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Jim, please use this link to forwardWheel People to a colleague or friend. AC/DC's Brian Johnson meets his match ... a 1928 Bentley.
Brian Johnson laments that, in a couple of decades or so, car enthusiasts might not know the pleasure of hearing a high-performance engine. The electric cars we’ll be driving, he believes, will need electronic add-ons that mimic engine sounds to help keep drivers interested.
There’s no need for such gadgetry in one of Johnson’s favorite cars, a 1928 Bentley 4-1/2 liter Vanden Plas Le Mans Tourer. The car, which he nicknamed “Thunder Guts,” makes a raw, honest sound that might be described as the automotive equivalent of the power-drive rock music of AC/DC, the band Johnson has been singing for since 1980. Last year, the group completed the world’s second-highest-ever grossing concert tour.
When Johnson is not recording or on tour, he spends quality time with his cars, including a number of vintage racing machines, such as his 1965 Lola T70. His wife, Brenda, vintage-races a 1957 Austin-Healey “Bugeye” Sprite.
“A car I’d dreamed of owning all my life was one of the racing Bentleys,” said Johnson. “I never even saw one in England until two years ago. I was having lunch with a friend in Henley, outside of London. Just as we sat down on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, this old chap wearing goggles came barreling by in one. I said, ‘I’ve got to have one.’" Two months later, he got one.
In the late 1920s, the 4-1/2 liter Bentley was one of several models that established the brand as a racing force in the hands of the “Bentley Boys.” These were wealthy driving enthusiasts who essentially saved the company from collapse and won races with their own cars, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans four years in a row, 1927-1930.
Hard-rocking Bentley Boy Johnson enjoys the effort needed to drive the vintage machine. “Just starting it is like starting an airplane,” he said. “It’s magnetos in, dynamo out, power on, gas on, advance ignition timing, and hit start. When it starts, it sounds like the hounds of hell coming for you – and they’re really hungry. It gives you respect for the guys who raced them. The brakes -- you get a shock when you try to stop it.”
That doesn’t stop Johnson from driving the Bentley around his American home in Sarasota, Fla. “I take it to get the morning paper,” he said. The car is a big hit at the Sarasota Café Racers club lunches that Johnson attends when he’s in town. Even drivers of the latest exotics turn and watch in admiration as he maneuvers the big green beast into a parking slot. Sometimes, he parks next to a similar 1930 Bentley belonging to another member. Johnson isn't afraid to take the Bentley out on the track.
The Bentley doesn’t have an exotic V12 or even an eight-cylinder engine, but rather a big, raucous four-cylinder that made 110 horsepower (130 hp for racing). The overhead camshaft, four valves per cylinder and dual spark plugs per cylinder were pretty cutting edge for the time, however. These Bentleys were derisively -- or affectionately -- called trucks in their day, for their rather crude (but effective) demeanor.
Johnson also tools around Sarasota in a new Rolls-Royce, or, when staying in his London home, a Fiat 500. He’s been a car enthusiast since he was a boy. His father, a steelworker, built Brian his first “car” by attaching an old steering wheel to a piece of wood and mounting it over his bed. “I ‘drove’ for hours. I didn’t see wallpaper, I saw roads,” Johnson said.
As a young man in England, Johnson's first real car was a 1959 Ford Popular. “It had two doors, three gears and one windshield wiper that worked off engine vacuum, so the faster you drove, the slower the wiper worked,” he explained. “It was a bloody awful car, made worse by a beige exterior with a salmon-pink interior. But it got me out of the house. It was the car that I first kissed freedom in as a youngster. Without the wheels, I wouldn’t have been able to go out and perform in the little bands I was in.”
Johnson details that first car and others in his book, “Rockers and Rollers, An Automotive Autobiography," currently available in the U.K. and to be published in the U.S. this spring.
Photos courtesy of Marty Schorr.
Know a "wheel person" I should consider profiling? Call me. - Jim Koscs (973-949-5188).