That was a very interesting article by on the racing Bentleys and Mercedes in the 1920s and 1930s, an assessment of their performances: not previously covered in suchdetail. I laving been, at different times, closely involved with both camps, Bentleys and -Campbell/Howe Mercedes, I often found my allegiance torn.
I first drove some of the cars—Le Mans 6 1/2-litre Bentley and Earl HOwe (ex-Caracciola) Mercedes more than 40 years ago. Then, again. 20 years ago I drove the Malcolm Campbell Mercedes and a Le Mans supercharged 4 1/2-litre Birkin Bentley, and only last year again drove the ex-Earl Howe Mercedes. Even more revealing was being driven by Barnato, Birkin, Campbell and Howe in the very cars at the time of their racing successes. Regretfully, I never rode as mechanic in the Mercedes or Bentleys. As an apprentice how well I remember sitting with my old friend Wally Hassan on the pit counter at Brooklands during practice for the Double-Twelve, then feeling the pangs of envy when Wally jumped .down into Barnato’s Speed Six Bentley to ride with him as mechanic.
When we withdrew from racing at Bentleys in 1931 Woolf Barnato ran his favourite Speed Six as a touring car and Iliad some good rides with him and with Cyril de Haume on the road. My six laps on Brooklands with that car taught me much, but sadly demonstrated to Barnato and Sammy Davis, who arranged it all and stood by with the watch, that I was no ace! I was bitterly disappointed with my own performance but Sammy, with typical kindness, comforted me by saying that I “drove sensibly and obeyed instructions”. Many years later, when asked to paint a picture to be given to me, he made a fine oil painting of use driving Barnato’s big six on the banking, “pulling the car down below the dotted line just before the bump over the Wey on his instructions”.
After Caraceiola’s epic victory with the 38/250 Mercedes in the 1929 TT, Lord Howe bought that car and raced it for several seasons. I drove it several times, once on quite a long run with Leslie Callingham of Shell, when “the old man” (as we always called the 5th Earl Howe) drove his other Mercedes, the boat-railed 36/220.
I didn’t drive the Campbell Mercedes until 20 years ago when Peter Monkhouse and I had that car and an SSK (NJ 7750, now in the Museum at Stuttgart) at Monaco for John James.
In his account the Editor only wrote of the long-distance races in which both marques competed, but it must be remembered that Malcolm Campbell and Lord Howe ran their Mercedes in sprints and hill-climbs as well. They were very successful in spite of the brakes—the “Achilles heel” of the racing Mercedes. At Brooklands in 1931 in the Mountain Championship Campbell (lapping at 72.23 m.p.h.) was second to Birkin’s Maserati, despite difficult brakes—Leo Villa, as riding mechanic, had to use all his might with the hand-brake to supplement Campbell’s foot-brake as the car came down to the Fork each lap. At Shelsley Lord Naive (46.2 sec.; faster than Caracciola in the same car) Said the brakes were all right for just one application for the Esses on each run. Even so the brakes pulled the car about so that it was better to use the “Whitney Straight technique” of braking early and not too hard, and then Opening the throttle very early for the left-hander.
At the other end of the scale I always thought that one of the best performances of Lord Howe’s Mercedes was its run in the 1933 Mille Miglia. Driven by Penn-Hughes and Percy Thomas (Lord Howe’s excellent mechanic) the Mercedes was in fact acting as tender car to the “old man’s” successful MG Magnette team; it was loaded with MG spare parts under the tonneau. Campbell’s Mercedes was seldom used on the road and was usually kept in racing trim without wings and lamps, etc., except when it had to carry touring equipment for sports-car events.
The Bentleys, particularly the 6 1/2, felt a good deal bigger than he Mercedes, perhaps because you sat so much higher in the Bentleys. Comparing the cars is very difficult because they felt so entirely different. Despite the record I still feel the Mercedes was preeminently a sprint machine with “bottomend” performance. The very light steering, terrific getaway aided by the unique blower installation, and the compact feel of the car all made the Mercedes feel an ideal car for tight Circuits and hills—despite those brakes.
The Bentley was a long-distance car with “top-end” performance. With its heavier steering it felt incredibly sure-footed. It needed more thought in deciding on a line through a corner, but was, I believe, quicker on the faster swerves than the Mercedes. The getaway from rest and from tight corners was slower than the Mercedes, but it made up for this by having tremendous torque in the middle and upper ranges. The “big-six. Bentley” really accelerated between 70-100 where the Mercedes lagged a bit unless the supercharger was used all the time, which was seldom a proposition for long periods. The Bentley brakes too were always excellent, with SO little fade, despite the considerable weight of the car.
As to the drivers—Campbell, Howe, Barnato and Birkin (one could write of any of the Bentley team, but Birkin and Barnato come to mind as they were most involved with “Mercedes baiting”)—it would need a complete article, or even a book, to compare them. All were thrilling to ride with, Barnato seemed the safest and Lord Howe the most frightening. Suffice it to say that in many ways Campbell, Howe and Barnato were rather like their cars and Birkin was more like a Mercedes! Don’t you think ?
Thank I leaven the cars are well preserved today, the Bentleys in good hands of members of the Bentley Drivers’ Club and the Campbell and Howe Mercedes with Bob Roberts and Denis de Ferranti. We look forward to a renewal of the duels in the VSCC in due course.
Which do I prefer ? Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?
Kineton A. F. RIVERS-FLETCHER
(You don’t win a Mille Miglia with a sprint car.—ED.)