Last June, the Bentley name was reunited with the Le
Mans 24-hour sports car race, when a pair of sports racing
cars entered by the latest Bentley company (bought quite
recently by Germany's Volkswagen Group from Rolls-Royce
in the first change of ownership for nearly 70 years) put
up a tremendous showing and, taking third place, renewed
the legend of the Bentley Boys.
Who are these
modern-day Bentley Boys? In contrast to the (mostly) 'gentlemen
racers' of the 'Twenties and 'Thirties, the present-day
Bentley Boys who drove the two EXP Speed 8 two-seater coupes
were professional racing drivers - Martin Brundle, chairman
of the British Racing Drivers Club (a significant detail,
as we shall see) who had won the 1990 race in a Jaguar,
and Guy Smith in a car that led last year's race twice during
the first five hours, before retiring when torrential rain
forced water into the electronic gear selection system,
causing it to jam in sixth gear and stall at a slow corner.
Smith's attempt to drive it back to the pits on the starter
failed in a billow of electrical smoke!
The same problem
delayed the second car, with its international team (another
Bentley Boys tradition) of Briton Andy Wallace, Belgian
Eric van de Poele and American Butch Leitzinger, costing
them considerable delays, despite which, when finishing
in the No. 3 spot, they were only 15 laps down (out of over
320) on the winning pair of Audi cars.
In the 1920s and
1930s, the Bentley Boys probably meant more about motor
racing to the British public than anything else. The Bentley
drivers became legends in their own time, heroes around
whom were woven tales of daring and who were regarded as
being on an altogether higher plane than 99.9 per cent of
the population. And it was based particularly on their extraordinary
successes in the 24-hour sports car races at Le Mans. Even
today, a large proportion of British motor racing enthusiasts
regard the Le Mans 24-hour race as something closely approaching
a 'home fixture'. Literally thousands of Brits make an annual
pilgrimage to spend several days soaking up the intense
atmosphere of what is arguably one of the greatest events
of the motor sporting calendar.
Motor racing has
been endemic to the area since 1906, when Le Mans was chosen
as the venue for the very first Grand Prix of all (the French
having 'invented' car racing 11 years earlier). It hosted
another French GP there as recently as 1967, but neither
of those circuits was the one for which the name 'Le Mans'
is famous. Although the track of the 24-hour sports car
race has changed in detail many times, in essence it has
covered much the same ground ever since the first 'Vingt
Quatre Heures' was held in 1923.
For its first decade,
the great race was linked inextricably with the name Bentley
- the sports car versions of the expensive British luxury
cars being leading contenders right from the beginning,
until the company ran out of money and its racing history
came to a seventy-year pause when taken over by its arch-rival,
The company's founder,
Walter Owen Bentley (normally known as 'W O') regarded motor
racing as the best way to achieve publicity as well as developing
Woolf Barnato leaving the pits
at Brooklands in 1930
while competing in a 'Double Twelve' race.
Forming the company
in 1919 (having spent World War 1 designing aero engines),
he produced rakish four-seater touring models from the start,
as well as even heavier (the sports tourers weighed two
tons!) stately saloons, both types using efficient 3-litre,
four-cylinder engines. The sports models were soon competing
at Brooklands, the already well-established high-speed banked
track near Weybridge, in Surrey, winning many events and
bringing together a group of enthusiastic drivers, mostly
wealthy and personable.
leader was a Harley Street physician, Dr J Dudley Benjafield,
who was also directly responsible for the formation, during
the same period as the original 'Bentley Boys' era, of the
British Racing Drivers Club. Informal dinner parties at
his Harley Street home drew together a nucleus of keen and
dedicated drivers who would form the club which still requires
its members to qualify by succeeding in specific types of
race. Its success was such that, today, it owns the British
Grand Prix circuit at Silverstone.
