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, the 3-liter Bentley whose entry had been the first received by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. 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 himself professed he 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, London Bentley agent Captain 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 straight-sided 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 organization 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 realize 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 surely 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.
83 years on, Grande-Bretagne’s 17 outright wins to date, across six marquees, sits between Germany’s 23 wins from four marquees and France’s 14 from nine. Bentley and Jaguar account for seven victories and six; 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-litre 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 pile-up (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 1-2-3-4. 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 seventy years to the next Bentley win...
The Blower Bentley
An irony of Bentley’s Le Mans legend is that so many people picture the supercharged 41/2-liter as the archetypal winner. The ‘Blower’ Bentley never was, nor even a works car. WO famously hated it, describing the Paget-Birkin partnership that created them as ‘the organization that gave us all a good deal of additional anxiety during our already anxious last months’. He rode with Birkin in one in 1929, but wrote ‘to supercharge a Bentley engine was to pervert its design and corrupt its performance’. His way was cubic inches and reliability. He was even more miffed that near-bankrupt Bentley had to build fifty supercharged road cars to homologate the Birkin-Paget team cars – of which there would be just four.
Built in Welwyn, they combined Birkin’s passion for supercharging, the Hon Dorothy Paget’s money, Bentley saviour Barnato’s indulgence in building the road cars, and Amherst Villiers’ designs. Their three-year career’s only significant successes were second for Birkin in the 1930 French GP at Pau (in the stripped number 4 car), third and fourth in the 1929 and 1930 Irish GPs, and second in the 1930 Brooklands 500-Mile race. 1930 was their only Le Mans outing, when Birkin hounded Caracciola’s blown 7-liter Mercedes and softened it up before Barnato’s Speed Six went in for the kill. Birkin famously overtook the German car with two wheels on the Mulsanne grass at around 125mph, threw a tire tread at Mulsanne corner, completed the lap in record time, then had the tire disintegrate in the Esses. He continued after replacing it, outlasted the Mercedes by 55 laps, but went out near the end with a burned valve - leaving victory to WO’s beloved unblown 61/2-liter.
This is that same ‘short chassis’ 1930 Birkin Le Mans car - ‘number 2’ of the four Birkin-Paget Blowers, fourth placed car from the 1930 Irish GP, and 1930 Brooklands second place car.
It is maintained rather than restored, and handsomely aged. The architecture is perpendicular, the scale heroic. The scatter of instruments across the grubby alloy dash includes an eight-day Jaeger chronometer, a 140mph speedometer far from the driver’s gaze, an oil pressure gauge the size of dinner plate, a boost gauge reading to +25psi, and many others of no fixed size or design. The gated gearshift is almost under the driver’s right knee, the handbrake outdoors and the thin-rimmed wheel as big as needs to be to cajole two tons of car to change direction.
The long-stroke single overhead-cam four-cylinder engine starts cleanly and ticks over like a burbling kettle, with just a thin blue haze from the huge fishtail exhaust. Throttle response reflects a huge flywheel and long plumbing between supercharger and inlet manifold, and at speed the Bentley sounds like distant artillery. The single-plate clutch isn’t too heavy, but the four-speed gear shift is agricultural. The secret (so long as you aren’t Birkin) is not to rush, but to be very deliberate. Especially with the brakes, which require a big push and plenty of road. With such momentum you don’t hurry the turn-in, or abuse the grip. In its pomp it produced 256bhp at 3750rpm, and enough torque to tow a battleship. In May 1959, driven by former owner Stanley Sears on a closed road near Antwerp, it covered a flying mile at a two-way average of 125.7mph. WO may not have liked it, but it’s obvious why the outside world loved it.
In 1935 (as WO Bentley was about to join the company), a Lagonda M45 Rapide driven by John Hindmarsh with bespectacled amateur Luis Fontes, put a British marque atop the podium for the first time since the Bentley glory days, ending Alfa Romeo’s intervening run of four back-to-back wins. Its 4.5-liter Meadows straight-six was tuned to give around 150bhp and it won in spite of failing oil pressure, aided by a lap-scoring error by the Alfa crew. Former Bentley Boy Benjafield shared another with Ronald Gunter and finished 13th, in spite of being stuck in top gear for many hours. Minister of Transport Hoare-Belisha sent the winners a telegram: ‘This is really splendid. My congratulations to all concerned’. A very British greeting in a very British year, with 22 of the 28 finishers, including the class-winning 1.5 Aston of Martin and Brackenbury in third overall, and the Singer of Barnes and Langley winning the 1-liter class.
It was 16 years before Britain’s next outright win, but only six races, as Le Mans was cancelled in 1936 due to strikes in the French automobile industry, and from 1940 to 1948 because of World War II.
