Saga of a Speed Six Bentley

That most famous of Le Mans Speed Six Bentleys, ‘Old No One’, is very much in the news, a centre of media attention, on account of the court case which Ed Hubbard brought against Middlebridge Scimitar Ltd, when the latter wanted to withdraw their agreement to buy the car, maintaining that it is not the original, historic winner of two Le Mans races and many other important British races. A sum of some £10 million was involved. The case was duly heard in the High Court, the Judge, Mr Justice Otton, finding for the plaintiff and ordering Middlebridge to pay costs of around £100,000.

It is possible that there will be an Appeal. Meantime, the saga of the original famous Speed Six is a meritorious one. It was originally delivered to millionaire Woolf Barnato, who had been financing the ailing Bentley Motors since 1926, in May 1929 with a Vanden Plas body, in time for him to drive it in the JCC ‘Double Twelve’ hour race at Brooklands that same month. It had chassis number LB 2332, engine number LB 2336, and had been registered MT 3464. Partnered by Dr JD Benjafield, Barnato led the race in the great green Bentley for nine hours on the first day’s racing before, perhaps not surprisingly for a brand new car on its first competition appearance, it retired, the causes given as a sheared dynamo drive.

However, Le Mans was the true target and this first competition Speed Six duly won the 1929 24 hour race (Bentley’s fourth), Barnato this time partnered by Sir Henry Birkin, Bt. They averaged 73.62 mph, took the Rudge Cup, and were followed home in battle formation by the 4 1/2-litre Bentleys of Cmdr Glen Kidston/ Jack Dunfee, Dr Benjafield/Baron d’Erlanger and Frank Clement/Jean Chassagne. A Bentley 1, 2, 3, 4 grandslam! The next appearance of the car which was to become known affectionately as ‘Old No One’ was again at Brooklands, where it was driven to victory in the BARC Six Hours sportscar race by Barnato and Jack Dunfee, at 73.55 mph. The following month Glen Kidston took it over to Ireland for the Irish Grand Prix sportscar race at Phoenix Park and made the fastest average speed, 79.8 mph, in taking second place. He then took it to Ulster for the 1929 TT but crashed it at Bradshaw’s Bray, damaging the nearside of the bonnet. MT 3464 was then given a two-seater body and run in the first BRDC 500 Mile race round Brooklands, driven at very short notice, by SCH Davis, who had gone down to report the race for The Autocar, was asked by WO Bentley if he would take on the big car, which other drivers had found too fast and difficult, and who just happened to have some racing overalls with him! The other brave one was Clive Dunfee, destined to be killed by the car three years later, in the same race. They came in second (it should be remembered that all these races had been handicap events), at 109.4 mph, behind the winning track-bodied 4 1/2-litre Bentley of Clement/Barnato, which averaged 107.32 mph.

Two new Speed Sixes were ready for the 1930 racing season and gained 1st and 2nd places in the ‘Double Twelve’. But ‘Old Number One’ was run at Le Mans and was again victorious, in the hands of Barnato/Kidston, at 75.88 mph. One of the new Speed Sixes crashed at Mulsanne corner but the other, driven by Clement/Watney was second. After this the Bentley works racing team was disbanded. Barnato then personally took over ‘Old Number One’ and ran it in the 1931 Mile Race. It has been stated that four-seater, two-seater, and single-seater bodies were available, and easily interchangeable, on chassis no. LB 2336. The first of these would have been the Vanden Plas Le Mans type, with road equipment, the two-seater the stubby tailed one used for the 1929 ‘500’, and the others were really tracktype “1 1/2-seater” bodies with a single driver’s seat on the offside. With the shorter of the last named type of body and a cowled radiator, Jack Dunfee/Cyril Paul won the 500, at 118.39 mph. (A nice gesture was the engraving of these racing successes on the car’s radiator).

The splendid racing career of ‘Old Number One’ was now nearly over. The only other important event in which it competed was the 100 mile outer circuit BRDC British Empire Trophy race, early in 1932. Driven by Jack Dunfee, the Bentley was second, at an impressive 121.17 mph, in the 50 mile heat, behind Eyston’s 8-litre single-seater Panhard Levassor. In the final which became a titanic dual between Capt GEJ Eyston and John Cobb in the old 10 1/2-litre V12 Delage, ending in a protest when Eyston was unable to overtake Cobb, Dunfee would have been third, except that on the last lap a tyre burst and an official waved him into the Finishing straight before the race was over, allowing Earl Howe’s 1 1/2-litre GP Delage to fill that position. In fact, the Bentley’s crankshaft had broken and it seems possible that Dunfee was coasting in and found the official’s signal an excuse for hiding the mechanical failure.

