1947 Bentley Mark VI Coachworks By Franay
CHASSIS NUMBER B 20 BH
Universally recognized as the most successful and expensive post war Bentley/Rolls-Royce automobile of all time, with the Concours and auction record to prove it. With over 50 show wins and honors it has earned its place in the record books. In August of 1991 at the Rolls-Royce National Meet the Bentley Franay was judged by its peers as "Best of Show" among all competing Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobiles from around the world. Then again in August of 1999 at the Rolls-Royce National Meet held at Dana Point, Calif. it again proved to the world that it was the best by winning the most coveted award that the RROC (Rolls-Royce Owners Club) could bestow, the Royce Memorial Trophy and top senior award "Best of Prior Best of Show." It is also worthy to note that the Bentley Franay, in June of 1995 was awarded "Best of Show" at Hurlingham, England Concours D'Elegance, England's equivalent of our Pebble Beach. It also received the "Spectator Trophy," the "People's Choice" and most popular car in the show.
In the 1930s, France was the center of the automotive universe — at least as it involved art deco styling with teardrop-shaped and ornately trimmed coachwork. Here the likes of Figoni et Falaschi, Saoutchik, Franay, Bugatti, Chapron, Labourdette, and even Americans “Dutch” Darrin and Tom Hibbard were enhancing the definition of “French curves.”
Then came World War II, and in its aftermath the focus of automotive design shifted across the Atlantic Ocean to Detroit, where big fins and jet fighter-inspired air scoops and chromed afterburner outlets took styling in a very different direction.
But not everyone in France was willing to accept such change. One industrialist in particular wanted to demonstrate to the world that despite the turmoil of the war, the French were still on top of their game and well on their way to a complete post-war recovery. So that industrialist commissioned Carrosserie Franay of Levallois-Perret, Seine, to showcase classic French artistic and metalworking skills on, remarkably, a British vehicle, a 1947 Bentley Mark VI convertible.
Jean-Baptiste Franay had been a saddle maker and later the shop foreman for Henri Binder, a Paris-based carriage maker who became a constructor of bodies for the new-fangled motorcar. In 1903, Franay established his own coachbuilding business. Franay’s son, Marius, joined his father after finishing his formal education, and took over the business when Jean-Baptiste, then in his early 60s, died in 1922.
In its heyday, Carrosserie Franay did custom bodywork on seemingly every luxury brand, becoming best known for its work on Hispano-Suizas, Packards, Duesenbergs, Delahayes, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.
It also built a special Renault Nervastella for the French president in 1937, the same year it created a coupe de Ville version of the Buick Roadmaster. In 1955, just before the conclusion of its business, Franay constructed yet another presidential limousine, this one based on a Citroen 15-Six.
The Bentley Franay was unveiled at the 1947 Paris Auto Show and immediately claimed best-in-show awards at Concours d’Elegance across the European continent. The car’s original French owner eventually had an even larger engine installed and then sold it to a family in England. The car made its way to the United States, where opera tenor Sergio Franchi owned it for a time.
In 1979, Gary Wales, a Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration specialist, acquired what was left of the car in a trade for a Cadillac-powered Talbot Lago. But what was left by the time Wales took ownership was a rusted hulk that had been stripped of most of its interior. Wales spent a decade searching for period photographs showing the car in detail as well as the parts and pieces he would need to restore it to its original glory.
His first effort was simply to restore the chassis, which was so stunning in its own right that it was invited to be displayed at the Santa Barbara concours. Two years later, Wales had the body and interior restored, and the car was invited to the famed Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. At Pebble Beach, the car won its class and a trophy as the best French-built vehicle, but missed “Best in Show,” Wales was told, only because of an unwritten rule that only a pre-war vehicle could win that most prestigious honor.
The car went on to receive honors at some 50 major classic car gatherings around the globe, including “Best in Show” at the Rolls-Royce Owners Club. Later it returned to that same event and was voted the best of all the previous best-in-show winners.
In 1995, the car was awarded best-in-show recognition and also took the “People’s Choice” trophy at the Louis Vuitton concours at Hurlingham, England’s top classic car event.
“I remember seeing this car for the first time on the lawn at Pebble Beach,” recalled Gary Bennett, Barrett-Jackson’s vice president of consignment. “The thing that struck me about it, besides the beauty of its sweeping French design, was the frog-skin interior — and it had a pair of matching lady’s frog-skin shoes and a purse.”
The car is a long and low-slung convertible with fenders that cover all but the bottom edges of its four tires. Among the features setting the car apart is its chrome trim. One piece marks the leading edge of each front fender. Another starts as a large scallop just behind the front bumper and tapers back the length of the rocker panel to yet another scallop at the rear wheel before tapering back and wrapping around the trailing edge of the fender. Yet another piece, again with various flourishes, surrounds the passenger compartment.
And when the top is down, the car’s red-dyed, frog-skin interior is revealed.
In 1999, Wales freshened the restoration and in 2006 sold it at Barrett-Jackson’s auction in Palm Beach, Fla. Not only does it return to the block this week in Scottsdale, but it has been out of show circulation long enough that it again is eligible for a return to the world’s major concours venues.
Though he no longer owns the car, Wales has strong feelings about its place in the classic car world.
“Mechanically and visually, it’s the best, one of the greatest show cars of all time, and certainly in the post-war era,” he said, adding that the car’s enduring popularity shows in the fact that not only did the Franklin Mint make a 1:24 model of the car, but more recently a French company has been producing a 1:43 version that sells for some $300.
“And,” he added, “it’s been off the show circuit long enough that it can go back, and win anywhere in the world.”