It’s corny, but it’s true – Le Mans is the biggest British sporting event held in France. Every year, tens of thousands make a pilgrimage as old as the race itself. After the first race, in 1923, The Autocar noted that ‘among the English spectators were Mr Vernon Pugh and Miss Pugh, who motored down on an Alvis car, and Mr TP Searight, who had the misfortune to sprain his ankle when walking at the back of the pits in the darkness’.
They had seen just one British car, a 3-liter Bentley. Of the 33 starters, only it and two Belgian Excelsiors were ‘foreigners’: the rest were French – but the Bentley’s impact would be felt forever after. It wasn’t a ‘works’ car, because WO Bentley initially didn’t see the point of the event: ‘of course’, he wrote later, ‘in one way it was just what we had been wanting in order to show off our cars at their best – a long gruelling race with a good, long straight, for standard production cars. But 24 hours! All through the night! This was ridiculous, and no car would survive. I gave it no more thought...’
WO lent two mechanics, though, and went along to manage the Bentley pit. He also sanctioned works racer Frank Clement to drive the car with its entrant, Bentley agent Capt John Duff.
Duff held the Brooklands Double-Twelve-Hour record, but it was both drivers’ first 24-hour race. They drove the Bentley to the circuit with what spares they could carry, but in the race, in spite of terrible weather and worse roads, they had no mechanical problems, used only one set of Rapson straightsided tires, and without delays could certainly have threatened the two Chenard-Walckers and the Bignan that finished ahead of them. They suffered a broken headlight during the night, however, and had to repair a holed fuel tank on Sunday, after Duff had run out of petrol at Arnage and jogged the four miles back to the pits, leaving Clement to return with cans slung over his shoulders, on a bicycle ‘borrowed’ from a French soldier. That cost them two-and-a-half hours.
Fourth place, and fastest lap, would revise WO’s opinions. As he wrote later, ‘I remember that the pit was a tent that year, that the organisation was rather primitive, that it rained a great deal, that the road broke up early on, and that I was surprised and delighted that we were able to hold our own. In fact, after a few hours I began to enjoy life greatly, and to realise that this was a race that might have been instituted especially for our benefit’.
He was bitten as British enthusiasts have been ever since, and would return to contest the second leg of the Triennial Cup that was Le Mans’ main prize (officially, there was no winner in each annual race). The love affair had begun.
Eighty-seven years on, Grande Bretagne’s 17 outright wins to date, across six marques, sits between Germany’s 26 wins from four marques and France’s 15 from nine. Bentley and Jaguar account for seven victories and six, respectively; the other four were one-offs for Lagonda, Aston Martin, Mirage and McLaren. But every one added to that unique relationship with the British.
In 1924, the sole Bentley was privately entered but works prepared, the only non-French car from 41 starters – and driven by Duff and Clement again. With four-wheel brakes, and headlamp and fuel tank stoneguards, it ‘won’ by less than ten miles after a thrilling race in punishing heat. WO called it ‘a most important race for us. Not only did it help our sales, and help me in my almost non-stop contest with the Board over racing; it filled us all with a new spirit of self-confidence. In fact it made us rather too pleased with ourselves, and it would have been better for our souls if we had not been so successful so early’.
1925 confirmed that; the first ‘Le Mans start’ saw drivers sprinting across the road to their cars, and Bentley had their first ‘works’ entry, but one car ran out of fuel on the circuit, the other caught fire; 1926 saw all three 3-liter Bentleys fail; but 1927 brought a second victory after two years without a finisher. There were two 3 Liters and one 41/2 (in which Clement broke the lap record on the first lap). SCH ‘Sammy’ Davis dragged his 3-liter model from the infamous six-car pileup (involving all three Bentleys) at White House corner, drove on with a bent chassis, bent front axle, smashed headlight and front wing, but (with ‘Doc’ Benjafield) survived to win one of the most dramatic Le Mans of all. The grimy, battered car was returned to London and shoehorned into the Savoy for a celebration dinner. Thanks to Bentley, Le Mans was headline news – The Motor’s reporter typed his story in the cockpit of a Tiger Moth, heading home immediately after the race, for publication on the Tuesday.
Bentley won again in 1928, 1929 and 1930 – first with the unblown 41/2 driven by Woolf Barnato and Bernard Rubin (by barely eight miles, from the American Stutz), then twice with the 61/2-liter Speed Six, giving Barnato his hat-trick, with Tim Birkin and Glen Kidston respectively. In 1929 Bentleys finished one-two-three-four. 1930 saw a mighty battle with Mercedes – and all the time their British following kept growing. But as the original Bentley company went into receivership in 1931, it would be more than 70 years until the next Bentley win...