The ex-Prince Birabongse

1934 Bentley 3 Litre Sports Tourer

Coachwork by Vanden Plas

To say that Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh, Prince of Siam, came from a privileged background would be an understatement of epic proportions. The Royal family of Siam (now Thailand) were well positioned to educate their children in Europe and young Birabongse ('Bira') earned his place at the exclusive Eton College and later at Cambridge University. Sharing a house in London with his older cousin, Prince Chula, Bira studied sculpture under Charles Wheeler, spent money with a passion and indulged his mechanical bent with a succession of exceptionally fine and fast motorcars. The Brooklands circuit was but a short drive from his London home and Bira just could not stand and watch - he was a player and had to be part of the glamorous and highly dangerous motor sport that was going on there.

Bira had been taught to drive as a sixteen year old in 1930 by his elder brother, Abhas, at the wheel of cousin Chula’s Avions Voisin and he passed quickly through a succession of exotic sports cars starting with an MG Magna, moving on to an S-Type Low Chassis Invicta before in July 1934 cousin Chula took delivery of this 3 ½ litre Bentley for Bira, who at the time was barely twenty years of age. A handsome twenty year old Siamese Prince racing driver in such a spectacular car would certainly turn the heads and attract the attention of the 'paparazzi' (had the term been invented then) outside The Ritz in London and in Casino Square in Monte Carlo where Bira would play the 'Boule' table.

While the young prince was establishing his credentials on the race track with The White Mouse Stable it was the Bentley that provided regular transport between the Continental circuits, the speeding Bira honing his driving skills at the wheel of the ‘Silent Sports Car’. It was no coincidence that fellow racing drivers, Sir Malcolm Campbell, George Eyston, Earl Howe and Eddie Hall, amongst other giants of the motor racing fraternity, were to choose the Bentley marque as their regular transport. Most cars would seem tame compared with the excitement Bira obtained from his fast and neat driving at the wheel of MG Magnette, Riley Imp, Delage, Delahaye, Alfa Romeo and most famously ERA, but not the Bentley for which he had an obvious affection.

Prince Chula, in his book 'Wheels at Speed' records an epic journey in 'B152AH' in August 1935 from Geneva to the Tyrol, taking in the Great Saint Bernard, the Furka, the Oberlap, the Julier, the Bernina, the Stelvio and the Brenner passes, reporting that "the Bentley tackled all the mountains with the greatest of ease….. a kind of private Alpine Trial" In 1937 Bira unofficially joined the night practices at Le Mans in the Bentley:

I put down the hood … fixed some small aero screens in front of us, having folded down the big windscreen… pulled up the exhaust lever… the dial showed that the car was travelling between ninety-six and ninety-eight miles an hour… the Bentley behaved so well around the Arnage and Maison Blanc sections that I came up to the tail of an Alfa Romeo. The driver must have wondered who I was, as I seemed to have come from nowhere without even a racing number. On top of it all I had passed him in an ordinary touring car". There is no doubt that Raymond Sommer in the Works Alfa was both surprised and annoyed.

Bira reluctantly sold 'B152AH' in 1939, motor racing came to an abrupt end that year, and motor touring was ruled out for six years. What happened to 'B152AH' in the short term is a mystery but by the Swinging Sixties it was in the stable of colourful, and not a little controversial, British politician and Government Minister, the late Hon. Alan Clark, a connoisseur of objects of beauty – not just motorcars - and a sporting motorist with an impressive stable of fast collector’s cars. In 1991, following a rebuild, 'B152AH' participated in the demanding Mille Miglia Retrospective. Bira, who died in London in 1985, would have approved.

The 'Bira' Bentley was acquired by the current owner, a little-known private European enthusiast, some ten years ago and it has since remained largely out of the public eye. Its only appearance was at the 2002 Copenhagen Classic Grand Prix where it took third place against the Benjafield Racing Club’s Blowers. The owner reports: "Never lost a drop of oil. Never had any issues. I have probably covered less than 2,000 miles. Not a concours car by any means but in very decent condition…Still runs extremely smoothly. I believe the mileage to be around 50,000."

'B152 AH' is still appropriately liveried in light 'Siamese' blue as were all of Bira's racing cars. Imagine tackling those mountain passes with screen folded down and aero screens providing minimal protection for driver and brave passenger: the smooth six cylinder "Silent Sports Car" engine pulling strongly, the four-speed synchromesh gearbox positive in operation and the servo-assisted brakes coping well with the car's exhilarating performance – little wonder that this very Bentley satisfied the exacting demands of the highly competitive Bira. It will hold station well in modern traffic, combines the precision of Rolls-Royce engineering with the exquisite flowing bespoke coachwork design of Vanden Plas which had drawn the cultivated sculptor’s eye of Bira, and has a unique and romantic history redolent of a golden era.

Here is a car of undoubted provenance, well recorded in so many Bentley standard works, Chula's 'Wheels at Speed' and Bira's own biography, 'Bits and Pieces', and an asset to any collection.