The one that got away

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Though Bentley was usually unbeatable at Le Mans in the ‘20s, the marques attempts to set 24-hour speed records met with considerably less success. Bill Boddy takes a look back.

In 1923 the tough Australian John Duff sent Walter Owen Bentley hurrying to Le Mans at the last possible moment to see his personally-owned 3-litre Bentley finish fourth and set a lap-record of 66.60mph in the first of the now-famous 24-hour races. The following year Duff established himself as a real driver by winning the great race, partnered as in 1923 by works driver Frank Clement.

These fine performances opened WO’s eyes to the value of this marathon sportscar event for demonstrating the speed and endurance of his Bentley cars, and the marque will forever be associated with those victories at the Sarthe in the 1920s.

But that was not the only arena where Bentley attempted to make a mark. Endurance records carried a lot of publicity with them at that time, and 24-hour achievements most of all. A sensational record over this period might well stand unbroken for a long time, and thus be remembered after race wins had been forgotten. Accordingly, WO committed his firm to achieving the goal of sustaining 100mph for the full 24 hours, a feat equivalent to Percy Lambert exceeding that speed for an hour in his Clement-Talbot in 1913.

One can only speculate as to whether WO turned to record-bids to offset the poor Le Mans result of 1925, when none of the Bentleys finished, or whether he simply saw this as a supplement to the appearances at Brooklands of Bentleys in the short races there. Either way, he never achieved his goal. Two attempts in 1925 brought a series of records at close to the magic speed, which must have made the team confident of success for the following year, and although the Bentleys were repeatedly to stand up to a full day’s racing at Le Mans, the sustained 100mph around the banked Montlhéry circuit defeated them.

Duff had provided some very useful early publicity for the new marque by taking his four-seater 3-litre to Brooklands in 1922 and driving it without a co-driver for two rounds of the clock, covering nearly 2083 miles, at an average speed of 86.79mph, a new British record. He had bought the Bentley at Full list-price and stripped it of road clobber. The back seat, on which an additional petrol tank was carried, was covered over, the scuttle had an aerotype wind-deflector, a second oil-tank was fitted to the floorboards and the weight reduced to 27051bs. The only trouble experienced was a screw which got loose and closed the choke of the Claudel-Hobson carburettor. The Pirelli tyres stood up to the battering splendidly, with only one burst and five other changes for the anticipated worn treads. He broke the old Double-12 record held by Miller’s Wolseley 15, and also 37 International Class-E records, that for 12 hours at 87.42mph.

Incidentally, in contrast to today, Duff’s pit signalled to him with a flag for the three-hour replenishment pauses and he had slips of paper to throw to them if communication was felt necessary. On day two Duff left the car only four times. His Marvellous run formed a front-cover colour picture on the first issue of The Brooklands Gazette. No doubt these successful record achievements set WO’s sights on his hoped-for 100mph-in-24-hours aim.

Duff had been unable to claim a world 24-hour record because the noise-sensitive ears of residents living close to Brooklands meant that night-use was banned. After the first day’s running the Bentley had to be locked-up under official observation until the next morning. At Montlhéry there were no such restrictions and, in 1924, a 2-litre, 16-valve four-cylinder Bignan driven by Gros and Martin set the world’s 24-hour record to 77.3mph, a figure that would have been well within Duff’s grasp…

So with Dr JD Benjafield, the noted bacteriologist and amateur racing driver, who graduated to becoming one of the celebrated Le Mans ‘Bentley Boys’ by 1926, Duff went to Montlhéry to set fresh records in the autumn of 1925. He used his former Le Mans Bentley, with some engine modifications, a higher axle ratio, and a new lightweight, streamlined Gordon England body. They broke the Renault 45-held 1000 miles record, at 977mph, and missed the Renault’s 12-hour record by only 12km. Then, 18 hours into the 24, the oh-camshaft drive broke up, and the attempt ended.

Woolf Bamato, the new financier of Bentley Motors Limited, joined Duff in a resumed attempt with the repaired car 11 days later, thus showing how serious the company was. This time they were successful, establishing a speed of95.03mph fir the coveted and important 24-hour stint. Only four of the car’s Dunlop tyres had to be changed and no mechanical problems intruded.

So WO must have been optimistic over his ‘100-in-24′ bid in March 1926. It was to be a serious affair, Clement being sent to aid Duff, Bamato and Benjafield. Walter Hassan headed the mechanics’ team, with a Morris Cowley for their transport needs.

Renault were also after a new 24-hour record, with their splendid 9123cc Renault 45 streamlined saloon. But the Billancourt car had overheating difficulties, so the Bentley bid came first.

