In 1928 Woolf Barnato and
the Australian Bernard Rubin won the
Le Mans 24-hour race to give the Bentley Boys their second
successive win in the French classic, raising the average
speed to a new record of 69.11mph with the new 41/2-litre
car. It was the first of Barnato's hat trick of Le Mans
victories. He won for the second time in 1929 with the even
more powerful (61/2-litre) Speed Six,
averaging 73.63 mph, partnered by 'Tim' Birkin, the most
famous Bentley Boy of all. Next were no fewer than three
more Bentleys, driven by Glen Kidston with Clive Dunfee,
Benjafield and the Belgian Baron Gerard d'Erlanger, and
Clement with the Frenchman Jean Chassagne.
EXP No 2
The 1930 race was perhaps
the most significant Bentley victory at Le Mans, not only
because it was the last - only months before the company
ran out of money - but because it was against the toughest
opposition. This was the extremely powerful and already
highly successful 7.1-litre Mercedes-Benz SSK (designed
by none other than Dr Ferdinand Porsche) with its 'elephant
blower', so called because the 'blower' (supercharger) came
into action only when the driver pressed the accelerator
to the floor, when a clutch brought the supercharger into
use with a loud bellow likened to the call of a charging
The leading Mercedes
driver (and pacemaker for the race) was the legendary German
grand prix racer Rudolf Carraciola and Birkin took up the
challenge on behalf of the Bentley team. Closing steadily
on his rival, he was in the act of overtaking the Mercedes
when one of the Bentley's tyres went flat.
Regarding this as minor
problem, Birkin completed the overtaking manoeuvre and continued
to pull away until the tyre finally disintegrated after
several more laps! Sammy Davis took up the chase in the
Bentley he was sharing with Clive Dunfee, continuing to
Davis was less of a
typical Bentley Boy than, for instance, the well-heeled
Barnato or Benjafield, earning his living as a journalist,
but enhancing the quality of his writing by racing in potentially
successful cars. He was invited primarily for his driving
abilities, although the publicity gained for any team in
which he drove, through his widely read articles, would
not have gone amiss.
was demonstrated in this race, when a stone, thrown up by
a car he was overtaking, smashed his goggles, a piece of
glass going into his eye. Ignoring the pain, he pulled on
the spare pair of goggles dangling around his neck and raced
on to the next scheduled pit-stop. Only then did he submit
to receiving attention to his damaged eye. However, his
and Birkin's efforts were rewarded when Carraciola's car
was forced to retire. Sadly, the Davis/Dunfee Bentley didn't
figure in the results, Dunfee putting the car into a sandbank
from which it couldn't be extricated.
Barnato duly took
the chequered flag, this time partnered by Glen Kidston,
the Bentley again being the Speed Six model, setting another
record average speed of 75.88 mph.
was privately entered Bentleys which kept the legend alive,
with the 'works' - the Rolls-Royce-owned Bentley Motors
(1931) Limited - strictly not interested in motor racing.
Clive Dunfee was one
Bentley Boy who received the wrong sort of publicity (his
obituary) when his Bentley fell victim to one of the inherent
dangers of the Brooklands track - going over the top of
the high banking.
With the Le Mans
victories reduced to memories, Sir Henry Birkin ('Tim' was
a family nickname from his childhood) became the main flag
carrier for the Bentley marque, campaigning his own cars
both at Brooklands and abroad.
off (but in nothing like the same wealth league as Barnato)
he had begun racing at Brooklands with a Bentley in 1928.
He had served in the Great War with the Royal Flying Corps
as a Captain and probably found his return to the family
lace manufacturing business fairly boring. He became the
archetypal racing driver - always immaculately turned out,
usually with spotless (at least, at the start of a race!)
overalls, matching leather helmet and a cravat (often with
polka dots) around his neck.
he 'raced for Britain', but with no potentially successful
British-built single-seaters available, he raced Bentleys
instead, and not just in sports car events.
He was one of the quartet
(the others being Barnato, Rubin and Kidston) who enhanced
the Bentley Boys legend in fashionable West London by having
adjacent flats in the exclusive south-east corner of Grosvenor
Square. With their big, rakish sports cars parked around
(no traffic wardens, meters or even parking
problems in those days!) it was known to the London cab
as "Bentley Corner".
Birkin had been one
of those who encouraged Barnato to get the supercharger
(a device which forces far more air/fuel mixture into the
engine than atmospheric pressure alone can do) introduced
into the Bentley engineering system.
W O Bentley and John Duff with a 3-litre Bentley.
W O Bentley was
furious. He is on record as saying, "To supercharge a Bentley
is to pervert the design and corrupt its performance". But
against Barnato's influence in the boardroom and the financial
backing of the physically plain but exceptionally wealthy
24-year-old spinster, the Hon. Dorothy Paget (also a major
supporter of horse racing), Bentley had to bow to superior
It may well have
been the final nail in the company's coffin. With the company
having enough difficulty in selling normal cars at a profit,
'W O' had to build 100 'Blower' 41/2-litre
Bentley sports cars for this version to qualify for entry
at Le Mans - where the Speed Six model was more successful.
While the 'Blower'
may not have been ideal for 24-hour racing, Birkin used
this engine to tremendous effect elsewhere. In the 1930
French Grand Prix at Pau, Birkin's single-seater (in reality
a stripped-down sports car) was second in a field of 25
cars after 245 miles, beaten only by Philippe Etancelin's
2-litre supercharged Bugatti, with all the other Bugattis,
Delages, Maseratis and Alfa-Romeos well beaten.
With the 'Blower'
single-seater, Birkin raised the outright lap record at
Brooklands to 135.33 and then 137.76 mph and in July, 1932,
he and John Cobb (later to become holder of the World Land
Speed Record at nearly 400 mph) took part in a challenge
'for a purse of 100 Sovereigns' to decide who was quickest
round the Surrey track, with Cobb driving a Delage grand
prix car with V12 supercharged 2-litre engine. Birkin's
Bentley won the challenge by one-eighth of a second - a
distance of just over 5ft! His fastest lap during the challenge
was 137.3 mph - just short of the lap record he had set
earlier the same year.
Great though its performance
was, even Birkin appreciated that his 'blown' Bentley 'single-seater'
could not expect to win against purpose-built racing cars.
With some reluctance (it wasn't British) he acquired a Maserati
Grand Prix car and took it to the 1933 Tripoli Grand Prix
in North Africa. During a practice-day pit stop, he burnt
his arm seriously on the car's hot exhaust pipe. One story
was that he had leaned across the bonnet to reach his cigarette
lighter. At the inquest, Dr Benjafield told the Coroner
that Birkin was topping up the engine oil (unlike today's
grand prix racing, in 1933 there was no horde of 20 mechanics
changing all four wheels and refuelling a car in eight seconds!).
After the Tripoli race,
Birkin had returned to England and went to bed feeling very
feverish. Dr Benjafield was called and found that the burns
were in a dreadful state. He was unable to prevent his friend
dying from blood poisoning. Birkin's death, at the age of
only 36, can be regarded as the last major story of the
'Twenties and 'Thirties legend of the Bentley Boys, but
it was an inspiration to those who wanted to be car racers
for much of the period since.
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