Cover soundbites from Alexei Sayle and Robbie Coltrane tell you this has wider targets than the motoring field, but then as with his previous book High Performance Grimsdale brings wider views to our little world. It means that while his story – Bentley’s Le Mans racing pre-war – is something that we’ve covered at length in these pages at the time and ever since, let alone the scores of books on the subject, we can expect some different viewpoints to go with the intended different readership. A look at the bibliography confirms this: not just scads of Bentley and racing titles but others on economics, politics and social history.
It would have been astonishing had Grimsdale discovered any rich new sources so far on and he doesn’t claim to (except that he does tap unpublished memoirs of ‘Benjy’ Benjafield thanks to the racing doctor’s grandson). What he does so well is to assimilate a huge body of events and views into an elegantly packaged story, stitching the racing into a tapestry of the times and the lives of the people involved. It’s also a very human tale drawing on a large number of personal memoirs, whether it’s a passing mention of Jean Chassagne’s background or an explanation of how closely WO Bentley’s story ties up with Sammy Davis, later to be the hero of that great victory wrenched from defeat (Grimsdale says “not so much from its jaws as somewhere deep down in its digestive system”), the 1927 White House crash which piled all three Bentleys into five other cars.
I liked his comment about Bentley’s financial saviour and triumphant Le Mans hat-tricker: “Barnato was the closest 1920s Britain came to a real life Jay Gatsby.” Although I don’t think Gatsby ever kept wicket for Surrey or built his own full-size pub in the basement of his country house as ‘Babe’ did.