In my view, that was virtually the end of ‘Old Number One’s’ great racing career. The present opinion seems to be, however, that on the basis of ‘continuing history’ the car’s story goes on.

Let’s look at the facts. Woolf Bamato, although no longer Chairman of Bentley Motors by 1932, retained his interest in motor racing and asked Walter Hassan, who had worked on his cars as a Bentley racing mechanic and was now working on Bamato’s other cars, to build a new Brooklands racing car. This was made quite clear when I interviewed Walter Hassan, OBE for MOTOR SPORT in November 1973 and in Hassan’s book, Climax in Coventry — My Life of Fine Engines and Fast Cars MRP 1975. In this book he writes “Eventually we decided to retire the Speed Six, ‘Old Number 1’, and build a special track car, although the decision was rather forced on us when Jack Dunfee took it out in the Empire Trophy race early in 1932 and broke its crankshaft. . . . The new car (my italics) was to be a purpose-built racer and it was here that I put my ideas to work on an entire car design for the first time. We had encountered chassis frame troubles on ‘Old Number 1’ (I think the tyre burst in the last race had broken the chassis — WB) so we decided to start with the strongest possible chassis.” Walter Hassan goes on to explain why he found a 4-litre Bentley chassis ideal and how at first he used the rebuilt engine out of ‘Old Number 1’ in the new car (my italics again), but that it wasn’t fast enough, so Bamato got for it a now very rare 8-litre Bentley engine from Rolls-Royce (he was on the RR Board of Directors).

This seems to me to add up to a different car from the former Le Mans Speed Six. The 8-litre Bentley was provided with a two-seater sports body for Bamato to use on the road but for the 1932 500 Mile race a grey, long-tailed 1 1/2-seater body was used. It is now history how tragically that race ended, for Bamato’s entry. Jack Dunfee had it lapping at 127 mph, with 93 minutes to make up on the smallest cars in this handicap contest, and his brother Clive then took over, and was going almost as quickly when he lost control on the Members’ banking, was thrown out, and was killed instantly. The Bentley ploughed through trees and went over the top of the banking, crashing onto the entrance road below (which was to have far reaching consequences, a new, safer road being built afterwards, although this still emerged from the tunnel where an MG had fallen, killing its driver, during the JCC 1000 Mile race earlier in 1932).

Let’s pause and take stock. Walter Hassan in his book describes the 8-litre Bentley he built for Bamato as a new car. The former WO Bentley Le Mans car from which the engine was taken to try out this new car most likely lay in the works, its chassis damaged, and sans its engine until, perhaps, it was broken up. Or will it one day surface again? Mr Justice Otton, in finding for Mr Ed Hubbard, decided, according to Press reports, that the present 8-litre two-seater is the genuine ‘Old Number One’ and in such fine condition that it is worth several millions. So it is not for me to doubt this. But I confess I cannot see how two cars, one created in 1929, the second in 1932, can merge into one historic entity 58 years later, although I have had enthusiastic people try to explain this to me.

However, that is the view of the Learned Judge, whose opinion could have a far reaching influence on the trading in historic cars. Unless Middlebridge appeal and win, the decision must stand. Even if it reminds one of the joke shovel, which was bought new, apart from having had two new handles and five blades.

Indeed, I have an idea that the new Bamato 8-litre Bentley Special may have been raced before the 6 1/2-litre’s last race, as suggested in my interview article, and never refuted.

Presumably when the new car with its new chassis was entered for the 1932 ‘500’ the BRDC would have been given a new chassis number for it? After the sad accident it was eventually rebuilt, with a new front axle and wheels etc, and a coupé body, retaining the 8-litre engine from the new racing car. Oliver Bertram drove it in the Syston speed trials in this form (the old reg no was used, but this can surely have no bearing on a ‘continuing history’ theme, because number plates have been illegally swopped from car to car, time immemorial).

Because this Mulliner closed body was invaded by exhaust fumes Bamato sold the car. I think that in the late 1950s it was rebodied again, as a stark two-seater, for LG Quinney, of Reading, after which it was sold to J Ward Jnr of Boston Lincs. It seems that by the 1980s the car was in America, but it has now returned, to add some more controversy and history to the Bentley saga, with yet another body. I note that Mr Hubbard displays on it the morbid racing number which it wore in the 1932 500.

If I were a rich man and I liked Bentleys, I would buy this one as a Brooklands’ replica, but not as a Le Mans car. WB