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Archive 25
Bentley Boys

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bentley Boys probably meant more about motor racing to the British public than
anything else. They 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.

ast 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, Rolls-Royce.

  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 the cars.

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.

   Their natural 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.

   Being adjacent 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.

   Kensington-Moir's 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.

   Barnato could 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.

   Woolf Barnato 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 mph.

   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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