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To put back together an old car that someone else has taken apart is never easy.
When that car is a 1950s Bentley S1 Continental the problems only multiply.
Matthew Rees freely admits that he was no Bentley expert when he embarked on this rebuild, but nor was he intimidated by the task in hand, so perhaps his naïvety was an ally when it came to taking on the job.
Once he began to understand a little more about the car, and about the person who took it apart, the Welshman’s task became easier.
Ernie Warrender, who I got to know almost 20 years ago through our joint enthusiasm for the Daimler Majestic Major, bought the James Young-bodied Continental nine years ago because it was cheaper than an HJ Mulliner Flying Spur (he likes a bargain) and made an interesting stablemate for his S1 fastback.
But after using the James Young for a while, Warrender got windy about some paint bubbles on the sills.
Even when subsequent investigations revealed the structure to be sound, he embarked on the task of taking it apart anyway, having satisfied himself that its mileage of 31,000 was genuine and that it really was a three-owner car.
Given that the colourful business-equipment tycoon was not a great fan of the “funereal” Mason’s Black original paintwork, this was at least a chance to change the colour.
So he took the big car to pieces, reducing it over several months to a rolling shell, still with its drivetrain in place but denuded of paint, glass and interior trim.
Then life – and other cars – got in the way and the restoration was becalmed.
In fact, had I not introduced Warrender to Rees the Continental might still be sitting in one of his rustic sheds in the form of a very expensive giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
A former engineer and director of a major manufacturing company, Rees has an approach to restoring cars that is as forensic as it is logical and practical, but this is combined with an eye for controlling costs doubtless nurtured by his background.
So I casually mentioned to Warrender that a certain Mr Rees of Swansea, having just finished a mammoth rebuild of a BMW 635CSi and now looking to exit the rat race by turning his hobby into a profession, might be just the person to put the James Young S1 back together – not just economically, but also to a very high standard.
Rees travelled to Bromyard to inspect the car, which was essentially very sound, and meet the owner.
They struck an instant friendship, came to a deal that kept both men happy, and the Continental was soon wending its way to Wales.
“The initial challenge was that it arrived as a rolling shell with 16 boxes containing parts all thrown together and various loose larger items,” explains Rees.
“So I bought 44-compartment storage boxes and filled 10 of them. It took a whole 10 days to sort them out.”
Rees, who is as considered as Warrender can be rash, kept momentum going through the inevitable snags, such as the issue of missing parts: “I couldn’t find the badges anywhere until I stripped the radiator grille and discovered a package taped up inside the top of it that contained every crest.”
By that stage Warrender had spent hours rooting through a metal shipping container on his farm, on the hottest day of 2020, looking for the badges, losing half a stone in the process.
Sadly, the exterior door finishers were certainly missing, and they were no longer available anywhere.
“I looked into getting special tooling made,” recalls Rees, “but when the quote of £44,000 came back it was a no-go.”
Rees had previously worked at a specialist stainless-steel production company, so was used to looking for unique items: “I spent a day searching online and eventually came across a firm that produced a plasterboard finisher.
“Part of that finisher was the exact shape of moulding we required.”
He continues: “I bought two lengths, trimmed them to suit and they were a perfect fit; they are identical to the originals and the price was just £29.95.
“Ernie announced at that point that he was going to marry me…”
Rees found the quality of the product to be incredible: “Everything was built in layers. You had to get every layer right or the next one wouldn’t fit.
“The door assemblies alone take hours to strip down and rebuild, held together by hundreds of BA-thread screws.”
Maintaining these standards throughout was key; one rear door, for instance, was removed and refitted a total of 14 times.
“Even then I still wasn’t 100% happy and poor Adrian, who worked with me on the body, looked as if he had lost the will to live.
“But then Ernie came to view it, and pointed out that the shutlines were probably better than had come from James Young in period.”
Several specialist areas were challenging, such as the structural woodwork that was rotten around the rear window: “I was hugely lucky to find a patternmaker locally who did an incredible job.
“Eurwyn Rees had worked on horse-drawn carriages at a museum and the techniques were all the same.
“Eurwyn enjoyed himself so much that he ended up staying, and he and I refitted the interior woodwork together.
“The tolerances were simply incredible. They were unlike any other vehicle I had worked on and we realised it was because it had been handmade by craftsmen.
“Some days you would fit several pieces and others just one… if you were lucky.”
In the end, though, it all lined up perfectly.
“The acid test was when we took it all off again and refitted it, and it still lined up – so we knew we had got it right.”
Some bits, however, didn’t want to fit anywhere.
