10-11 March 2017
A Gentleman's Collection: The Pride & Passion of Orin Smith
1952 Bentley R-Type Continental Fastback Sports Saloon by H.J. Mulliner
- Chassis no. BC14LA
- Engine no. BCC4
- Body no. 5476
$1,250,000 - $1,500,000
To be auctioned on Friday, March 10, 2017
- Formerly of the William “Chip” Connor and Ervin “Bud” Lyon collections
- Originally delivered to noted American enthusiast William A.M. Burden, Jr.
- The second left-hand-drive example built; factory manual transmission
- Factory-upgraded 4.9 engine
- Exceptional mellowed restoration; maintained and improved by Paul Russell & Company
- Extensive documentation, including original build correspondence
- Perhaps the finest R-Type Continental available today
THE MODERN MAGIC CARPET
In the early 1950s, there was no other automobile quite like it in the world, which made it attractive for connoisseur heads of state, captains of industry, as well as the burgeoning jet set. James Bond drove a version he had Mulliner re-body from a wreck in the 1961 novel Thunderball. Famously, in the words of Autocar magazine, it was “a modern magic carpet.” In the words of modern BDC members: “Best car I have ever owned.” “Hope to take it to Heaven with me!” “Would not swap it for a thousand camels, even in the middle of the desert.” It was the fastest four-seat production car in the world – and the most expensive – cementing its exclusivity with only 207 made, 43 of which were built in left-hand drive.
GLORIOUS BURDEN: THE STORY OF BC14LA
To understand the genesis and importance of this particular R-Type Continental, one first has to understand the man who ordered it. William A.M. Burden, Jr., was a great-great-grandson of the railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of a prominent Wall Street investment company, one-time American Ambassador to Belgium, and a past president of the Museum of Modern Art. To describe him as a collector would be an understatement; he was a connoisseur of fine things, and bought many of them, none so avidly as automobiles. Following his passing in 1984, the files that he left behind in his estate told the story, containing correspondence with virtually every great automaker from the 1930s through the 1960s, describing various highly detailed and bespoke commissions on the best, most powerful, and luxurious chassis from Mercedes-Benz, Duesenberg, Bentley, and others.
The surviving file for chassis number BC14LA, which accompanies the car today, provides an utterly fascinating window into how a gentleman sportsman of means ordered a new R-Type Continental in 1952. On 12 May, Mr. Burden wrote George Jessop, of J.S. Inskip in Manhattan:
I have decided to order the 120 mile an hour, streamlined Bentley. I am ordering it on the assumption that you will be able to deliver it in London on September 2nd, which is the opening date of the Society of British Aircraft Constructors show, for which I will be in England. If you will bring this to the attention of Lord Hives, I believe he will make a special effort to meet this delivery date, as he knows the importance of the show and why I want to have the car on that date.
I shall want to use the car for extensive travel around England and on the Continent and would like to have a first rate English chauffeur available for six weeks from September 2nd. I do not plan to bring the chauffeur back to the United States with me, so you would not need to worry about losing him. However, if you do happen to have a man in mind who is a good driver, a good mechanic, sober, intelligent, and anxious to have a long-term job in this country, I would be glad to take him with the car.
The letter goes on to spell out the desired specifications for the “120 mile an hour, streamlined Bentley,” including finish in medium grey with grey leather upholstery, and the fitment of a Tachimedion average speed meter, a Jaeger chronometer, and “a sensitive altimeter of the aircraft type,” with further descriptions of exactly which altimeter Mr. Burden desired! Mr. Jessop kindly responded to his good customer, noting that the factory would be happy to build him the left-hand-drive R-Type Continental of his desires. Mr. Burden, in turn, notified Lord Hives personally of his order for the car, in yet another fascinating letter.
The Bentley, as completed that fall, was delivered with the Jaeger chronometer (the average speed meter proving impossible to find) and a Bulova altimeter, as well as sealed-beam headlamps, dual fog lights, a rear window defroster, a shelf under the fascia with a lock (for Mr. Burden’s camera and flashlight), and no radio (Mr. Burden intending to fit his own, upon delivery); lightweight seats were also originally mounted.
Unfortunately, Mr. Burden’s trip to England was delayed, as was delivery of the Continental, which was supplied to him not in England, but to his home in Mount Kisco, New York, on 26 October. Soon thereafter, the originally specified lightweight seats, having proven uncomfortable for touring, were exchanged for the latest S1-type seats, at Mr. Burden’s specific request.
Mr. Burden retained the R-Type Continental until 1959, by which time he was storing it in Paris, and decided to trade it in on the latest S1 variant. This was arranged, and J.S. Inskip collected chassis number BC14LA in France and escorted it back to the United States. There it was supplied, in May 1960, to second owner Peter van Gerbig, himself a socialite from one of New York’s wealthiest families, and a longstanding Rolls-Royce and Bentley client in good standing. Mr. Van Gerbig subsequently returned the car to the factory the following year, to receive the current upgraded 4.9-liter engine, the most potent available for the R-Type Continental; it returned to the United States in 1962. The bumpers were also changed to the Wilmot Breedon type present today.
In 1963 the car passed to Burgess Standley, who retained it until 1979, when it was sold to Gilbert St. Edward, Jr. It was next sold in 1985 to Nicholas Jones of Chile, who passed it in 1991 to the renowned enthusiast William E. “Chip” Connor, who maintained it at his home in London. Finally, in 1999, the car was acquired by Erwin “Bud” Lyon, the beloved collector and friend to many, whose exceptional collection it graced until its acquisition by Orin Smith.
Mr. Lyon was well known for cars that were restored to the very highest of standards, with no expense spared in making them as good as they could possibly be. This was certainly true of his Continental, for which receipts on file describe extensive cosmetic and mechanical attention by the noted firm of Paul Russell & Company in Essex, Massachusetts, with special care given to the suspension, brakes, and the wood and upholstery of the interior.
The same superb care has been undertaken in Mr. Smith’s ownership, and the car, finished in Circassian Blue with dove grey hides and blue-welted carpets, is utterly stunning, deserving of its Best in Class award at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 2011. Further, it performs beautifully, having benefitted from the well-accepted S1 Continental cylinder head conversion by marque specialists Vantage Motorworks, which results in exceptional power and performance – thus bringing the car to its maximum potential regarding both beauty and speed.
Marque authority Diane Brandon, inspecting the car for RM Sotheby’s, noted, “As it stands, I can only see perfection. It is gorgeous in every way, correct, perfectly restored, and flawless.” It is offered with not only the before-mentioned file of complete documentation from its Burden ownership, but also the framed original factory guarantee and Bill of Sale, a complete and authentic tool set (down to the scroll on the tire pressure valve), and the copy of the Bentley R-Type Continental Register that is numbered to match this particular automobile.
It is common to see an automobile presented as being “the best of the best,” but few demonstrate that status as clearly as these utterly exceptional, without-stories R-Type Continentals. Treasured by great enthusiasts for virtually its entire life, it is, quite simply, glorious down to the last tiny detail, and stands alone among its brethren as perhaps the finest example available today.
William A.M. Burden, Jr., a man for whom nothing but the best was acceptable, would undoubtedly be pleased.
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