HERITAGE——<br>1924 W.O.Bentley 3 Litre Speed Model Vanden Plas

1924 W.O.Bentley 3 Litre Speed Model Vanden Plas


A Story of Jiro Shirasu and his XT7471

The Bentley XT7471 loved by Jiro Shirasu was also the first Bentley acquired by a Japanese person in the UK.
Here we trace the chequered journey of the Bentley XT7471, which seems to have at last found a safe home in Japan.

text: Hiromi Takeda
Photo: Keisuke MAEDA /Hiroshi Hamaya
Translation: Mako Ayabe and Michael Balderi


A Man Named Jiro Shirasu

Japan is currently experiencing an unprecedented ‘Jiro Shirasu boom’. ‘Boom’, however, may not be the best way of looking at it. Rather, it should be seen as legitimate recognition of the man who rebuilt postwar Japan and was dubbed the ‘Kurama Tengu of the Showa era’ (Kurama Tengu is a bold and daring fictional hero), almost half a century after his exploits. In other words, the times have finally caught up with Jiro Shirasu.

The GHQ officials at the time had an impression of Shirasu as ‘the only Japanese person who was not submissive’. Even during the occupation, he insistently preserved his dignity as a Japanese person. On one occasion, when a GHQ official praised Shirasu's Cambridge-honed King's English, he merely grinned and replied with a note of sarcasm, ‘Your English might also be top-notch if you studied a bit more.’ Shirasu was also deeply involved in the establishment of the Constitution of Japan and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), and because of this, there were strong calls for him to go into politics. But once he had seen the postwar system come to fruition, he stepped aside. He opted to work in the private sector for the rest of his life, holding top positions at Tohoku Electric Power Company, Osawa Trading Company and other corporations, while also making his presence felt as a so-called ichigenkoji, which translates roughly as ‘someone who has something to say about any and every subject.’

In addition, the unique sense of style and dandyism he acquired while studying at Cambridge University is clearly reflected in the way he dressed. He was a lifelong admirer of bespoke suits and jackets tailored in Savile Row, and he is even said to be the first Japanese person ever to have worn a pair of jeans. In his final years, when he was over 80 years old, he was asked by his close friend Issey Miyake to be photographed as a model for their menswear line. Jiro has been described as ‘one of the coolest Japanese people in history’ and is now respected by fans of all genders throughout Japan.

But it was his love for cars that fascinates us automotive enthusiasts more than anything else. He was called ‘Oily Boy’ among his friends, who, at the time, often saw him struggling to fix his cars, with his hands and face covered in oil from the engine and gearbox.


Discovering the Bentley 3 Litre

When Shirasu was a 17-year-old high school student in Kobe, he was given a Paige Glenbrook, a mid-sized American car to drive around in. And while studying in the UK, he encountered the most advanced motorism of the time, and became increasingly absorbed in the world of cars and motorsport. The Bentley 3 Litre, which was very active on the motorsport scene at the time, caught his eye. Today’s Bentley projects an image of sophistication, but the 3-litre cars that the founder W.O. Bentley was still building himself, especially the Speed Model that Shirasu loved, were not only extremely fast, but also rugged and wild cars. It was, simply stated, a racing car that could be driven on public roads. In other words, it was the perfect car for Shirasu, who was described by high school friends as a ‘refined barbarian’. Moreover, Shirasu even acquired a Bugatti T35, which was eligible for Grand Prix racing competition, the equivalent of today's Formula One. He drove it to Brooklands, near London, on his own and enjoyed driving it on the motor race circuit.

The 3 Litre, which went into official production in 1921, was W.O. Bentley's maiden model. We’ve left a detailed explanation to the history pages of this magazine, but it was a high-performance car for its time, powered by a water-cooled inline four-cylinder SOHC 16-valve engine, producing 65 hp from 2996 cc and charting a top speed of 80 mph (approx. 128 km/h). The model was celebrated as one of the finest British sports cars of the early vintage era. Two years after its debut, in 1923, a high-powered version, the Speed Model, was manufactured, with an 80 hp engine and a top speed in excess of 90 mph. 

The Bentley 3 Litre which Shirasu purchased in 1924 was a valuable Speed Model built in May of that year. It was originally a short chassis with a wheelbase of 9 ft (2.7 m) and a Vanden Plas two-seater tourer body. The chassis number is #653 and the registration number at the time of purchase, XT7471, is still emblazoned on the plate today. Jiro bought the car from Captain John Duff, the leader of the ‘Bentley Boys’, a group of wealthy amateur drivers who had the dash and daring to compete in big races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and owner of a Bentley dealership in London. Presumably due to some sort of contract between the Bentley Company and Duff’s dealership, the XT7471 was first registered on 24 May 1924 to Duff’s company. However, both the extant Bentley Company records, and the Bentley Drivers' Club (BDC) registration, list ‘Jiro Shirasu’ as the first owner of XT7471.

Incidentally, John Duff, who sold the Bentley 3 Litre to Shirasu, competed in the second 24 Hours of Le Mans just three weeks later, on 14-15 June with his own beloved Bentley 3 Litre. Together with Frank Clement, chief driver of Bentley's testing department, he became the overall winner of the competition. It is not difficult to imagine the 22-year-old Shirasu’s enthusiasm for this remarkable achievement by Captain Duff, a man whom he knew personally. This is how Jiro Shirasu fell in love with the world of motorism and Bentley. 


