Over the edge in a Benz

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After a long wait I have the true story about when John Duff, driving one of the pre-war 22.5-litre chain-drive Benz, went over the top of the Members’ banking in the 100mph Short Handicap at the 1922 Autumn Brooklands Meeting.

The Autocar reported at the time that Duff had as passenger a stranger who had begged a ride as the Benz was going out. I have recently had a letter from a reader which explains events.

The writer was the son of Leslie Pennal, who was with the Bentley Company from the start, and who rode as WO Bentley’s mechanic in the 1922 TT and became a leading member of the Bentley racing team.

Duff was a Bentley driver, which explains why Pennal was helping him with the Benz. Pennal was to have ridden with Duff but a friend of Duff’s (not a stranger), who arrived late, saw that the Benz was about to race and reminded Duff of his promise to one day let him ride with him. Apparently, Duff asked Pennal if he would mind, and, as Pennal thought the ancient Benz ‘a shocking thing’, he agreed.

Duff failed to slow sufficiently at the end of the Finishing Straight and the Benz slid up the banking, hit a telegraph pole, which prevented the car from rolling over, and went over the top. It then ran backwards down the steep slope through the trees before coming to rest. Duff and his friend were lying beside the car when the petrol tank, which had lodged in a tree, fell out onto his friend’s head, who, perhaps in shock, was abusing Duff about his driving. Duff is said to have told him, “There, now you will have something to complain about!”

The Autocar reported that neither was seriously hurt, but The Motor reported some weeks later that both were in Weybridge Cottage Hospital.

Barlow, the usual driver of the Benz, was scathing about Duff, bringing replies from Duff, Hornsted, Parry Thomas, etc.

Duff recovered, and won Le Mans for Bentley in 1924.