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Building a Masterpiece, One Part at a Time

December 02, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gary Wales is a prototypal car guy who builds, restores and relishes elderly automobiles that are huge, outrageous, make tons of noise and are almost original.

He's also the consummate tool man and home improver who has converted his Woodland Hills home into a medieval museum ranch. Driven by the blessed curse of terminal irreverence, Wales once upholstered a $2-million French car in frog skins. He enters vintage car races in home-builts no older than his imagination, and has herded 10,000 pieces of castoff chrome and enamel worth very little by the piece into the world's largest collection of car badges.

Now Wales is marketing a trompe-l'oeil for the motorist who has driven everything: a dinosaurian, excessive, almost original reproduction of a thunder-throated Blower Bentley race car of the early '30s.

And $250,000 for this British revival, Wales notes, is a bargain.

"Ralph Lauren paid $7 million at auction for the first of the Blower Bentleys," he explains. That was for a 1929 prototype built and raced by the benighted (he died of blood poisoning at 36) and later knighted Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin. "But when you've paid $7 million for a car--even $1 million for a lesser Bentley Blower--you're not going to take it out on the street.

"Besides, an original Blower is a pig to drive."

But a modern reconstruction of this raucous ragtop--painted British Racing Green, with Union Jack decals on both doors, and overdosing on its nationalism--is slick motoring behind a sophisticated, rebuilt 4.5-liter Bentley engine and transmission of the '50s.

The blower or supercharger--an engine-driven compressor that adds more hooves to the horsepower--is new, not an unreliable British relic predating Dunkirk. A synchromesh manual transmission replaces the primal crash gearbox of yesteryear. Brakes are hydraulic, not the cable-activated originals that typically required the power of both feet and a cow-catcher.

This Blower runs on unleaded; the chassis is modern and by Rolls-Royce; and steering prefers sensitive hands to gnarled biceps. No matter that the parts look 66 years old. The whole is newly remanufactured from today's materials to yesterday's specifications, and hand-assembled with micrometer attention to details.

Top speed is the same: 125 mph.

The coarse noise of 245 horsepower spitting through a fishtail exhaust hasn't changed: It's a croupy hound of the Baskervilles.

Even gas consumption is a throwback to an era when two hours of motoring ate a gamekeeper's weekly wages: for a born-again Blower still delivers only 4 piddling--but rather dashing--miles per gallon.

"So you have this wonderful-looking old car that is driver-friendly and can be used every day to haul groceries," says Wales, 57. "And our reproduction is so authentic, the holiest of Bentley purists can't tell it from original."

Built in rural England by Bentley addict Bob Petersen, the Blower presents no threat to sales of today's Bentleys. Because Petersen builds only four a year. Which means Wales, his sole U.S. agent, gets to sell just two Blowers a year.

*

Among the histories of all the remarkable cars built in Britain before World War II, few gleam quite like the Blower Bentley's. Only 50 ash-framed monsters were built to qualify the car as a racing tourer. Forty survive as European treasures priced alongside, say, two mediocre Renoirs or a Grade A Faberge egg.

Piloted by gentleman sportsmen paid in nothing but glamour and thrills, the brutish Blowers raced against Mercedes, Bugattis and Alfa-Romeos, and won or came close at Brooklands and Le Mans.

Auto hobbyist Wales has owned 300 fine cars. All have been elderly, adorable and repairable. Most have been Bentleys and Rolls-Royce.

That, he says, is symptomatic of his Anglophilia; a lust that makes home a single-story castle shared with wife Marilyn and two Burmese cats plus one stray. The house shows well with its pub, a baronial dining room, sunken kitchen fit for a Lord Mayor's banquet with serving wenches, assorted pieces of armor, much stained glass and a certain plagiarism, ahem, of heraldry registered to the Prince of Wales. Got it?

"It's all in fun," says Wales, a Detroit stockbroker who moved to California where he stopped growing up. "If something isn't fun, it really isn't worth doing."

The Blower Bentley, he insists, is worth doing.

So much fun, in fact, that Wales has purchased the first one to arrive in the United States and will not sell it. In the past three months he has driven it 9,000 miles and remains head-over-boot in love with the Blower. Wales says it's his tranquilizer, his Bombay martini.

"Look at this cord wrapped around the steering wheel for additional grip," he breathed on a recent walk around. "The leaf springs are bound with rope to keep them in place and you pour old crankcase oil on the rope to lubricate the springs."

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