24 Hours Stories: The Bentley Boys, a need for speed in life and on the track

24 Hours Stories: The Bentley Boys, a need for speed in life and on the track

Throughout this month, we will bring you a very special Advent calendar dedicated to remarkable stories and anecdotes from the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. Today, here is a look back at the era of the Roaring 20s and the extraordinary Bentley Boys who claimed the top step on the podium for the British manufacturer five times between 1924 and 1930.

Eight drivers brought Bentley to victory during the period: John Duff (1924), Frank Clement (1924), Dudley Benjafield (1927), Sammy Davis (1927), Woolf Barnato (1928, 1929, 1930), Bernard Rubin (1928), Henry Birkin (1929) and Glen Kidston (1930). Rich and bon vivant, all were driven by a real spirit of adventure, perhaps from their experiences in World War I.

John Duff survived the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium from July to November 1917 where British, Canadian and French soldiers faced off against the German army. A trained doctor specializing in bacteriology, Dudley Benjafield served in Egypt. Woolf Barnato rose to the rank of Captain during the war. It took three years for Bernard Rubin, gravely injured in 1917, to regain the use of his legs. Henry Birkin reached the rank of Lieutenant in the air force. Glen Kidston was a submariner, with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander. Two personalities among them were truly emblematic of the spirit of the Bentley Boys, Duff and Barnato.

John Duff and Woolf Barnato, pioneers and leaders

Born in 1895 to Canadian parents in China, John Duff opened a Bentley dealership after the war and soon thereafter a new 24-hour auto race near Le Mans caught his attention. After leading a great deal of the first edition in 1923, he finished fourth with technical problems. Walter Owen Bentley was at that race, and though initially reluctant, decided in light of Duff's performance to involve his marque more, with the following year a first win thanks to Duff and Frank Clement. Four more would follow between 1927 to 1930.

Woolf Barnato was the first three-time winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with in 1928, 1929 and 1930 three victories in as many participations. Also born in 1895, after the untimely death of his father he inherited a family fortune built on the diamond mines of South Africa. A true Bentley enthusiast, he became its main investor to the tune of 100,000 pounds sterling. In addition to driving racing cars, Barnato was a skilled speedboat pilot and practiced cricket, golf, boxing (middleweight category), swimming, shooting and even hunting at an impressive level.

PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO ARCHIVES): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS 1924 & 1930. At top, the 3-Litre Sport of John Duff and Frank Clement, the first Bentley to win the race, in 1924. Below, the Bentley Speed 6 with which Woolf Barnato became a three-time 24 Hours winner. 

The Bentley Boys on all fronts

Beyond the war and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Bentley Boys pursued an adventurous life. John Duff practiced fencing to recover from ankle injuries, moved to Hollywood where he became a stuntman, training and doubling for actors on the sets of swashbuckling movies, and became a show jumping champion. In 1919 and 1920, Dudley Benjafield joined the fight against the Spanish flu epidemic. Journalist, author and cartoonist, Sammy Davis was one of the great automotive writers of the interwar years and was great friends with documentary filmmaker Bill Mason (the father of Nick, Pink Floyd drummer and gentleman driver with five participations in the 24 Hours). Glen Kidston turned to aviation and in 1931 set the record for the England-Cape Town (South Africa) air link. A Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Woolf Barnato was in charge of the protection of the production sites of planes against the bombardments of the Luftwaffe in the British territory. 

The fortunate Bentley Boys led the charge in the very chic London district of Grove over the Roaring 20s, a period of celebration after the carnage of World War I, indulging their need for excitement. But, on the track they forged each in their own way the legend of gentleman drivers at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which carries on to this day. As a tribute, in 2019 the street leading to the entrance of the circuit and 24 Hours Museum was renamed in their honor.

PHOTO BELOW (Copyright - BENTLEY): The Bentley Boys at the end of the 1920s. From left to right: Frank Clement, Leslie George Callingham, Woolf Barnato behind André d'Erlanger, George Edward Duller, Walter Owen Bentley, Sammy Davis, Clive Dunfee and Dudley Benjafield.

Post-scriptum | Bentley at the 24 Hours Museum…and a cocktail!

The 24 Hours Museum permanent collection includes two winning Bentleys, the 1924 3-Litre Sport and the EXP Speed 8 victor in 2003.

The fame of the Bentley Boys has even inspired one of Britian's most famous barmen, Harry Craddock of the Savoy Hotel in London, to create the Bentley Cocktail (3 cl of Calvados and 3 cl of St Raphaël Rouge or Dubonnet Rouge).