W. O. Bentley’s design philosophy was underpinned by a deceptively simple formula: “We were going to make a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” This idea lay behind all the cars produced by Bentley Motors, an idea whose value was proved in motor racing.
W O’s motor racing goals were equally straightforward. It was far and away the cheapest and most effective way of proving and subsequently testing his designs, an it was the most effective way of advertising the cars. The Bentley Boys were a group of wealthy motorists who raced Bentley cars to victories in 1920’s and helped to create the racing reputation for these green cars.
Bentley’s first victory was at Brooklands, a sprint race won by works driver Frank Clement. Brilliant with carburettors and engines, Clement managed the first racing shop, preparing the 3 Litres that finished second, fourth and fifth in the 1922 Tourist Trophy (driven by Clement, W. O. and Hawkes respectively) and 13th in the Indianapolis 500 driven by Hawkes. The first true Bentley Boy, though, was John Duff. Determined and immensely tough, Duff drove his Bentley for two successive days at Brooklands for twenty-four hours in total to set a new record at 86.79mph in 1922. He drove at Le Mans in 1923 and 1924, partnered by Frank Clement in both years. Fourth in 1923, delayed by a punctured petrol tank, but won in 1924. This success, coupled with Brooklands appearances, started the Bentley legend.
The second great Bentley Boy was Dr Dudley Benjafield, a noted Harley street physician. “Benjy” bought a spartan and very fast 3 Litre racing car developed by Clement, and raced it at Brooklands. A founder of the British Racing Drivers Club, Benjy drove a Bentley at Le Mans every year between 1925 and 1930. Benjy, partnered by Sammy Davis, drove their 3 Litre to an epic victory at Le Mans in 1927. As dusk fell, five hours into the race at around 9pm, all three Bentleys were involved in an accident at White House corner. Two cars were out of the race. Sammy Davis managed to extricate his 3 Litre, known as “Old No.7”, and limped back to the pits with a buckled wheel, a smashed headlamp and damage to the offside wing. Worse, though, was the pushed-back front axle, upsetting the brake compensation.
Davis and Benjafield drove on through the night, relying on a policeman’s torch strapped to the windscreen pillar. As noon came round the second-placed Bentley was gaining on the leading car, a French Aries. Noticing a knock in the Aries’ engine, the Bentley pit hung out the “Faster” sign. Rising to the challenge, “Old No.7”, Davis and Benjafield pulled out the stops, to win the race at an average of 61.35 mph. This on a circuit with a 15mph hairpin at Pontlieue, a surface so bad that headlamps, radiators and petrol tanks needed wire mesh stoneguards, in a car carrying ballast equivalent to the weight of two passengers and all the spares needed during the race.
Afterwards a celebratory dinner was held at the Savoy, attended by “Old No.7” herself. A pattern was thus established; arduous racing followed by lavish parties and celebrations. Some of the most famous of these were thrown by Barnato, notably the famous “Grand Prix de Danse” after his 1929 Le Mans victory. The circle of the Bentley Boys grew. With the 4 1/2 Litre in full production, three cars were entered for Le Mans in 1928. Clement and Benjy were joined by veteran French driver Jean Chassagne, Woolf Barnato, Tim Birkin and Bernard Rubin.
Prodigiously wealthy, Barnato was chairman of Bentley Motors from 1926 to 1931, remaining closely involved with the company until his untimely death in 1948. Barnato was fast and reliable, fully prepared to take his place in the team under W O’s instructions. He nursed his sick 4 1/2 Litre to win at Le Mans in 1928, after its chassis frame cracked. On the very last lap of the race the top water hose pulled out, Barnato timing it perfectly to cross the line just after 4pm. Before 4pm, and it would have meant another 10 mile lap – in a car with no water in the radiator. Barnato won again at Le Mans in 1929 and 1930, driving “Old Number One” Speed Six Bentley in both years.
By contrast, the restless and flamboyant Birkin could never resist the opportunity to play to the gallery. Birkin took motor racing entirely seriously, devoting all his time, money and energy to developing the blower Bentley. Amherst Villiers designed the supercharger, fitted to a strengthened 4 1/2 Litre engine. With power increased from 124bhp to over 165bhp, allowing for the power absorbed by the supercharger itself, the blower Bentleys were as charismatic as Birkin himself. Utterly fearless, Birkin raced at Brooklands, Le Mans, Belfast, Ulster and Pau, finishing well up the field whenever his car could take the pace. By any standards Birkin was an exceptional driver, winning Le Mans twice and finishing second in the French GP at Pau in a stripped blower Bentley, running against full Grand Prix cars. In the single-seater blower Bentley he raised the Brooklands lap record to 135.33mph in 1930 and to 137.96mph in 1932. He died in 1933.
Bernard Rubin was another gentleman sportsman. His money derived from the Australian pearl industry. He lent Birkin his 4 1/2 Litre for supercharging experiments in 1928/29, but retired from racing after rolling his blower in the 1929 TT. Pinned under the car, Rubin and his mechanic were lucky to escape with cuts and bruises.
1929 was Bentley’s most successful season, the new Speed Six “Old Number One” proving fast and reliable. The “Bentley Boys” were equally active. The Barnato/Birkin Speed Six led three 4 1/2-litres to a 1-2-3-4 victory at Le Mans. The second-placed 4 1/2 Litre was driven by Glen Kidston and Jack Dunfee. Kidston was perhaps the boldest of the “Bentley Boys”, a former submariner in the Great War. He finished second in the Irish GP in “Old Number One”, and crashed in the TT after an epic slide at Bradshaw’s Brae, walking away from a ditched car with all its wheels off the ground. He shared the winning Speed Six with Barnato at Le Mans in 1930.
Jack Dunfee was the older of the Dunfee brothers, both tall and good-looking but rather less wealthy than the others. W. O. notes laconically that “they had to work for a living”. Clive Dunfee was tragically killed at Brooklands in the 1932 500 Miles race. Then there was a host of others: George Duller, a successful jockey, Leslie Callingham, associated with Shell, Humphrey Cook, Dick Watney, later MD at Lagonda, and Baron d’Erlanger.