William Medcalf talks us through his preparation business for vintage Bentleys
Let’s say you are thinking of going on an endurance rally, what car would you take? By endurance, I mean a long, long distance across far-flung and generally inaccessible corners of the world with stretches covering unmade or non-existent roads. You might think about taking a tough four wheel drive that you could get parts for anywhere, a Toyota Land Cruiser perhaps, or a suitably prepared Subaru Impreza.
What you probably wouldn’t consider taking for such long jaunts is a pre-Rolls-Royce era Bentley. Apart from the fact the youngest machine is now 87 years old, you can consider it a given that any roadside factor you might find in the Gobi desert, the jungles of Borneo or the Canadian wilderness won’t have that many parts on the shelf. That’s before we mention that the minimum you can get your name on the logbook for one of these cars is about £300,000 – and this could easily exceed £4m if you were able to persuade one of the owners of the super-rare Blower Bentley to sell it to you.
It’s surprising then that William Medcalf, owner of the eponymous one-make specialist in Sussex says that many of his clients do take their cars on such jaunts. “Around 60 percent of our clientele like to take their cars on rallies,” he tells us as we walk into his workshop, adding that pretty much all of the cars that he looks after are in regular use and not simply museum pieces.
Clearly, all of these cars need to be suitably prepared for the epic jaunts they are regularly run on. The balance to be struck is how to make any modifications in keeping with the original car, and reversible if the owner chooses to put it back to entirely standard. To this end, Medcalf employs engineers rather than vehicle technicians and the firm has invested a lot of money in computer design, 3d printing and milling machines. “I’d like to think that if W.O Bentley was here, he’d look at some of our designs and he’d nod in agreement’ Medcalf said, while showing me the internals of a differential that had been made out of a piece of solid billet. “Everyone wants the modifications because you can go and drive the thing around the world. What we are not doing is turning it into something different: It’s all Bentley engineering and Bentley ethos,” he furthered.
There are plenty of other examples of this sensitive approach to making the vehicles more usable. On our visit, an engineer had the drawings for a clutch up on the computer. Previously a clutch failure could mean the car having to be shipped home without completing the rally, but by using the fittings that are already there, Medcalf’s team have developed a clutch that can be replaced far more easily.
All aspects of prep and restoration can be undertaken at the workshop. Apart from mechanical work, bodywork can be restored, welding can be undertake und there’s even a fully-equipped woodworking bench, serving as a reminder that when these cars were new, coachbuilders would have been most familiar in doing exactly that: building horse drawn carriages.
While some of the work might have its roots in the 1800s, the industrial processes in place are not. Despite the one-off nature of working on these cars, every job is coded to a computer- based garage management system, measuring the time and materials each engineer is using on a task. “There are no projects gathering dust in the corner, to be worked on ‘as and when’” explained Medcalf. “Apart from anything else, we simply don’t have the space to clutter up.” The stockroom on the upper mezzanine is a sight to behold. With 15,000 lines, there are a lot of items in the stock drawers that look familiar, but on closer inspection are certainly not. “These screws for instance” says Medcalf, pulling out a bag of machine screws, “Are a size specified by W.O and they aren’t found anywhere else except on a Bentley engine. You can use a different size screw, but there are 136 in an engine and we make them in the original size, and with the right number in the packet – so why use the wrong ones when we have the right ones on the shelf ?”
Other ex-stock parts include beautiful brass water rails and radiators, which are identical to the originals, only with slightly strengthened gussets to prevent blown rads in when running in hot climates. There are fun items like Castrol filler jugs, ranging to the more usual, such as bearing sets. One SKU of note is a copper gasket set, which there are plenty of in the stock location. “You could literally walk in here and buy a gasket set for a ninety year- old car. I’ll bet you couldn’t walk into a BMW dealer and buy a gasket set off the shelf for something built today,” noted Medcalf. They will happily bring engineers and parts to wherever their customers need them as well: Recently one of the team walked through Medcalf’s door on a Friday before a Bank Holiday and walked out with a ticket on the next flight to Tokyo and a differential as a regular client needed repair at the start of a rally stage. A friendly local (in Tokyo) garage was found, the part was fitted, and Medcalf’s employee was back at work in Sussex on the Tuesday. Apparently this is not uncommon.
New designs for parts are tested on Medcalf ’s own car (which by his own admission is regularly ‘murdered’ on rallies) but there is a plan to take development of parts design a step further. The firm has struck up a partnership with the University of Sussex to produce a ‘Knowledge Transfer Partnership.’ Simply put, the University has assigned a graduate to work with the business, effectively as an employee, for two years, looking at ways, no matter how small, that the understanding and engineering of vintage Bentleys can be honed. The idea is that new skills, and the latest academic thinking can be applied to help the business further streamline and innovate new methods of production. It sounds like an interesting project, and one we’d be interested in learning more about when it concludes.
If you want a vintage Bentley, the business also has a showroom with some cars for sale. Obviously the market is somewhat limited: Out of the estimated 1,600 cars remaining the majority are in the hands of people who neither want or need to sell them. Nonetheless, there are half a dozen cars on sale in the showroom on our visit, ranging from a fabric body doctor’s coupe (complete with cadish accessories in the boot that include a shotgun store, a sink and a fold out bar!) to a concours winning tourer and a blower replica. You’d need to bring some bunce with you though: The cars in the showroom start at £300,000 and range to well over a million.
So if you fancy taking on a new hobby and you have some spare time and a few hundred thousand quid in your back pocket, then you should visit the one-stop-shop for everything Bentley.