Behind Closed Doors: William MEDcalf, Vintage Bentley Specialist

We talk doughnuts, HAMMERS and family HOLIDAYS with this most unexpected of Vintage Bentley Workshops

4y ago

I know that you should never assume – something about making a donkey out of both parties – but I’ll admit that as I was driving down to West Sussex I had some preconceptions about the sort of person William Medcalf would be. I had pretty clear thoughts on what his vintage Bentley workshop would be like too. The hand that stretched out to greet me would, I thought, be protruding from a tweed sleeve and the building that the grey haired gentleman then showed me slowly around would have an air of charming chaos. A perhaps romantically ramshackle business built on nostalgia and copious mugs of tea.

The showroom and workshop near Liss in West Sussex.

The showroom and workshop near Liss in West Sussex.

‘So, over here is our CAD [Computer Aided Design] suite’ says William (a man not ten years older than me) pretty much as soon as we walk into the workshop. ‘We 3D-print parts too’ he tells me very mater of factly moments later ‘It just makes complete sense for rapid prototyping’. CAD, 3D printing, Rapid prototyping.... Preconceptions well and truly poleaxed.

William Medcalf

William Medcalf

Let's go back to the start...

Before we go any further it seems wise to find out where it all started. ‘It’s my father’s fault really’ William tells me ‘When I was five years old, my father’s idea of a family holiday was 28,000 miles around North America with my two sisters and my mother. So, nine months on the road living in a vintage Bentley. That was really cool.’

The car they used was a 3/4.5 but apparently his father had a friend adventurous enough to accompany them and he had a Speed 6. ‘When we got back my dad said “Enough is enough. The Speed 6 just keeps pulling away on all the hills.” So he bought a Speed 6, which is there…’ he says, pointing to the far corner of the showroom where a leviathan of a dark green Bentley resides.

The Medcalf family runabout

The Medcalf family runabout

‘I learned to drive in that. Looked after it, maintained it and learnt about Bentleys through working on our own car. I trained as an engineer and I was going to go into the plastics industry but we had a family yard and dad said “Look, there’s an empty lock up garage, why don’t you work for yourself and have your own business and work on vintage Bentleys?”. I thought I’d give it six months, so I took a bag of spanners and started in a lock up garage in North London. And the business just grew and grew. That was 22 years ago. Six years ago we moved here because we’d outgrown the family yard and we’re now almost at capacity. Booked up to 2018.’

The Coal Face

Walking through to the workshop (accessed via a locked security door), it is clear there is little or no leeway here, with every bay holding a car in a greater or lesser state of completion. ‘This is the coal face’ Says Medcalf ‘Rally prep, restoration, preservation etc.’ He begins walking me down the line of cars on the left, pointing out interesting details and peculiarities or outlining their current usage. ‘This is an original 3-litre car with a one-off body. The guy loves the shabby chic look, but it’s just completed the flying scotsman rally.

‘Last year that one did 16,000 competitive miles between May and October. Won the European Cup on the Peking to Paris. It’s 200bhp, 1480kg fully loaded, weight distribution 50:50 – you can hang the back out. It’s a fantastic car but that’s how we expect them to work’ he says, matter of factly.

To be honest I’m glad I’ve got my dictaphone running because I was so gobsmacked by the first piece of information that I didn’t listen to the rest. I mean, 16,000 competitive miles in six months! In something built the best part of a century ago. Extraordinary.

The fact that so many of these cars compete in historic rallies has shaped Medcalf’s approach to the business as a whole. ‘If you’re involved in the rally world you know that something has to be ready when the boat leaves’ he says. As a result he likes deadlines. Even on cars without any specific competition or event to attend he has a contract drawn up saying that the car will be finished by a certain date.

‘Focusses the mind. Focusses the whole business’ he says ‘Suddenly it’s not a quaint old garage where we’re fixing a few cars, it’s a business and we’ve got to meet deadlines. We have to invest in tooling and invest in stock. There’s not a little corner where we’ve got a project car going on or something that we’re going to do in our spare time. Every inch of this place is a factory and it works. As Mr. Bentley had in period.’ Every minute of every hour is captured in Medcalf’s workshop and every part is traceable. There are no doubt many modern car dealerships run to far less exacting standards.

Power to the people

As we walk between the huge narrow wheels and differing styles of bodywork, I notice the dyno in the corner of the workshop. ‘Every unit we build goes in there for between eight and 12 hours’ explains Medcalf ‘Different modes, different speeds. We run it in, we max it out, we see what the output is. Data. I want data. I want to be able to say to my client “There is a graph with your power curve on it. Do you want any more?”’

Apparently it can be as little as five hours from dyno to an engine being in the car and driving down the road. ‘There is a 4.5-litre on there at the moment - last run in about 1968’ continues Medcalf ‘We’ve stripped it and been through it all, put new crank and rods in it. We saved quite a bit because the last guy that rebuilt it did a good job, but we can build an entire new engine from scratch, from nothing. Every single component we manufacture. We’ve done it too, because some people want to take their original engine out, put it in their office and put a new engine in the car.’

It seems like the ideal time to wander down a corridor to the engine building room ‘I think we’ve currently got 13 engines on the go. Which is enough.’ Says Medcalf.

