European history lessons at Blenheim



A small yet highly impressive selection of pre-war cars are due to go under the hammer at the up-coming Blenheim Palace auction, hosted by Coys of Kensington, on Saturday 15th July. Only five vehicles find themselves in the vintage car category but as well as each car being simply stunning, between them the vehicles are able to offer up some fascinating insights into European History!

The oldest car for sale at this weekend’s auction is the 1922 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Tourer. She may be 95 years old but with a 7,428cc side-valve six engine and having recently completed a road trip to Amsterdam and back, this Rolls-Royce is as strong as she still looks. Complete with a 4-speed gearbox, servo-assisted rear brakes and a fresh service, this Silver Ghost would never fail to make a good impression with her elegant good looks and immaculate burgundy over black paintwork. Traditions in British coachbuilding can be appreciated in the barrel-sided torpedo body, constructed from aluminium over traditional ash framing and completed with a full-length split tonneau cover and black canvas hood. Cast your mind back and you may recall that many Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts were enlisted for armoured and ambulance work in World War One, thanks to their reputation for superior reliability, which had been clearly demonstrated during the 1913 Alpine Trials. One of the Silver Ghost’s biggest fans was military officer, archaeologist and writer Colonel T.E. Lawrence, who once said “A Rolls in the desert is above rubies”. Flattery indeed!

Sharing ties with Rolls-Royce is the 1938 Bentley 4 ¼ litre MR Overdrive, which having spent a good part of its life in Cape Town, South Africa has returned to Britain and is now looking for a new owner. This particular vehicle is known as a ‘Derby Bentley’ thanks to having been built in the Rolls-Royce factory within Derby, England. It was then bodied by H.J. Mulliner as one of only a handful of ‘High Vision Saloons’ that came with a see-through roof section over the front seats. This particular car is thought to be the most expensive Derby ever sold thanks to its unusual roof feature made from Polymethyl methacrylate, or ‘Perspex’ as it’s more commonly known. The 1938 price of Perspex would likely surprise us now but it had only just been invented in the early 30’s by British chemists Rowland Hill and John Crawford and new materials are infrequently cheap. However, this would have been unlikely to be a concern to the clientele for the Bentley 4 ¼ litre, for it was unashamedly known to be beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of customers. This particular model from 1938 clearly demonstrates the level of quality that one could’ve expected in exchange for rather large sums of money, from its two-tone silver exterior finish to the highly polished wooden dashboard and the plush grey leather upholstery. If that wasn’t enough, the MR series also featured Marles steering and an overdrive gearbox. Add in the exclusive ‘High Vision’ Perspex roof and suddenly you can see why this particular car may have become the highest-priced Derby! Many British racing drivers and the inter-war elite enjoyed similar Bentleys of their own including one of the Bentley boys in Woolf Barnato, 3-time Land Speed Record holder George Eyston, E.R. Hall, Raymond Mays and 9-time Land Speed Record legend Sir Malcolm Campbell who praised his own Bentley – a 1937 4 ¼ litre Vanden Plas Tourer – for the “absolute perfection” of it’s engine, handling and braking.

Had you spoken to Sir Malcolm Campbell back in the day about acquiring yourself a new car, you may well have been pointed in the direction of the vehicle that happens to be the most expensive lot on offer this weekend – a 1926 Bugatti Type 37 that comes with a rather large estimate of £400,000-£600,000! For a time, Sir Malcolm acted as a Bugatti agent within London and his link with the marque branched not only into sales but use of several Bugatti models throughout his racing career. It is therefore no surprise that his son Donald Campbell, who later achieved several land and water speed records in his own right, was frequently pictured as a young boy sat within a ‘Baby Bugatti’ toy car. In the picture below, he clearly has strong competition from his sister Jean Campbell as she sits within a fun mock-up of one of their father’s Blue Bird speed machines! It may also be no surprise that in 1949, when Donald was all grown-up, that he clearly had similar tastes in automobiles to his father, for he went on to purchase a 1937 Bentley 4 ½ litre, which now resides in the Lakeland Motor Museum, Cumbria.

The Bugatti Type 37 on offer this weekend may have what could be regarded as an eye-watering estimate but be assured, this stunning vehicle can justify its cost with ease. Based extensively on the highly regarded Type 35 that was already world-famous for its motorsport success, the Type 37 offered all of the same performance but with an enhanced level of practicality and comfort worked into the mix. The 1.5 litre, 4-cylinder engine delivered 60 bhp, which might not sound like much, but combined with a lightweight body and some design finesse, this was more than enough to obtain a top speed of 95 mph. It also possessed two seats to enable the driver to have a navigator alongside or take home a passenger after a day’s racing. And it could do all of this whilst also carrying the reputation of being ‘the ultimate embodiment of a high-performance and competitive racing car’. Very impressive!

