Building a Masterpiece, One Part at a Time

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.

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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."

Also leather straps buckling down a louvered bonnet, small wind screens for driver and riding mechanic, an outside hand brake big enough to slow a stagecoach--and motorcycle mudguards and teak-wood running boards.

But as closely as this reincarnation duplicates antique looks, so does its ride replicate a token measure of the wonderful lurching and heaving of the original.

A touch of cobblestone suspension, the precise-or-grind gears, big-wheel steering that's inclined to wander, and over-heavy braking would give Toyota owners fits. But it's all a broad suggestion of the way it was when powerful cars were dictators of our progress, and drivers either harnessed such beastly behavior or settled for praying and hanging on.

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In a hobby that has veered into a playful career, Wales once created a museum piece from crushed and rotting parts of a Bentley buried for a year by a California mudslide. He called it a 1936 Cambria (as in ancient Wales) Boattail Speedster, which was never a real Bentley but a classic the company might have built had it been blessed by Wales' elegant vision.

"All I do is create what the original designers would have done if they had the time, today's technology and the benefit of retrospect," Wales says.

His new-old Speedster, incidentally, won $100,000 and first place in the 1984 Great American Race for genuine vintage cars. Some purists still protest the pretender. But Wales was named Driver of the Year by the Bentley Owners Club in England, his car rests in the collection of the Raniers of Monaco, and it's tough for even disciples to put down that kind of action.

Three years later, Wales began bending aluminum and bolting a louvered body and motorcycle fenders onto a junked chassis. His Talbot-London sports-racer was another never-was that might have been. Nonetheless, it was a re-creation good enough to compete in vintage car races and, once more, to fool even the enormously informed.

"I made it to look like what people expect a 1932 Brooklands race car to look like," Wales says. "The reward was the number of people who looked at it and said, 'What a great old car. What fun.' "

Then came a rusted carcass that had lost headlights, top, seats, radiator, chrome strips, paint, windshield, wheels, everything but its soul. And that, Wales knew, was the spirit of a 1947 Bentley Mk VI with a singular, custom-built body by Marius Franay of France.

It was a Wales' work in creeping progress for a decade. But it was done with exquisite detail, down to a 1947 map of France in the trunk, fitted luggage by Franay and crystal decanters. For Armagnac, cognac and pastis, naturellement.

At last count, Wales' Franay-Bentley has won 39 prime awards at international concours d'elegance and is on museum display in Paris.

Now he's composing a little thing called a Bentley Royale, a hybrid behemoth with its most frightening feature a 16-cylinder, 12-liter power plant built from a pair of straight-8 engines. The chassis came from a trashed sedan. The engines once powered Rolls-Royce Phantoms built to carry only royalty and heads of state.

"When it's finished, the Royale will represent 80 years of Rolls and Bentley parts," Wales says. "Because I won't allow even pieces of these magnificent cars to die on scrap heaps."

So he scavenges and scrapes, forages and refurbishes, and cherishes "redoing dead things and making them into works of art again."

"I'm your resident Dr. Frankenstein."

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