It ranks high on the list of last places to look for classic Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. The meandering country two-lane bisects a large expanse of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania farmland. Upon cresting a berm saddled with a railroad crossing, the road descends to reveal a well tended but non-descript collection of linked single story beige structures with the character of warehousing. Au contraire, one has arrived at the Rolls-Royce and Bentley Museum and home to the Rolls-Royce Foundation and Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club. Much like an automotive Clark Kent there is far more here than first meets the eye.

On this particular clear and crisp late autumn day turning into the front parking area reveals an array of vintage and classic Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. One in particular snags the eye and demands greater scrutiny. A striking black and silver open wheel hot rod sporting a Bentley Flying “B” vibrates in place, poised to launch.

Meet the Black Adder VI Bentley Special.

The Black Adder VI, an Outrageous Hot Rod Bentley

Alex and Elaine in the Black Adder VI

Daresay that the chances approached nil. Surely Baron Henry de Blonay of Villa Favorite in Chembésy, Switzerland never thought about it at all. What were the chances that his new 1947 Bentley Mark VI would, 70 years later, be a cycle fendered, open cockpit hot rod named after a poisonous viper and seen cruising the back roads of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

While tracking ownership history of early postwar Bentleys ranks high on the frustration scale, much of the Black Adder’s last 75 years is known. Most of it resides in Mechanicsburg, PA.

My friend Henry Uiga greeted me. A Rolls-Royce owner, club member and Drivin’ News reader, Henry had extended Drivin’ News an invitation to the Rolls-Royce Club’s monthly Volunteer Saturday. On this scheduled day club members gathered at the Museum to service the Rolls-Royce and Bentley vehicles in the collection. Watching the members in action quickly dismissed any preconceived notions of an elitist membership dominated by the white glove crowd depicted in the iconic Grey Poupon Mustard ads. The men and women present and immersed in their hands-on work displayed a hardy respect for the 100 plus-year heritage of Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobiles including that featured in the fabled mid-century “Loudest thing is the clock” ads.

As I entered a workshop lined with vehicles representing a century of British engineering excellence, I had found Henry working on an open wheel roadster the likes of which I had never seen. It sported the Bentley Flying “B.”

Displaying an apparent Dry Lakes Racer/T-Bucket inspired visual execution and chassis number B46AK, this right-hand drive Bentley hot rod pleased the eye with a striking livery of a black passenger tub with saddle tan interior, black cycle fenders and silver aluminum bonnet. With Brooklands Type Racing Screens, leather hood straps and an athletic stance, this well conceived custom execution represented a consummate example of a breed of collectible Bentley, the modified Bentley “Special”.”

Starting life as what might be described as the entry level 1947 Bentley Mark VI, the Bentley Special concept came to life in the early 1960s. At that time, the poor quality sheet metal used in the early Post WWII Mark VI had almost universally fallen prey to the tin worm. In sharp contrast, owners found their Bentley Mark VI’s seriously deteriorated steel bodies to be mounted on rugged and reliable chassis with an equally capable drivetrain.

As a restored Mark VI did not possess a high value comparable to a Rolls-Royce Phantom or a Vintage Bentley, owners saw little merit in committing large sums of money to the restoration of a rusted hulk. However, the Mark VI did possess a rugged drivetrain and chassis pretty much regarded as bulletproof. The solution? Re-body and upgrade the remaining chassis to create a “Special” that reflected the personal tastes and interests of the individual who commissioned the restoration.

Woolf Barnato

Starting around 1963 in the UK, Bentley Specials became very popular. Many of the first re-creations emulated the vintage racing Bentley’s of the late 1920s and early 1930s. During that period Bentley had made its name in competitive motorsports with numerous victories including multiple wins in the 24-Hours of LeMans. At the same time, this period witnessed the heyday of adventuress part-time drivers, more sportsmen than professionals. They became known as gentlemen-drivers who would race their cars at the track and then drive the same cars home. Their ranks included Bentley drivers like Woolf Barnato, John Duff and Glen Kidston. These men, though not professional drivers, piloted Bentley’s to many impressive victories in the 1920s and 1930s earning them the name, the “Bentley Boys.”

Bentley “Specials” today offer non-professional drivers great enjoyment in vintage racing as well as rallies and tours. Utilizing open style bodywork and Bentley sourced performance upgrades, one prominent auction house states, “We admire these MK VI Specials, and think they best represent what a true British gentleman might create in lieu of an American hot rod.”

