Le Mans' greatest legend: how the 'Bentley Boys' made their name

100 years of Le Mans

In 100 years of the Le Mans 24 Hours, few stories have proved as compelling as that of the Bentley Boys. Andrew Frankel tells the story of a largely amateur group of war veterans who took on the world's greatest race with courage, determination and against the odds

Frank Clement, John Duff and W.O.Bentley

Left: Frank Clement alongside W.O. Bentley (middle) and John Duff (right) in 1924. The duo would go on to record the first Le Mans success for Bentley

When was the legend born? Certainly long after the story had started. I think it was in the early evening of 18th June, 1927 when a driver called Pierre Tabourin misjudged the entry to Maison Blanche corner in his Theophile Schneider, lost control, bounced off a bank and came to rest parked sideways across the circuit. At least most of it.

Next upon the scene was one Leslie Callingham in the new 4 1/2-litre Bentley – although sticklers for accuracy might tell you that, technically, it was a 3-litre with a 4 1/2-litre engine. It is his first race for Bentley, and it will be his last, but right now he is leading it, by miles. His car is the class of the field. He approaches White House flat out, even back then the Bentley travelling beyond 100mph, before slowing to perhaps 75mph for the curve. Concealed for sight by the inky darkness and topography of the curve, he spots too late his hapless rival. Desperate to avoid T-boning him, Callingham swerves violently which only serves to send the Bentley clean off the track and onto its side in a ditch.

Far worse is to come.


Winners Benjafield and Davis at the end of ’27 race


George Duller is next up, driving a 3-litre Bentley of a kind that has contested this race since it began four years earlier. Similarly unable to stop, he executes an identical, equally doomed action plan, except now there’s a Bentley in the ditch, which he rams so hard he is thrown clean out of the car, landing winded and bleeding in a field.

The last surviving Bentley is driven by SCH ‘Sammy’ Davis whose record here for Bentley is not great. Last year he threw away a certain second place by binning his 3-litre with less than an hour to go. He too is in a 3-litre. But he notices something strange in the crowd: the spectators are not looking at him, but further up the road. Up ahead, something more interesting is happening. So he slows, but not enough. But he has bought himself a moment’s thinking time and instead of just piling into the other cars, he spins his 3-litre and goes in side on. Extricating himself from the remains of his car he finds the bloodied Duller and together start the ghoulish business of searching through the wreckage for Callingham’s body; he duly turns up entirely unharmed.

It seems Bentley has gone from the road to victory to the road to hell in just a few minutes. But Davis has not given up. Not just yet. He jumps back into his mangled car and discovers it starts. He finds a gear, reverses out of the carnage and crawls the single mile back to the pits. There the situation seems hopeless: the chassis itself is bent, as is the front axle. The running board is smashed, and one headlight is already damaged beyond repair. There is no spare. It is only after the race is it revealed that a steering ball joint is cracked too.

“A car presumed written-off the previous evening won by a greater margin than any car before – or since”

Step forward Davis’s team-mate, the eminent bacteriologist Dudley Benjafield, a fine driver but one who hates racing at night even with the full complement of lights let alone in a car that veers sharply left every time the brakes are applied. And the race appears hopeless: the main opposition, a 3-litre Aries is laps ahead, seemingly beyond reach.

But as the miles accrue, Benjafield and Davis discover the severely wounded Bentley as disinclined to give up as themselves. So they start to go a little faster. By 1pm on Sunday morning, the gap to the Aries is down to just two laps. Which is when ace Bentley mechanic Nobby Clarke becomes convinced he can hear a strange noise coming from its engine. Benjafield is instructed to go flat out, and soon the Aries breaks, while the Bentley sweeps to the least likely victory in the history of the race. Perhaps any race. A car presumed written-off the previous evening won Le Mans by a greater margin than that achieved by any car before. Or, more impressively, since.

From the archive

The victory party is held at the Savoy, hosted by The Autocar. And when Sir Edward Iliffe stands up to speak he begins, “I feel there is someone missing here this evening who ought to be present.” At which moment an engine fires up and a very battered Bentley drives into the room. Everyone goes nuts.

It’s all there: the danger, the victory against impossible odds and, of course, the talent, never-say-die determination and courage of those involved. The ‘Bentley Boys’.

But Davis and Benjafield were not the first. Hell, they weren’t even the first to win Le Mans in a Bentley. The first Bentley boy was John Duff, the man who entered his 3-litre into the first Le Mans, much to the chagrin of WO Bentley himself, who reckoned not a single car would finish. A Canadian who’d been terribly injured at Passchendaele, among his many pre-Le Mans automotive feats was to set a load of 24 hour class records in his Bentley at Brooklands on 1922. He drove two 12-hour stints, sitting on a bare aluminium bucket seat too short for his tall frame, leaving his back in such terrible condition that after the first 12 hours he had to be lifted from the car and helped into the bath. The following morning he was back in the car to capture 39 speed records including a new 24-hour record at almost 87mph.

