he beauty of this Lagonda’s rakish design speaks
for itself – especially when you realise that it was
designed in 1938 and not a decade later. The lines
are so elegant that you don’t need to be told this is
an expensive car; it tells you. But what really makes
a Lagonda V12 special is what lies beneath the
skin – the fruits of WO Bentley’s eight-point plan
to create – with a small and select team – the best
car in the world. Cost no object. With the drive of a
man still stinging from his treatment by Rolls-Royce
after it took over the company that bore his name,
Bentley’s team took it from a mission statement and
a blank sheet of paper to Lagonda’s stand at the 1936
Olympia Motor Show in only 15 months. This feat was nothing
short of a miracle, even if some of the engine parts on the show car
had to be hurriedly carved in the carpentry shop.
These V12s were priced
accordingly, for those who could
afford the very best, which meant
just 190 were built between 1938
and 1940, and only around 53 of
those were drophead coupés on the
shortest of the three chassis lengths
offered. It is one of those dropheads
- back in the UK for the first time
since 1987 – that we’ve jumped at the
chance to drive today. Our intention
is to find out just how advanced
something can be from an era that was happy with Austin Tens,
rudimentary suspension and minimal brakes.
The suicide door swings wide to allow entry in a dignified,
stylish manner. It’s fitting. This is a machine that ticks all the
presentation boxes. As with all self-respecting luxury cars of the
era that kicks off with an imposing pair of giant Lucas headlamps,
complemented here by a single ‘cyclops’ spotlamp flanked by two
large and elaborate chrome-plated horns.
The view from the cabin is no less imposing, the substantial
bonnet thrusting between the rolling landscape of wings and
wheel covers. The nacelled sidelights that sit on top of the wings
are great for guiding the car by, but the offside mirror proves
largely useless for seeing anything with. I find a handy substitute
in the chrome-domed rear of the hand-turnable spotlamp
mounted to the screen pillar. It inadvertently provides a clear
wide-angle view of all behind and to the side.
Starting requires no fiddling with choke controls or pumping
of throttle, I’m told. Just move the hand-throttle control on the
steering boss up a bit to keep the idle high while it warms up, turn
the key and press the right one of several unmarked red buttons
on the dashboard. I guess this is one of those, ‘If one has to ask...’
things. Without drama the V12 simply comes to life and purrs,
though it’s more the purr of a cheetah than a domestic tabby.
Time to escape this industrial corner of Essex head for some of
the open countryside that is in abundance as soon as you head
north from pretty much anywhere along the A13 corridor.
As you might expect, even for an ancient design of V12, it’s a
smooth engine, whirring like a giant generator as you accelerate.
It is remarkably flexible too, pulling strongly in any gear once you
are rolling, so I tend to just use the higher ones unless an extra
burst of power is needed. That’s
where this engine really stands
out from its contemporaries and
excels as a cutting-edge piece of
design – it loves to rev. It is easiest to
compare the V12 to its six-cylinder
stablemate, offered in the same
or similar bodies and also classed
as a 4.5-litre though it has 27cc
fewer. That produces its 140bhp at
4000rpm, which in itself wasn’t bad
for its day. But the V12 spins happily
on to make a racy 175bhp at 5500rpm. Those are the bragging
rights buyers were paying the big premium for.
The seats are comfortable, if a little roly-poly, and there’s
nothing in the way of side support, though that was rarely a
consideration in the Thirties anyway, and certainly not in cars
for rich folk to waft around in. In a way it is like a period Bentley,
though even smoother and you sit much lower in the car.
The gear lever is oddly sprung to the left-and-back-for-reverse
plane. I need to hold it lightly against that pressure to find first.
That aside, it works like a regular four-speed, but always having
to lean against that spring pressure. Learn that and there’s a lovely
slick mechanical feel to the shift, the long lever topped by what
looks like a giant round humbug with swirls of brown and cream.
It’s almost good enough to lick.
‘The gear lever is
topped by what
looks like a giant
Styling is by Frank
Feeley, who later
drew the Aston DB2