To get the real story behind the Museum’s chassis number B46AK Black Adder VI Special, Henry directed me to Mark Lizewskie, the Executive Director of both the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club and the Rolls-Royce Foundation. Mark said, “As with all the vehicles in our collection this Special came to us as a donation. Presented to us by the married couple of author, military historian and decorated Special Forces veteran James Stejskal and Ms. Wanda Nesbit, a United States diplomat and career Foreign Service Officer. the Black Adder VI entered the collection in 2017.”

James Young Coupe bodied Mark VI

The record seemed to indicate that chassis number B46AK started life in 1947 as a James Young Coupe bodied Mark VI. The subsequent search for any records covering the next 25 years drew a blank. Fortunately its history resurfaced in the 1970s when Johnard Engineering, located in Blandford, Dorset UK, re-bodied B46AK as a Bentley Special. Johnard possessed considerable renown for the superior technical and aesthetic execution of its Bentley Specials. Elton John owned one and another finished 4th in class in the 1997 Peking to Paris Challenge.

The 21st century saw B46AK experience a second re-bodying by the late Victor Yordy of Metal Works in Dewart, Pennsylvania. Many regarded Yordy as an artist who at times would create new art in the form of an automobile. B46AK’s beauty extended beneath the skin with all mechanicals undergoing a comprehensive performance upgrade by the Rolls-Royce specialists Pierce Reid and Billings Cook at The Vintage Garage in Stowe, Vermont. Billed as purveyors of superlative engine rebuilding, mechanical restoration and service since 1963, the end result affirmed their reputation. And so, the Black Adder VI came to life. As reported in The Flying Lady, “ The Black Adder VI is a formidable performer, with 90+ mph available in third gear alone; no one is exactly sure what the top speed is on this car. Equally at home on the track or on the road. It is in outstanding condition and a formidable performer. In short it embodies everything a Bentley Special should be.” In 2015 it received a Touring Class award at the RROC Annual Meet.

Mark in describing some of the technical upgrades said, “As with all Specials it reflects the owner’s specific taste and preferences. Mark continued saying, “It’s certainly not original. And after all, that is the point of a Special.”

In enhancing the original Bentley 4.3-liter inline 6-cylinder, the Black Adder features an R-type Continental big valve head and highly desirable R-type Continental manual center shift gearbox. Mark added to the list saying, “It’s upgrades include disc brakes, larger SU carburetors and numerous drivetrain tweaks.”  As to the actual engine and performance specs, Mark says, “It has never been on a dyno. But, together with the engine upgrades and the significant weight reduction due to the open cockpit re-body, performance has improved significantly.” Interestingly no base performance figures exist as Rolls-Royce/ Bentley never would publish them. With true British reserve, the corporate answer to questions about horsepower and performance was, “Adequate.”

Now came the time to bring the Black Adder out to play. Climbing behind the wheel would be Foundation volunteer Alex Sharpe. Alex said his lean physique, comfort with the right-hand steering and the four-speed found him taking the Black Adder out with the greatest frequency.

Elaine, my partner in crime, would be taking the passenger seat for the test drive. She noted that the interior while very nicely trimmed did feel quite confining. She said, “The tiny doors provided minimal easing of entry. I am glad I do a lot of yoga otherwise getting in and out would be a challenge.” In referring to my size twelve feet she just shook her head and said, “No way.”

Alex agreed saying, “The cockpit itself is very tight. It’s very shallow at the end so your seating is much more constrained and the relationship between you and the steering wheel is much different than people are used to in a modern vehicle.” Alex continued saying, “You sit tall in the seat with the door top in line with your kidneys. That together with the fact that instead of having a conventional windshield you have the Brooklyn screens makes for a very open cockpit.

Twitchy might be the best word for Alex’s description of the Black Adder’s handling. B46AK’s close coupled design positions the driver just forward of the rear axle while, much like an XK120 (Alex owns and drives one), the front end feels a mile away. Alex said, “It can create a dynamic that produces over steer.” With a wry smile Alex laughed saying, “I have not pushed it to the point where I can confirm my suspicions. I like being a volunteer here.”

In closing, when asked for any other comment he would have on the experience of driving the Black Adder VI Bentley Special. Alex said, “I just can’t wait to get out there and enjoy it more.”

Apparently being snake bit is not always a bad thing.