Bentley's trick rev counter

Proper racing drivers are often characterised by psychologists as being ‘high-attainment individuals’. That doesn’t always make them likeable, truthful, straightforward or honest enough for Rover Scout status. Team managers over a century of motor sport have always had stories to tell which demonstrate the point. A friend of mine was walking through the paddock of ‘a well-known circuit’, ‘somewhere in Britain’ after a very capable driver notorious for his incessant whingeing had just won an important race there. He saw the joint chief of the winning team striding towards him, en route to the podium celebrations. “Well done!” he cried, “great drive, wasn’t it!”.

“Oh yes”, came the instant response. “Great drive – but he’s still a p**ck!” Which I guess said it all…

This was nothing new, of course, and back in the 1930s the Bentley team manager ‘Bertie’ Kensington-Moir told a lovely story about one of his more demanding Le Mans drivers. “W O Bentley and myself had to play a trick to keep him quiet. He was a chap who was never satisfied unless he had 300 revolutions per minute more from his engine than anyone else. After every practice run he kept on asking the other drivers how many revolutions they were getting on the straight… Knowing him, both W O and myself always tried to see that he got the right answer. But one of the other drivers thought he’d have a joke with him, and incidentally with us at the same time. It was Dr Benjafield, who’d won the race for us the previous year.

“When Benjy was asked, he said he was getting 3900rpm out of his engine – though I don’t suppose he was really getting more than 3700 at the outside. That really caused it. I was told by our temperamental driver that his engine was dud, that the car wouldn’t pull, etc, etc. And what was I going to do about it?

“I knew perfectly well that the car was all right, as the lap times were, if anything, better than the other two cars of the team, but I knew it was no good saying so. I discussed it with W O again – gave Dr Benjafield 500 lines for being a naughty boy – and rang up the works. The night after, that slow car gave satisfaction. The driver was terribly pleased. His engine was doing 4100 revolutions… and getting quite difficult to hold. That’s what he thought. He didn’t know that a parcel had arrived for me by air from the Bentley works. I’d had it collected at Le Bourget and brought to Le Mans, and while he was having dinner… the special rev counter was fitted to the car; it registered 400 revolutions more than it should. The driver was completely satisfied. Drove like a hero, gave no trouble, and finished second…”

So, while Kensington-Moir took care not to name the driver, he littered his memoir with clues; Benjafield had won Le Mans with ‘Sammy’ Davis the year before – that would be 1927 – so we are talking about the 1928 race here. At which point the wheels come off Kensington-Moir’s reminiscence, for while the butt of his story “finished second”, in fact second place at Le Mans 1928 fell to the Edouard Brisson/Robert Bloch Stutz and not a Bentley at all. However, all along one might have suspected that the demanding Bentley driver never satisfied with second best was in fact Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin. And sure enough the second Bentley home – actually in fifth place overall – was indeed the Birkin/Jean Chassagne 4½-litre team car. One always has to take these flip tales of derring-do with a proportionate pinch of salt, but this one seems close enough…