x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Genteel spin around Yas track in Bentley's eldest statesman, 1921 EXP 2

Bentley may create some of the finest modern luxury cars, but the British marque is keen to champion its rich history. Kevin Hackett takes a ride in the oldest Bentley in existence.

Built in 1921, the EXP 2 was a wonder of engineering in its day, powered by a four-cylinder engine with twin-spark ignition. Photos by Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
Built in 1921, the EXP 2 was a wonder of engineering in its day, powered by a four-cylinder engine with twin-spark ignition. Photos by Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

The UAE has, in recent years, become famous for many different reasons but there's no doubt that one of the main ways people around the planet get to hear about this country is that it's home to many of the world's biggest, tallest, fastest and most expensive objects. But the world's oldest? Not so much.

That didn't prevent Bentley from parading the oldest surviving example of this most respected and cherished marque in the streets of Dubai or the tracks of Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit recently, though. It would appear that, to get across the message to potential customers that there's a long and distinguished history to Bentley and companies like it, sometimes it's necessary to prove it by wheeling out the elder statesmen. Bentley would very much like us to know that there's more to the company than the Continental GT or the Mulsanne. Much, much more.

How many visitors to Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi have wondered what those strange old cars are? For many people, the discovery that a famous brand has a history stretching back a number of decades is a complete surprise and this, ladies and gentlemen, is the oldest surviving Bentley in existence. It's not the most famous, not the fastest, not the most glamorous. But the EXP 2 forms a crucial part of the Bentley story and even in 1919 was a pointer for the company's future output. At least until Rolls-Royce got hold of the company in 1931.

If you type "world's oldest Bentley" into an internet search engine, chances are that EXP 2 won't put in an appearance. That's because it was never a production car - it was an experimental prototype, hence the EXP moniker. The oldest production Bentley, Chassis No 3, left the factory in 1921, and was recently sold at auction during the impossibly glamorous Pebble Beach event in California. Beautiful and in almost entirely original, unrestored condition, when the hammer came down it fetched US$962,500 (Dh3.5 million). It was originally sold to one Noel Van Raalte for £1,150 (Dh6,818). EXP 2, however, was founder WO Bentley's own little project. There was an EXP 1 before it, but that ceased to be a very long time ago.

Richard Charlesworth, Bentley's director of royal and VIP relations, is the perfect public face for the company. Normally, he's the one-stop-shop for dignitaries, royals and sheikhs for all things Bentley new and old, but when the EXP 2 was in the UAE he was its guardian. With a moustache as huge as his personality and physically imposing frame, this old-school English gent never fails to lift the spirits and he's a veritable walking encyclopaedia on Bentley's rich history. They don't make them like Richard Charlesworth anymore.

He explains to me that, in September 1919, WO Bentley and his small team of engineers started up their first engine in their Baker Street workshop in London. It was pretty advanced for its time, having four cylinders (with four valves each) and twin-spark ignition, and was fitted to a rolling chassis designed and built by Frank Burgess. Within four months, EXP 1 was undergoing test runs and the same year work had begun building a proper factory for the fledgling motor company. The chassis that would become EXP 2 was also displayed at the British Motor Show. They must have been extraordinarily exciting times.

A year later in 1921, before that first customer car was built, EXP 2 was not only hand crafted but was entered into racing competition, taking a win at Brooklands and 10 further victories at other events. In that sentence alone, I know all I need to know. EXP 2, the very car I sat in and was driven around Yas Marina in by Charlesworth, is where the Bentley story really began. For this racing success brought huge amounts of publicity to Bentley and the rest, as they say, is history.

Unlike the first production car, EXP 2 has been subjected to a detailed restoration and yet the feel, the patina of the thing, seems entirely genuine. That'll be something to do with Bentley constantly using its heritage collection, sending the cars on events all around the world and letting fortunate members of the public (as well as freeloading hacks like yours truly) experience them for themselves. Despite the ultra-modern surroundings of the Formula One circuit at Yas, somehow the old timer seems right at home - it was, after all, born to race.

Invited aboard, I awkwardly squeeze my torso into the tiny cockpit, shoehorning my way next to Charlesworth. Wearing leather driving hoods and almost comedic goggles, we looked like fictional adventurer Biggles' less intelligent relatives. "Can I honk the horn?" might be a question more fitting for a curious five-year-old, but I couldn't help it - getting to experience this sort of motoring history always makes me feel like a big kid. So, klaxon horn emitting its trademark oooo-gaaahh refrain, off we trundled onto the floodlit track for a few laps of the circuit being shared by some of Bentley's VIP clients in their brand new Continental GTs.

On one of the longer straight sections, the new cars pass us with ferocious speed, buffeting EXP 2 and leaving us for dead in a cloud of airborne dust and sand. It doesn't matter to me and the new cars, despite their technical might, seem bland and uninteresting when compared to the feel, sound and smell of this historic racer. A Toyota Yaris would rinse it at the lights but that's totally irrelevant - in its day, this was as fast and as advanced as automobiles got.

The car was sold to its first owner - Mr J E Foden - in 1923 and changed hands eight times until Bentley bought it back in 2000. Unsurprisingly, the original plans and drawings have long since vanished, so to restore it to its former glory, archive photography was used as reference points and the most authentic materials available were used to achieve the closest possible match. And yet, what surprises me the most about this beautiful Bentley, is its insured value.

While the incredible supercharged "Blower" Bentleys of the 1930s, which ruled the Le Mans 24 Hours endurance races and made Bentley a household name, are valued in the stratosphere (Dh4.7m for a decent replica, Dh12m for a real one), EXP 2 seems positively unloved, with an estimated value of Dh4.3m. Not that it's for sale though as Bentley, now more than ever, realises the importance of its heritage and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact this most British of companies is in German hands now (Volkswagen), the people at the top know the value of history.

As I left the steamy Yas circuit, I had to glance back longingly at EXP 2 and I'm glad I did. Because a short time later, Bentley unveiled another EXP model - the unfortunate and ill-fated EXP 9 F SUV - at the Geneva Motor Show. There's nothing at all wrong with a company of Bentley's standing developing a new model that points in a new direction, and I'm sure that when the 'ute does eventually start production it will be superbly engineered like any Bentley. But the sheer, simplistic beauty and charm of the world's oldest example will be totally missed - and that's a crying shame.