Naturally there is more interest in an historic car with some competition background than in one without, not to mention the sordid matter of enhanced value. So it is not surprising that when a delapidated 1922 3-litre Bentley with an estate body was discovered in a Leicestershire barn by Michael Ware, the curator of the National Motor Museum, and investigation showed it to have the same engine number as that of the first Bentley to be raced at Le Mans (where this great British sports-car was to win five times), the more historically-minded Bentley Drivers Club members became justifiably excited.
The car is now in Tom Wheatcroft’s Donington Collection, but Tom, being more interested in much later, single-seater racing machinery, tells me he does not much care whether or not it is proved to be the Le Mans 3-litre.
The first I heard of all this was when Michael Ware wrote to ask me why I was so sure the Bentley with which Captain John Duff had taken the British Double-Twelve-Hour record at Brooklands in 1922 had had engine number 62, as stated in my History of Brooklands. He said he hoped I was correct, as otherwise his theory that he had found Duff’s 1923 Le Mans engine (which was No 62) would fall apart.
I had quoted from official BARC records when writing my book and I now checked again to ensure I had not made a mistake. I clearly had not, because there in those original books in which details of record attempts were entered it was very clearly inscribed in long-hand that engine No 62 applied to Duff’s Bentley.
When I imparted this happy news to Michael, he, the BDC and Eoin Young in his Autocar column all proclaimed that it seemed a very historic Bentley had been unearthed (albeit hiding beneath a sad estate-car carriagework), since the BDC archives quote both the record and Le Mans car as having not only engine No 62 but chassis No 141, as has Donington’s car. It was then that I found I could not agree!
Looking again at my dusty tomes from long ago, I discovered that Duff s record-breaking Bentley was declared by the Brooklands authorities in 1922 to have engine No 62 but chassis No 143. This latter is inscribed as clearly in the records as the engine number — and more than once, because the same numbers appear on other pages, and on the duplicates of the BARC certificates given to Duff to confirm the records he had established.
The BDC seems convinced that Duff used the same 3-litre for those splendid Brooklands records, when he drove both twelve-hour spells without a relief driver, as he had to finish fourth (hampered by broken headlamps and a leaking fuel tank) at Le Mans in 1923.
Donington’s Bentley is said to be car No 141. To me, this means that if its engine No 62 is not a fake, what has turned up is a non-racing 3-litre into which the historic Duff racing engine was at some time substituted for 141’s original engine No 190. This has been described as a “sceptical interpretation” by my friend Tim Houlding!
Of course, the BARC figures may be incorrect, but before its record runs the Bentley was weighed on the Brooklands Clubhouse weighbridge, and afterwards the authorities insisted on its engine being dismantled and its size measured. In such circumstances, is it likely that they would have incorrectly entered the car’s chassis number, or that Duff, a Bentley agent, would have accepted BARC certificates thus inscribed, which could have detracted from the validity of his remarkable Double-Twelve record? I suggest not.
When he came to write his authoritative racing history of the Bentley in 1956, Colonel Darrell Berthon (then secretary of the BDC) stated quite definitely that Duff used the same 3-litre for those 1922 records as he did in that first Le Mans, and for races later in 1923 at San Sebastian and Boulogne. In his entry relating to the Spanish race, he said that “in this Bentley, with engine No 62, Duff had taken class E records at Brooklands in August and September 1922.” There seems little reason to doubt this.
The idea of a 24-hour race for sports-cars was an exciting innovation in 1923, and attracted some interest even in Britain, W F Bradley, who was on the spot and able to interview Duff, wrote in an article which appeared the very day before the inaugural Le Mans that “the 3-litre is the one he (Duff) used at Brooklands and it will not have front-wheel brakes”. In other words, it was Bentley No 143.
Duff had raced in America and had come to Brooklands with the very old Fiat “Mephistopheles” which he had resuscitated, before proclaiming himself a London agent for the new 3-litre Bentley. He did the 1922 records with his own car, and although he tried to persuade W O Bentley to provide another car for Le Mans the following year, W O was not convinced about this ingenious new race with its night-running. Though he let the “works” driver Frank Clement go as Duff’s co-driver, W O only became interested at the very last moment, travelling out by boat and train to see the rear-braked privately-entered Bentley (delayed because Duff had not thought to fit stone-guards to lamps and fuel tank) do extremely well. No outright winner was intended in this inaugural race, but the best performance was achieved by a Chenard-Walcker, followed by another Chenard and a Bignan. The Bentley was equal-fourth with a second Bignan and an Excelsior, and and Clement had lapped fastest of all at 66.69 mph. Having seen all this, W O was converted, and Le Mans thereafter became a Bentley Speciality. . .
Further proof that the record car was used at Le Mans is provided by the few available photographs, which seem to show the same bodywork, with a deep cutaway on the door. The fly in the BDC ointment is that Darrell Berthon continually quotes Duff’s Bentley as being No 141. I think I can explain how this may have come about.