This particular 37 - chassis no. 37140 – was one of three Type 37’s delivered to Sir Malcolm’s London dealership in 1926 before it was then seen a year later, regularly racing at Brooklands with its first owner W.B. Scott. Shortly afterwards, it passed through several owners’ hands before being acquired by R. MacLeod-Carey, who made several modifications to the car including adding an engine-mounted supercharger, four motorcycle carburettors, magneto ignition, telescopic shock absorbers and an extractor exhaust manifold. These modifications were logged in detail within a notebook alongside comments on the activities in which the car participated. It seems that this Type 37 was never due to sit still for long – later going on to participate in the Prescott Hill Climb and the Brighton Speed Trials with its next owner Dudley Gahagan before a comprehensive restoration was carried out between 2002-2008. Within the last year, the Bugatti’s engine has been re-built from a replacement block and it still comes with its original chassis, gearbox and both front and rear axles, whilst offering the serious collector a highly attractive opportunity to obtain an absolute gem from the world of motorsport.

Also seeking a home is a 1931 Alvis 12/60 Beetleback. Finished in brillant bright green, the Alvis will likely attract keen enthusiasts not only thanks to her bold paintwork but also because the 12/60 is regarded by many as one of the best models that Alvis produced. The 12/60 was the successor to the 12/50 with a great many changes that came about thanks to the intermediary TJ model with its coil rather than magneto ignition, a deep-chromed radiator shell and a rear petrol tank. These developments came about thanks to Alvis starting to lean towards front-wheel-drive as the preferred ‘state of play’ when it came to transmission. The 12/60 was a sportier model of the TJ, based on the same chassis, that was able to deliver a top speed of 80 mph combined with a respectable 30 mpg from its four-cylinder, in-line engine. The 12/60 was a car that would’ve appealed to someone interested in engineering, so it should be no surprise that this particular Alvis, after a few months of acting as a demonstrator car, attracted exactly that kind of person in its first owner, Leslie Alan Lansdowne. Lansdowne owned the car for an impressive 43 years, after making significant contributions to the development of the famous R100 airship.

Finally, and in speaking of work, there is also an unusual commercial vehicle in the form of a 1935 Fiat Balilla 508 Van. It has the lowest price of this weekend’s pre-war collection, with an upper estimate of £30,000. However, don’t let the price difference between Fiat’s small Balilla Van and its fellow pre-war companions at Blenheim fool you. This humble 508 Van was developed, like the car configurations of the same model, by some of the top engineers in Italy including Giacosa, Nebbia, Fessia and Zerbi, with the overall goal of ‘incorporating some of the qualities of a high-class automobile into a modestly priced vehicle’. Being both comfortable and economical whilst sold new at the low price of 10,000 lire, the Fiat Balilla 508 was an immediate hit with over 112,000 vehicles built between 1932-1937. The 508 is often credited as the model that massively spread the popularity of Fiat throughout Europe thanks to being manufactured in Poland, France and Germany as well as at the Italian production lines. Poland loved the 508 Balilla so much that it became the best-selling passenger car in the country throughout the 1930’s!

As you’d expect with a commercial vehicle, the 508 Vans were fewer in number than the 508 cars but still very much loved by those who used them. This particular Fiat Servizio Course Van is no exception and has benefitted from a comprehensive restoration that has restored the whole vehicle, particularly the immaculate rear woodwork, to its former glory.

But what of the name Balilla – can it offer further European historical insights? Perhaps, when you consider that Fiat had previously used this name on their wartime A1 aeroplane. Dig deeper and you’ll also find it’s a Milan-based Tractor firm name and that it also represents a class of submarine within the Royal Italian Navy. It is thanks to national significance of the name Balilla within Italy that it is also found on the 508 Van for it refers to the nickname of a small boy named Giovanni Battista Perasso, who in 1746, supposedly threw a stone at an Austrian officer during the War of the Austrian Succession whilst asking the crowd around him “Che l’inse?” which translates as “Shall I start?”. This was said to have triggered an uproar, which forced the Habsburg forces to be evicted from Perasso’s home city of Genoa. It therefore seems appropriate, in being Lot. 101, that the 1935 Fiat Balilla 508 Van will start the vehicular section of this weekend’s auction at Blenheim Palace. Who knows, compared to the larger and much more expensive pre-war offerings present within the same auction, if nothing else the Fiat 508 Balilla may prove that it’s not always the largest and strongest individuals who make the biggest impact.

Words by Gillian Carmoodie, Auction Photographs courtesy of Coys of Kensington and a special thanks to Don Wales, grandson of Sir. Malcolm Campbell

Published: Wednesday July 12th, 2017

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