Driving Alan Clark MP's Bentley Continental to Saltwood Castle
This Bentley Continental was owned by the late Alan Clark MP – a friend of Octane Magazine's Robert Coucher.
15 years on, he takes the car back to Saltwood Castle
Words: Robert Coucher, Photography: Gus Gregory.
I suppose this all began in the spring of 1999 as an article for The Daily Telegraph's motoring section. At the time, my good friend Christian Hueber II had been developing his 1954 Bentley R-Type Continental into a fast historic-rally weapon. American Hueber was the Continental guru and co-wrote the definitive book Bentley Continental Sports Saloon with David Sulzberger in 2002, as well as running the Continental Register. At the same time the Rt Hon Alan Clark, MP, was writing a car column for the classic car magazine I was editing. He had owned various Bentleys and was particularly taken with the Continental, owning, amongst others, this example, chassis number BC-15-B, which is finished in Smoke Green.
Alan liked driving his cars firmly and they were usually in rather patinated condition because he abhorred polishing them. 'Never let a spray gun near a car,' was one of his favourite mottos. I piqued his interest by sending him a photograph of Hueber's Bentley, which showed the revcounter pinned at 4000rpm and the speedo reading 130mph! Clark wanted a closer look so he invited us down to his ample residence, Saltwood Castle in Kent – quite an impressive old pile. It was the site where four knights hatched the plot to assassinate Thomas Becket on 28 December 1170, dispatching him the next day at Canterbury Cathedral.
'Clark and Hueber were deep in discussion about Bentley minutiae: they both had encyclopaedic knowledge'
Hueber and I set off from London in Crewe's missile, chassis number BC-65-C – with only 208 Continentals ever made, the owners refer to them by chassis number – and down to the Kent coast near Folkestone (see Octane 06). The Connaught Green Continental was immaculate. With its engine modified to produce 226bhp and a stonking 334lb ft of torque, plus improved brakes and suspension, the Bentley flew down the motorway in comfort and felt rock solid. The big-bore twin-pipe exhaust produced a deep roar and fastidious Hueber had made sure the car was in concours condition for this meeting of minds and motoring matters.
We arrived at the huge fortified entrance to Saltwood Castle and a rather scruffily dressed fellow ambled over to unlock the sturdy wooden gate. Must be the gardener. Er, no. Of course, it was Alan in his extremely worn old tweed jacket. While normally a very smart Member of Parliament and Government Minister, out of hours his sartorial choice was as patinated as his motors.
I could see Clark eying up this somewhat overdressed American in his freshly pressed tweeds. Alan despised the whole concours circuit and one of his columns was very critical of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, where he slated the entrants for chrome- plating everything and filling their radiators with 'lavatory water'.
An irate American reader posted over an enema pack with an accompanying note declaring: 'Send this to Clark, because he is so full of shit!' Alan, of course, loved it.
Soon Clark and Hueber were deep in discussion about Bentley engineering and minutiae as each realised the other had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the marque. I was relegated to bystander in the discourse. Clark then jumped into Hueber's Continental.
'I've a demanding route around the castle, which I know intimately,' Clark told us. 'It shows up any shortcomings a car might have and gives me immediate insight into its performance and handling.' That route is something I'll come back to. We, meanwhile, took Alan's standard Continental for a run.
On his return Clark commented: 'Hueber's Bentley is extremely fast, with a remarkable increase in power. But... I prefer my Continental as it is: it represents a different period of motoring, with its integral charms intact. I would not desire my car in this state of tune because some of that appealing gentleness is lost.'
He went on: 'The Continental is one of a few really, really great cars. It ranks with the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, the light-bodied Derby Bentley and the Bentley MkVI, if you can ever find one that has not rusted out. I am safe in the notion that my Continental will always start and it never goes wrong. It is one of the nicest Bentleys ever made. I drive mine for therapy and still have no trouble with salesmen on the motorway.'
Having owned and championed underrated Derby Bentleys for years, Alan also enjoyed Jaguars and was gifted a brand new XK120 when he was a student at Oxford. By 1999 he was probably the only person in the world who had owned an XK from new, for 49 years. As he opined of the breed: 'Open sesame with the girls...'
His friend, backgammon-playing car dealer Charles Howard, originally procured this Bentley R-Type for Clark back in the 1980s. 'I suppose I was Alan's confidant. He used to confess most of his crimes to me as he was committing them,' he laughs. 'The great thing about Alan was that he was no hypocrite. He was honest about his failings and was devastatingly charming. And no, he didn't really commit any crimes, he was just a bit enthusiastic. In terms of motor cars his taste was what I most admired. He had razor-sharp instincts and wasn't in any way ordinary, but nor was he a car snob. He enjoyed his Citroën 2CV and Buick Convertible as much as his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, and always enjoyed his Derbys.'