“I spent hours trying to figure out where these panels I had just had painted fitted,” recalls Rees.
“I was certain they belonged in the boot, but they didn’t. I phoned Ernie three times; he was adamant they went under the car.
“So I sent him pictures, and they turned out to be from his Land-Rover: that was three hours of my life I‘ll never get back!”
One of the hardest jobs was getting the original heated rear window working: “The spade connectors snapped off when a previous restorer removed it, so I ended up getting some specialist conductive epoxy resin and carefully bonding-in two ’50s sewing pins that had been soldered to heavy-duty cable.
“It sounds a bit Heath Robinson, but it works and everything is embedded in resin so you’d never know.”
Whatever was original and still serviceable inside the car was saved and brought back to life with cleaning, such as the carpets and the headliner.
Where new parts were required, Flying Spares and IntroCar came up trumps.
Somewhat in contrast to the quest for originality, Warrender wanted a modern in-car entertainment system; naturally, it had to blend in perfectly with the interior, with no jarring out-of-period hardware on display.
So Rees found a retro-look head unit at the local Jaguar Land Rover dealer that was a fraction of the price of more well-known German brands, with built-in sat-nav, Bluetooth and DAB.
Patternmaker Eurwyn created bespoke housings in the front door pockets and rear C-pillars for the Competition Boston Acoustics speakers that were felt to be in a style of which James Young would have approved.
They were finished off with veneers to match the rest of the interior and period Tannoy badges.
Part of the skill of tackling a big, complicated 60-year-old car, and completing it within a sensible timescale and budget, is carefully choosing people to whom you are happy to outsource specialist jobs.
So although Matthew Rees was hands-on, he enjoyed working with the different trades needed to restore a handbuilt car such as this.
“I’m really lucky to have found similarly minded craftsmen with hard-to-find skills and enthusiasm,” he says.
“Given enough time, we could pretty much tackle anything.”
Local lock specialist Swansea Timber & Plywood did an incredible job rebuilding the Yale barrels, none of which locked when the car arrived in Wales.
Interestingly, the signature James Young square-button doorhandles had metric screws, so Rees suspects they could be French in origin.
The cream leather, essentially in good condition, was refinished by GCJ Automotive Reconditioning – twice, because the team wasn’t happy with the first attempt.
Also mentioned in dispatches are Rolls-Royce specialist Glen Grindrod, who provided much-appreciated technical guidance, and London dealer Graeme Hunt, who was selling a similar car and happily emailed enlightening photos when Rees was stumped by an obscure detail.
He also helped Warrender settle on his choice of Rolls-Royce Pewter for the paintwork.
Ian Davis and panelbeater/sprayer Adrian Neale excelled themselves with the body.
The coachlines on the flanks were applied freehand by signwriters, with matching beauty lines on the hubcaps.
These were done, logically enough, on a potter’s wheel initially, then by hand when that method didn’t prove accurate enough.
“He only wanted to charge £80,” says Rees, “but for the time and skill he put in I insisted on giving him a much more appropriate amount.”
Getting the engine running was no real problem.
Retired 79-year-old master mechanic Alun Davis – father of painter Ian – tuned it by ear, and was so chuffed to be working on such a beautiful piece of machinery that he wouldn’t take any money – so Warrender bought him the finest malt whisky he could find.
As light began to appear at the end of the tunnel, more information about the history of the Bentley started to emerge.
The original buyer, Victor Ercolani, made himself a pile of money producing television cabinets.
A scion of the famous furniture-making family, Ercolani had a preference for James Young bodywork and presumably had no trouble finding the £8000 required to buy the Continental.
At some point his wife reputedly suffered some kind of life-changing injuries while riding in the Bentley: there was evidence of some very well-repaired damage on one front wing to corroborate this.
The mileage was supported by contacting the dealer whose sticker was still in the rear window. He serviced the James Young for the Ecrolanis and confirmed that they rarely used it.
At the time it wore Victor’s private number, VE25, which is now on a modern Mercedes.
It was also established that at some point the S1 lived in France – hence the Marchal parking lights – and was one of the many Rolls-Royce and Bentley models exported to America in the early ’70s, when the weakness of sterling against the dollar made such cars look temptingly inexpensive.
The elegance of the £2500-cheaper Standard Steel S-types and Silver Clouds probably contributed to the demise of coachbuilt models such as the James Young Continentals as much as the technical challenges of monocoque construction.
Even so, this Bentley is a leaner-looking car in the metal than any factory body.
Inside, the dash – refurbished with the help of Michael’s Wood Restoration in Brighton – sweeps elegantly into the door cappings, with delicate figuring of the gleaming walnut and instruments behind the steering column for a more rakish feel.
