W.O. Bentley and the Bentley Boy Years #004

The legendary 6 1/2 Litre 'Blue Train', which Woolf Barnato won in a race against the sleeper express. Although this model was undoubtedly owned by Barnato, it was another 61/2 Litre that he actually used.


■The only British Automobile to Fight amongst the French in 1923

On 26-27 May 1923, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was held for the first time in history. Captain John Duff, who had won the previous race at Brooklands, entered a 3 Litre under the name of his dealership, John Duff & Co, to showcase Bentley's capabilities in France in an event that would later become the pinnacle of sports car racing.
Unfortunately, the day was heavy with rain, but 33 cars nonetheless turned up at the Sarthe circuit. Most were local French cars, with only one British car, Duff's Bentley. Although they were technically privateers, the machines were prepared by Bentley's in-house team at Cricklewood. The second driver paired with Duff was Frank Clement, Bentley's Head of Experiments and one of the company's strongest and most skilled men. W.O. himself, however, was rather pessimistic about the gruelling challenge of the 24-hour race.
The Bentley 3 Litre, numbered 8, was at a disadvantage in the wet weather as it was not fitted with front brakes, but nevertheless led the race from the beginning. By the end of the second hour, the car was averaging 107.328 km/h, the course record for the year. However, it ended up finishing fourth after losing one of its headlights at night due to a bouncing stone, and also because of a faulty petrol tank, which caused a fuel leak. Incidentally, the winner of the first Le Mans was the local French entry, a Chenard-Walcker.

■Revenge in the 1924 Season with First Win
After narrowly missing out on a glorious victory the previous year, John Duff and Bentley brought one of their 3 Litre models to the Sarthe circuit once again, out for revenge. The driver teamed up with Duff was once again Clement. W.O. himself had been fascinated by Le Mans and the 24-hour race after the previous year's challenge, so the entire Bentley company was ready to back them up. The vehicle was equipped with brakes on the front wheels and guards on the headlights, and other rock-solid preparations made for Le Mans.
In the early stages of the race, the previous year's winner, a Chenard-Walcker driven by Ren? Lagache / Andr? L?onard, took the lead. The French teams, including La Lorraine-Dietrich, continued to lead the race, but on Sunday morning the Duff / Clement Bentley took the lead. Their car also experienced gearbox problems and other technical uncertainties, but then La Lorraine-Dietrich, which had been running in second place, fell back and Bentley at last took their first Le Mans win. Only 14 cars finished the race that year. In a tremendous survival race, Bentley showed its supreme performance and stamina.

■The Disastrous 1925 Season
The 1925 Le Mans season saw Bentley being pursued by its rivals. From this year onwards, Diatto and OM from Italy, Chrysler from the USA, and Sunbeam and Austin from the UK, all sent their works teams cars to the event. In its third year, Le Mans began to be recognised as a major global event. For the first time, Bentley also entered multiple works cars, one of which was the previous year's winner, the Duff / Clement duo. The other was entered by Dr J. Dudley Benjafield and Bentley's service manager, Herbert Kensington-Moir, known as ‘Bertie'.
However, this year's Le Mans proved disastrous for W.O.'s expectations. Firstly, on lap 19, Bertie failed to return to the pits and stopped on the track due to a miscalculation of fuel consumption. The remaining Duff / Clement 3 Litre was forced to retire on lap 64 when the float on one side of the SU-type carburettor broke and leaking petrol ignited. The winner that year was the G?rard de Courcelles / Andr? Rossignol duo from La Lorraine-Dietrich.

This is a revised version of an article that appeared in Flying B No 001 (2008). The information provided here was accurate at the time of publication.

Translation: Mako Ayabe and Michael Balderi

The 41/2-litre 'Blower' was one of the most appealing and popular Bentley models of the W.O. era. It was equipped with a Roots supercharger from Villiers and squeezed out nearly 180 HP.