Dudley Benjafield was more than an eminent bacteriologist and bon viveur. He was also one of the finest amateur drivers of his age. Bill Boddy remembers him
Dr Joseph Dudley Benjafield MD could easily be classed as a typical amateur participant in motor-racing who nevertheless achieved an entirely deserved place among the celebrated ‘Bentley Boys’ who drove for WO at Le Mans. This popular, cheerful, balding doctor was born in 1887 and educated at Marlborough, University College Hospital and London University, becoming a doctor of medicine by 1912.
He made his racng debut at Brooklands in 1924, having acquired, the autumn before from Bentley Motors, their No2 ex-Frank Clement 9ft-wheelbase racing 3-litre. According to his grandson Bob Benjafield, this came about by chance, when he was looking for something to do after his 30hp Daimler-engined speedboat ‘Lumiere’ was wrecked. At the Bentley showroom he met Bertie Kensington-Moir, and for devilment criticised the 3-litre’s performance. Moir led him to a comer where four mechanics were working on a red car. “You like to go fast?” Benjafield noted in his diary that “rather fearfully,” he agreed. “I’m taking it to Brooklands tomorrow,” said Moir. “Come down and I’ll give you a run.” By the end of the session Moir had sold him the car.
‘Benjy’, as he was soon known, got Kensington Moir to further increase this effective Bentley’s performance by raising its compression ratio and reducing its weight to around 17cwt. It was now a 112mph car with which the novice driver, competing appropriately in the Private Competitors’ Handicap at the 1924 BARC Whitsun meeting, was able to hold off Howey’s 7-litre Leyland Eight, to win his first race at 90mph and then win another, from a 30/98 Vauxhall, at the Summer Meeting. He also took a third place, with a best lap of 98.23mph. The red Bentley was indeed a last car, requiring a new set of racing tyres every 60 miles, but it was off-form at the Autumn races.
Bentley Motors probably needed private owners to gain results for them in those early days, and Benjy, who was a leading bacteriologist and so had more time for racing than a General Practitioner, was seen as just the man; they lent their mechanic Browning to help Moir in preparing the Bentley and, in 1926, reacquired it to rebody as a single-seater for the unsuccessful attempt to put the 24-hour record to over 100mph. So although ‘Benjy’ won with the Bentley at a 1925 Surbiton MC meeting, he had purchased a Grand Sport Special twin-cam 1087cc Salmson for this season, getting a third place with it at Easter, while the engine was still not fully run-in.
As was usual at this time Benjy went in for sprints: the Salmson was less than effective at Shelsley Walsh, though he won the Test Hill contest at a minor Brooklands meeting in 1928 with his fine sports 4.8-litre Panhard-Levassor. At Whitsun in 1925 there was a rather hollow win, as two drivers who were ahead failed to turn into the Finishing-straight on the final lap, allowing the blue Salmson another victory, although with a good lap for a stripped sportscar of 85.72mph. The Bentley, in spite of a lap at 102.69mph, was unplaced in both its races. Thereafter it proved slower, the Salmson unreliable, and Dr Benjafield was persuaded to enter a highly improbable Type IW De Dion Bouton with a light-blue racing body. The 1827cc ohv engine refused to go above 2300rpm and it continually burnt out its exhaust valves, and after patient perseverance it was abandoned, after one lap at 73.24mph. But by now the doctor had cast off amateur status and was becoming rather interested in Le Mans.
WO paired him with Bertie Moir for the ’25 race. He was the new boy. “But I felt quietly confident that I would produce what was expected of me,” said Benjafield, “having made up my mind to play myself in carefully”. The battle was between the Bentleys and two twin-cam 3-litre Sunbeams. But before ‘Benjy’ had even had his first stint Moir ran the car out of fuel, and Duff’s sister car caught fire. WO stalked about the pit with a face like thunder but Benjafield had not yet dared to intervene, which later he found to be the best ploy. Neither Bentley finished the race; Duller’s Sunbeam burst its clutch while SCH Davis and Jean Chassagne nursed the other Sunbeam to second place. WO’s luck was just as bad the following year, when all three 3-litres retired, Benjy and Davis being the last to stop when Sammy got No7 stuck in a sandbank 20 minutes from the finish. The Doctor had been paired with Davis because Moir’s family had banned him from racing.
