be able to enjoy any of these cars on public roads.
Bentley, Jaguar and Aston Martin’s crown jewels are being reborn and are more exclusive, prestigious and finely crafted than ever before. But the question remains — can a car be a classic when it doesn’t have a past?
Opinion: Are ‘continuation cars’ the real thing?
I asked a handful of experts for their verdict on the cult of continuation and feedback was mixed.
‘If anyone’s going to do it, it’s right that it’s the original manufacturers,’ asserts leading Aston Martin specialist Nicholas Mee. ‘As a commodity, I think they’ll go down in value before they ever go up, like most new cars.’
Aston collector Mark Donoghue is unconvinced: ‘As a concours judge, I like originality. As beautiful as the continuation cars are, as far as I’m concerned, they’re not the real deal.’
‘Mechanically and aesthetically, the continuation cars will be marvellous. I don’t have any objection to them,’ counters Ron Warmington, former chairman of the Bentley Drivers Club. But his fellow Blower owner, Robert Fink, calls the continuation cars ‘fakes’.
He continues: ‘Bentley is damaging its own history. Does it need the money? It’s a shame for the real Blowers. And how painful it must be for a buyer who tries to join a classic-car group and everyone laughs.’
Having sampled the 2021 Blower myself, I would counter that the laughter is entirely my own. To describe the sensation of driving it, imagine sitting upright in a Victorian pram that your nanny has let go of at the top of a very long and steep hill. It’s best to hang on and enjoy the ride.
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