French Racing Glory: How Local Heroes Outshone the Bentley Boys at Le Mans

The first Le Mans 24 Hours was held over a century ago in 1923, with much of the early success going to the French teams that dominated the grid. However, it would be a short-lived period

The first Le Mans 24 Hours, 1923. The Chenard et Walcker of André Lagache and René Leonard at the Pontlieue Hairpin, which was a defining part of the track until its removal in 1929

The first Le Mans 24 Hours, 1923. The Chenard et Walcker of André Lagache and René Leonard at the Pontlieue Hairpin, which was a defining part of the track until its removal in 1929

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Taken from Motor sport May 2023

The Bentley Boys had their hands full with the local boys in blue during the formative period of what was swiftly to become the world’s most important endurance race.

Their narrow victory of 1924 was but a speck of green.

Outnumbered – 15 of the 17 marques entered for the May 1923 inauguration were French – they were also outbraked (initially), outsmarted and outlasted for three of the first four years of the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Yet their conquerors were busted flushes by 1926 and 1927 respectively, as harsh financial reality bit.


Of the 17 cars that started in 1930, five were Bentleys –and only three were French.

Sheltered by investor Woolf Barnato’s diamond inheritance – and driven on by his competitive stewardship and muscular relentlessness behind the wheel – Bentley’s four consecutive wins from 1927 were plentiful compensation for its five-from-five retirements of the previous two years.

Legend assured – before even Barnato had to bow to the inevitable: surety withdrawn and company sold on the QT to Rolls-Royce by mid-1931.


First French winners of the fledging Le Mans 24 Hours

Chenard et Walcker and Lorraine-Dietrich’s fame was more fleeting.

The former was established in 1899 when railway engineer Ernest Chenard set up shop with mining engineer Henri Walcker in Asnières-sur-Seine, situated within a loop of the river north of Paris. Its first car was unveiled in 1901; the company went public in 1906; and, having cornered the taxi market, it was among France’s top 10 producers prior to WWI.

Chenard’s ambitious engineering son Lucien was in charge by 1922 and he challenged long-time employee Henri Toutée to design something racier: the four-cylinder 3-litre Type U3 Sport, with overhead camshaft and four-wheeled brakes, resulted.

Two were entered for Le Mans in 1923 and they finished first and second on distance. (Their milder Touring cousin finished seventh.)

They were not declared the winners, however, for that was to be decided based on the aggregate of three consecutive performances over and above predetermined targets: a convoluted method soon to be shelved.

Buoyed, the company entered six cars for 1924. That Toutée’s genie/genius was out of its bottle was proved by their variety: a 4-litre straight-eight for defending champions André Lagache – whose FAR coachbuilding concern was responsible for those rakish ‘torpedo’ bodies – and works tester René Léonard, plus a brace of 2-litre ‘fours’, a pair of 1500s and an updated 1923 model.

Its superior strategy and pit work, prominent in 1923, suffered as a result. The big car was leading when it caught fire early in the piece, and only the 2-litres were classified as finishers: fourth and fifth.

Though trimmed to a more manageable four, its 1925 entry was perhaps even more diverse. Toutée’s fecund mind had run to a streamlined ‘tank’ design that delivered remarkable performance from 1100cc. These Z1 Spéciales were arguably the first ‘prototypes’ to tackle the race.

For the second year in succession Lagache set fastest lap in the straight-eight only to retire – but the Z1s covered the company in glory by finishing 10th and 13th, sufficient to secure the (one and only) Triennial Cup as well as the concurrent biennial competition replacing it.


Lorraine-Dietrich delivers more French success

Chenard et Walcker – despite winning the 1925 Spa 24 Hours in July – would be conspicuous by its absence in 1926, its competition department disbanded.

Lorraine-Dietrich picked up the baton from the moment Chenard’s Léonard leapt clear of the flames

By which time Lorraine-Dietrich had picked up the baton. It had done so from the moment Chenard’s Léonard leapt clear of the flames in 1924, finishing second and third and coming within a lap of denying Bentley its maiden win.

From the archive

Founded in 1896 to build-under-license designs by Amédée Bollée, the company’s long if somewhat patchy relationship with the sport included victory for Arthur Duray at the 1906 Circuit of Ardennes.

Engineer Marius Barbarou, the son of a blacksmith, joined in 1914 after short spells at Clément-Bayard and Benz (where he updated its product) and 10 years with Delaunay-Belleville. A racer – he had contested the fateful 1903 Paris-Madrid – his 3.4-litre pushrod ohv ‘Silken Six’ B3-6 made a reasonable showing at Le Mans in 1923, finishing eighth to win its class.


Encouraged, the model’s comfortable touring body was junked for 1924, and servo-assisted four-wheeled brakes were employed to cope with increased power.

Three-car squads of these sensibly developed and well-prepared machines, capably driven by experienced and regular pilots, would score seven podium places and register just two DNFs in the next three years. Led by André Rossignol, they successfully fended off Sunbeam and then Bentley to win on distance in 1925 and 1926.

On the latter occasion B3-6s – by now fitted with twin carbs and twin-spark ignition but still with only three speeds in its gearbox – finished 1-2-3 after brakes cooked giving valiant caused the remaining Bentley of Sammy Davis to crash in the 23rd hour.

The French outfit was, therefore, understandably dismayed to discover its loss on countback of the Biennial Cup to an OM driven by Ferdinando Minoia and Giulio Foresti; the leading B3-6 had not been registered for the award.

Its high point even so, Lorraine-Dietrich would be conspicuous by its absence in 1927. And this time there was none to pick up the baton. Extended periods of British and then Italian dominance, courtesy of Bentley and Alfa Romeo, followed before Bugatti (twice) and Delahaye restored French pride as another global conflict loomed.

From the archive

The Dietrich family, meanwhile, had sold their shares in 1928 and the company ceased car production in 1936.

Chenard et Walcker made an unexpected return to Le Mans the following year when Yves-Giraud Cabantous dusted off and bought the Z1s. He supercharged one and shared it with professional strongman and Olympic gold medallist Charles Rigoulot. Though this unlikely combination had finished 1-2 in the Bol d’Or at Montlhéry – Rigoulet winning on the occasion of his first race – both cars retired this time around.

Success at Le Mans would prove a golden ticket for Bentley, Ferrari, Jaguar and Porsche – ‘foreign’ victories undoubtedly increasing the race’s cachet – but for others there was little if no lasting return.

Home advantage indeed has much more often than not been a faux-ami these past 97 years.