But Jaguar’s successes rekindled British passions, as reported on BBC wireless by Raymond Baxter, and John Bolster in the pits. New marque Ferrari won the first post-war race, in 1949; equally new Jaguar arrived a year later, with three nominally private but works-supported 3.4-liter XK120s, managed by ‘Lofty’ England - and as the Bentleys had, shouting the marque’s sporting credentials loud and clear.
Two finished, well down, but encouraging Jaguar to return in 1951, when William Lyons sanctioned a competition version of the 120, the XK120C, or C-Type – powered by a 200bhp development of the 3.4 twin-cam straight-six. Its streamlined shape, from aerodynamics specialist Malcolm Sayer, showed that Jaguar understood the importance of the long Mulsanne straight, giving a real chance of winning; and as Autosport said, ‘never before has such a large crowd from the UK arrived for the race.
The Place de la Republique is full of GB plates and Gruber’s [a popular café] looks like an enlarged version of the Steering Wheel Club’.
Their drivers were led by Jack Fairman and rising star Stirling Moss, in his first Le Mans – who lapped the whole field within the first couple of hours and shattered the lap record. Behind him, Whitehead and Walker and Johnson and Biondetti created a C-Type 1-2-3, until the Moss and Johnson cars retired. The two Peters, Whitehead and Walker, hung on, to win by almost eight laps, and Jaguar’s reign had begun.
They talked themselves out of the 1952 race, intimidated by the predicted pace of Mercedes’ 300SL. Trying to make the C-Types more slippery, they succeeded only in ruining their cooling, and within an hour all their engines, while Mercedes ran conservatively but reliably, and won.
Jaguar didn’t get fooled again: Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton led a C-Type 1-2 in 1953, helped now they could use them by their new Dunlop disc brakes, in the first 100mph-average Le Mans. Then the new D-Type scored a famous hat-trick between the tragic 1955 race and the 1-2-3-4 D-Type steamroller in 1957, led by the Ecurie Ecosse team.
The D-Type is the point where engineering and science combine to create something bordering on art. Jaguar conceived it, like the C-Type, as a customer car, both to meet homologation rules and to pay the bills. But it was one of the most advanced racing cars of its day, with the engine canted over to lower the bonnet line, disc brakes, aircraft-type riveted aluminum construction, a monocoque center section, and the next generation of Malcolm Sayers’ effective low-drag aerodynamics.
RSF 303 came second at Le Mans in 1957, driven by Ninian Sanderson and John Lawrence, and remains in original Ecurie Ecosse colors. Close up it is small, beautiful and impressively ‘used’. The seats are green leather, heavily worn. The ‘passenger’ seat is nominal, under a rigid tonneau. The driver’s is a simple bucket, but comfortable, with a longer cushion, more thigh support and hip and knee pads to protect you from deep sills and center tunnel. The rest is all bare metal and matt-black paint, like an old military aircraft. There’s an ignition key wired to the body, a scatter of toggle and push-pull switches, minimal instruments (tachometer, oil pressure and water temperature) and a classic woodrim wheel.
The pedals are so closely spaced and deeply buried it’s impossible not to heel and toe, and the stubby gearlever has the shortest, most positive throw possible. The view forward is all lumps and louvres, the view back, from the scuttle mirror, is over a short tail and a high fin with racing number lights and a big fuel filler flap right behind your head.
The D-Type is wonderful to drive. Triple twin-choke Webers belch fumes and induction roar, and the exhaust barks the bark of a race engine with hair-trigger responses. In 1957 this one was 3.4 liters and some 270bhp; the final, injected 3.8s had more than 300bhp. The 1957 winning 3.4 recorded 178mph on the Mulsanne, and turned 114mph laps.
Even now, a D-type feels very quick in a straight line, reasonably light to handle, exceptionally communicative and flatteringly catchable. It stops hard and even rides pretty well for a near fifty-year-old sports car. It’s very hard to imagine how advanced it was in its day.
1959 was Aston Martin’s year – as they took the World Sportscar Championship from Ferrari. Roy Salvadori and Texan Carroll Shelby in his chicken farmer’s striped dungarees didn’t go out to be the fastest, leaving Moss in one of the sister DBR1s to set an early pace to break most of the Ferraris, before engine problems began. The surviving works Ferrari of Gendebien and Hill traded the lead with the Shelby/Salvadori DBR1 during the night, and when the red car retired with overheating problems Aston’s strategy was vindicated with a race won by discipline over outright speed.
John Wyer managed that Aston victory; in 1975 he ran the Gulf-Mirage GR8, built in Slough and powered by the endurance version of the Cosworth DFV V8 - detuned to 370bhp and kept below 7500rpm to meet the consumption rules of this post fuel-crisis year and avoid car-breaking vibrations at higher revs. With the V12-powered Ferrari, Matra and Alfa opposition all absent, it wasn’t a great 24 Hours, but Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell worked hard to beat the bolder DFV-powered Ligier coupes. Surviving a broken rear suspension, it was Ickx’s second win and Bell’s first. And there were maybe only 80,000 people there to see it, but inevitably a large proportion of them were British.
