Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Special feature
Historics Le Mans Classic

A celebration of Bentley’s story at Le Mans

For members of the Benjafield’s Racing Club, a recent journey across to France marked a symbolic anniversary for multiple reasons. Here’s how Bentley’s legendary status at Le Mans began and the key figures who forged it

Clive Morley, 1926 WO Bentley, Martin Overington, 1929 Blower Bentley

In May 1923, a lone Bentley left London and headed for the ferry en route to France. Canadian John Duff was at the wheel and sitting alongside was fellow racer Frank Clement, while behind, cramped together with tools and spares, perched mechanics Arthur Saunders and Jack Besant. Their destination: Le Mans – the first edition of a new race for production cars to be held over 24 hours.

One hundred years later, the same #8 machine was back in London, standing proudly at the head of an assembled group of over 30 others, all members of the Benjafield’s Racing Club, ready to remake the crossing and return to France.

Duff and Clement had been the sole British entry in 1923, and remarkably finished fourth overall after losing time to a ruptured fuel tank, requiring Duff to run the three miles back to the pits, where Clement – equipped with petrol – borrowed a gendarme’s bicycle, rode against the traffic and plugged the leak to keep them in the race.

It was the combination of belief in his engines and drivers, together with a better understanding of how to prepare cars for endurance racing, that convinced WO Bentley to offer full factory support a year later. On their return and in a much-changed car, Duff and Clement took the first of five pre-Second World War victories for Bentley. Yet despite the significance of the early triumph, and the hat-trick of wins by Woolf Barnato (who remains the only driver with a 100% record of three from three), it’s the 1927 winning pairing of Dudley Benjafield and Sammy Davis whose heroics continue to inspire the current generation of enthusiasts.

Davis, a journalist and accomplished racer, and Benjafield, a doctor with a passion for speed, were the crew of one of three Bentleys that year. And all three were involved in the infamous White House crash. Approaching the blind turn at Maison Blanche as night began to fall, Davis noticed something was not quite right ahead and braked early before rounding the bend, where he saw the tangled wreckage of his team-mates and others strewn across the road. After throwing his car sideways in an effort to spare the engine, he hit one of the stricken cars hard, bending a wheel, an axle, the chassis, and the right-front wing. After making sure that all others were safe, he coaxed the #3 machine slowly back to the pits.

The #3 Bentley continues on after White House crash

The #3 Bentley continues on after White House crash

Photo by: Steve Hindle

Regulations stated that only the driver could work on the car, using tools carried onboard. Davis toiled for minutes, then hours, choosing initially not to hand over to Benjafield, before he took a leap of faith with the damaged machine and continued. As the race progressed through the dark, both Davis and Benjafield were repeatedly forced to make running repairs, yet carried enough speed to reduce the deficit to the leading Aries, the engine of which was slowly failing before conking out altogether with less than two hours remaining.

Bentley’s unlikely victory put Le Mans on the map. Subsequently, Benjafield founded the British Racing Drivers’ Club and, in later years, his love of competition and bon vivre became the founding principles of another club; the one that now bears his name.

Nearly 100 years on from the first Le Mans adventure, as centenary celebrations of the world’s greatest endurance race were planned, the Benjafield’s Racing Club set about organising its own – a standalone race at the Le Mans Classic for over 70 outstanding examples of pre-war cars. Wanting to ensure continuity, the club didn’t only turn to its stalwarts, but chose to encourage a new generation of devotees as well. Hence, over three weekends earlier this year, a dozen or so cars, mostly sporting novice crosses, took to the track in order to prepare some new and occasional racers for what would become the greatest gathering of racing Bentleys ever.

The famous #8 machine that began the Bentley journey 100 years ago finished a respectable 52nd with Jonathan Turner at the wheel, while four spots behind was Adrian Stevens in a 1923 saloon

These races allowed competitors to gain licence upgrades as well as for experienced club members to guide participants in club etiquette: understanding the importance of good manners when racing, and genial hospitality when not. This might sound dated, but these cars are rarities, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds – to keep them racing, owners must be satisfied that those around them share likeminded values.

And so, on Tuesday 27 June, those who had shed their novice crosses joined others to be flagged-off by HRH Prince Michael of Kent as the convoy headed towards France. Once there, their ranks were swollen further by cars arriving from all over the world, ready to take on the challenges of one of the greatest circuits.

Clive Morley, in his much-developed 1926 car, claimed pole position for the 45-minute encounter, which began with the once traditional dash across the start/finish straight. Morley led away, while behind, 70 others jostled into position. Cars were sometimes three and four-abreast but, out at the front, it was mostly a two-car duel between Morley and Martin Overington in the 1929 Blower, the latter stretching its legs along the straights but Morley gaining time through the turns. They were joined briefly by the three-litre machine of Mike and Alistair Littlewood. All three traded places for a lap until Morley and Overington broke free, the two cars hustling through the Dunlop chicane as they jockeyed for position.

Benjafield (far right) alongside Davis won the 1927 Le Mans 24 Hours

Benjafield (far right) alongside Davis won the 1927 Le Mans 24 Hours

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Successive fastest sectors from Morley meant Overington pushed to respond but, as the laps counted down, wisps of smoke from the Blower suggested that all might not be right. With just seconds remaining before the pit window closed, Morley made his mandatory stop, but Overington stayed out. With the smoking continuing, Overington backed off, leaving Morley to treat the crowd to a series of drifts as he scythed through traffic before taking the flag.

The famous #8 machine that began the Bentley journey 100 years ago finished a respectable 52nd with Jonathan Turner at the wheel, while four spots behind was Adrian Stevens in a 1923 saloon, once owned by Benjafield and used by him to see patients as he made his rounds!

It was a worthy end to a remarkable adventure and, while the racing will always be important, to the Benjafield’s members it’s the taking part that truly counts.

The #8 Bentley that began the legendary tale at Le Mans

The #8 Bentley that began the legendary tale at Le Mans

Photo by: Steven Hindle

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Le Mans Classic reveals legends in technology and beauty
Next article Track testing McLaren’s latest F1 title winners

Top Comments

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe