1954 Bentley: At home in the South

Staff reports
Farm Forum

Back in 2013, Neal Patton heard that a premier vintage car race would be motoring through Vicksburg near his hometown of Jackson, Miss.

“The Great Race,” an annual event started in the early 1980s by Tom McRae and Curtis Graf as a way to feed their old-car habit, had grown into one of the premier antique and vintage car endurance rallies in the world.

Patton, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, decided the annual race was something he’d like to try. The only problem? Patton didn’t have a car that would qualify. All cars entered in The Great Race must pre-date 1972.

As race day approached, Patton found the car he would enter: a 1954 Bentley R Type owned by a man in St. George, Utah. It was considerably older than a 1972 model, but The Great Race rules give advantages to older cars that are able to finish the race. Patton says it doesn’t matter that he paid “too much” for the car. “I got a bug to be in The Great Race,” he says. “That’s all I bought it for, to enter the race.” Now, Patton says he is hooked.

Patton and his wife, Cheryl, drive their 1954 Bentley out to dinner, car shows, and vintage car events like the annual L’Auberge Euro Fest Classic European Auto and Motorcycle Show in Baton Rouge. It was here that Patton took us along for a ride in his vintage R Type.

The immaculate powder blue Bentley is all-original, except for the paint, Patton told us as we rumbled along the River Road under police escort below the Mississippi River Levee. “It’s got a sunroof,” he said, adding, “In 1954, there weren’t a lot of sunroofs.”

When he first purchased the Bentley it was “running a little hot,” Patton remembers. He did a little work on the six-cylinder engine to get it ready for The Great Race, and “it runs great now.”

The 130-horsepower engine pushes the 5,000-pound Bentley along at a brisk pace via a General Motors HydraMatic four-speed automatic transmission. If that sounds odd, remember that in 1952 Rolls-Royce obtained a license to produce the new HydraMatic transmission for its Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobile lines. It was all part of the company’s post-war effort to expand its business into the United States.

“The transmission doesn’t have a `park,’ you just put it in `reverse’ or `drive’ to keep it in place, depending on which side of the hill you stop,” Patton smiled.

Patton hasn’t had time to thoroughly research the car, but he has learned a little of its history. The 1954 R Type was, of course, originally purchased in England. It was wrecked in 1956, but someone purchased the car, which wound up being restored and registered in California. In August of 2013, Patton bought the Bentley with its long-expired California registration from the man in Utah.

That gave the Pattons time to enter the 2014 Great Race and join a crazy group of vintage car drivers in the nine-day jaunt from Ogunquit, Maine, to The Villages in Florida, through 10 states and 20 cities. The annual event draws owners from across the country, and even attracts teams from as far away as Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It may not be the same race as the one in the famously funny 1965 Blake Edwards comedy, “The Great Race,” starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Wood, but it’s just as fun, Patton says.

The lumbering Bentley with its rookie crew made the entire 2,100-mile journey without serious incident. In fact, Patton says, “We finished about in the middle of the pack.”

The prize money in the event is significant, and some of the serious racers had support and logistics teams, Patton says, adding, “We had hand tools and lots of fluids.” The old Bentley came through the race thanks to lots of pre-race TLC by Conner McCary of European Automotive and Ed Macke, “a mechanical wizard who can fix anything I can break,” Patton says.

As a fighter pilot, Patton flew thousands of miles during 350 combat sorties in Vietnam and a handful more in Desert Storm. No doubt the 2,100 miles he put on his Bentley during The Great Race were far less risky and way more fun. The odometer currently stands at 49,810 miles.

Meanwhile, look for the Pattons in next year’s The Great Race. “We were in no danger of winning any prizes, but we had a wonderful time.”

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