"Old Number One" - The Inside Story from Ed Hubbard



The cover of MOTOR SPORT’s September issue promised: ‘Old Number One’: The fact of the matter. But this was not delivered.

Indeed, how could it have been? Since the author of the piece ‘Saga of a Speed Six Bentley’ William Boddy was not present in Court to hear all the facts.

He omitted key points in the argument over whether or not ‘Old Number One’ Bentley chassis number LB 2332, registration MT3464 was the car that won Le Mans in 1929 and 1930.

With the advantage of being present at the negotiations over the sale of ‘Old Number One’ to Middlebridge Scimitar Ltd, then attending every day of the subsequent 12-day trial as Plaintiff, witness and fascinated observer I would like to draw attention to some of the key facts.

In broad terms, the case came to Court because I sought specific performance of a contract, in which the Defendants had agreed to purchase “the Bentley known as ‘Old Number One'” from me.

The Defence counter-argued that I the Plaintiff did not have the car referred to in the agreement, though they accepted it was the car that crashed in the 1932 Brooklands 500 Miles Race.

That argument failed, and Mr Justice Otton found for the Plaintiff, giving his reasons in great detail.

There is no disputing the early history and remarkable racing record of the Bentley chassis number LB 2332, known as ‘Old Number One’.

Hand in hand with this, beginning with its extraordinarily eventful and successful 1929 season, the car evolved continuously throughout its racing career. Even at the end of that first season, the car was extensively rebuilt. Michael Hay, the expert historian of vintage Bentleys, gave evidence for three days during the hearing. Hay’s statements were based on his access to all of Bentley Motors’ service records including Nobby Clark’s strip-down reports and race records and previously unpublished facts he had researched from the Bentley Drivers’ Club archives.

He told the Court that the chassis, front axle, gearbox, differential and, quite possibly, the steering column and engine crankcase were replaced before the car raced at Le Mans in 1930.

He went on to detail the changes that were made in 1931, 1932 and 1933.

After examining the car, he concluded that through its continuous history it is the direct descendant of ‘Old Number One’, the Speed Six that won Le Mans in 1929 and 1930. Furthermore, he declared there is no other car that can claim to be ‘Old Number One’.

In his subsequent Judgement, Mr Justice Otton commented: “No-one has suggested that the car that won the 1930 Le Mans was a new car merely that it was a modification of the 1929 car. The modifications were justified by the demands of speed and victory.”

The Judge also declared: “Mr Hubbard has restored it to a perfect condition and has spent extensive time researching its provenance, including contacting Mr Hassan to obtain drawings and other details from him.

“Mr Hassan approves of the restoration and was proud to be recently driven in the car around Montlhéry.”

Between its appearance in the 500 Miles Race at Brooklands in October, 1931, and the British Empire Trophy there at Easter, 1932, Walter Hassan rebuilt the car for Woolf Barnato. The engine was not changed at this juncture. Barnato, by then a director of Rolls-Royce, thought the car too slow in the British Empire Trophy. So he instructed Hassan to replace the 6 1/2-litre engine with an 8-litre for the 500 Miles Race in 1932.

Like so many others, the ‘Saga of a Speed Six Bentley’ article alludes to Hassan rebuilding the car with a 4-litre Bentley chassis in 1932.

In fact, the chassis was a hybrid because Barnato wanted to retain the race-proven D-type gearbox in preference to the considerably heavier and untried F-type fitted to production 4 and 8-litre Bentleys.

So tubular cross members, associated with the F-type gearbox, were rejected in favour of 6 1/2-litre pattern cross members.

Both gearbox and cross members came from the ‘Old Number One’ 1930 chassis, as did the steering column, drop arm, radiator, bulkhead, handbrake and wings.

Mr Boddy mentions none of this. Instead he highlights Hassan’s reference to building a “new” car for Barnato in his book Climax in Coventry that narrates the broad sweep of Hassan’s brilliant career and not the specifics of ‘Old Number One’.

