Enjoy The Views From A Day Spent Chasing Behemoth Bentleys On A Welsh Rally
Photography by Will Broadhead
A bright, sun-drenched day in north Wales is a rarity, particularly in early autumn. The roads that cut slender ribbons through the dramatic scenery of the Snowdonia National Park are, more often than not, coated in precipitation of one form or another. Even more rare than pleasant weather would be the sight of 30 or so pre-war cars dancing along some of the best stretches of asphalt in the British Isles, but on the last weekend of September that is exactly what visitors to this picturesque corner of the kingdom were treated to as the Benjafield’s Racing Club Welsh Wonder rally took place.
The Benjafield’s Club is steeped in history and tradition—named after Dr J.D. Benjafield, one of the original “Bentley Boys” who raced for the famous Le Mans-conquering team of the 1920s—the club was formed in the same spirit of camaraderie and adventure, so it is no surprise that over the years its members have campaigned many important historic cars and have taken part in rallies across Europe, Asia, and the United States, both club-organized and through external associations. The members drive hard, party hard, and hold a well-respected reputation amongst their peers in the automotive community, so I was delighted to be invited to cover their late season jaunt into the Welsh hills.
While the members drive a great many marques, unsurprisingly vintage Bentleys are at the nucleus of the club’s activities, and it was no surprise then that 80% of the cars competing in the Wonder were Cricklewood cars of varying capacities, including the odd ex-works machine, as well as the smattering of motor cars from Talbot, Lea Francis, and Lagonda. It made for a tremendous sight as scrutineering was conducted in the shadow of Thornton Hall, the pre-war behemoths towering over their modern counterparts in the late afternoon sunshine as drinks were enjoyed, machines were fettled with for the umpteenth time, and map books were pored over in preparation for the very serious business of competition that would commence at day-break.
The following day, before the sun rose, I made my way through the deserted machines that stood stoically against the thinning gloom as the last shades of night ebbed away. As the sun began to creep into the sky, drivers and navigators started to appear as well, and engines were fired up to fill the air with plumes of condensation and oil smoke and the gratifying din of large-capacity motors. The beginning of a rally, any type, is always exciting; whether an epic voyage across countries and continents or simply a day of competitive driving on some fabulous roads, the anticipation at the start becomes almost tactile. First up for these machines was a series of off-road stages through the grounds of the nearby Thornton Manor that would certainly clear away the cobwebs and give me the first confirmation, as if I needed any, that all of these crews were going to be really using these machines, not parade them daintily around patches of dirt and water.
I received another reminder of the gusto with which the drivers would set about this competition when I left to chase the cars down as they scrambled to cross the border into Wales. Guesstimating the competitors’ pace, I had planned my point of interception ahead of time, but once I arrived there I found that I had got my calculations wildly wrong, catching only the tail end of the field. These guys meant business, and as I cursed them for their speed—as a fabulous trio of beautiful green Talbot 105s thundered past—I was also delighted that I was in the presence of a group of drivers that fully appreciated what their 90-year-old machines were still capable of.
My mistake was not repeated, and the rest of the day was a mixture of photographing fabulous motor cars and enjoying the stunning route for myself. The traffic in this part of the world is fleeting, and it felt as if we had the space almost to ourselves. The sun reflected brightly off of the blacktop for most of the day, and when it neglected to make an appearance later on it was replaced by fabulous cloud formations gathering above the domineering peaks of Snowdonia, a fitting crown for this majestic location.
In some places the roads narrowed to steep switchbacks cut into the ancient hills, small rivers were crossed, and dirt tracks were navigated handily as the Bentleys and their cousins pushed on, deeper into Wales. It was exciting even in the sanitized environment of my modern saloon, so the challenge and the enjoyment of completing the rally in the monstrous pre-war machines, whilst navigating with tulip diagrams, must have been tremendous.
Complete it they did though, and while there were one or two mechanical gremlins to overcome in the course of doing so, the day passed without major incident, for our group at least. Sadly, there were other accidents on the roads of Wales that day, reminding us of the very real dangers of our location and also prompting a radical re-route of a rally that was not relying on modern technology. This meant that I was to miss the cars through the incredible descent and ascent of World’s End and the fabulous route through swathes of purple heather as the road intercepts the earthworks of Offa’s Dyke. If the hard charging Bentleys and their ilk enjoyed it half as much as I did though, then their days rallying in the Welsh mountains would have concluded as it had begun, with wide smiles and tremendous satisfaction.
For my money, cars, regardless of their age and provenance, shouldn’t be consigned to a life as museum pieces if they don’t need to be. While the Welsh Wonder was by no means the toughest driving test ever undertaken by the members of the Benjafield’s club, it serves as a marker that vintage and classic cars can be driven despite their age. It was a pleasure to be in amongst a group of enthusiasts that use their cars this way, and I look forward to enjoying the wonderful views of these pre-war machines on the roads in the future.