Bentley, his best friend and ‘Principles’

An Asian student attending prestigious Cambridge University, owning and driving two ultra-luxury sports cars — a Bentley 3 Litre and a Bugatti T35 — would, in modern terms, be the equivalent of a university undergrad having a private jet at their disposal. Looking at this comparison alone, we cannot help but see it as the over-the-top extravagance of a prodigal son. However, the young Jiro Shirasu, who became the envy of everyone around him with a Bentley and a Bugatti, acquired important ‘treasures’ that would have a profound influence on the way he would live his life later on through these cars.

The first of the treasures is a lifelong friend: Robert Cecil Byng, 7th Earl of Strafford, nicknamed ‘Robin’. Shirasu met Robin by chance, but it was their shared enthusiasm for Bentleys and Bugattis that bonded the two Oily Boys. Not only were they always together at Cambridge, but they also spent time at Robin’s house near London, and at Brooklands. During the Christmas holidays of 1925-26, they also did the compulsory ‘grand tour’ in Shirasu's beloved Bentley, from England to France, then onto Spain and Gibraltar.

The two Oily Boys also visited the Bentley mecca of Le Mans on this trip. And it was on these thrilling adventures together that they became true best friends. Although they lost touch temporarily during the Second World War, the bond between them was unbreakable. Their friendship continued until the 1980s, when they passed away within a year of one another.

Another treasure Shirasu acquired was a secure set of beliefs which he used to call ‘principles’. And it seems that Bentley played a part in this as well. As mentioned above, Shirasu had purchased a 3 Litre Speed model from John Duff, and was often invited to parties hosted by Duff’s dealership and the Bentley Boys. This gave him the rare opportunity to interact with the Bentley Boys, who were charismatic figures among young car enthusiasts of the time. Getting to know them must have been a vivid experience for young Shirasu, since normally, they would be inaccessible to him within the rigid class structure of Britain. The interaction with them must have helped him to learn what the ‘haves’ should do in the spirit of noblesse oblige that Shirasu always spoke of along with his ‘principles’. He had a strong sense of justice and will, but it seems that he established his own ‘principles’ through his close relationship with the traditional British upper classes, including his close friend Robin and the Bentley Boys.

Jiro's brilliant youth came to an abrupt end, however.. His father’s company, Shirasu Shoten, went bankrupt in 1928 due to the financial crisis. Jiro was forced to end his studies in the UK and return home. This hand of fate was seemingly at play again, when, seventeen years later, as previously mentioned, Shirasu fought tirelessly to rebuild Japan, which had been reduced to ashes in the aftermath of the war. The tremendous effort he made for his country seemed to actualise Shirasu’s pet theory of noblesse oblige. 


Later years of XT7471

Having lost his financial backbone, Shirasu was forced to sell his beloved Bentley and Bugatti in the UK, before returning to Japan. No information is known about the second owner of the XT7471, but taking into account his personal connections, it seems natural to assume that the car was given to an enthusiast who was part of the Bentley social circle of the day. After that, the XT7471 went through several owners, all of whom were members of the Bentley Drivers Club (BDC). The BDC was the world's first one-make owners’ club, formed in 1936, and is a distinguished club that maintains absolute prestige even today. The people who took charge of Shirasu's cherished Bentley were entitled to it by status and passion.

Sometime in the 1960s, the XT7471 underwent a major restoration by its then owner. As part of the restoration, the engine was replaced with the current 41/2-litre unit, and the body was re-tailored to the Le Mans style four-seater tourer specification, also made by Vanden Plas. The 4.4-litre engine was also further tuned to participate in historic car racing around the turn of the last century, and was said to be significantly more powerful than the 110 hp of the standard 41/2-litre. 

At the turn of the century, when the ageing previous owner decided to part with the XT7471, several large Japanese companies that had been associated with Shirasu after the war tried to purchase it. However, the previous owner had a strong desire not to sell the car to anyone other than genuine enthusiasts who would enjoy driving it themselves. As a member of the Bentley Drivers Club, he believed that ‘a vintage Bentley from the W.O. era is useless if it’s just for display.’ So favour fell on Kiyokaharu Wakui, a leading Bentley collector, known not only in Japan, but throughout the world, and, naturally, a member of the BDC in the UK. It was through a British agent, also a member of the BDC, that Wakui came to acquire this Japanese ‘treasure’, the Bentley 3 Litre XT7471. 

This was how the Bentley 3 Litre XT7471 finally set its wheels in Japan at the end of 2003, 79 years after Shirasu had bought it. The following year, in June 2004, the car made its debut at the Woody Park Kanuma Stage 2004, with Shotaro Kobayashi behind the wheel. And this year, four years after it landed in Japan, it will be delivered to a new private Bentley & Rolls Royce museum, the Wakui Museum, in Kazo City, Saitama Prefecture, thus fulfilling Wakui's long-held dream. Moreover, Shirasu's grandson Shinya Shirasu will take part in road events in Japan as the second driver. 

This is how Jiro Shirasu's prized Bentley 3 Litre began to carve out a fresh existence, continuing its story, in Japan: a country Shirasu loved from the bottom of his heart. 


This is a revised version of an article that appeared in Flying B No 001 (2008). The information provided here was accurate at the time of publication.


The traditional Bentley emblem, known as the ‘Flying B’ or ‘Winged B’. The red centre ‘B’ mark is a sign of the high-performance Speed Model.

The engine was replaced by a 41/2-litre unit as part of a full restoration in the 1960s. It also competed in races at the end of the last century, so its power output was considerably higher than the standard 110 hp.

As the car has been restored to Le Mans specifications, the seats are a bucket type, different from when Shirasu owned it. Still, they are truly attractive, with high-quality leather upholstery and extra-thick stitching.