By the close of 1926, Benjafield had proved his versatility, in short races, at Le Mans, and with three-hour stints at Montlhéry in 1925 in the Duff Bentley and the single-seater.
He had also endorsed the saying “Physician heal thyself’ by driving at Brooklands with a temperature of 103 degrees. Perhaps one of the microbes he examined to help find cures for obscure diseases (he was a consultant at St George’s Hospital in London) had escaped! Either way, it came after working for two nights and a day with the mechanics at Cricklewood when the Bentley had shed some con-rods, then driving to the track for a bank holiday race…
Bentley’s had recalled the No2 car but 13enjafield continued to run at Brooklands, regarding racing as relaxation from his exacting hospital duties. He drove a 2-litre Bugatti and a Frazer Nash at the first two 1926 BARC Meetings but respective laps of 94.83 and 86.62mph were of no avail. However, Benjafield then bought from Henley’s the Bentley he had driven at Le Mans (MK5206) using it on the road and running it in the Georges Boillot Cup race with Moir in September. Meanwhile, at Boulogne Benjy had crashed when lying third with zero brakes, breaking three ribs and four teeth, and splitting his lower lip; in spite of this he tried to continue, but had to give best to a Chenard et Walcker.
After the disastrous results in the two previous Le Mans 24-hour races W decided to give up. Apparently Benjafield reversed that decision, by pleading with Moir and W and offering his 3-litre. WO relented, deciding to run another 3-litre and the new 4½-litre Bentley in the 1927 race. The Essex MC’s six-hour Brooklands race was to be a try-out. Alas, during the preparation of the team cars new lightweight Dural valve-rockers had been fitted and in the race two broke on Bamato’s old No7, three on Clement’s, and Callingbam also retired with this problem. So Sunbeam again beat Bentley. I have never understood why on earth lighter rocker-arms were needed on these low-revving engines…
Le Mans in 1927 turned out to be the now-legendary race of the White House crash, which eliminated the Bentleys except for the Davis/Benjafield car, which after being patched up as well as possible at the pits, continued the long run with a single headlamp, dodgy brakes, the front axle knocked back and other damage. It was nursed to the finish by its two drivers to a dramatic win from a sick Aries. Davis had been allocated to share the 4½-litre Bentley with number one works driver Clement, but after some argument Benjafield had this reversed and now, after that wonderful long haul, he let Sammy have the honour of doing the final race laps. At a celebration dinner at the Savoy, Old No7 (carrying the number 3 in this race) was with difficulty squeezed through the hotel doors by removing its wheels and wings, to make a tear-jerking entry, lone head lamp blazing, the engine breaking into life, to tumultuous applause from the diners and excusable emotion from Sammy and Benjy. Wonderful! Objections from the hotel management were unlikely; Mrs B’s family owned the Savoy, as well as Claridges and the Cadogan.
He was now a fully-established Bentley Boy at the incomparable Sarthe circuit. W said of him “he was tough, thickset, totally bald and wonderful fun at all times, except perhaps during the hours before a race. He worried, a useful asset in a racing driver: he was a grand driver once he got going.” Indeed, WO put ‘Benjy’ as first of his ‘Bentley Boys’, describing him as “one of our steadiest and most reliable drivers and an equally strong supporter of oil-duty fun and games, even if he did not appear to know which way to do up a nut or a hub-cap.”
He did, however, broadcast about Le Mans for the BBC. Incidentally, it was from informal meetings of fellow drivers at his house, as further relaxation from his busy life as a Harley Street specialist, that the BRDC was formed, and he was elected its Vice-President.
