Bill Coburn's Story

Bill Coburn has lived in Canberra Australia for the past 40 years except for four years when he was posted to Washington DC and joined the Chesapeake Region of the RROC. It was here he caught the bug seriously and found a continuous procession of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys at his front door, all with some mysterious problem.

Returning to Australia he spent his last dollar buying a basket case Silver Dawn SDB94 which he stripped to the frame and completely re-built. That was succeeded by a ‘Z’ series R type Bentley and a ‘C’ series S2 Standard Steel. The latter to his confessed shame has sat half dismantled for the last six years and in desperate need of appropriate wheels he has fitted himself out with a very nice 1984 Spur.

He joined the Australian Club on his return home in 1973 and inaugurated a new look Federal Magazine ‘Praeclarvm’ which he edited for 8 years. He filled the positions of Federal Secretary and Branch President and now divides his time writing technical material for his own newsletter ‘Tee One Topics’ and for the Club national magazine.

Tee one Topics grew out of his perceived need to share as much technical knowledge of the cars, their maintenance and methods of repair as possible with the sole idea of keeping as many of them alive and preferably on the road. The models covered are virtually all post war which caters for a very large percentage of owners in the world. Most of the material however is about cars later than the ones covered by this site but that which is relevant will slowly appear as they are transcribed.

where it all began

The car is pictured above circa 1952

My father’s Sales Manager was married to a lady of a very prominent family in Hobart. In my early teens I remember this same lady having a four door Riley Nine cabriolet. It was white with red spoke wheels, red upholstery, a black roof and a pre-selector gearbox. I often wondered what Happened to that car. Her father, a very old man decided that she should have a new one and thought a new Bentley would fill the bill. A conservative man, he asked the then agents in Melbourne Kellow Falkiner whether the car could be supplied without a radio, as it wasn’t necessary. (Radios were still a novelty immediately after the war). The answer was yes but only with difficulty so it stayed. The next stumbling block was the servicing and who was going to do it. The owner-to-be nominated her long-term mechanic who conducted his business in the same suburb. Kellows actually sent someone over from Melbourne to instruct the fellow. The car crossed Bass Strait on the RMS Taroona – the only passenger/minor freight link to the island, which docked at Beauty Point near Launceston! The car was craned ashore and driven by the Kellows man to Hobart, taken to the new owner’s house and locked up. The new owner would be instructed in its use the following day! And so in 1950 this ‘F’ series Bentley hit the road. I was allowed to sit for hours in it making teenage driving noises and it would seem, contracted this life long disease.

The purchase price was £4,300 the Silver Dawn being some £300 dearer! As virtually every one of you readers will be younger than I, let me give you a ‘feeling’ of the time. Cars were very difficult to get. Waiting lists of 2 years were not uncommon. My father had bought a new Chevrolet Stylemaster for £840 in 1948 and a Buick if you could get one was £998 as I remember. My father’s company had bought Holden number 49, which was a dreadful thing by today’s standards but a breath of fresh air in those days. The roads were littered with pre-war cars dating back to about 1934. Anything earlier than that was a bit impractical for handling and spares. But many a father dug out the family car that had sat at the back of the shed during the war for lack of petrol, and sadly quite a few drivers inherited cars that the owners would never need again. So the arrival of a Bentley in Hobart equated roughly to finding the QE II on Lake Burley Griffin!

My first impression was the smell and the perfect paintwork and the gadgetry!!!! It had, believe it or not, windscreen washers that approximated in function to a micturating grasshopper by today’s standards. The only cars I had seen this on were the Buick (When better cars are built Buick will build them!) and Packard (Ask the man who owns one!). The other mystery was the silence of the gearbox. Only first gear made a quiet dignified whine. Stories abounded in those days of these cars being driven for miles in third gear, the driver being unaware of his non-changing! And the one-shot system was real magic and obviously reserved for the cars of God! The only things that went wrong in the three year guarantee period that I remember were that the steering wheel had to be replaced as the original one cracked, the tyres, English Barnett Glass by brand very quickly gave up the ghost and had to be replaced and the clutch pedal pad wore out very quickly. A new pedal was ordered and outrage ensued at the cost of the item that was smartly returned. Separate pads were not then available! This little episode was probably proleptic. I eventually took off to the mainland and completely lost contact with the car.

