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Bentley Boys

In the previous edition, we began the story of the vintage Bentleys and their colourful drivers, to the point where they had scored their first of four successive wins at the famous Le Mans 24-hour sports car race. Here we conclude the saga with the other three victories and the tragedies that befell some of the leading characters

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.

                                   Bentley 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 elephant. 

   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 harass Carraciola.

   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.

   His determination 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.

   Thereafter, it 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.

   Moderately well 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.

   Intensely patriotic, 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 drivers
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.

      Clement, 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 odds.

   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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