Model history: Lagonda's fortunes bounced up and down in 1935. The company was on the verge of bankruptcy, yet a Lagonda managed to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Two months later the company's immediate future was secured thanks to a capital injection of the company's new chairman, the 30-year old Alan Good. He had great plans for Lagonda and to realize them he hired none other than Walter Owen Bentley, who had recently been released by Rolls-Royce. The assignment of the company's new technical director was straightforward, but by no means easy; build the best car in the world. This meant taking on the likes of Rolls-Royce and Hispano Suiza. If anyone was up to that daunting task it was Bentley.
Lagonda's existing line-up consisted of several six cylinder engined cars, which were formidable machines, but not anywhere near the level of the latest V12 engined Rolls-Royces and Hispanos. The V12 engine was synonymous for excellence and luxury; exactly what Lagonda needed. Compared to the competition, Lagonda's brand new V12 engine was relatively small with a displacement of 'just' 4.5 litre. The engine was designed by Stuart Tresilian, who had come from Rolls-Royce together with Bentley. Constructed from aluminium, it featured single overhead camshafts. At the engine's launch an output figure of 180 bhp was quoted, although 155-160 bhp was closer. That was still considerably more than the Rolls Royce V12.
In good Bentley tradition the chassis was a sturdy affair with a boxed steel ladder frame and a substantial x-shaped reinforcement. A break with tradition was the adoption of independent front suspension, through two equal length wishbones and torsion bars. The rear suspension featured a more traditional live axle. The brakes were highly advanced with two independent master cylinders for the hydraulic system. Other high-tech features included four built-in hydraulic jacks. To achieve a better weight balance, the four-speed gearbox was mounted seperately from the engine in the center of the chassis. Simply dubbed the 'V12', the new Lagonda was available as rolling chassis or with factory designed and built coachwork. Production commenced within in two years after Alan Good took over.
Towards the end of 1938 Good and Bentley had brought Lagonda back to a much healthier condition. Particularly the twelve cylinder Lagondas were among the very finest and fastest road cars available. It was clearly time for a new challenge. Much to the surprise and dismay of Bentley, Good suggested that it might be a good idea to take a two of the V12s to Le Mans. The V12 had never been designed with racing in mind and was above all too heavy for racing. Reluctantly Bentley agreed to develop the V12 into a racing car, under the condition that the first outing would be a 'toe in the water' test in preparation for an all out assault in 1940. Bentley's machines had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times, so he was well aware that the six months he had before the race had to be spent well.
Not surprisingly much of the work concentrated on shedding weight on the shortest of the three V12 wheelbases. Wherever possible holes were drilled in the frame and covered by thin aluminium shields. Even the smallest parts were drilled to make sure that the racing car carried no excess ballast. The engine was also lightened by using different alloys. By using higher compression heads and four instead of two Carburetors, the power was up to a quoted 220 bhp (actually 206 bhp). The finishing touch was given by designer Frank Feeley, who penned an cycle-fender body. The extensive diet had brought the weight down to 1370 kg for the completed machine, which was less than the rolling chassis of the production car alone.
Only one 'V12 Le Mans' was ready in time for some pre-race testing, while the other had to be tested on the road to Le Mans from the factory. The cars were driven by Arthur Dobson and Charles Blackenbury (#5), and Lord Selsdon and Lord Waleran (#6). Bentley gave them strict instructions about the pace they were supposed to run to make sure they reached the finish. Both did so handsomely and eventually finished in third and fourth place, beaten by a supercharged Bugatti and Delage. It was not a bad first try and there clearly was more to come. Unfortunately the Second World War intervened, ending the V12 Le Mans' career before the planned victory of 1940 could be had. The cars were raced only once at full pelt at some of the very last races at Brooklands, clocking very fast times.
The War also ended the production run of the V12 road car, but not before some of the racing components became available on the high performance, short chassis 'Rapide' model. Several of these were later converted to 'Le Mans Replicas' by third parties, which are still raced in historic events to this day. It is estimated that between 1937 and 1940 Lagonda built less than 200 V12s. After the War the company was bought by David Brown, who also owned Aston Martin. Even though a German V1 had destroyed the factory, production recommenced in 1948. The post-War Lagondas and Aston Martins for that matter used a twin-cam straight six that was designed by Bentley. Today the V12 Lagondas are considered the finest cars built by the British manufacturer. It must be said that some collectors do prefer the six-cylinder car, because they are a little easier to run.
Featured is one of the two Works V12 racers that finished third and fourth at Le Mans. The drivers believed they could have won if Bentley had let them run at a faster pace. To proof their point, they brought the cars to Brooklands for the August Bank Holiday meeting. The two cars finished first and second with 'Old #5' taking the victory and setting the fastest lap at a staggering 127.70 mph. The two cars were then stored near the factory and suffered some damage from the bombings as well. Nevertheless the featured #5 could be driven out of the storage facility after the War without a problem by its new owner Robert Cowell (later Roberta Cowell). The car was raced some more, but with surprising little success.
The Le Mans Lagoon changed hands twice before ending up in the caring hands of John Collard Rees in 1976. He painstakingly restored Old #5 to its original 1939 Le Mans condition. More recently the car was acquired by the Louwman Collection where it is on display alongside the 1935 Le Mans winning Lagonda M45R. It is seen here in fabulous condition during the 2008 Goodwood Festival of Speed.