What comes to mind when you think of Bentley? For most of us, a mention of Crewe’s finest will conjure up images of sheer quality, luxury, expense... And refinement.
You’d imagine, then, that the world’s most expensive Bentley would have each of those qualities turned up to eleven. But spend a moment in the company of UU 5872, truly understanding its story, and you’ll realise what makes this car so different.
Now owned by Bentley itself, the ‘Blower’ sits at the heart of marque’s mystique, itself an intrinsic part of its history. No wonder, then, that the company from Crewe has recently insured the car for a cool £20 Million, cementing it credentials as the most valuable vehicle to ever wear the big B.
Known as ‘Team Car No.2’, UU 5872 is one of five 4½ litre Supercharged ‘Blower’ Bentley racers that were produced at the tail end of the 1920s, alongside fifty road-going types. The Blower was the brainchild of Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, racing hero and certified figure of British aristocracy - a man with a clear vision of how the Bentley Boys could double down on pre-war racing success.
Birkin was described as “the greatest Briton of his time” by his friend, company founder W.O. Bentley, but the two men didn’t agree on everything. Bentley never accepted the idea of supercharging, preferring to increase displacement instead, and could not be convinced otherwise. But such was Birkin’s conviction, that he decided to engineer the project himself - so as the factory team developed a new 6½ litre, he set to work on a supercharger installation using a unit developed by British engineer Amherst Villiers.
Both projects were based on the Bentley Speed Six, a car memorably described as ‘the fastest lorry in the world’ by Ettore Bugatti. Birkin’s blower boosted power from 130bhp to 240bhp in race tune; enough to propel him to a record 137mph over the rutted track of Brooklands. You’d imagine the experience to be enough to loosen Sir ‘Tim’s trademark silk neckerchief, and not necessarily the last word in refinement.
Team Car No. 2 debuted at the 1930 Irish Grand Prix at the hands of Bernard Rubin, who later rolled it at the 1930 Ulster TT. Later that year, following a complete overhaul, Birkin and UU 5872 went head-to-head with both Bentley Motors, and Mercedes in their formidable SSK. The result was the battle at the center of the 1930 24 Hours of Le Mans, and gave the Blower the chance to prove itself worthy of Birkin’s convictions. However, it was not to be.
Birkin’s plan has been to push the Mercedes to the point of failure and, although German cars did falter, the Blowers also expired before the checkered flag fell. The irony was the Bentley factory team reaped the rewards with a one-two finish, a victory that handed chief Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato his third consecutive win at the Circuit de la Sathe.
With UU 5872 now back with Bentley Motors, its original patina is well-preserved and it still wears the battle scars from a bygone era. In 2019 it was completely dismantled for 3D scanning by Mulliner, to be used as the master example for the Bentley Blower Continuation Series. Using a combination of digital modelling and original 1920s tooling, twelve examples are being hand-built by an adept team of coachbuilders. The fact that each of these continuation cars will cost its owner £1.5 million-plus only underlines the value of the original.
It would be wrong to try to measure the Blowers impact using racing success – or levels of luxury and refinement. Instead, think of it as the result of one man’s irrepressible passion, conviction and commitment to the cause. Thanks to UU 5872, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Burkin’s spirit will live on for generations to come.