Rightly, the good doctor’s racing is associated with Le Mans. The publicity afforded by that remarkable 1927 victory had no doubt strengthened WO’s resolve to continue and a team of three 4½s won the Team prize in the 1928 six-hours race, Dr B sharing a car with Bernard Rubin. At Le Mans he was co-driver to Clement but a cracked chassis forced them to retire. For the 1929 JCC Double-12 race Benjy had the honour to be paired with Woolf Barnato in the Speed Six, but when they were leading a sheard dynamodrive put them out, as engines had to be re-started on the starter after pit pauses. At Le Mans that year he went with Baron Harry & Erlanger, the banker, in a 0, and they were third in the very satisfactory 1,2,3 Bentley finish. In the 1929 JCC Double-Twelve the same pair drove a blown 4½-Bentley from the Hon Dorothy Paget/Tim Birkin team, but into the second day the back-axle gave up.
In a further drive for the Paget/Birkin venture at Le Mans in 1930, Benjy drove with Guilio Ramponi, but with little more than three hours to go a piston broke when they were third. His blown 4½ was flagged off the Ulster TT, but in the 1930 BRDC ‘500’, with Eddie Hall, the racing doctor put up one of his best performances ever, bringing a tread-throwing stripped supercharged four-seater home second at 112.12mph. (Benjy used to say that 80mph around Brooklands was easy enough but that anything over 100mph was a very different matter.)
Encouraged, Benjafield then took the famous Birkin single-seater Blower in for the 1931 ‘500’, driving alone, but retired with a broken valve. Before that, lapping for two hours at some 120mph, he was signalled to reduce speed and found that he needed five laps to get down to the required 110mph, which then felt like a crawl.
Apart from the big events, Benjy continued to drive at Broadlands. At the 1928 Easter meeting he was third in Victor Riley’s Riley Nine, and he then took out the sic T37A Bugatti which Malcolm Campbell had driven at Boulogne, but it went onto three cylinders. But in the next race the Bugatti, after nearly colliding with Newman’s Salmson when it was blown up the Members’ banking, won with a lap at 108.03mph. The Bugatti was then third again in the JCC ‘Junior GP’, tame after Le Mans, but fun, as there were artificial corners.
Benjafield had intended to have a stab at the ‘Gold Star’ race at Whitsun with a four-cylinder sleeve-valve Panhard-Levassor but it was too heavily handicapped so he scratched, .being content to drive the Bugatti to a good win. In 1929 he had shared an Alfa Romeo with lvanowski in the Essex MC’s six-hour race, and went to the TT with a sic 1750 Alfa Romeo which proved too slow. In the 1930 TT he drove a blower Bentley but it was outclassed by Hall’s normal 4½.
After Bentley Motors’ final retirement from racing in 1930 he had to turn to other makes. In the 1931 JCC Double-12 Benjy drove a works Aston-Martin but retired with valve trouble. He used a Speed 20 Alvis for the 1933 JCC IT race but a gudgeon pin broke. He remained staunch to the Alfa Romeo marque, acquiring the ex-Penn Hughes 2.6 Monza which Miss Fay Taylour had sometimes raced, before the 1935 JCC International Trophy race, in which it holed a piston. In 1936 Ian Connell bought the Monza and Benjy decided on some proper racing, acquiring a new 1½ litre ERA (R6B), which at first he shared with Earl Howe, who was awaiting his ERA. They were eighth in the 1936 British Empire Trophy race at Donington but gearbox trouble retired the doctor in the JCC International Trophy event, and he disposed of the car to W G Everitt.
Though that was the end of his racing, his car interest continued after the war, when he ran an FVVD Citroën Big Six, and he continued to practice medicine until his death in 1957, by which time his son Patrick had become a motor racing photographer for Autosport. Others of the medical profession have enjoyed their motor-racing but none for so long or so enthusiastically as Dr Benjafield.
Benjafields Racing Club
Dr Benjafield’s reputation for bonhomie as well as racing is commemorated by the Benjafields Racing Club, founded some 10 years ago. Prince Michael is the club’s President, and membership is by invitation only. The 75 members naturally have a Bentley bias, but the late Vaughan Davis, one of the founding figures, opined that “being the right sort of chap was more important than having the right sort of car — but if you are the right sort of chap, you’ll probably have the right sort of car.” As well as VSCC and HGPCA races, members enter such Continental classics as Angouleme and the Mille Miglia, run their annual sprint at Cornbury Park, and have ‘dining-in nights’ amongst the Bentleys at the showrooms of club stalwart Stanley Mann or Neil Davies. GC