Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Kidston SA, Graeme Cocks
A century ago, a city in northern France that had already hosted the French Grand Prix decided to hold an endurance race. Since that first event in 1923, the ‘24 Hours of Le Mans’ has become one of the biggest motorsport events in the world – and the car featured was there at the beginning.
Thanks to the efforts of the ‘Bentley Boys,’ most people know of Bentley’s long connection to Le Mans, but that string of four consecutive victories in the late 1920s wasn’t Bentley’s first win, nor their first appearance. When the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) announced a ‘Grand Prix of Endurance’ to be held in late May, 1923, Bentley was one of only two non-French marques to take part. Even then, the entry was made with some skepticism and came after more than a little cajoling.
WO and Duff
In 1923, Bentley was still a young company. Walter Owen ‘WO’ Bentley had founded Bentley Motors Limited in January, 1919, but delays in developing their first model – the 3-Litre - meant sales didn’t start until late 1921.
Bentleys were being raced in the UK from the outset, but in 1922, the company’s first international foray saw a car, driver and two mechanics sent to the USA to compete in that year’s Indianapolis 500. Against a field heavy with Duesenbergs, Millers and Frontenacs, Douglas Hawkes qualified the works Bentley 3-Litre in 19th place and finished 13th – hardly the result needed to boost sales and interest in the nascent automotive brand.
As such, when Bentley owner and car salesman John Duff approached Bentley in early 1923 about a new 24-hour race in France for production cars, WO was skeptical. The event was unproven, but the bigger issue was money. The Indianapolis campaign had cost a lot for little in return and Bentley wasn’t exactly swimming in cash at the time.
Canadian-born Duff was persuasive, though, and the fact he’d provide his own car, 3-Litre chassis #141, certainly helped. Duff was also a winner, having attained the ‘European Double Twelve-hour Record’ at the Brooklands circuit in 1922. It’s believed this event inspired the ACO to run a similar endurance race in France. But where the Double Twelve-hour was open to individuals, only manufacturers could enter the ‘Grand Prix d’Endurance de 24 Heures,’ which meant Duff needed WO to lodge the entry as Bentley's.
WO ultimately agreed to support Duff, prepping his car ahead of the journey to France and loaning one of his factory mechanics, Frank Clement, to co-drive.
The first Le Mans
Of the 37 entries received for the first Le Mans 24-Hour race, 35 turned up in late May, led by a four-car team from Rolland-Pilain, three from Chenard-Walcker and two each from Lorraine-Dietrich, Georges Irat, Berliet and others. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of entries were French cars with French driving teams. The Duff Bentley and a pair of Belgian Excelsiors were the only foreign marques, although the Ford Model T-based Montier could also be regarded as “international”.
All entries were four-seater production models, as per ACO rules, with the exception being cars of less than 1.1-litre capacity, which could be two-seaters. The race was for production cars, so no stripped-down, tuned-up specials could be entered. Cars also had to carry ballast to simulate the weight of passengers.
With classes based on engine capacity, the Bentley 3-Litre would be up against the fancied Chenard-Walckers, as well as Rolland-Pilain, Berliet, Brasier and Montier entries, a Delage and others in the 2 to 3-Litre class. The engine in Duff’s car was essentially factory spec, but perhaps a little peppier than most, as it had been prepared as a spare for the factory’s Ulster Tourist Trophy entry and was one of the first of these Bentley four-cylinder units to be fitted with dual SU G5 carburettors.
There would be no “winner” at this inaugural event, with victory based on performances over a three-year period. This was to encourage future participation more than anything else, with the ‘Rudge-Whitworth Triennial Cup’ going to the manufacturer who exceeded their nominated lap total by the greatest amount over the three years.
The course of closed public roads laid out by the ACO was 17.26km in length, consisting of two long straights between Le Mans and Mulsanne, some tighter turns and a series of hairpins. The roads were unpaved, with sizable stones in sections that would impact many entries.
There were practice sessions, but no qualifying, with the grid set from the largest-engined cars to the smallest. As such, in wet conditions on the afternoon of 26 May, 1923, the big 5.3-litre six-cylinder Excelsiors led the field away, followed by the Lorraine-Dietrich trio, then the Bentley, wearing race number 8.
The Chenard-Walckers established their dominance in the opening hours, showing the benefits of four-wheel brakes (Bentleys only had rear-wheel brakes at this time). Despite this, #8 remained in contention heading into the night. Just before midnight, a stone thrown up by a car ahead smashed one of the Bentley’s headlights, but rather than lose time rigging a replacement, Duff elected to push on.
At the 12-hour mark, one of the Chenard-Walckers held a two-lap advantage over the Bentley, but as the sun rose and the course began to dry out, the Bentley picked up the pace. With just over four hours to go, #8 came to a halt with Clement at the wheel. A stone had punctured the fuel tank, forcing Clement to walk 4.8km back to the pits, then borrow a gendarme’s bicycle to ride back to the stricken Bentley with two cans of petrol over his shoulder.
A rudimentary fix on track was improved in the pits, but Duff and Clement lost more than two hours in the process. A motivated Duff then set the race’s fastest lap in the closing stages, ultimately coming home equal fourth behind two of the Chenard-Walckers and a Bignan.
It wasn’t a win, but Duff and Clement’s performance was much better than what Bentley had achieved at Indianapolis and it inspired WO to build an improved version of the 3-Litre for a second tilt at Le Mans in 1924.
