It is often said that they don’t make cars like they used to – but if you take the trouble to seek out a man called Bob Petersen, you’ll discover otherwise. Head for the northern edge of Dartmoor in rural Devon, wiggle your way through the lanes and between the hedgerows, turn up a track and draw to a halt beside an old watermill and that’s where you’ll find them: cars being made like they used to be. And not just any old cars, but modern-day evocations of the legendary sporting carriages produced by Walter Owen Bentley during the 1920s and 1930s when the “Flying B” dominated race tracks from Brooklands to Le Mans.
And if the word “evocation” puts you in mind of a replica exterior hiding rather less exotic mechanicals underneath, dismiss the idea at once: a Petersen Bentley is built from the ground up with a combination of authentic, original components and brand-new parts that are exactingly engineered up to and beyond the specifications of those used on the cars made by WO. And virtually every single new bit – from the ash-framed body tubs to the distinctive rear-mounted fuel tanks and even the wire-spoked wheels – is produced right there on the premises by Petersen and his team of 12 remarkably skilled craftsmen.
These cars are as much art as engineering, so it comes as little surprise to learn that Petersen, 55, studied graphic design before being being taken on by a firm that made air-conditioning systems for commercial buildings. But it was not long before he realised that he preferred to shape, bend and fabricate objects from metal rather than merely envisage a finished product with a drawing.
“I was obsessed with cars during my late teens and early 20s and loved to alter the appearance of whatever vehicle I had at the time. Eventually I decided to set up on my own, rebuilding and restoring old cars,” explains Petersen.
He moved from Buckinghamshire to Devon in the early 1980s and bought the mill house as a derelict ruin in seven acres of overgrown land. He had spent several years renovating the property, converting the sheds into workshops and gradually building up the restoration business, when a call came from a customer in Hong Kong who wanted Petersen to upgrade a Bentley “special”.
“That led to a Lagonda project, which in turn led to a request to build a replica of a Bentley Speed Six, the more powerful racing model of the 1920s,” says Petersen. “I charged around £50,000 for it, but it reappeared in a showroom a few years later for £165,000.”
The residual value of the car bore testament to the quality of its construction, but an even greater endorsement of Petersen’s skill came in 1994 in the form of a telephone call from Jack Barclay, the largest Bentley dealership in the world, asking him to create a replica of one of the famous supercharged or “Blower” Bentleys of the late 1920s. Just 55 originals were built (43 survive) and, in the early 1990s, those that occasionally came to the market would fetch around £200,000. In 2007, one was sold by the auction house Gooding and Company for $4.5m.
The finished Petersen car was displayed in the window of the Jack Barclay showroom in London’s Berkeley Square – and quickly sold for virtually the same price as the then value of an original, prompting the firm to order six further “Barclay Blowers” for retail sale. It took Petersen three years to complete them, during which time he established a reputation in Bentley circles as the man who had picked up where WO Bentley had left off when he was forced to sell Bentley to Rolls-Royce in 1931.
Around 60 Petersen Bentleys have now been built and discreetly sold to wealthy buyers around the world – cars cost an average of around £300,000, depending on specification – and their success is undoubtedly down to Petersen’s meticulous approach to detail and his insistence on creating the cars from as many genuine, period-correct parts as possible. The chassis come from pre-war, Derby-built Bentleys, engines are fully rebuilt and upgraded Bentley originals (usually 4.5-litre units from later R-Type cars or 4.25-litre versions from Derby models); everything else is either sourced from original cars or specially made to each customer’s requirements.
“All we are doing is building cars in the 21st century in exactly the way that they built them during the 1920s and 1930s,” explains Petersen. “Back then, a customer would buy a Bentley as a rolling chassis with engine and gearbox, and then choose a coachbuilder to design and build the bodywork. The owner would select the lights he wanted, the upholstery, the dashboard layout and instruments – everything would be created to personal specification. In just the same way, the seating of our cars is made to measure, the dashboard layout is decided on by the customer and, if required, we can add modern touches such as air conditioning and power brakes, which are designed not to detract from the original look.”
Giving clients such free rein does, however, provide Petersen with certain challenges – but they are challenges that he clearly relishes. On one occasion, for example, a potential buyer spotted a sketch that Petersen had roughed out years before while convalescing in hospital after a road accident. It depicted a long, low, torpedo-shaped special that combined the looks of the stripped-down “Blower” raced by Tim Birkin in the 1930 Pau Grand Prix and John Cobb’s 1933 Napier-Railton racer. Petersen successfully brought his old sketch to life and two 175mph “Petersen Supercharged Road Racers” have now been completed, one in red and another in highly polished, bare aluminium. Five more are being built, with two already spoken for.
Wandering through the immaculately kept workshops of Petersen Engineering leaves one both agog at what is being created and encouraged by the fact that here is real, live, working evidence that British craftsmanship has not died out.
The first eye-popping sight was Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato’s “Blue Train Special”, the Speed Six with Gurney Nutting’s “sportsman’s coupé” bodywork that he acquired shortly after beating the celebrated Train Bleu in a race from Cannes to Calais in his Mulliner-bodied formal saloon in early 1930.
The car I was looking at, of course, was not the original one – that resides in a private American collection – but an almost perfect replica that Petersen was commissioned to build. The only differences are the small details the client specified to make the car more suitable for daily driving in the 21st century. (It was recently resold to the chairman of the Bentley Drivers’ Club in Germany, as the original owner found it tricky to conduct around central London…)
Next came what is best described as a pre-war Bentley on steroids – a “Monster” creation powered by a gleaming, 27-litre Meteor engine with every component upscaled, from a larger-than-normal Bentley radiator at the front to a 300-litre fuel tank at the back. In another workshop a Bentley was taking shape with a body inspired by that of the hugely valuable 1930 Mercedes-Benz 710 SSK roadster owned by Ralph Lauren, complete with aerodynamic wings and swooping, exposed exhaust pipes.
“The mechanics of cars fascinate me, but I’m equally driven by the aesthetics,” says Petersen. “I love the art deco period in particular, and when a client comes to see me without much idea of what they want I’ll get them to flick through my car design books and show them what can be done. My buyers tend to be professional people such as doctors and lawyers for whom choosing the design for a car is something completely new.”
One of Petersen’s latest projects is the amalgamation of some of his favourite elements from the Delahayes, Bugattis and Bentleys of the art deco era and is called the Dartmoor Bentley, a long-bonneted, slope-backed beauty in an airline Continental coupé design that would look right at home outside Jay Gatsby’s West Egg mansion.
Many of Petersen’s cars are being snapped up by buyers from Germany, Holland, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore, who are taking advantage of the favourable exchange rate. The 2009 credit crunch proved a boon for business as buyers decided to put their cash into a Petersen rather than see it dwindle in the bank, and there are currently 11 cars part-way through the two-year build process.
More fun than stocks and shares – and nicer to look at? Just a bit.