In the early 1920s,
the only place to go motor racing seriously in England was
Brooklands. It had a fairly exclusive atmosphere, its accepted
motto being 'The right crowd and no crowding', but the organising
clubs produced some splendid racing and many outstanding
drivers in a country that was (and, largely, still is!)
seemingly obsessed with the rigid enforcement of speed limits.
to the prestigious St George's Hill housing estate, the
Brooklands track wasn't permitted to hold 24-hour races
(i.e., all-night events), but this restriction was overcome
by organising instead 'Double Twelve' (two consecutive days)
races. In September 1922, John Duff established a world
record for any size of car by covering 2,083 miles at an
average of 86.79 mph in the Double Twelve-hour period, driving
a standard 3-litre Bentley open four-seater. The new 24-hour
race at Le Mans was due nine months later and 'W O' was
determined to participate, despite misgivings by his ever-dubious
shareholders, who were never to be convinced that racing
successes justified the high cost.
Further evidence of
the performance potential of this unlikely racing car came
the same year when W D Hawkes took his standard 3-litre
sports tourer to the Indianapolis Speedway to contest the
USA's fastest race, managing 12th place at over
80 mph in a field of purpose-built single-seaters, averaging
over 80 mph, compared with the winner's 94.
Duff and Frank Clement,
also a highly experienced racer, who was in charge of the
Bentley experimental department, took a 3-litre to Le Mans
for the inaugural 24-hour race and were going well in second
place, having achieved the fastest lap in the race, when
a stone thrown up by another car caused a leak from the
petrol tank, so that it ran dry miles away from the pits.
The same pair went
back to France the following year, to beat 40 other cars,
winning at 53.78 mph, covering 1,290.08 miles. On the strength
of this success, Dr Benjafield ordered a Bentley, but was
somewhat disappointed by the relatively sluggish performance
of his new car with its heavy standard bodywork. While it
was at the factory in the North London suburbs for a routine
service, he remarked in the presence of 'Bertie' Kensington-Moir
(an accomplished racer who also ran the service department)
that ". . . it wouldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding!"
Frank Clement, W O Bentley
and John Duff with the 1924
Le Mans winning 3-litre Bentley.
brisk response was "You want to travel fast? What about
a run round Brooklands in that?" - indicating a rather tatty
and tired-looking two-seater in the yard. Next
day, Benjafield had the terrifying experience of being hurtled
round Brooklands by Kensington-Moir at full racing speeds,
losing his goggles as the car leaped over the concrete joints
that, more than 20 years after the track's construction,
made it a far more demanding driving experience than was
evident from a distance.
Despite this initial
fright, Benjafield bought the well-used but seriously quick
car and soon learned the secrets of racing a Bentley. He
became very successful at Brooklands, while the company
built a number of replicas of the two-seater, called
'100 mph' models.
One of the buyers was
Woolf Barnato (known among the Bentley Boys as 'Babe', a
name seemingly at odds with his reputation of being a 'useful'
heavyweight boxer). Immensely wealthy - from his family's
South African diamond-mining fortune - he ploughed money
into Bentley Motors and eventually became its chairman,
as well as one of its leading race drivers.
well have been associated mainly with one of the leading
rivals to the Bentley marque, the French-built Bugatti.
He was a friend of its manufacturer, Ettore Bugatti, who
famously dis-missed Bentleys as 'Les camions le plus vite'
- the fastest trucks.
supported W O Bentley's racing programme, with its annual
forays to Le Mans, although there would be two years without
further success after the 1924 win before the team began
its legendary series of victories.
In 1927 their win was
lucky, the team's cars all being involved in a night-time
multiple collision at White House corner, from which that
driven by Benjafield and Sammy Davis (renowned sports editor
of The Autocar magazine) was extricated from the tangle,
limping back to the pits to have items like a bent front
axle repaired sufficiently to resume racing, which it did
to such good effect that it ran out the winner at 61.35
Today, we would probably
say that the 1927 win put Bentley 'on a roll' at Le Mans.
There would be victories in the 24-hour race for the next
three more years, but more about that in the next edition
of Gear Wheels online.
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