Along with more advanced engineering improvements, like four-wheel brakes, Bentley applied simple measures, too, like mesh stone guards on the headlights and timber planks protecting the fuel tank. Duff and Clement paired up again and this time they won outright, beating their target distance by five laps and finishing ahead of Lorraine-Dietrich and Chenard-Walcker entries.
The 1924 Le Mans win established the Bentley legend, leading to sales of more than 700 cars in the next two years alone. That legend would be cemented with wins in 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930.
Despite filing for bankruptcy in 1931, Bentley continued to shine under Rolls-Royce ownership. However, for chassis #141, a less glittering future lay ahead - at least in the short term.
Undertakers, Dogs and Donington
The value of the first Bentley to race at Le Mans wasn't recognised at the time, nor for decades afterward. After its performance at Le Mans, 3-Litre chassis #141 was upgraded with front wheel brakes and according to Graeme Cocks, who is familiar with this car from its time in the collection of Peter Briggs, may have been one of the first production models to receive the upgrade.
After Duff, the car passed through several owners, and for a period was used as a tow truck, a fate not uncommon for large, powerful cars that had outlived their usefulness as touring vehicles. Remaining in the UK, it was converted into a timber-bodied wagon (shooting brake in English terms) by an undertaker.
Sometime in the late 1940s, chassis #141 was sold to a lady who used it to take her St. Bernards to dog shows. Last registered in 1959, the Bentley spent decades crumbling away in a shed before the 97-year-old owner offered it and a similar-era Voisin to Tom Wheatcroft of the Donington Car Museum. Neither party had any idea of the Bentley’s significance when the deal was done in the early 1980s.
In storage at the museum for years, it was only when Michael Ware of the Beaulieu Museum checked the Bentley’s chassis and engine numbers against Bentley Drivers’ Club records that the car’s Le Mans history was revealed.
Briggs to the Rescue
By his stage, some parties in the UK were starting to appreciate the value of the first Bentley to race at Le Mans, but Australian Peter Briggs, of York Motor Museum fame, appreciated it more. At the time, Briggs had a Brabham F1 car on loan to the Donington Car Museum, but that run-down Bentley, warts and all, had an appeal to the WA-based car collector. As such, Briggs struck a deal where the museum would keep the Brabham and he would take the Bentley.
Upon receiving chassis #141, Briggs had it fully restored mechanically, while cosmetically, the crumbling wagon body was removed and the original wagon body was replaced with a replica touring body and slim, race-style guards. In bringing the car back to its 1923 Le Mans appearance, Briggs included the ‘8’ racing number and black paint that Duff had the car finished in as a tribute to the fallen comrades he’d served alongside in World War I.
After years spent on the restoration, the Bentley was ready to take to the road again in the late 1990s. As with many of the cars in his collection, Briggs wasn’t content with a few brief spins around the block of his museum in York, WA. After covering thousands of miles all over Australia in the car, Briggs and his wife took it to France in 2001, where chassis #141 traversed the roads of Le Mans once again.
With the passing of Briggs last year, several cars in his extensive and eclectic collection were sold off, but the Bentley only recently changed hands.
Back Home – and back to Le Mans
Earlier this year, classic car broker and concours judge, Simon Kidston of Kidston SA, facilitated the sale of Bentley chassis #141 to a UK-based enthusiast for £3 million (AU$5.77 million approx.).
For Kidston, this deal was special, as he is the nephew of Glen Kidston, winner of the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hour in a Bentley Speed Six.
“This Bentley isn’t just an old car, it’s a turning point in motor racing history and a cornerstone of the Bentley legend,” Kidston said. “And personally, having inherited a family passion for cars which was accelerated by my ‘Bentley Boy’ uncle, helping to bring this Bentley home feels really satisfying.”
Soon after its return to the UK in May, chassis #141 joined other classic Bentleys, representing the 'Benjafield's Racing Club,' for a homecoming to Le Mans. Named in honour of Dudley Benjafield, who partnered Sammy Davis to win the Le Mans 24 Hour for Bentley in 1927 and also founded the British Racing Drivers’ Club, the Benjafield’s Racing Club is devoted to pre-war Bentleys and numbers dozens of members.
More than 30 Bentleys, led by chassis #141 (still in its 1923 Le Mans #8 livery following the Briggs restoration), made the journey across the English Channel to join others in a one-make race at the Le Mans Classic in July.
With this year marking the centenary of the first Le Mans 24 Hour, organisers at the Classic arranged for an all-Bentley race, under the Benjafield’s Racing Club banner, that attracted 71 pre-WWII Bentleys from all over the world. Alongside 3-litre, 4-Litre and 4.5-Litre models, Speed Sixes, Super Sport and Blower variants took to the track, including one or two cars with genuine Le Mans provenance.
With a field full of cars that are close to centenarians (or actual centenarians in the case of chassis #141), the Benjafield’s Racing Club race at the Le Mans Classic wasn’t a gruelling 24-Hour affair, but a milder 45-minute event. Still, some drivers pushed their cars hard, just like the Bentley Boys did all those decades ago.
With Justin Turner at the wheel, chassis #141 qualified 67th and finished 52nd; a few places ahead of another 1923 Bentley that was said to be originally owned by Benjafield. The race was won by a 1926 4.5-Litre, with 3-Litre Super Sports from the same year completing the podium.
Getting this Bentley 3-Litre, chassis #141, back to Le Mans a century after it was first campaigned there seems fitting, but it certainly won’t be the final chapter in the history of this car.
Thanks to Graeme Cocks for additional information supplied for this article.