Last week was the 90th anniversary of the very first Le Mans 24 Hours. At 4pm on May 26, 1923, shortly after the onset of a rain shower, the starter’s flag fell; and, as the assembled cars (of which only one, a Bentley 3.0 Sport like the one photographed above, wasn’t built in France) scrabbled away on the roughly surfaced road, the rain turned to hail.
The inaugural enduro at Le Mans was billed as the first of three trials for the Rudge-Whitworth Cup, the idea being that after three years of competition the winner would be decided at a final run-off. The concept would not see the end of the decade and its description in The Autocar gives some idea as to why it didn’t find traction:
He would have been a clever man who could have indicated what constituted the basis of the Rudge-Whitworth Cup. A minimum distance had to be covered in the two rounds of the clock, this distance being in proportion to the size of the engine and rising from 503 miles for the 1100cc Amilcar to 968 miles for the big French Excelsiors. All those covering this distance would qualify for the following year’s race. Such a basis, however, left the race without a winner, and was as unsatisfactory for the drivers as for the public.
It was the entrants who, in effect, blew a raspberry at the idea that this would be a sedate reliability trial. As The Autocar’s correspondent noted, approvingly:
The first half hour indicated, however, that the great majority of the competitors had no intention of handicapping themselves by any considerations of a minimum distance, and that for a number of them it was going to be a race throughout.
Heavy rain made the 1923 Le Mans 24 Hours a miserable experience for all concerned – none more than Bentley drivers John Duff and Frank Clement, who raced without helmets or goggles throughout.
Duff, born in China to Canadian parents, was a colourful character who had, amongst other racing activities, acquired a 1908 Fiat Grand Prix car which he had campaigned at Brooklands until its engine blew in half. Having disposed of the Fiat’s remnants (to a fellow racer who would rebuild it with a 22-litre aircraft engine…) in 1922, Duff set his sights on the newly announced 24-hour race at Le Mans and entered a Bentley 3.0 Sport under his own name for the first edition of the vingt-quatre heures. In this enterprise he would be partnered by Bentley test driver Frank Clement, who duly gave the car its first test run along the company’s preferred route: out of the workshop and north up the A5 towards Stanmore, where Brockley Hill stood as a test of each Bentley’s ability to accelerate under load.
WO Bentley himself? He thought the race was a terrible idea, and only revised his opinion after witnessing his car giving ‘em what for.
Duff and Clement kept the leading Chennard et Walcker cars honest in the opening hours, but as darkness fell a stone penetrated one of their headlights. Chennard et Walcker offered to give them a spare but Duff and Clement elected to continue, reasoning that they would lose more time in stopping to change the light – with only one person allowed to work on the car at a time – than they would in muddling along with the holed one working intermittently. By dawn the Bentley was two laps down on the leader.
Duff took the wheel at 9am and set lap record after lap record in pursuit of the two cars ahead, but shortly before midday the Bentley spluttered to a halt. A stone had holed its fuel tank. Duff made best speed on foot back to the pits – a distance of three miles – while the stewards determined that Clement could borrow a bicycle to pedal back to the stranded car with what petrol he could carry once Duff had arrived. This he did, thoughtfully slinging the bicycle into the back of the Bentley so it could be reunited with its owner once he brought the car in.
Repairs cost over two hours, and while Clement broke the lap record once he returned to the course there would be no catching the leaders. Bentley would have to settle for fourth place.
Shifting the date to June for 1924 delivered better weather. Bentley won, but then in 1925 fell foul of a rule change which dictated that all cars had to run with their soft-tops erected until the first fuel stop, a minimum of 20 laps. Bentley hadn’t calculated the effect this would have on fuel consumption. The car photographed here (well, most of it – few cars of the period are fully original this long after the fact) stopped at the Pontlieue hairpin, out of fuel.
Bentley went on to dominate the race in the second half of the decade, breaking the domestic monopoly on the entry and setting the annual enduro on its way to legendary status.
You can read more – plug alert! – about the epic history of Le Mans and the cars that have competed there in Le Mans Legendary Race Cars: 90 Years of Speed, out this November, words by me, pictures by James Mann.