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Sir Robert Menzies' Bentley

Background

Sir Robert Menzies was one of Australia's longest-serving prime ministers. The National Museum of Australia holds various objects linked to Menzies. One of the most significant is the 1963 S3 Bentley which he used in office and in his retirement.

The car was acquired by the Museum in 1985. It had been run infrequently since Menzies' death in 1978.

A lack of maintenance and a notorious design fault in the Bentley's engine meant the vehicle needed much conservation work.

The car had a water leak and the conservation team flagged the need for an engine overhaul. Further investigations revealed the job was much larger than expected.

The Bentley car parked in the driveway of the two-storey Lodge building.
Sir Robert Menzies' Bentley outside the Lodge, the official Canberra residence of the Australian Prime Minister. Photo: Heide Smith.

Issues

Two men lean on the side of a car, with its bonnet removed and engine bay exposed.
Senior conservator David Hallam and mechanical engineer Col Ogilvie work on one of the Museum's historic vehicles. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Menzies' Bentley arrived at the National Museum bearing the signs of a car which was well-loved during its tenure with the former prime minster.

The logbook recorded Menzies as the last official passenger and the interior bore the signs of use over many years. This car harked back to a time when prime ministers were granted use of a Commonwealth car and driver in their retirement.

Later in his life, when Menzies' health deteriorated, he would watch football matches from the Bentley, on a purpose-built platform installed at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The logbook which accompanied the Bentley to the National Museum provided conservators with a snapshot of the car's mechanical life.

The Bentley was purchased by the Australian Government in 1964 and was one of four imported from the United Kingdom for official government use.

Its logbook showed a litany of problems: 'A lot of these problems stem from the use of water, rather than corrosion inhibitors in the engine. The aluminium engine block corroded and the water started mixing with the oil,' senior conservator David Hallam said. 'In a way, it was doomed from the start'.

Conservators intially thought the car's original engine block could be saved but a closer inspection revealed the damage was beyond repair. The complete engine re-build and an overhaul of the car's transmission was now expected to take three years.

Treatment

The Museum's Conservation team combined in-house knowledge and experience with external expertise to overhaul the Menzies Bentley.The team painstakingly removed and recorded the 2800 parts from the Bentley's engine.

The original engine block was corroded beyond repair so a replacement block was sourced from an official supplier in the United Kingdom. Other parts were sourced from across the globe. A Melbourne company was commissioned to reproduce the pistons, using measurements meticulously recorded by the team, and an exact copy of the radiator core was made in New Zealand.

The Conservation team crafted new cast-iron cylinder liners to replace the original set up piston sleeves were manufactured, by hand, to an accuracy of about the quarter of a thickness of human hair.

Slowly, the engine and transmission were rebuilt and reassembled. The car's performance was tested using the Museum's dynamometer, which allowed the engine to be run on site, as if the car were actually being driven, but without the unecessary risk of exposure to the external environment.

John Howard peers into the front of the Bentley to inspect its seats, steering wheel and dash.
Former prime minister John Howard inspects the well-worn leather and the walnut veneer dashboard of the Bentley which was used by Sir Robert Menzies. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Results

The Bentley conservation project was successfully completed within the allotted three years.

'In preserving this car we we were very conscious of the feelings and aspirations of the original engineers,' David said.

'We were also very conscious that in ensuring the long-term perservation of the car, we wanted to have this car as it was when it came into the National Historical Collection, but without the problems, or what we call inherent vice.'

A process of rigourous investigation, consultation and teamwork means the car has been successfully preserved and stabilised.

The car was presented to Prime Minister John Howard at Parliament House in Canberra in October 2006. Mr Howard discussed finer points of automotive history and the three-year preservation project with the Conservation team.

The car also went on show in the Museum's Hall. It is currently stored in a National Museum warehouse. A regime of regular maintenance and use has been scheduled into the future.

More

Collection database record

Other Menzies-related material in the Museum's collection

Robert Menzies on the Prime Ministers of Australia website

Menzies on the Australian Dictionary of Biography website