Born in China to Canadian parents, the tall Captain J.F.Duff was an early member of the "Bentley Boys." Responsible in part for that famous marque’s first Le Mans victory, he had been educated in Hamilton, Ontario but enlisted in the British Army at the start of World War I.
Wounded in the Third Battle of Ypres during 1917, he convalesced in England and stayed in that country once peace returned. Duff began racing at Brooklands in 1920 and made his name driving two pre-war Fiats – the 10-litre 1908 S61 and "Mephistopheles" with its 18-litre engine. He then drove a 21-litre Blitzen Benz a year later and obviously had a penchant for these monsters.
Le Mans success for Bentley
Away from the track, he ran a car dealership and was an agent for Bentley from 1922. It was therefore no surprise that he should also race for the marque and he shared the fourth placed Bentley "Sport" with Frank Clement in the inaugural Le Mans 24 Hours in 1923.
They returned a year later with their green Bentley the only foreign car in the field. It proved to be Britain’s day for Duff and Clement won by over a lap. That success prompted W.O.Bentley to enter a works team in 1925 with Duff and Clement in one of his cars but there was no repeat success for they retired before dawn.
Speed records and the Indianapolis 500
Bentley travelled to Montlhéry in September 1925 to set new speed records for 1000kms and 24 hours with Duff, Woolf Barnato and J.D.Benjafield behind the wheel. He did not race at Le Mans again but turned his attention to the Indianapolis 500 in 1926. Scheduled to be relief driver in Herbert Jones’s Miller, he started the race after Jones was killed just four days earlier. The Al Cotey-entered car was repaired and Duff ran steadily throughout to finish in ninth position.
Duff then finished third in the Altoona 250 but he crashed heavily in Turn 3 at Rockingham-Salem and suffered injuries that ended his racing career. He moved to California with his wife (the nurse who had tended to him in 1917), established a renowned fencing school and worked as a horse stuntman in Hollywood.
It was in a riding accident that Duff lost his life in 1958 while in Epping Forest near London. Canadian or British, John Duff was the first Le Mans winner for either nation.