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What it takes to keep a vintage Bentley on the boil for 100,000 miles around the world

by Nik Berg
4 November 2021 5 min read
What it takes to keep a vintage Bentley on the boil for 100,000 miles around the world
Photo: Gerard Brown

Marina and Graham Goodwin won the pre-war class of the 2019 Peking to Paris rally in their Bentley Supersport. They also own a 4.5-litre Le Mans replica and a more sedate saloon, and, between this trio of vintage vehicles, they’ve covered over 100,000 miles from the Himalayas to the Atacama desert on dozens of rallies.

When it comes to going the distance in these marvellous machines, there’s not much the couple from Yorkshire don’t know. In they days of their first adventures, however, it was a rather different story. Just learning how to drive a 1930s car was quite the challenge.

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“We were looking for a car to take rallying and we were told that we should buy a big Dodge because they never break. But we looked at them and they just weren’t really us. They didn’t really excite us and, good as they are, we kept seeing these Bentleys and thought they look really cool,” recalls Graham.

“Then we found out how much they cost, and they were horrifically expensive and really hard to drive, but then we discovered that they actually go up in value and that tickled my Yorkshire-ness. So, we went for a test drive in one and found out they’re actually really quick. If you’re doing 100 miles an hour in a Bentley, it feels like 300.”

In 2016, Graham and Marina soon found the car they wanted but getting it home for the first time was interesting to say the least. “Marina is in a normal car and I’ve got this Bentley and we’re driving it back home. From stationary I could get first gear, no problem. Then sometimes I’d get second gear and then I couldn’t get third and then I couldn’t get back to second so I just had to roll to a stop. So I’d be up to 30 or 40 mph and then roll to a stop on the side of the road and Marina would  stop behind me and wonder what’s going on. I’m getting all hot and bothered as I did this about six times in a row. I just couldn’t get it in gear and it’s so frustrating just trying to drive the damn thing.

“The accelerator is in the middle and the brake is where the accelerator normally is and to start with that really spooks you. But once you get used to it, that’s fine, because you’re double clutching all the time and double revving on the downshift. So it actually makes sense and you’re on the left two pedals all the time. Initially you just think that this is ridiculous. It’s impossible. But, when you start to master it, it’s totally addictive.”

That’s putting it mildly. Since buying that first Bentley the Goodwins have rallied across South America, Africa, central Asia, and all over Europe.

Through these many miles Graham and Marina have come to really understand these great British cars and know exactly what they need to keep them going in the toughest conditions.

“There’s a different technique to keeping these cars going to sort of modern cars. You also you learn over time what spares you need, and what you don’t, because of course, it’s always a balance of taking too much stuff and having the weight to destroy the car versus not having the right things if you have a problem.

“Every evening on an event I do a spanner check. You can’t tighten the nuts and bolts like a modern car or they’ll shear off so everything can vibrate a bit loose. So, you just check it every night. I’ve had times where the carburettor has been on the verge of falling off, but I spotted it, clamped it up, and kept an eye it.

“Actually, the best way of checking a pre-war car especially is just visual, you can lift the bonnet and have a look at where the oil is because they all leak a little bit as the tolerances are not the same as modern cars. If there’s an area that’s a bit dirty with oil on an evening, you just clean it off simply because then tomorrow, you can see whether it’s actually leaking or not.”

“Graham has a weird gift that he can spot things on other people’s cars as well, even when they think they’ve finished for the night,” adds Marina.

Although the rallies are competitive there’s a strong camaraderie that sees competitors helping each other out. The Goodwins have given valuable spares to fellow travellers and received aid in return.

“Quite often you’ll stop to help somebody, somebody that you might not know very well, and then five days down the line, something happens to you and they’re the first to come along,” says Graham.

Deep in the Namibian desert the Goodwins came across a stricken Ferrari, helped the inexperienced driver clear a load of sand from his air filter, and sent him on his way. Later on the Ferrari’s gearbox died and its owners opted to continue the event in a rented car. “We were leading the rally when our clutch exploded,” says Graham, “and they towed us over 250 miles across into Botswana. The tow ropes kept snapping, but they got us there and then we were able to fix the car.”

During the Peking-Paris the Goodwins handed over a magneto to their main rivals right at the start of the event, but later were able to borrow a spare wheel, without which they may not have even finished the event, let alone won it. On another adventure in the Himalayas, the monsoon weather had washed away a bridge on the route. The Goodwins hired a local taxi driver to guide them through a rather sketchy alternative path and he was soon leading a convoy of 30 other competitors to safety. “Everyone just wants to make the finish,” he adds.

Driving these veterans on unmade roads and in all weathers requires the right preparation. “It’s like being on a motorbike in that if it’s cold, you’re cold. If it’s hot, you’re hot. You layer up and layer down depending on the weather and if it rains, you get wet,” says Graham

Now, with many years of experience (and three cars to choose from) the Goodwins can also pick the right car for each event they enter.

“They’re physically hard work, especially the long chassis ones,” explains Graham. “Our four-and-a-half-litre Le Mans replica is the 10ft 10in chassis. And it’s the strongest Bentley that they made. They’re also the most comfortable, and they’re also the best on rough terrain because part of the suspension in a Bentley is the flex in the chassis. They’ve got the biggest radiator so they don’t overheat so much, they’ve got the strongest bulkhead and they’ve got the strongest chassis. They’ve got the most room which isn’t always a good thing because if you’ve got a lot of room you tend to fill it with stuff and it gets heavy. You’re then less competitive, but they’ve also got a bigger fuel tank. So you’ve got more range, you have less fuel anxiety. So on a big long rough rally, they’re the best all-round Bentley you can use.

“But when we won Peking-Paris, we used our Supersport, which is a nine-foot chassis. So nearly two feet shorter, same engine, not as strong as chassis, but a lighter car and therefore quite a lot quicker. But because it’s shorter chassis, it’s a harder ride, it’s a little bit skittish off-road. It’s less smooth, but it’s a lot quicker.”

After a hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Graham is now involved in planning the couple’s future adventures, as well as those of his fellow competitors in his role as Chairman of event organizer Rally the Globe. So where’s next?

“We’d love to go from North to South America. It’s actually farther from Alaska to Ushaia than it is to go around the world,” he says with a smile.

The Goodwins are clearly not afraid to pile even more miles to their odometers. You can (and should) follow their adventures on Instagram.

Via Hagerty US.

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