Veteran to classic: The great Bentley debate (cont'd)

Thus we have a logical and consistent case for 141. There is just one fly in the ointment — the listing of engine 190 in the service records.

I feel this has to be dismissed as an error for several reasons: 141 was fitted with engine 62 in August 1922, and it is still there; chassis 181 is also listed as having engine 190. A clerical error could quite easily have mixed up 141 and 181, and as an experimental/racing engine it is unlikely that service would have had any record of engine 62.

To argue otherwise leads to non sequiturs: if 141 had 190, what engine did 181 have when it was delivered in March 1923? How did 62 get out of 141 after September 1923, to be replaced by 190, which should have been in 181? How and when did 62 find its way back into 141? That way lies madness. . .

Now let us examine the case for 143. First, we most assume that throughout his notebook Clement listed 141 when he meant 143. (But see my footnote! WB)

143’s guarantee was issued on September 10,1922. This makes a nonsense of WB’s statement that the car in question could not be 141 because 141 was delivered in September 1922 — he conveniently omits to mention that 143 was delivered in the very same month! However, and this is a very important point, the guarantee date is not the same thing as the date of delivery. The former is merely the date on which the complete car was passed off by road tests as being all right, confirming that the coach-builders had not done something daft such as building the seats too low over the back axle so that the banjo could come into contact with the frame.

Duff last raced the car in September 1923, and we cannot prove that Ogier Ward took possession of the car before November of that year. We can, however, show that Dudley Pratt had 143 in April and August, since 143 was in the service station in those months. Had the car been Duffs, the work would have been booked out to him — but it was not! (But if Duff were an agent, would his name have appeared? Pratt’s early 1923 ownership, 143 having been sold to him by Duff, supports (?) my revised reasoning. WB)

Then there is the matter of engines. 143 was fined with engine 78, which was the number given by both Lieutenant Colonel PC Nicholson and ND Dastur, from India, when they joined the BDC in 1947 and 1956 respectively as owners of the chassis. As far as I know, 143 is still in India— does anybody know where?

The argument for 143 really falls apart on this issue, for the scenario looks as follows: engine 62 was fitted to 143 in August 1922 and removed (after September 1923 but before 1949) and fitted to 141; but engine 190 was fitted to 141, and later removed to be fitted to 181. So what engine did 181 have between the issue of its guarantee in March 1923 (note that a car must be driven for a guarantee to be issued) and September 1923? Where was 78, which should have been in 143, all this time? And how come none of the owners knew what was going on, and none of this was recorded in the service records? I could go on, but this is, as the ancient philosophers would say, reductio ad absurdum (ie it’s a load of cobblers!).

In March or August 1924,143 was fitted with Hartford shock-absorbers, but the record car already had them—and this at a time when the standard chassis had lever-arm dampers. (They could have been replacements, very likely badly needed! WB)

So the only piece of inexplicable evidence is the BARC’s listing of 143. My first comment would be that Bentley Motors raced the No 2 two-seater as chassis 400 (as declared to the BARC) whereas the real 400 was a Chalmer & Hoyer saloon owned by Noel van Raalte! It is quite conceivable, given the handicapping system at Brooklands, that Duff tried to fool Ebby with a change of identity.

This point rather relies on Duffs own integrity, but I would not lend much weight to that. After all, Duff is the man who is remembered for having cheated over the refuelling regulations at Le Mans in 1925, and for the black look on his face when he realised his rear wheels had been changed towards the end of the 1925 24-Hour Record run at Montlhery, which cost him the several hundred pounds promised by Rapson’s for finishing on the same set of tyres — this at a time when making money out of motor racing was not the done thing.

I wonder, though, who wrote the numbers in the BARC records? Could they have been transcribed by a busy clerk from a grubby form pulled from the darkest recesses of the scrutineer’s back pocket? Whatever, we have a clear case for 141 which fits all the evidence except this one point, has been unchallenged for many years, and is supported by contemporary documents of impeccable authority from inside Bentley Motors’ own shops. On that I rest my case.

Michael Hay

The Editor replies

Michael Hay has produced a convincing argument for the Donington Bentley being John Duffs 1922 Brooklands and 1923 Le Mans car. However, I might possibly be able to convince him that we both have a stake in this—that 143 was the Track Bentley and 141 the Sarthe car. First, I think we may ignore the confusing dates from All The Pre-War Bentleys— As New; these cover “delivered” dates, “first-registered” dates, “guarantee issued” dates and “early owners”, and the preface shows that car No 19 was delivered in December 1921, although its guarantee was not signed until May 1923. .