The column itself was bespoke, 2in shorter, for the not notably tall Ercolani.
The seats recline and are surprisingly slim, but there is still not much head- or legroom in the rear.
As in the Mulliner Flying Spurs, the dinky rear doors make elegant ingress and exit tricky.
This car has the later combination of an 8.2:1 compression engine with 2in SU carburettors.
Warrender prefers the simplicity of this 4.9-litre, c180bhp straight-six to the later V8s, which are thirstier and marginally less refined in some ways.
It accelerates briskly, with a remote hiss of discreet power and only a suggestion of slur between third and top in the automatic gearbox.
There was no particular attempt to make the Continental radically lighter than the Standard Steels, so extra speed comes by way of a higher compression ratio and less frontal area.
Hills are irrelevant, and it throttles down to 800rpm in top.
Massive and powerful, the twin-master cylinder, twin-front-circuit drum brakes will put this hefty, rather firm-riding car on its nose when asked, and you can control its bulk with surprising delicacy through the power steering, which really does just assist rather than take over.
Warrender reckons he can get 20mpg from his S1 fastback; the James Young returns a touch less, but is still very usable and driveable with a tight, rattle-free feel.
Complemented by 20kg of modern soundproofing, the quality of that much-agonised-over sound system is exquisite.
Tenacity and attention to detail were the routes to success in this job, which was finished in a remarkable 10 months.
“You could never say ‘that will do’ because James Young’s craftsmen would never have said that,” says Rees, who admits to some eerie feelings while building the car.
“I could occasionally feel a sort of guiding hand, almost as if those craftsmen were willing the Bentley back to life.
“Such as when I realised I was short of a unique fixing for the front wing, one I had never seen in the 4500 nuts, bolts and screws I’d already sorted: somehow, I found it immediately in the first box I opened.”
Rees is satisfied that the S1 is now as close to a new car as possible, as tight as if it had just left the factory yesterday: “Working with Ernie was a joy, and I must have done something right because I’ve now got three years’ work ahead of me doing his AC Ace and S1 fastback!”
Images: Max Edleston
James Young Coachbuilders, 1863-1968
Like most of the great names, James Young of Bromley started out building bodies for horse-drawn vehicles.
On merging with Gurney Nutting as part of the Jack Barclay group in 1937 the firm was exclusively aligned with Rolls-Royce, although it had already bodied a variety of exotic Continental makes: for a while it was the official Alfa Romeo coachbuilder for the UK market.
It was an innovative firm pre-war, listing firsts such as a headliner that reduced drumming and a sliding-door patent that was later sold to VW for its vans.
It was the last official independent coachbuilder for Royce and Bentley chassis and, with 120 staff making 60 bodies a year, was second only to HJ Mulliner in producing bespoke MkVIs and R-types in the 1940s and ’50s.
Having achieved a peak of elegance with its 1959-on Phantom V Touring Limousines, in the ’60s the firm struggled to adapt to monocoque technology. It also lost the light touch and feel for proportion of gifted stylist AF McNeil.
The firm disappeared with a whimper in 1968, with a plain-Jane interpretation on the two-door Silver Shadow/T1 theme, of which just 50 were sold.
A decade earlier, the launch of the S-type Continental resulted in a flourish of creativity. Where R-types had been the preserve of HJM and Park Ward, for the S-type official sanction was given to a James Young four-door.
Design number CT29 was a handsome four-light shape first seen in 1957 and built to the tune of 16 cars.
There were a further four two-doors, and in both cases they are similar to the Mulliner Flying Spurs: the only real giveaways are the unbroken swage line and JY’s famous square door buttons.
Most HJM S1 Flying Spurs were six-lights, and when the S2 was introduced James Young followed suit.
It built a further 61 four-doors (and a handful of Silver Clouds with the same body) through to the demise of the S3 in 1966.
Bentley S1 Continental James Young four-door
- Sold/number built 1957-’59/16
- Construction steel chassis, aluminium body
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 4887cc ‘F-head’ straight-six, twin SU carbs
- Max power not disclosed
- Max torque not disclosed
- Transmission four-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension at front independent, by wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted cam and roller
- Brakes drums, with gearbox-driven servo
- Length 17ft 8in (5385mm)
- Width 6ft 1in (1854mm)
- Height 5ft 1in (1549mm)
- Wheelbase 10ft 3in (3124mm)
- Weight 4500Ib (2041kg)
- 0-60mph 10.6 secs
- Top speed 115mph
- Mpg 14
- Price new £7913
- Price now £300,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication