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The Great Divide

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I am not sure about this. About whether any auto magazine anywhere in the world has even dreamt of doing what we did on that lovely December morn. We’d dreamed about this for a whole year and last month, when Pranlal Bhogilal gave us the nod, we were ecstatic. Anybody would be when given a chance to drive four of his most precious automobiles – together! A 1933 Rolls-Royce 20/25 along with a 1934 Bentley 3.5 litre, and a 1955 Bentley S1 accompanied by a 1965 Rolls-Royce Phantom V. This eclectic selection of cars for this story, one of our anniversary specials, was done by Pranlal Bhogilal himself. 


The thing about these cars is that they are a pair each of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys built before and after the war. There are Rolls-Royce motorcars and there are Bentleys made by Rolls-Royce. Myth has it that most of the post ‘take-over’ Bentleys were merely badge-engineered Rolls-Royces. Sure, they do not get the same affection from Bentley cult members as do the true-blooded stuff with blessings from WO Bentley. However, there were some brilliant sports Bentleys made first at RR’s Derby factory and later on, at Crewe – before and after the Second World War, respectively. So how well did the Rolls-Royce-built Bentleys before and after the war fare against their contemporary Rolls-Royce motorcars? We attempt to find out.

1933 Rolls-Royce 20/25, Sedanca de Ville body by Barker – Travancore
The Saturday morning Mumbai landscape around me blurred as I replaced it with the picturesque city of Thiruvananthapuram while I drove the 1933 Rolls-Royce 20/25. The occasion demanded it. I was driving no ordinary Rolls; this belonged earlier to the erstwhile state of Travancore.

It is a splendid sight even now and it would have been, in that age, an even better one. Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bai, who ruled Travancore during that period, must have traced a daily route through the wide royal street from the Kawdiar Palace to the Padmanabha Swami temple inside the fort area of Thiruvananthapuram, then the capital of Travancore. Yes, I know this area like the back of my hand.


Impeccably maintained by the royal garage, the Rolls-Royce must have been one of the few excesses of the humble, polite and yet discerning rulers of Travancore. The Sedanca de Ville body styling was done by Barker. To ward off any royal discomfort, the glass separation between the chauffeur and the passenger was ordered in amber. This prevented the glare from oncoming traffic bothering the queen’s eyes.

The Spirit of Ecstasy was guiding my way and the six cylinder 3669cc rumbled along peacefully. It responded to my nervous right foot inputs and surged ahead just the way a precisely-built machine with all its metal working in harmony would – often making me wonder whether the moving parts of this complex motor were made out of wax.

I was quite nervous. This was the first time I was driving a car older than my father. But I soon found out that she was as forgiving as my mother. History has it that the 20/25s, though less glamorous than the Phantoms, were the ones that sold well in the depression years and also delivered the satisfaction of owning a Rolls-Royce to a wider clientele. While it can never be proved, writes Rolls historian G N Georgano, without these smaller Rolls-Royces and the money earned hence, there would probably have been no Rolls-Royce after World War II.

Climbing up to Walkeshwar, Mumbai’s own Cote d’Azur, I changed gears, from third to second. With the gear lever positioned on your right side, in a right hand drive car, this can be a tricky manoeuvre. And I detest hearing metal crunching inside the gearbox. The gears, however, clicked away peacefully and the resulting torque hauled the near two-tonner up the hill with just slightly higher engine noise. With roughly 60 to 70 bhp on tap, the Roller could manage a top speed of 140 kph. But this car was not made for speed. For that, you had the Bentleys.

Presenting the legendary Bentley 3.5, the first Bentley to be built by Rolls-Royce and let me warn you right away that she is no innocent nun!

Bentley 3.5, 1934 sports saloon, Park Ward – Caesar
Slide a lever to the ‘on’ position and push a button on the dashboard – ditto Travancore – and the engine, very similar in its architecture to the 20/25 Roller, would ‘burble’ Caesar to life. Yes, it might have been the first ever Rolls-built Bentley, but that exhaust note, even while idling, is enough indication of the enormous regard the craftsmen at Derby had for WO Bentley. They might have been Rolls employees, but the sheer respect for the persona behind the marque was enough to make these Bentleys behave with a distinctive attitude of their own.

The six cylinder 3669cc push-rod overhead valve engine and gearbox was built as one unit, mounted on a ladder-type chassis with a fully floating hypoid-type axle. This was also the first-ever Bentley to have a synchromesh gearbox. The brakes used a friction servo driven from the gearbox and were efficient for their time.

But today, what pleases me the most is its exhaust note. Blip that throttle and the inline six growls. The growl gets even more prominent as you try to reverse the car. The three-speed box is similar to the 20/25 in operation and the acceleration is simply breathtaking for a car of its age.

This gorgeous automobile accelerates freely and can catapult you to 80 kph in 13.5 seconds flat. The figure is from a Autocar UK (18 May 1934) road test of the 3.5 litre with a Park Ward body. On a good day with a good driver behind the wheel, this Derby Bentley could manage 150 kph. The car was also raced successfully and developed close to 163 bhp with some head modification.

Caesar is among the 1,177 3.5 litre Bentleys to have rolled out of RR’s Derby factory and shows off build quality that’s found only in a Rolls-Royce. Even while accelerating hard, there are no rattles and the powertrain has a magical, almost locomotive spirit guiding it. Caesar was first bought by the Chinoy family of Hyderabad. They sold her to one Dr Bond who in turn sold the car to the TVS Group. Pranlal Bhogilal saw the car some 30 years back and was smitten by it. The TVS Group gifted the car to Bhogilal after accepting just the amount spent on restoration.

Bhogilal narrated this anecdote the car.

Once, a young member of the TVS group went to the Rolls-Royce dealership in London and asked them more about the 3.5 Bentley that they had back home in India. The Rolls-Royce guys took their own sweet time to meet him but after many visits one senior executive who had studied the history of Caesar met him and said ‘Dear young man, you won’t be very happy to know this, the car you are talking about will outlive you’. That sort of sums up the first ever Bentley from Rolls-Royce.

Which one among these pre-war cars is Pranlal Bhogilal’s darling – the Rolls-Royce Travancore or the Bentley Caesar? The answer came from Abul, the collector’s trusted chauffeur. ‘Woh to Bentley hee hoga... usme to bahut jaan hai.’ After driving both the beauties, I have to second his opinion. The Rolls was all charm and great machinery, but the Bentley drove with a kind of spirit that would have done WO Bentley – who incidentally was not involved in the development of the 3.5 litre – proud. The fastest car in this foursome now awaits us; here comes the Bentley S1 from 1955.

Bentley S1, 1955, Automatic – Cellini
Cellini was so named by Pranlal Bhogilal for its sculpted lines. The RR influence is apparent at first glance. It is absolutely impossible to imagine such a comfortable car wearing the Bentley wings and it becomes more evident when you have driven the 3.5 litre and the S1 back-to-back.

Does the S1 justify the badge-engineering plaints of hard-core Bentley aficionados? Considering the kind of performance it offered, the slights seem to be unwarranted. An RR sales brochure went like this – ‘The latest marque of the famous Bentley motor car is the S series. It has a luxury saloon body, and a performance which combines superlative acceleration to a speed more than 160 kph, with smooth silent running and powerful, sensitive brakes.’ Luxury and performance? Was RR contradicting itself?

No, that is because with the Corniche and the Mark V and VI, followed by the R-Type and the Continental models, Rolls-Royce was giving shape to the ultimate sport-luxury liner. The cars had racing pedigree but were now to be used by the rich and young, rather the young at heart. The kind who preferred to drive rather than being driven around in a Rolls-Royce limousine.

