Bentley’s pioneering vision has long been embodied in the tenacity and ambition of its drivers. But it wasn’t until W.O. visited the first 24 Hours of Le Mans that the company’s defining era began.
The first win
At first, he had been sceptical. “I think the whole thing’s crazy,” he declared. “Nobody will finish. Cars aren’t designed to stand that sort of strain for 24 hours.”
But after the first race in 1923, in which a Bentley 3 Litre came fourth and set a new lap record, he changed his mind. The following year, he returned and won. It marked the beginning of a glorious decade – one in which W.O. and his drivers, the original Bentley Boys, would come to dominate Le Mans.
A string of victories
The Le Mans years would spur a remarkable period of innovation. In 1924 a Bentley 3 Litre won the race. In 1928, it was a 4½ Litre. And in 1930, two 6½ litre Speed 6 cars took first and second. As the engines grew larger and more sophisticated, W.O. and the Bentley Boys honed their skills – from the driving itself right down to their pit procedures. They became an unbeatable team.
Old Number 7
Of all the Le Mans victories, the most memorable came in 1927. Two works 4½ Litre cars were competing that year – but at the White House Corner, disaster struck. Both were badly damaged in a multi-car pile-up and forced to retire. Fortunately, there was another Bentley in the race. ‘Old Number 7’ was a Bentley 3 Litre driven by Dudley Benjafield and Sammy Davis. Although it, too, was damaged in the crash, the team undertook what repairs they could – and they managed to keep it on the track. To replace its smashed headlights, they strapped a torch to the windscreen, enabling Davis and Benjafield to drive through the night and emerge Le Mans winners.
Back in London, a celebration dinner was held at the Savoy. Following a toast “to someone who should be present”, the car itself was wheeled into the dining room. The entire team rose to their feet for the arrival of ‘Old Number 7’ – their battled-scarred, four-wheeled guest of honour.