Before the first Le Mans marathon, The Autocar naturally wanted a picture of the lone English entry. In March (two months before the race) it published one of Duff in a well-equipped 3-litre, captioned: “One of the competitors will be Capt J F Duff, who will drive a 3-litre Bentley. Capt Duff is depicted at the wheel of the identical Bentley on which he covered 2083 miles in 24 hours at Brooklands last September.” The number plate was obscured, but could be partly read as XM 67??.
An historian avid to find out which car Duff at run at the Track would consult the factory records and come up with car No 141 (XM 6761). But wait! For something to be identical with something else one or more other objects are necessary, and I suggest that when The Autocar stated the car it pictured was identical to the 1922 record car it meant exactly that — that is, a production 3-litre which was in that sense identical to the standard car Duff used at Brooklands and was taking to Le Mans; it did not intend to imply that the car it obtained a picture of was the actual Le Mans car.
At the time of publication, the race was two months away, and possibly Duff’s race car was being prepared; but as he was a London agent it would have been easy to find him in a customer’s car, and if readers thought they were looking at the actual race car, why not? It is significant that in three places where he referred to Duff’s car as XM 6761, Berthon put a question-mark against it!
From Stanley Sedgwick’s book All The Pre-War Bentleys — As New, we learn that car No 141 was sold to a Dr Ward in September 1922, which makes it quite impossible for this car (the one now in the Donington Collection) to have run at Le Mans — unless of course the good doctor let Duff keep it until after the Boulogne race a year later, or was his business partner.
A further thought is that Duff would presumably have taxed his car by August 1922 (when he was driving it to Brooklands) or earlier, as its registration number XM 347 suggests, when related to that of Bentley No 141 which was registered with the same London borough but 6414 numbers later.
The BDC thought the first-ever Le Mans Bentley had surfaced, and young Tim Houlding (who wrote that enthralling book about Bentley Exp 2) went hot-foot to Derby to investigate. Since Duff had raced a standard chassis which would now be wearing a non-original body, however, I did not see what he hoped to find, unless just to examine the “look” of the numbers 141 and 62 stamped on chassis and engine!
Tim has kindly written to me expressing the view that while it is nice to be able to be entirely accurate, historical research can never claim total retrospective authority (don’t I know it!) and that after looking at Bentley No 141 his strong feeling is that the car is a direct linear descendant of the original chassis, whatever that means.
What a remarkable car Duffs Bentley was! On his first record bid, in August 1922 (using a 3:1 petrol/Benzole mixture and Castrol R oil at 15 lb pressure at 3000 rpm) No 4 big end ran after 80 minutes, but the Class E hour-record had fallen at 86.24 mph. On the next attempt both rocker shafts for No 3 cylinder broke, repairs were effected but after another 46 minutes a valve dropped through the piston, bending the con-rod. On the third run, nine Class E records up to 400km were broken; at 14.7 mpg and about 85 mpg of oil. Oil pressure was this time 20 lb at 3000 rpm, and the car with driver weighed out at 23.5 cwt. The rear tyres lasted three hours.
On the Double-Twelve-Hour run there was no trouble apart from a slipping choke, the Bentley now using a 3:1 back axle (in place of 3.35:1), 33in x 5in rear and 33in x 41/4in front tyres. Oil pressure this time was 25 lb at 3500 rpm, and water temperature 65-75° centigrade, as the Bentley lapped at 87-93 mph. The petrol tank was anchored to the sidemembers and a TT oil tank was used.
Pre-run tests had shown 13.5 mpg for three hours at 83-90 mph lap-speeds, and during the attempt six of the Pirelli straight-sided tyres were changed, one after a burst. On the second day , Duff left his seat only four times.
On examination after the record run, the exhaust-side magneto was found to be faulty, the cylinder-walls scored and No 1 piston gudgeon pin button pushed into the pin. Historians may like to know that contemporary press reports gave the troubles on the earlier runs as simply a choked oil pipe and then a broken valve-spring!
At Le Mans in 1923 the Bentley completed more than 1200 miles without a change of its Rapson tyres. With a straight-through exhaust and an undershield it was entered for the BARC Autumn Meeting (the entry form confirming its engine and chassis numbers), Duff finishing third in the third race, before going over the banking in the 200hp Benz and off to hospital. Clement then took over the Bentley, winning the fifth race and finishing second in the eighth race, with a best lap at 95.96 mph. The car was then converted back to standard specification.
I would be as delighted as the BDC if I can be proved wrong and Donington’s Bentley is the Le Mans car . But I submit that paperwork compiled by those who were present in 1922, with the car in front of them, must stand as more authentic than records put together long after the events concerned, such as in 1956 and 1976. I think any judge and jury, in cases of a motoring or non-motoring nature, would abide by that. I rest my case. WB