By the late 1980s the race was revitalized, and ready for Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz to do battle again, bringing British fans in bigger, noisier profusion than ever. So for a few glorious years, Le Mans became as marketable to the tee-shirt and flag sellers of the merchandising world as football. And the races generally lived up to the frenzy.
Jaguar returned in 1984 with Group 44 and the XJR-5, and won in 1988, ending a run of seven consecutive Porsche wins with the XJR-9LM of Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries, sponsored by Silk Cut, run by Tom Walkinshaw and TWR. The Sauber-Mercedes were withdrawn before the race after one flipped in practice at 220mph, and Mercedes clearly didn’t want echoes of 1955 – but Jaguar had to work hard to beat Porsche, in a race where the lead changed 22 times, the gap was never more than a lap, and speeds on the pre-chicane Mulsanne topped 240mph. Motor noted, ‘it wasn’t until the French played God Save the Queen for the third time – and Derek Bell kissed Tom Walkinshaw on both cheeks – that it sank in that Jaguar had finally won le Mans’.
They lost a stunning fight with Sauber-Mercedes in 1989, but won again in 1990 with John Nielsen, Price Cobb and Martin Brundle in the Silk Cut XJR-12 – and chicanes on the Mulsanne straight. That changed the character of the circuit, and Mercedes stayed away, but it was a great win, against mighty opposition from Porsche, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda.
Wearing the warpaint of the 1990 winner but actually its Silk Cut team-mate, our XJR-12 is chassis number 190, raced (and retired) at Le Mans by Michel Ferte, Davy Jones and Eliseo Salazar, at Daytona in 1991 by Kenny Acheson, Eddie Cheever and John Nielsen, at Sebring that year by Raul Boesel, Jones and Neilsen, and at Daytona in 1993 by Scott Goodyear, Jones and Scott Pruett. And it still races, owned now by Staffaan Svenby and campaigned in historic Group C car races by Justin Law.
In 1990 the XJR-12 took a U-turn from 3.5-liter V6 turbo power and reverted to the classic, naturally-aspirated V12 last seen in the XJR-9. The rules allowed any capacity, any number of cylinders, a minimum weight of 1000kg, a flat bottom of specified size, 100 liters fuel capacity (with an overall allowance for Le Mans of 2250 liters) and gravity refuelling.
It is far closer to the modern generation than to the D-Type’s, physically big and dominated by low-drag, high downforce aerodynamics and massive rubber. Inside is still black and bare, but carbon-fibre weave rather than matt paint, and a tighter squeeze. Passenger space is even more token, switchgear and instrumentation more comprehensive and ordered, with signs of the new-wave electronic management.
Starting procedure says one blip to boot up the alternator, then steady, low revs (about 3500) until rising temperature crosses falling oil pressure as the lubricant warms through. The idle is even but very hardcore, and when you can finally rev it, it sounds big and violent.
This one is 7.4 liters and full Group C spec, which means around 750bhp even in reliable 24-hour tune. At Le Mans in 1990, even with chicanes, these cars topped 200mph four times on every lap, hit 220mph in the race and lapped at close to 140mph. That’s why even people who didn’t know motor sport loved Le Mans in the Jaguar days.
The 1995 winner was very different – but that’s what makes Le Mans special. For the 24 Hours, the McLaren F1 GTR was clearly a racing car, but also genuinely a ‘production’ car, and, off the shelf, the fastest road car of all time in its day. Thanks to clever Le Mans rule making, it not only had the measure of the rest of the GT field, in a mainly wet race it humbled the prototypes, too, and the McLarens finished 1-3-4-5.
Then, to bring the wheel full circle, there was the second coming of Bentley, and in 2003 another of those wins that stirred racing passions way beyond the norm. Two Speed 8 coup�s – surely one of the most striking cars ever seen at Le Mans – took first and second places, finally beating their German stablemates and rivals from Audi. They won as they pleased, with Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Guy Smith heading home Johnny Herbert, David Brabham and Mark Blundell. And the party-hard crowds in the packed bleachers opposite the pits greeted the new Bentley Boys as only Brits at Le Mans can – 73 years after the last time.
In 2009 there are no Bentleys, Lagondas, Jaguars, Mirages or McLarens, but there are Aston Martins in GT1, fighting for class victory. There will be tens of thousands of Brits in the grandstands, camp sites and bars, and the usual convoys of British sporting cars for days either side of the race weekend. As ever, they will make Le Mans the biggest British sporting event in France – but there will definitely be too many for Autocar to name-check personally as they did back in 1923.