WO went over himself to supervise things. The car was, however, not a new one, consisting of Dr Benjafield’s old racing No 2 9ft-wheelbase 3-litre which Clement had driven in 1923. It was bought by ‘Benjy’ at the end of that season and was further tuned for him by Kensington-Moir and his personal mechanic. TO13 speed was now about 112mph and much weight had been further pared from the chassis. After ‘Benjy’ had finished racing it in 1925, it was returned to the factory and provided with a racing body for the 24-hour record bid. So hardly a new car, although no doubt carefully overhauled.

Unfortunately, WO’s target was never reached. Rain plus a defect in the long-tailed fabric body delayed the start, but the attempt finally started in earnest and the first hour saw 103.47 miles completed. Intermediate World’s and Class (now Class D) records fell, but a broken valve spring and then a fractured valve stem caused the team to abandon the effort, after more than 16 hours lappery.

Four months later they were at it again, George Duller now co-driving with Bamato and Clement. Heavy rain called a halt, but not before some more Class records had been shattered and the world’s 12-hour taken to 100.96 mph. It ended in calamity. Later in the attempt, Duller spun the car during the night. Groggy after the incident, he returned to the pit and was unable to continue. Unfortunately the other drivers were resting some kilometres away, leaving just the mechanic, Walter Hassan, in charge. Another defeat was more than the gallant but inexperienced Hassan could bear; deciding he had to try and save the attempt, he jumped into the Bentley and headed out into the night. However, in the dark and on slippery concrete, he went off almost immediately, the Bentley rolling, trapping him unconscious underneath. He was hurt, the car damaged, and never used again. In his autobiography WO recalled this in typically phlegmatic way. Under the circumstances, he said, “it was greatly to his credit that he managed a third of a lap before crashing…”

Whether WO would have had a third try we shall never know. In July the Renault was ready and, driven by Garfield, Plessier and Guillon raised the workld 24-hour figure to a significant 107.9mph.

It has been suggested that the record attempts seriously compromised the team’s preparations for the ’26 Le Mans race. Whatever the truth is, it would not be until the following year that Bentley found once more its winning ways at Le Mans, with Davis and Benjafield staging a 23-hour fight-back after surviving the infamous White House crash.

Legendary marque with heritage earned at the track

Undeniably the Bentley ranks as one of the great British sportscars. In the vintage years, from the immortal 3-litre onwards, it achieved its unequalled reputation by reason of its appeal to sporting persons of that time. It was rugged, possessed a tremendous exhaust-note, demanded skill to get the best out of it, and even came with an unparalleled Five-year guarantee. But primarily its fame came from the historic run of outstanding successes at Le Mans, where the marque, then new and comparatively unknown, had made its mark in 1924. Successes were blazoned across the headlines of newspapers after victories between 1927-’30.

Hardly a meeting at Brooklands passed without a Bentley being ‘in the money’, and when the Rolls-Royce-built ‘Silent Sports Car’ Bentleys emerged in 1933, the fame and appeal of the make was complete. High performance had become allied to unaccustomed quiet and refinement, with Eddie Hall nevertheless making fastest time in three successive Ulster TT races, to ram the message home.

The creator of these wonderful motor cars, Walter Owen ‘WO’ Bentley was a shy, withdrawn personality, but he could fight his corner when necessary, as in the public correspondence with Sunbeam’s Louis Cootalen about the origins of his 3-litre versus the twin-cam Sunbeam of like engine-size. He had been a racer in earlier days and was heroic enough to ride in the 1929 7 race with Birkin, in a Blower 41/2. If the more modest of the 3-litre Bentleys were not that quick, it is not on speed alone that one judges a car— the ‘Red Label’ Speed Model was good for about 82mph, more than sufficient in the days of an overall 20mph speed-limit.

Curiously, I do not think either WO or Coatalen supplied test cars of their competitive 3-litre models to the leading weekly journal, The Autocar, for road testing. Short articles yes, but performance figures, no. Later, perhaps prompted by the new company director and owner Woolf Barneto, these did appear, The Autocar discovering that his 6½-litre Speed Six saloon was good for 85.71mph, and 10-30mph in 4.6sec. And when an 8-litre saloon exceeded 101mph at Brooklands, checked by the same magazine, a landmark had truly been established. It was this publicity, allied to the great Le Mans victories which set Bentley’s reputation as one of Britain’s greatest sportscars.

How many sales did those to Mans wins generate? We shall never know; I do recall, however, that in 1951, when Sydney Allard had won the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally he was asked, “How many Allards did this sell for you?” Sydney’s surprise answer was, “Well, I don’t think it sold any,..” But the Bentley victories in the famous 24-hour race must surely have resulted in sales and loyalty to the marque.

In a way WO was fortunate that capable drivers among the wealthy of the gay 1920s were prepared to take their own cars to sample the excitement, fame and glory of a Le Mans drive; and not even call for starting or prize money.

All these fascinating facets add up to old and new Bentleys being amongst our top sportscars.

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