Veteran to classic: The great Bentley debate

Strange case of mistaken identity?

In response to WB's theory that the 1922 Bentley in the Donington Collection is not the car used by JF Duff for the 1922 "Double-Twelve" record and for Le Mans in 1923, Bentley historian Michael Hay reiterates and enlarges upon the counter-arguments.

In common with most historically-minded Bentley enthusiasts, I was more than a little interested and surprised by WB's revelations (Motor Sport, November 1987) to the effect that the car used by John Duff at Brooklands in September 1922 to break the "Double-Twelve" record, and at Le Mans in 1923, was not chassis No 141 as has been generally accepted, but chassis No 143.

My initial reaction was one of incredulity, as all the research done by Darell Berthon, in producing A Racing History Of The Bentley in 1956, and by myself, in producing Bentley— The Vintage Years in 1987, did not produce one iota of evidence that the Duff car, now at Donington, was not 141.

However, not wishing to be in any way blinkered to possible truth, I have made a full reexamination of the available records. I return to the same conclusion, that, with the exception of the BARC records consulted by WB, there in not one shred of evidence to support 143, and a great deal to support 141 — some of it contemporary and handwritten by people who had far more involvement with the car itself than the BARC officials.

Frank Clement's racing notebook was a foolscap record kept by the head of the experimental shop at Bentley, which was also the racing shop. It was so meticulously kept that, when Nobby Clark gave it to Darell Berthon, Darell was strictly instructed not to tell Frank he had it — because it documents the way in which Bentley Motors swapped the identities of the No 1 TT car and the Indianapolis car to enable it to sell the full TT team whilst retaining the No 1 car, which was the fastest and most developed of all (the BARC does not seem to have been aware of this fact when the No 1 TT car, chassis 42, renumbered as Indy car chassis 94, raced at Brooklands with a single-seater body).

It is this book from which WB quotes details of the record attempts. In view of Clement's truthful recording of what was literally fraud, it seems unlikely he would have listed the car as 141 when it was 143!

If we accept that the car in question is chassis 141, events according to Clement's notebook read as follows:
Early August 1922: chassis 141 delivered to Frank Clement. 3.35 back axle.
August 15, 1922: engine 62 removed from EXP 2 and fitted to 141 for first record attempt.
August 28-29, 1922: first record attempt.
August 30, 1922: car/engine dismantled and rebuild started. 3.0 back axle.
September 19-20, 1922: on track.
September 27-28, 1922: DoubleTwelve-Hour Record.
September 29, 1922: cylinders off. Guarantee issued from Bentley Motor Works service records.

But the words "guarantee expires 29/9/27" were preceded by the words "15/53 rear-axle ratio" (15/53 = 3.53), whereas at this date 141 had a 3.0 back axle. This will be explained shortly.

September 30, 1922: Essex race meeting.
October 1-11, 1922: engine rebuilt.
October 14, 1922: BARC meeting.
October 16, 1922: returned to works for finishing off as standard chassis. 3.53 rear-axle ratio fitted.

So the person keeping the service records anticipated, by some 18 days, the fitting of a 3.53 back axle. How? By retrospective book-keeping, of course!

In the course of writing my own book, it was necessary to make a full examination of all 3024-odd chassis, and many similar anomalies were found. Bear in mind that we are referring to the service records, not the official sales records, so the accuracy of the information has to be questioned, and interpretation is important. Duff's 1925 Le Mans car, chassis 1040, appears in All The Pre-War BentleysAs New as a Macquet Galvier saloon, because the original Vanden Plas four-seater was crossed out and over-written!

December 6, 1922: delivered to Park Ward for body-fitting.

This is the last entry in the notebook, because after this it was Duff's own car. From a continuation log-book issued in 1949, it was first registered XM 6761 on January 10,1923. Before this, Duff very probably ran the car on trade plates—he did the same in 1925 with chassis 1040, which always wore MD 7187, a registration number which was never issued by the licensing authorities.

Duff was pictured in The Autocar (March 23, 1923) at the wheel of a fully road-equipped 3-litre bearing the registration XM 67(??), which, beyond any reasonable doubt, must have been XM 6761. The caption read: "One of the competitors will be Capt JF Duff, who will drive a three-litre Bentley. Capt Duff is depicted at the wheel of the identical Bentley car on which he covered 2083 miles in twenty-four hours at Brooklands last September." At this point, WB ties himself in agonising knots over the meaning of the word "identical". According to my dictionary it means "the very same"— in other words, that Duff was indeed sitting in the car he used for the "DoubleTwelve record.

In The Autocar's Bentley Special book, there are two further photographs of 141 during the 1923 Le Mans race, clearly showing the identical (and I use the word advisedly) body to that shown on XM 6761. The lines of the body are the same, including the unusual nearside cutaway, as is the upholstery. It should be noted that, at that time, the Le Mans race was for cars with fully-equipped four-seater bodies.

The March 23 picture clearly shows the rather unusual pattern of front shock-absorber brackets used on the 1922 record car. Photographs taken during that record attempt and during the later Le Mans race also clearly show the special front spring-hanger brackets with integral scoops to prevent the axle going back in the event of a failure of the master leaf. These were originally developed to meet the Indianapolis regulations, and were fitted to the Indy car and to at least two of the three TT cars. All of this proves beyond any reasonable doubt that we are referring to only one car.

On May 26-27, 1922, the car was raced by Duff and Clement at Le Mans, finishing equal fourth at 50.05 mph and setting fastest lap at 66.69 mph. On July 25 it was raced by Duff at San Sebastian in the Grand Prix de Tourisme, being awarded first place on merit despite a heavy crash, and on September 7 Duff raced it again in the George Boillot Cup at Boulogne.

Photographs taken during the latter race clearly show the special Hartford shock-absorber brackets (originally developed for the TT cars) mounted on the axle backplate carriers. It is rather naive of WB to believe that this car is a standard chassis in view of its distinctly nonstandard performance. After all, Duff averaged nearly 7 mph more for twenty-four hours than the standard chassis was guaranteed to attain in a straight line!

141 appeared at the service station for the first time on November 21, 1923, to have a 14/53 back axle fitted, and then again on December 1 to have minor adjustments made to its SU carburettor, at a time when the standard chassis was fitted with a five-jet Smith's or a Claudel Hobson as an option. Importantly, work at the service station was booked out to the owner by name; since the only owner listed was Dr R Ogier Ward (a distinguished Harley Street consultant who served with distinction in both wars), and since ten weeks had elapsed since Duff finished racing 141, there is no way of proving that Ogier Ward took delivery of her before November 1923.

In July 1924, 141 was "inspected for damage due to accident". In a recent letter to the Bentley Drivers Club, David Soltau recalled his parents referring to a bad accident which Ogier Ward had shortly after acquiring the car, in which the other car was practically sliced in half and the driver killed. This accident probably explains the braked front axle, later steering-column and bulkhead which are now fitted to the Bentley. After having four further owners before the war, 141 was re-registered in 1949, was taken off the road in 1959, and languished in the proverbial barn before being bought by Tom Wheatcroft. (It is curious how no one realised it was the Le Mans car, WB)