Frank Clement with the team

Riding to the rescue: Frank Clement borrowed a police pushbike to keep Bentley on track

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When Duff entered Le Mans, WO relented at the last moment and went to France to man the pits. The Bentley was the quickest car in the race, but poorly prepared for the rutted, dusty roads that made up the track. When a stone holed the fuel tank, Duff had no choice but to run four miles to the pits, alert team-mate Frank Clement (the only professional racing driver WO ever hired) who took a bicycle – there’s a story he stole it from a gendarme I hope is true – and rode back up the track, against the flow of traffic to mend the car and resume the race. “It was absolutely terrifying,” he would later remember, “I thought they were going to mow me down every minute.” Quite.

Too much time was lost and they finished fourth, but returned the next year in a still private but now thoroughly factory prepared 3-litre and won it, despite a wheel being almost impossible to change at the last stop, which Clarke was convinced was down to sabotage.

From the archive

We’ll gloss over the 1925 and 1926 races because, as WO put it himself, ‘‘There is nothing so calculated to send you off on the slippery slope of failure as cocksureness in motor-racing”. Suffice to say no Bentley finished either race. So having already dealt with 1927, we’ll skip to 1928 and meet two of the most fascinating Bentley Boys of all.

The less famous of the two is Bernard Rubin, a tougher than tough Australian who was so badly wounded on the Western Front he didn’t walk for three years. He was teamed with company chairman, effective heavyweight boxer, scratch golfer, powerboat racer, race horse owner, diamond millionaire and some time Surrey wicket keeper, Woolf Barnato. It was Barnato who had saved Bentley from financial ruin in the middle of the decade and it would be his refusal to bail out the company again in 1931 that saw it finally fail and be sold. Between the two he set a record at Le Mans which has yet to be approached: he did the race three times and won every one.

But it so nearly didn’t happen. Driving the same car binned by Callingham the year before, they engaged in a race long battle with a 4.9-litre Stutz, the pace unlike anything seen at Le Mans before. And, as it turned out, too much for Bentley’s chassis. First the car driven by Benjafield and Clement retired when its chassis cracked, pulling the pipes off its radiator and dumping all its coolant. Then, just as the threat from the Stutz faded with its gearbox shot, Barnato came past the pits with his thumb down. There were four laps to go and the water temperature gauge was already off the clock: his chassis had given up too. Had he not been such an instinctively mechanically sympathetic driver – WO rated him the best whoever drove for Bentley against stiff opposition – and had Bentley himself not designed such a phenomenally robust motor it would have all been over. But somehow Barnato coaxed his now essentially air-cooled car around those last 42 miles to win.


Barnato and Glen Kidston’s winning Bentley

The 1929 race won’t delay us much, not because it was a disaster, but because it was a walkover. With the new Speed Six making its Le Mans debut and no meaningful opposition, one driver, Jack Dunfee upon being asked to slow down once again was to solicitously enquire of WO “What do you want me to do? Get out and push the bloody thing?” Up front Barnato shared an untroubled race with Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, by far the most famous of the Bentley Boys and over a lap, undoubtedly the quickest. But he was appallingly tough on cars, whereas Barnato could go almost as fast without stressing the machinery at all. But the Speed Six, the most robust racing the car factory ever made was the perfect foil for him.

The following year Birkin was behind the wheel one of his delayed supercharged cars, privately entered by Dorothy Paget who had bankrolled the ‘Blower’ project much to the disgust of WO. But he agreed to work with the factory team to counter the biggest threat Bentley Motors ever faced on the race track: Rudolf Caracciola in the works-supported 7-litre supercharged Mercedes. Barnato meanwhile was teamed with Commander Glen Kidston, the man who lived the most extraordinarily dangerous life of all the Boys. He escaped a sinking submarine and was the sole survivor of an aircraft crash, smashing his way through the burning fuselage with his fists. In 1931 he broke the record for flying from London to Cape Town then died soon after when his Tiger Moth broke up in mid-air.

From the archive

But at Le Mans it was Birkin who was first into the fight, overtaking Caracciola on the grass at the end of the Mulsanne Straight, one tyre already in tatters from a thrown tread. Refusing to stop, he broke the lap record before the tyre finally gave way. It was a tale of derring-do worthy of the best Boys Own annual, but soon his Blower was out of the race, leaving it to Barnato and Kidston to apply gentler, but more persistent pressure to their rival. It worked: the Mercedes, forced to use its clutch-engaged supercharger far more than was good for it, duly retired, leaving the same Speed Six that had won the previous year to become Le Mans’ first double winner.

There are so many more tales about the Boys and their toys, but so far as works Bentleys at Le Mans were concerned, the story was already over. A combination of a business that was rarely if ever profitable and the Wall Street Crash doomed the company within months. The next time a factory-entered Bentley would race at Le Mans would be 71 years – an almost literal lifetime – later. But the legend of the Boys lived on. Why? I guess it’s because these men were not just fearless, but almost exclusively amateurs too. Wealthy though they were, they raced because they loved it, and for no other reason.

They were also men who, in the main, were surprised to be alive. Surviving the world’s first truly global conflict tended to do that. To them every day was a bonus, and while you and I might goggle at the thought of thundering down towards Mulsanne at 120mph in the pitch black, with just a couple of Lucas candles to show you the way, to those who’d lived through the Somme, it would have been very small beer indeed. It wasn’t Le Mans that made them heroes, they were already that long before they ever climbed into a racing Bentley.