What we do know is that Bentley 143 was registered well in advance of 141. It had, or was to have had, engine 78. Now Duff took on a London-based Bentley agency in 1921-22, so let us assume that the car allocated to him was 143. For his “Double-Twelve” record, he was permitted by WO to use engine 62.

If you can agree to this, two problems are immediately resolved. Firstly, the BARC correctly entered chassis 143 in its records and, when Duff had ceased racing, the car’s original engine (78) was re-installed — this way Michael Hay is saved from madness and no “load of cobblers” is involved!

Secondly, no further explanation is required for The Autocar’s 1923 caption identifying “the identical Bentley” with which Duff captured the Double-Twelve-Hour record, except that the car had clearly been put back in road trim, and appears to be carrying 141s number plates. I do not think the latter fact undermines my argument, since number plates were swapped about freely in the trade at that time.

Hay wonders whether, just before or immediately after the record run at Brooklands, 141 was mistakenly entered as 143 by some over-worked BARC clerk or by a scrutineer who pulled a “grubby form” from his back pocket. BARC administration at the time was run from offices in Pall Mall, to which secretary Kenneth Skinner travelled daily by train from Weybridge, and an agency was used to supply Press cuttings which were meticulously dated and pasted in large scrapbooks. This hardly gives a picture of poor little overworked clerks who did not care which particular car had just established an epoch-making record! Nor does Hay apear to have in his mind a clear picture of Hugh McConnell, his clipboard and his assistant, the Brooklands Scrutineer . .

After the long pounding it had undergone around Brooklands, 143 might well have been ready for an overhaul. We know that when Duff heard about the first Le Mans 24-Hour Race, he asked whether WO Bentley would help him were he to enter. WO was dubious about the day-and-night marathon, but agreed to let Clement go as Duff’s co-driver, and to give some factory help in preparing the car. One story has it that Duff said he would buy a new 3-litre if WO showed some interest.

What actually happened is unclear. WO implied that for the Double-Twelve-Hour record Duff worked on his own engine (78?) and that the Le Mans car was his own. Hillstead refers to a “satisfactory outcome” to Duff’s request, but then he also says WO offered to help with the pitwork personally, whereas we know he only decided to attend at all at the last moment. Elizabeth Nagel’s book adds nothing conclusive.

It seems to me perfectly feasible, however, that Duff was offered chassis 141, or at least its frame, in which engine 62 (from chassis 143) was installed and to which the “Double-Twelve” body was fitted. Most of the mystrey is then resolved, and Hay’s sanity further safeguarded, because engine 190, which was supposed to be for car 141 but was also attributed to car 181, would be free for the latter purpose (assuming the engine number of the Donington car is genuine, the racing engine has remained in 141 ever since).

It all seems to fit. We know Duff used his own car at Brooklands; and the 1923 car was driven to Le Mans and therefore presumbly taxed—whereas 143 probably used trade-plates. Duff would have had access to 141’s registration number by the time The Autocar requested a picture, and could well have used it on 143. No doubt 143 was about to be overhauled, re-engined and sold. I have seen a “For Sale” advertisement prior to the Le Mans race, and this might well have applied to 143, for which Duff already knew he had no further use. Press reports that he would run the “Double-Twelve” car in France could easily have been based on statements made by Duff himself before WO relented and put chassis 141 at his disposal.

I go along with Stanley Sedgwick, for Dudley Pratt might well have bought 143 — only someone with such a name, perhaps, would contemplate purchasing such a hard-used Bentley! And Dr Ward (perhaps inspired by Dr Benjafield) might have been glad to have 141, an actual Le Mans Bentley, and to have waited before taking delivery.

Clement’s records show both cars as 141. My explanation would be that, having done most of the work on the Le Mans car as well as sharing the driving (indeed, he made fastest lap at Le Mans), down the years he would tend to think of both Bentleys as 141.

I do not know when his “foolscap book” was compiled, but it does not sound like the sort of thing he would keep on a workshop bench. More likely, he sorted out his rough experimental shop notes in this way when interest in motor racing became more intense during the war, when his memory would be less sharp. If Michael Hay relies on a BARC clerk’s carelessness, I must be permitted to invoke the same in Clement!

A few details remain. The Indy spring shackles would be likely to be used on both 143 and 141 as a safety factor. Hay calls me naive for saying Duff’s Bentley was standard, but I did so only in the context of 1923 Le Mans requirements. He thinks Duff might have altered chassis numbers to fox “Ebby”, but that astute gentleman relied more upon lap-timing and keeping his ears open than upon reading entry forms.

Finally, the registration in The Autocar’s picture of Duff s car (143?) is only partially readable, and Hay provides evidence that Duff might not have been averse to swapping them . . . WB