Only misfortune prevented a privateer Bentley from winning the inaugural Le Mans 24 hours – and the lessons learned yielded success, as Andrew Frankel relates
May 21, 1923: a lone 3-litre Bentley leaves London bound for the Continent At the wheel is Bentley dealer John Duff; by his side is Frank Clement, the only professional racing driver the factory ever employed. In the back sits Arthur Saunders and Jack Besant, mechanics from Bentley’s experimental department. Together with the few spares and tools they carry strapped to the cars, they amount to the entire resource of a team which will try to win the new Grand Prix de l’Enciurance at a track to the south of the cathedral city of Le Mans. No matter that the car is privately owned and entered, nor that it will be the sole foreign competitor, ranged against a legion of French works machines. History has already shown John Duff is not a man easily put off by adversity.
In September the previous year, he had decided to attack the British Double Twelve record — two 12-hour runs on consecutive days at Brooklands — with his own short-chassis 3-litre. He drove single-handed.
The late Walter Hassan, Bentley boy and designer of Jaguar’s V12 engine, remembered the event well: “Duff really was tough. After the first 12-hour run he had to be lifted from the car and carried to the Hand and Spear in Weybridge and it didn’t seem to us that he could carry on the next day. But he never questioned it.”
Leslie Pennal, one of Bentley’s chief mechanics recalled: “His back was absolutely raw. He’d made his own seat with no stuffing with the peak just under his shoulder blades. He thought it was fine but had forgotten he had to do 24 hours grinding in that seat” When, late on the second day, Duff peeled himself off his seat to answer a call of nature behind a shed, his hands were so numb, Pennal had to assist Hours later, the Double Twelve record was his after 2082 miles on the track, along with every Class D record from 3 hours to 1000 miles. It is easy to see why Duff felt he had little to fear from 24 hours with a co-driver.
W Bentley, on the other hand, thought it was lunacy. “I think the whole thing’s crazy. Nobody’ll finish. Cars aren’t designed to stand that sort of strain for 24 hours”, was his comment at the time and, in his autobiography he noted, “No other British manufacturer was supporting the event and I thought they were probably very wise; I viewed the whole thing with the gravest suspicion.”
And he felt guilty too. He had sold the car to Duff at a discount and prepared it at favourable rates, but still it gnawed at his conscience: he should be there, and he knew it. At the last moment he took the Friday night boat to Dieppe, endured a foul train journey and arrived at Le Mans at midday, just four hours before the flag. Clement and Duff could not have been more surprised. But if those few months provide some background into what took Bentley to Le Mans, to find how there came to be a 24-hour race there at all that year, you have to look back a further 50 years. Le Mans itself has existed on the world map for around 1000 years and was owned by England as one of the many possessions of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
It was put on the automotive map over a decade before the first contraption accepted to be a car even ran. In 1873, Alined& Bollee built his L’Obeissante steam carriage in Le Mans and duly steamed to Paris and back in it. The Automobile Club de la Sarthe — the forerunner of today’s ACO — was formed in 1905 and the following year it hosted the French Grand Prix over a 64-mile course to the east of the city. Wilbur Wright also took to the air for the first time in Europe just yards away from the Mulsanne straight, while the Grand Prix de France returned to the city in 1911. This time the course was 33.5 miles long and, significantly, the Mulsanne straight was included in its length. The circuit as Duff and Clement saw it was mapped out in 1919, used for the first time in 1920, and famously hosted the French GP in 1921, won by Jimmy Murphy’s Duesenberg, the first major win for an American car and driver combination on European soil. Even so, by the time the Bentley eased onto the startline, it was not much of a racing facility, even by the standards of 1923: the pits were tents and the track surface was simply appalling, rutted, muddy and strewn with stones, one of which would change the course of the race.
Clement was horrified: “It was simply dreadful. I mean to say we had holes a foot deep. And the stones they seemed to be a foot deep too, they were so bad.” The weather did not help either. As today, the race started at 4pm, coinciding nicely with a hailstorm which turned into four hours of relentless rain; the circuit was already beginning to break up when Duff came in at 8pm to hand over.
