The real ‘Peaky Blinders’ gang car

1930 Bentley 4 ½ Litre Chassis AD3652

March 2021 – The BBC series ‘Peaky Blinders’ is set in the period between the two major world wars of the last century. The beautifully shot scenes give impressions of Birmingham and London about a hunderd years ago. Of course, more than a handful of gorgeous prewar cars are the petrolhead’s bonus. A smart Bentley ‘gang car’ steals the show.

Written by Albert Mensinga, in cooperation with William Medcalf Vintage Bentley, Hill Brow, United Kingdom

‘Peaky Blinders’ is about a fictional Roma Shelby gypsy family (Southern Romanichal Travellers) who engage in shady dealings such as extortion and extreme violence. The Shelbys play a leading role in the ‘Racetrack Wars’, a black page in the real 20th century history of Great Britain. Certainly black and entertaining enough to make a series.

As befits a real car fan, after watching the series I did some research to find the transport of gangleader Thomas Shelby, a fabulous looking Bentley. The car intrigued me. Not because of the unusual green colour scheme and its irresistible looks on the screen, but because of the context. My dive into history led me to another car. The real ‘Peaky Blinders’ gang car.

Not a real gang car

The green enchanting Bentley in the series is Chassis Number AB3351 with registration GU404, a 1928 4 ½ Litre with no criminal past. Registration plate YV 5745 causes confusion and relates to a Bentley 6 ½ Litre. I got in touch with Farrah Smith, Executive Assistant to William Medcalf Bentley of Hill Brow in West Sussex, the supplier and owner of both the 4.5 and 6.5. Farrah told me that Medcalf had a genuine ‘Peaky Blinders’ for sale in 2020. During the restoration process, the firm stumbled upon the Bentley’s intriguing background. It’s a shame that it came to light then, and not sooner. The imposing Bentley nose could’ve become the perfect subject of a supporting role. But then, it’s never too late to tell the story of such a glorious prewar car.

Immediately I became interested in this real-life thug’s car and offered Farrah to write a story, possibly for magazine publication. Within half an hour, Farrah sent me the accompanying beautiful images. I sincerely hope you like my words and the pictures that go along with it!

The real gang car!

First owner Arthur Grout was, among other things, manager of ‘the Southampton Arms’ in Camden, London. In the twenties and thirties of last century, this notorious pub was the centre of underworld figures who were busy manipulating the horse racing industry in southern and central England. In no time at all money was pouring in, and Grout was able to afford decent transport to match his status.

Arthur ordered his Bentley (Chassis AD3652, Engine PB3548, Registration GC 6002) from Jack Olding & Co. in February 1930. At the time, Bentleys with this specification were delivered as ‘Rolling Chassis’ and fitted with bodywork of choice by a selected coachbuilder. In 1930, gangster Grout chose the ‘Sports Four Seater’ option from the catalogue of the renowned Vanden Plas Coachbuilders.

Now have a look at the car. An adequate, creamy-smooth and whisper-quiet in-line six-cylinder produces 110 hp for street use. The same block produces 20 hp more for racing purposes. Plus a lot more sound. Via a four-speed gearbox, the spacious big car rolls up to speeds that are useful to crooks: unheard of in those days and still illegal today. Special features of the AD3652 version are the aluminium crankcase and the extra-long nose, just like on the racing models. This allows better access to the rear of the dashboard.

You never actually own a Bentley

It sounds implausible for a skilled businessman, but Arthur had trouble paying for his car. In 1935 Bentley took back AD3652 and sold it to an owner with a more conventional background. The Leslie family used the 4 ½ litre for family and holiday trips and after use always kept it in their garage. Just after the war, a specialist from North London tinkered with the green beauty, and little extra maintenance has been required for the past 90 years. Son Leslie took over the wheel from Dad and, in 2020, stored this two-owner car at Medcalf Vintage Bentley.

Ready for a new enthusiast a pre-war Bentley is like an extremely expensive watch: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation”, the advertisment says.

For the most recent sale, William Medcalf gave the interior and exterior a good overhaul, retaining as much original as possible. After 1,000 trouble-free test miles and the mild touch-up, AD3652 entered the market in 2020, unrestored and with less than a tonne of miles on the clock. The photos show the wonderful patina that makes vehicles from that era so irresistible. Who has it now? There has to be something left to guess…

Southampton Arms and the racetrack wars

Back to the wild ’20s and ’30s. If you look for the Southampton Arms in London, you will not find the infamous pub. The building on the corner of Camden High Street and Mornington Crescent (exact address 1 High Street, Camden Town NW1) was called ‘the Cresent’ until May 2010 and ‘the Lyttleton Arms’ after that date. Trumpet player Humphrey Lyttelton (1921-2008) was a well-known English jazz band leader and presenter of the comedy show ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’, from 1972 on BBC Radio Four.

Original landlord Arthur Grout was just one of the protagonists in the extremely violent period in which gangs from London and Birmingham fight each other. The so-called ‘Peaky Blinders’ from Birmingham joined the ranks of George ‘Brummy’ Sage, boss of the Camden Town gang, to crush the dominant Clerkenwell Sabini Brothers. Outside reinforcements are desperately needed as the Sabini gang of over a hundred men continues to grow unchecked. A constant influx of Sicilians did not improve the situation…

Peaky Blinders and other villains

The Peaky Blinders are a feared and violent street gang with outward appearances such as ‘tailored jackets, lapel overcoats, button waistcoats, silk scarves, bell-bottom trousers, leather boots, and peaked flat caps’. From the late 19th century, they made Birmingham unsafe and dominated popular criminal activities such as extortion and robbery. The local gambling circuit is completely in their hands. The term ‘Peaky’ refers to the typical beret and ‘Blinder’ is slang for a tough fighter.

After the First World War the violent southern English gang culture is then hierarchically structured and their crimes spread like an ink blot in water. The stakes are getting higher and higher and in the 1920s the Peaky Blinders join the London-based operations to put up a fight against the Sabinis and their East End cronies, who seem unbeatable then.

The Clerkenwell Sabini Brothers from Little Italy were a well-organised Italian family business. An advantage over other groups of friends with colourful names such as MacDonald Brothers and their Elephant Gang, the Broad Mob and the Jewish Aldgate Mob. Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini (1888-1950) – imagine a badly dressed mobster with gold teeth – runs his business together with his brothers George, Joe, Fred and Harry and is at that time the dominant but by no means the only criminal organisation operating in London.

If the walls of the former Southampton Arms could speak, you’d hear blood-curdling tales of repetitive shootings and stabbings where the villain’s blood flows profusely but, miraculously, rarely does anyone die. Never a dull moment, but the chances of a member of the Sabinis coming out on top were very high until 1940.

An infamous scene from 1922 illustrates the course of events. Alf White, tough guy and driving force behind the Sabini Gang, knocks out both George Sage and Freddie Gilbert, chief of the Finsbury Boys, right in front of the Southampton Arms. Alf and some of the Sabinis were arrested but soon released. Those were the days.

It was only during the Second World War that ‘The Law’ got the situation under control and stopped ‘The Racetrack Wars’. On a beautiful day in April, the police arrested capo di tutti capi Darby Sabini at the Hove Greyhound Stadium and locked him up. After the war, gangster Alf White & Family takes over Sabini’s empire. He does not tolerate his ex-boss alongside him. When Darby is released, he flees to Hove, Sussex, without any chance.

Finally

Hey, wasn’t this tale about a Bentley? Yes, but it’s the stories that make every car a driving piece of history. Every story is a reason for curiosity and for me to dig it out and write it down. Curious about more? I’m happy to supply.