8 December 2006

1947 Bentley Mk VI Franay Drophead Coupe

This elegant Franay roadster, with its outrageous coachwork and curlicue trim, really belongs with Figoni et Falaschi and Saoutchik offerings at Sunday afternoon shows in the Bois de Boulogne before WWII.

Considering its underpinnings stem from the mundane Bentley Mk VI, this car’s appearance in 1947 is doubly remarkable. It’s as if a dumpy librarian gave birth to Catherine Deneuve or Jeanne Moreau.

The immediate post-war years were dark times for Rolls-Royce. The Empire was in ruins, and it was penniless. Britain’s motto was “Export or Die” and Rolls-Royce was forced to take the low road, like Packard in the 1930s with its 120 models.

The Bentley Mk VI was the first Rolls-Royce produced with a standard steel body. It sold for 4,038 pounds, including purchase tax—still about twelve times the cost of a new Ford. Powered by a new six-cylinder F-Head engine (overhead intake, side-mounted exhaust valves), the Bentley Mk VI was a large four-door saloon, fitted with a sliding sunshine roof.

Fortunately, some of the 4,000 chassis produced were consigned to coachbuilders, as in pre-war years. And this particular car was commissioned by a French industrialist who was bent and determined to prove that the French carrosserie wasn’t dead.

The basic saloon is a far cry from this roadster, but it’s many an enthusiast’s introduction to classic motoring, even though the cost of restoring one can be several times its market value. However, once repaired, a Mk VI is relatively inexpensive to maintain and many are daily drivers. An honest Bentley Mk VI standard steel saloon can be fairly bought for less than $30,000, but the subject car here is clearly anything but standard.

DETAILS

Years produced: 1946–52
Number produced: 4,000 Mark VI chassis
Original list price: 1,985 pounds (chassis only)
SCM Valuation: $1,728,000
Tune-up/Major service: $1,000–$1,500
Distributor cap: $177.50 (Delco Remy)
Chassis #: Plate on left side upper firewall, and stamped on the left side frame member
just forward of the firewall
Engine #: Stamped on crankcase above the front left-hand mount
Club: Bentley Drivers Club Ltd, W.O. Bentley Memorial Building, 16 Chearsley Rd.,
Long Crendon, Aylesbury, Bucks HP18 9AW
More: www.bdcl.org
Alternatives: 1938–39 Bugatti Type 57C, 1939 Delage D8 cabriolet, 1937–39 Talbot
Lago T150
SCM Investment Grade: A

The SCM Analysis: This car sold for $1,728,000 on March 29, 2006, at the Barrett-Jackson Palm Beach auction. It bears no resemblance to a standard steel Mk VI and may be the most valuable Bentley in existence.

S/N B20BH was commissioned specifically to be the 1947 Paris show car for coachbuilder Carrossier Franay. It went on to win Best of Show at its first two concours at Enghien and Boulogne in 1948. In 1951, the first owner, a visionary who believed in updating and improving the car, sent it back to Franay with instructions to “spare no expense!”

He challenged Franay to enhance its original design and create a rolling sculpture that borrowed design elements from all French coachbuilders. The original 4-1/4 liter engine was replaced with the new Bentley 4-1/2 liter engine and dual exhaust. The new engine was re-stamped, and documented as such, by Bentley Motors with the original engine number, B10B. Technically, it’s still a numbers-matching car.

The car was later sold to a family in England, then came to the U.S. and a series of owners, including the late Sergio Franchi, an opera singer, Broadway, star and well-respected motor car enthusiast. The next owner was the late Lorin Tryon, co-chairman of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for almost 30 years.

In 1979, well-known Bentley enthusiast Gary Wales of Woodland Hills, California, bought the car from Tryon, using his Cadillac-powered Talbot Lago as part of the trade. The Bentley was still spectacular but in need of restoration. Wales recognized its potential, even though many bits from the Franay modifications in 1951 were missing.

He researched photographs and archives until 1988, when he had collected enough data and pieces to restore the car’s unique design. While the coachwork was being researched, the chassis was restored and drew crowds at Southern California car meets.

After eleven years, the restored Mark VI chassis was reunited with its restored coachwork, modified to its 1951 embellished state, in time to be shown at Pebble Beach in 1991 in the Postwar European Custom Coachwork class.

It easily earned first place. Since the modifications to the original design were done in the era, and by the same coachbuilder, with authentic documentation, it was determined to be the real deal. The frog mascot flanked by Bentley wings that was designed by Wales and fabricated for the car was replaced with the correct winged “B” mascot in time for judging.

The car also received a second award, the esteemed French Cup. With a nod to the coachwork’s French origin, the seat inserts were reupholstered in frog skin. When asked by the Pebble Beach judges if the upholstery material was original, Wales cracked, “No, the original ones croaked.”

When another car received top honors at Pebble, it was announced that the Franay Bentley missed receiving Best in Show by 1/10th of a point, the closest margin in Pebble Beach Concours history. Following the awards ceremony, I recall fighting my way through the crowd to congratulate Wales, who was standing by the car. Rarely does a car receive that kind of attention, even at Pebble Beach.

Over 50 major awards and honors are part of this remarkable car’s provenance. It has been featured in numerous publications, television appearances, and advertisements. Wales says, “This car represents 16 years of my life. It’s the finest thing I’ve ever done.”

Even at $1,728,000, I’d have to say it was well bought. There will never be another.

Diane Brandon was the Rolls-Royce Owners Club U.S. National Director for eight years and has been a Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance judge for Rolls-Royce and Bentley since 1984.

Vehicle description courtesy of the auction company
Photos: Barrett-Jackson

 

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