While the rain had just stopped, the Bentley now encountered one of the two stones which would deny it victory. This first went straight through a headlamp. So hobbled, Clement and Duff raced through the night, dinging to second place behind a Chemard et Wakker; by daybreak they were nearly 20 miles behind. The fightback commenced at once, Duff breaking the lap record on consecutive laps but finding the brakes, fitted only to the rear axle, woefully inadequate at slowing the Bentley at the end of the straight. More than once he had to take to the escape road but still he gained on the leader until, for the first time since the start of the race, Bentley led Le Mans. The car was running perfectly, seemingly able to set new lap records at will. Then came the second stone.
This one went through the fuel tank and stranded the car at Amage. Duff, not wishing to be defeated by such a trifling inconvenience, ran four miles to the pit and dispatched Clement to cycle the wrong way round the track with two flagons of fuel to patch up the Bentley and get it back to the pit. Though terrified of being mown down, Clement reached the Bentley, filed out the hole to accept a wooden bung, threw the bicycle on the back seat and roared back to the pit But by the time the repair had been made permanent, too much time had been lost and the two drivers idled away the remaining hours breaking the lap record over and over again. They were fourth behind two Chenards and a Bignan.
By then, however, W had come around to the Le Mans way of thinking: “I was quite certain this was the best race I had ever seen,” he enthused. So when Duff announced he was going back to finish the job in 1924, nothing was too much trouble. W seconded Pennal to the project, gave him a corner of the workshop and months to work on Duff’s car. This time it would have headlamp shields, a properly protected tank and four-wheel brakes. Nothing was left to chance, and the car, which was new, was stripped and rebuilt part by part
By now, the French too, were wise to the threat from Bentley, again the sole foreigner among 40 French entries. Pennal remembers the scrutineers being “unbelievably strict” with the car, insisting the front wings were too narrow by 3/16th5 of an inch. But the car passed and duly took the start. At first, it seemed the Bentley had met its match. Ninth after the first lap, it appeared able to stay the pace at the front but no more. In particular a new straight-eight Chenard looked very threatening. In fact, this was just an early manifestation of W O’s latterly legendary strategy of conserving the car and concealing its speed wherever possible.
By morning the Bentley was second and gaining on the big Chenard, though without rear shock absorbers or a windscreen, which had broken up under the pounding the car was receiving. The first near disaster occurred when the official lap chart and those recorded by A F C Hillstead disagreed by one lap. W was livid but Halstead was adamant, telling his boss: “My figures are correct and you can bet your life they’re trying to do us out of a lap because we have a chance of winning.”
Bentley grabbed the carbon copies, marched off to the timekeepers who duly returned the lap unharmed and, in time, witnessed the big Chenard’s effort to keep the Bentley at bay go up in flames.
Then a coachbuilder’s staple came adrift and lodged in the gearbox, making selection of third impossible and costing Duff 40 minutes in the pit in an eventually successful attempt to free it. But even with this delay, the Bentley led Le Mans and there was nothing any other competitor could do to stop it. There was, however, always sabotage.
With just 90 minutes remaining, Duff came in to change tyres only to discover one of the rear wheels would not budge. This was reported in the press as being due to ‘swollen hubs’, but Arthur Saunders, back for the second year, knew better. A hardened steel metal instrument, about the size and shape of a darning needle had been jammed between the hub splines and tore them as attempts were made to pull the wheel off. And even though this, ultimately, did not immobilise the Bentley, the saboteur was still very nearly successful for, despite the car’s healthy lead, each car in the race had to maintain a preset minimum average speed between stops for those laps to count towards the overall distance. Problem solved, Clement left and drove flat out to the end of the race to no avail: these laps were not counted and the 90 miles he covered were removed from the record. The history books therefore state the Bentley covered just 1290miks in 24 hours the truth is it actually did 1380.
In the end, happily, it was all academic. The second-placed La Lorraine Dietrich had covered just 1280 miles, and no-one could argue any more that Bentley had won its first Le Mans. No-one that is, apart from those who maintain to this day that, under the technical rules of the first three Le Mans, there were no winners as such, and that these were merely rounds of the Triennial Cup. And, pedantically, they are correct, though what value can be ascribed to an award that finally went to the 10th-placed Chenard in 1925 is debatable. By all normal methods of record, be they of speed or distance, Bentley won the 1924 Le Mans, a fact now formally acknowledged by the ACO’s own records. The Triennial Cup was never awarded again, but for Bentley this was just the start