A moment of serendipity: Charles Howard has just published his book – titled An Auto Biography – which chronicles the good old bad days of car dealing. Here Howard expands on the games of backgammon he played for money to finalise a number of deals. Clark, who was notoriously tight, would usually end up losing, which really annoyed him. You will see the fascinating tome reviewed in the Books section of this issue.
Gentleman car dealer Peter Bradfield was a young chap who worked for Charles in the late 1980s. We affectionately refer to Bradfield as the 'worst car dealer in the world' because he is so honest and transparent. Maybe that's why his customers include some of the most discerning motoring aficionados. Bradfield, whose father had owned three R-Types in the past, did the actual deal selling the Bentley to Clark. 'It went for top money because it was an extremely good, original example,' he says. 'Unfortunately, soon after Clark bought it, the market crashed, so he referred to me as “Bradfield the bastard” thereafter.'
But Bentley values did not dive like those of Ferraris and Clark set about improving his Continental to suit his driving style. Sold new by Jack Barclay, the Bentley was fitted with 'heavy' seats. Clark changed them for the sportier lightweight seats, probably from the other Continental he owned: the infamous 'Bang Bang' as he called it. Chassis number BC-65-D was stolen in 1965. The thief picked up two hapless hitchhikers and then rolled the car, killing them all. The Continental was rebuilt by Bradley Brothers as a stripped-down special and the original coachwork was repaired and mounted on a MkVI chassis. Superstitious Clark always considered the Bang Bang to be dangerous and a touch evil.
As well as the seats, Alan removed the front overriders and bumper centre section, painting the registration number onto the bodywork to give the Continental a more sporting mien, although he kept the rear spats. He then added a lovely stag's head bonnet mascot, a neat little Bentley badge to the rear-view mirror and then never, ever polished the car. Instead, he just drove it... fast.
And so I find myself back at Saltwood Castle some 15 years later. Alan died in 1999 and my friend Christian Hueber succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2005. Driving Bentley Continental BC-15-B without them is rather sad and poignant. But Alan's widow Jane Clark opens the large and heavy castle gate this time – no nouveau riche electrics here – and she is sunny and relaxed, although normally very private. I'd explained that I had the chance to drive Alan's car, which had been sold by JD Classics having been prepared in their workshops, and thought it would be nice to motor down to see her.
Saltwood in the late-summer sunshine is a beautiful sanctuary. Fortunately the slightly mad car-attacking peacocks are not to be seen and Jane has shut her huge 'but ever so friendly' Rottweiler away. She ushers photographer Gus Gregory and I into the entrance and he is stunned by the history the magnificent place exudes. Gus is a man of some culture and soon he and Jane are chatting about the chapel, the great library, the bats and various artefacts about the place. Yet again I am relegated to being a bystander...
'Alan loved this Continental,' says Jane. 'I remember many long, fast journeys in it. He even let me drive it with the dogs in the back. I am so pleased to see it remains in original condition. I eventually decided to sell a few cars after Alan's death and sometime in 2003 Peter Bradfield came down and got the Bentley started.'
Bradfield adds: 'I disinterred the Continental from the garages at the castle: put some oil down the bores, cranked the engine over, checked the fluids, connected a battery and that sort of thing. It started on the button and ran perfectly. It is a Bentley, after all.'
I show Jane an old and faded copy of the 1999 Telegraph article on the Continentals. 'Yes, that was just before Alan died of a brain tumour in September of that year. As you know he's buried in the garden with the dogs... it really is so lovely to see the Bentley back again.' After a guided tour of the castle and coffee on the front step, I cannot resist one last drive along the backroads of Saltwood village. The Continental remains almost silent at tickover. I pull out of the grounds and instantly remember the route Alan showed me all those year ago, across a bridge and on to an open section with good sight lines. Third- and top-gear country. I drop the beautifully weighted right-hand gearshift down a cog and let the revs rise. The big 4½-litre, 158bhp straight-six whooshes and the speed climbs steadily: third makes for a supremely long-legged surge, then finally into top and the Continental is supreme. There's a sharp right-hand bend ahead, so onto the brake pedal (the servo-assisted drums are strong) and down into third. The clutch is noticeably light. The Continental slides through the bend on its skinny Avon Turbosteel tyres in a perfectly controlled, gentle drift. But I bet Alan Clark would have attacked the corner with a lot more panache than I ever could.