In reality, ‘Old Number One’ in 1932 was no more a new car than it had been in 1930 and no more a new car than Campbell’s Sunbeam Tiger or Seaman’s Delage.

Barnato’s view on the matter was described in Court by his daughter, Diana Barnato Walker. She said her father was very fond of the car that sped him to victory in 1929 and 1930. “He treated it rather like a dog. He would pat it as he went by and say ‘Hello Old Number One’.”

She recalled the car in its 1931 form, she was present at Brooklands when Clive Dunfee was killed while driving it in 1932, and she remembered it later with a fixed-head coupé body.

Mrs Barnato Walker stated that, because of its history, her father was even more attached to the car after the crash.

This is reflected in the fact that the chassis number LB 2332 was stamped on the front cross member and the registration MT3464 was retained. Additionally, as Walter Hassan stated, the car carried the Speed Six radiator, upon which were engraved the ‘Old Number One’ record of successes.

The original registration document records the change of engine, but the chassis and registration numbers are unaltered.

Similarly, the Bentley Motors service records for the car are continuous from 1929 until World War II. “The original log book was produced to me”, said Mr Justice Otton in his judgement. “It shows various changes in colour of the car. So far as registration of the car is concerned, the history of this vehicle is continuous.” The Judge also found: “The new parts that were incorporated in this car were part of its development.”

In his pursuit of the argument that ‘Old Number One’ ceased to exist when Hassan rebuilt it in 1932, Mr Boddy omitted references to:

A contemporary report in The Times, detailing the full racing history of ‘Old Number One’, and The Motor (September 21, 1932) account of the Brooklands 500 Miles Race, in which Clive Dunfee was killed.

The magazine reported: “He was driving ‘Old Number One’, a Bentley with a famous record, which had been fitted, for this race, with an 8-litre engine instead of the original 6 1/2-litre power unit.”

Mr Justice Otton’s Judgement stated: “This comment carries considerable weight. If the continuity had been broken, the car would not have been described in this way.”

In his fine book, The History of Brooklands Motor Course published in 1957, Mr Boddy himself records: “the famous Number One Speed Six Bentley, now with a brand new 8-litre engine installed in a 4-litre chassis frame, with the outrigged springs.”

And, in his judgement, Mr Justice Otton said: “I believe that the body of opinion which regarded the car as destroyed is wholly incorrect. I am satisfied that the car, which was the subject matter of the sale, is the Bentley known as ‘Old Number One’ and can properly be referred to as ‘Old Number One’…I consider there is no break in its racing continuity.”

Yet Mr Boddy’s 1990 stance is: “I cannot see how two cars, one created in 1929, the second in 1932, can merge into one historic entity 58 years later.” One wonders what prompted Mr Boddy’s spectacular apparent change of heart over the car’s continuous history evolving from the 1929 Le Mans winner.

This is perhaps doubly ironic since, during the recent Court hearing, considerable time was spent matching ‘Old Number One’ as it now exists to categories detailed in Denis Jenkinson’s Directory of Historic Racing Cars.

“Applying his (Jenkinson’s) definitions, the car cannot be called original,” said Mr Justice Otton. “Degrees of originality have no meaning in the context of this car. It could only be called original if it remained in its 1929 Le Mans form.”

The Judge went on: “In 1930, 1931 and 1932, it was rebuilt from component parts. It remained a living entity. Not even the Defendants say it is a reconstruction. The Defendants have not attempted to stigmatise the car.”

MT3464 can properly be described as authentic. It had a chequered career and never disappeared from view. The entity has always existed in some form or another.

It has been restored to its 1932 form. In many respects, this car seems a better example of authenticity than that cited by Mr Jenkinson.

Any new parts were assimilated into the whole. On the authenticity of the car, Mr Justice Otton further concluded: “There is no other Bentley which could legitimately lay claim to be ‘Old Number One’. The expression ‘Old Number One’ is the famous name in history which is justly applied to the car which raced between 1929 and 1932 . . . . ” EH