When the first supercharged Bentley debuted at the 1929 British International Motor Show, Charles Noble was only eleven years old, but he was already obsessed with Bentleys, spending countless hours with his nose pressed against the window of Jack Barclay’s London dealership admiring the cars within. “His heroes were the great drivers of the day,” recalls his son, Roger. “Woolf Barnato, Tim Birkin — all the Bentley Boys. He would say, ‘I’m going to have one of those cars one day.’ When he died, he had seven.”
In June, Roger and his brother, Bob, brought their dad’s 1931 4-litre “Blower” — one of fifty produced and one of four Blowers the senior Noble owned — to the revived Hershey hill-climb, which is now called the Grand Ascent. The twisting, paved road to the Hotel Hershey was slick with on-again, off-again morning showers, but Roger drove the mud-splattered Blower just as fast as he could. No matter that this particular Bentley is among the rarest of the thirty-five or so Blowers still in existence, one of only three factory-built to Le Mans spec and worth millions. My kind of guy — a Bentley Boy for 2011.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Supercharging the uncompetitive 4-litre four-cylinder racing car was not
W. O. Bentley’s idea. Decades later, he wrote, “To supercharge a Bentley engine was to pervert its design and corrupt its performance.” W. O. believed in displacement, but team driver Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin convinced his teammate, Woolf Barnato — an independently wealthy man who rescued the company from bankruptcy and became chairman in 1926 — to support supercharging. W. O. had nothing to say about it, other than to refuse permission to modify his engines internally. The Roots-type supercharger, driven directly from the crankshaft, was mounted conspicuously in front of the radiator, between the car’s front wheels.
Birkin’s wealthy patron and admirer, the Honorable Dorothy Paget, funded the workshop north of London where the competition cars were prepared. Meanwhile, W. O. brought out the Bentley Speed Six, which won the 1930 Le Mans race even as the blindingly fast (yet horribly unreliable) Blower set a lap record but failed to finish. Coincidentally, Barnato was on the winning team driving the Six, his third win in the three Le Mans drives of his career, making him the only winner of the twenty-four-hour race with a perfect record.
The Blower never did win Le Mans or any other significant race, although Birkin took it to 137.96 mph at Brooklands in 1932, a record that stood for three years.
Meanwhile, Noble the elder emigrated to the United States during World War II and became the driver and personal assistant of cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden for twenty-five years, until her death in 1966. He then performed the same role for two decades for Bill Paley, the notorious founder and longtime chairman of CBS. “It was fun for Bob and me, as his sons,” Roger told me at the bottom of the hill, the rumbling of old racing motors all around us. “He raced this car extensively in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, mostly at Bridgehampton. He actually won Bridgehampton in 1960 against Alfred Momo and Briggs Cunningham. My misspent youth was spent handing my dad wrenches. I’m a little emotional about driving it now. It’s a connection to him. We’ve both gone over a hundred miles an hour in this one with Dad.”
“He scared the living daylights out of me,” added Bob, this from a guy who flew helicopters for Air America out of Laos during the Vietnam War. Roger then gave me a ride up the hill that I will remember for a long time. Actually, he scared the living daylights out of me.
At the end of this perfect Pennsylvania day, Roger washed his chariot and parked it among the hothouse flowers — exquisite Delahayes, majestic sixteen-cylinder Cadillacs, Cords, DuPonts, Packards, and Bugattis — parked fetchingly on the lawn of the Hotel Hershey for Sunday’s automotive garden party. It was shining like the precious family jewel it is.