Last year George Shores was foolish enough to lend me his copy of the Sunburnt Country and there was the listing. The Chassis Plate showed its existence in Queensland. A phone call and sadness. This owner had found the car in a wrecker’s yard with the body half off in preparation for the restoration that would never occur! Apparently he had bought it from a brothel where it was used for bringing well-heeled clients to the establishment. The head cloth had been replaced with a material adorned with fluorescent stars – the mind boggles. The Queensland man decided that too much needed to be done and disposed of the body to one buyer in his State and the chassis went to South Australia to sire a racer! But then there was the last link. In describing my sadness over this demise to John Beagle he flippantly told me that the sunroof he had bought for his car had come from my Bentley in Queensland. It didn’t fit and he still has but will not give it to me!

The above discombobulated me for some time. A bit like finding the family home demolished. Had the original owners replaced that clutch pedal and continued maintenance as the Factory recommended we might still have that wonderful old girl to drive.

Bill’s favourite

Martin Bennett’s choice of the ‘best’ models that came out of the Factory is something that many owners and onlookers have argued over. The sale of the Factory and subsequent published commentary on the Company and its business conduct have somewhat dulled the aura of rectitude, conservatism and integrity that the spin merchants have had us accept for so many years. I have written before of a now deceased and very well regarded member of this Club that endeavored to have a motoring journalist removed from the Club for publicly airing the litany of repairs and faults that were identified in his acquired Silver Dawn.

This model was produced when I was at my most impressionable age. For comparison I had my Father’s 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster, a couple of examples of the very first Holden as well as a Morris Oxford, a Jowett Javelin, a Wolsely 6/80 and eventually my very own Rover P3 four light sports saloon (sigh). Most of these cars were in the neighborhood or were owned by friends of my parents. One of these people owned a brand new ‘F’ series Bentley Mk VI that was used daily but certainly in a domestic environment. I have to report that it was this car that seemed to require the most attention. The paintwork even in those days of very primitive chemistry was a source of considerable work for the body shop and the rust that appeared even in that pretty well controlled environment was of some concern. The steering wheel cracked very early on and had to be replaced, the servo groaned for years despite a number of attempts to fix it. The tyres lasted a matter of months before they had to be replaced and the chassis central lubrication system either hemorrhaged or ignored some parts of the chassis. By comparison and with the exception of the Holden, all the other cars plugged on with minimal maintenance and running costs. Yet today the Bentley Mk VI and derivative is an eye catcher, fun to drive and mechanically appealing even if challenging.

My choice for the ‘best’ model out of the post-war Factory would be a very late model Bentley S1 (sic) or should you want it a Silver Cloud. By then the Factory had got over its pre-war belief that it was paramount and unassailable and had realised that cars going out the door were what survival depended on not a reputation that had been built up from the legends of the Silver Ghost and subsequent chassis. Further the late S series cars had the last cast iron block, which with the right stuff in the radiator should almost last forever. And they enjoyed grease nipples.

The development of the vee eight engine while hailed as an engineering masterpiece, is now showing up as a disaster for the unwary enthusiast and a rerun of the magnificent Phantom III with its soluble engine. Already S3 engines are no longer available nor are replacement blocks. And while one hopes that previous owners have kept the right brew in the coolant chambers, apparently even the best maintained engines suffer corrosion to the point of destruction.

The greatest sadness I experience with these cars today is their loss of reputation. The young in general either have no interest whatsoever in the marque or regard it as some quaint vehicle from yesteryear. Ironically, the Factory having spent an enormous effort over the years prosecuting the use of the comparative ‘The Rolls-Royce of.’ to try and prevent dilution of the trademark, the term now is of no interest, use or meaning in almost any forum!

Finally while my remarks are critical and personal I still love the cars which mechanically have driven me to the bottle on many occasions and frankly I don’t care what the general population wants to hear about or witness with these cars, I will enjoy them for years to come as I have for the last 50 plus years.

Here are a couple of photos of my beautiful garden in Australia, and a shot of my neighbours over the fence!

  
Bill Coburn