While this sort of an enthusiastic clientele had to live with a limousine-length body, they had an automobile that could do a standing quarter mile (400 m) in 18.9 seconds flat. A 60-mph (96.54 kph) run was possible in 14.2 seconds.The 4887cc six cylinder engine developed approximately 178 bhp, but a higher powered S1 Continental model could manage almost 200 kph (193 kph to be precise), with the engine running a higher compression ratio. Only 3,072 units of the S1 were built and most of them had the four-speed automatic transmission built by Rolls-Royce under licence from General Motors. Only ten S1s feature manual transmission systems making them extremely rare.

The Bentley S1 featured in these pages was imported by the French ambassador to India and is a left-hand drive example. The ambassador left the S1 in India and Bhogilal collected the car from the State Trading Corporation – a rare buy indeed. While it was finished in jet black when he acquired it, the present copper and black colour scheme was given to the car at a later stage. According to Bhogilal, the S1 was quicker if not faster than the Silver Cloud, its Rolls-Royce contemporary and can very well be termed the forefather of a series of luxury sports coupes to have come out of Crewe wearing the Bentley badge. It was also the first car to wear the ‘flying B’ mascot which was to be discontinued in the Eighties.

Rolls-Royce Phantom V, 1965 – Buckingham
The Phantom V is rare, the biggest Rolls-Royce ever built. This silver behemoth was imported by the British High Commission when Queen Elizabeth II came calling. It then found its way into the hands of a wealthy family with business interests in Africa. ‘They found its maintenance difficult and I purchased it from them,’ says Bhogilal. This is one of the most ‘modern’ cars in his collection and features a modern-day V8 engine and even airconditioning. It drives as if created for ceremonial occasions.

It’s quite interesting to note that Rolls-Royce gave a surprise introduction to the Phantom V when they launched the V8 engine. This new chassis was expressly intended for limousine bodies and was longer, heavier and wider than the Silver Cloud which was in production then. To suit ceremonial drives, the final drive ratio was lowered to provide ultra-low speed cruising. Coach builders H J Mulliner and Park Ward were amalgamated in 1961 and soon belonged to Rolls-Royce. Most of the 832 Phantom V8s were bodied by either Mulliner-Park Ward or James Young (of Jack Barclay fame). In 1960, Park Ward built a very special limousine for Queen Elizabeth II named Canberra, complete with plastic roof and rear section to provide a better view of the occupants. This very car is still in regular use by the royal family.

The role of Rolls-Royce and the Bentley changed a great deal after the war as compared with the ones before it. The 3.5 had the heart of the real Bentleys and the 20/25 was meant for those who wanted the big Phantoms. Concessions did not work at Rolls-Royce even when they were producing more than 3,000 units a year. The roles of the two marques also attained a distinct difference – now this is very important – one for the rich and the famous to be driven around and the other for the rich and the famous to drive around. If you look at the VW-owned Rolls-Royce line-up of today, you can see the theme continuing – a BMW-engined Silver Seraph for the former and a faithful V8 turbo powering the new Red-Label Bentley announced at the 1999 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Soon Rolls-Royce will belong to BMW and Bentley solely to Volkswagen. History will begin to repeat itself, and the classic rivalry that ended in a total take-over in 1931 will start all over again. Wonder who’ll win the next round?

MEMORY CAPSULE

WHAT?
Pre-war/Post-war Rolls-Royces and Bentleys
WHEN?
January 2000
HOW?
Once upon a time, Bentley was a proud, independent manufacturer before Rolls-Royce took it over in 1931. Since then, Bentley purists derided the cars that emerged from the Rolls factory at Derby, and later on at Crewe after the Second World War, saying they were nothing but sporty Rollers. Bijoy decided to settle the issue forever in our first anniversary special. One person supplied us with all the four cars – Pranlal Bhogilal.
WHY?
Nobody thought of doing it before. Now that makes it kind of unique, doesn’t it?
WHAT WE THINK OF IT NOW
‘When we do a comparison test involving pre-Fiat Maseratis vs pre-Fiat Ferraris, we will outdo ourselves.’
 — Bijoy