They build their own parts and he shows me some of the cranks and rods that they produce. It’s beautifully hefty engineering.‘A Bentley engine only revs to about 3500rpm - that’s all they ever did’ he explains ‘This is rated to about 7000rpm, so you’re never going to break it. The rods are unbreakable, because that’s how we like things. We can build someone an engine and say “go race it” because that’s what Mr Bentley did in period. The car’s were over-engineered, to the point where he gave a five year guarantee in 1922.’

AS W.O. would have wanted

If this over-engineering sounds somehow crude, then think again. It’s merely fit-for purpose and in the spirit of what W.O. himself did. Medcalf is actually investing in producing proper parts again for the first time in 80-odd years. ‘For the last 60 or 70 years people have been manufacturing parts quite crudely to keep these old cars on the road and they haven’t taken the time to put the finesse into things. So that’s a sand casting of a water pump’ he says, handing me one he’s picked off a bench ‘and it’s very heavy and chunky. Originally these were die-cast, now that tooling is hugely expensive, but there are other ways’ he continues, handing me another water pump that is far more precisely executed ‘We’re the first people in 80 years to market that with the sort of finesse and detail that the original had. We’re reviewing all the castings on a vintage Bentley and investing the finances to produce quality components again.’ I think W.O. would have been pleased with William’s work.

While Medcalf said earlier that there weren’t any project cars going on, he is in fact working with Surrey University on a KTP (Knowledge Transfer Partnership) modelling an entire 4.5-litre engine to see how far it could theoretically be pushed. Asking why something doesn’t rev to 5500rpm and produce 250bhp might not sound very cutting edge, but it is in fact bringing a Formula 1 approach to a Vintage Bentley engine.

Upstairs to the first ever supercar

Heading upstairs, William points out a bare chassis on the floor, surrounded by trolleys full of parts. In all honesty I would have walked right on by but… ‘That’s EXP4, one of the most historic Bentleys on the planet’ he tells me. There are probably half a dozen more cars up here in various states of repair, but the one in the corner is particularly special to Medcalf. It’s the first ever Supersports (arguably the world’s first ever supercar) and it’s William’s own machine. He found it 15 years ago and as well as being rallied he uses it as something of an R&D car for testing parts. Despite being one of just 18 cars built, it is the opposite of a garage queen and if he talks about driving it hard and hanging the tail out, you can be certain that he means it…

We head past the trim department which consists of Mark, who has been trimming Bentleys for the last 14 years and looks like he’s got more than enough work to keep him going for another 28. Then it’s down a couple of steps, through a rough wooden door and we’re into a shelved treasure trove of new parts for old cars.

It’s dimly lit and there is a sense that we might have been transported to an address on Diagon Alley. It feels like a small room but that’s because it’s so crammed with wondrous components. Wandering between the aisles I get the same sense of wide-eyed desire that I had as a boy ambling between rows of Bburago and Tamiya in a toy shop. There is literally everything you can imagine. Several Vintage Bentleys must be in here in component form.

All the doughnuts you can give it

William shows me a standard diff cage and then, for comparison, one of his solid billet rally diff cages, which will take 200bhp and ‘all the doughnuts you can give it’. They also produce accessories for the Vintage Bentley owner and I’m drawn to the gleaming copper hammers. ‘We got bored of these’ says Medcalf, picking up an old one made by someone else ‘because they’re inaccurate and not correct. So, we copied the original design that you see in the [Bentley] brochure. You can have a shiny one, or some people like things worn and used, so we put them in the workshop for a month, get the guys to use them and then charge a tenner more.’

All this is hugely impressive, but also seems like a massive undertaking for a business of this size. Medcalf explains: ‘The strength behind our business is our manufacturing business. It’s the smallest part of our business but it gives us our strength to be able to deliver, so we can shake hands and say “right we can get the car finished on time”. Equally if a car rolls in with something wrong on a Friday Night we can have it roll out again on a Saturday Morning because we’ve got the parts on site. We’re the largest supplier of vintage Bentley Parts in the market. We supply everybody.’

Remote repairs

Bentley originally made just over 3000 cars new and Medcalf reckons there are about 2600 left now, which is quite some testament to their solidity. It also means there is a decent pool of cars for Willam Medcalf to work on without ever straying from the company’s self-imposed 1922 to1932 bracket (don’t try to book in a Mulsanne Turbo). They do a sort of out of office service too and Medcalf has been known to fly people at a moment’s notice to remote corners of the world to replace parts and fix cars so that they can continue in a rally. Of course, as he points out, if the cars had been fitted with Medcalf parts in the first place…

I could spend days in the showroom alone (viewing by appointment) and I could write plenty of words about the brief ride I had in a car with William driving (the overtake had me laughing out loud). Then there are the stories from the 24-hour race he staged at Portimao recently with 21 pre-war cars and the Double Twelve race that he’s planning. There are the bits from Bentley engined aeroplanes and specific cars with extraordinary tales to tell. There is just so much to talk about. So much, I think as I drive away, that will have to wait for another time. So much that was very unexpected…

Photography: Dean Smith

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Comments (2)

  • very interesting read...surprising how successful the shop is given the relative small number of cars around...2600 does not seem like a lot

      4 years ago
  • love it :) nice story

      4 years ago