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The Story of the First 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923
Featuring the Bentley 3.0 Sport as Shot by James Mann
By Stuart Codling on September 30, 2013

James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

This year (2013) was the 90th anniversary of the very first 24 Hours of Le Mans. At 4 PM 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 here, wasn't built in France — scrabbled away on the roughly surfaced road, the rain turned to hail.


James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

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."


James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

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.


James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

W.O. 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 9 AM and set lap record after lap record in pursuit of the two cars ahead, but shortly before midday the Bentley sputtered 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.


James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

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.

Below are even more great photos of this Bentley 3.0 Sport, which appear in Art of the Le Mans Race Car by Stuart Codling with photography by James Mann. Coming out in December 2013; available for pre-order now.

James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

James Mann / Art of the Le Mans Race Car

Motorbooks, 2013

Art of the Le Mans Race Car: 90 Years of Speed by Stuart Codling with Photography by James Mann
First published in Motorbooks By Stuart Codling on September 30, 2013
Posted here on Jan 21, 2015
Chassis no. 1138
Jan 18, 2017 - Info and photographs added for Registration No. GP 42
Jan 17, 2017 - Info and photograph added for Registration No. UV 3070
Jan 15, 2017 - Information received from Adrian Cole for Registration No. HR 9538

October 2017 issue
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