“If, on test an engine showed up as an especially good one it would be put on one side, earmarked for racing.”
Leslie Pennal Bentley racing team mechanic 1922-1930
LM 1341. The Only Surviving Le Mans Winning Engine From The Bentley Works.
The Bentley name is inextricably linked with Le Mans. Their trials and triumphs on the Circuit de la Sarthe resulting in victories between 1924 and 1930 have passed into motor racing folklore. However, W.O. Bentley’s instinct of choosing the right races for his cars was, surprisingly, absent regarding the whole idea of the Le Mans 24 hour race. When he first heard of it from Captain John Duff, he dismissed the idea as lunacy. Duff purchased his own 3 Litre and persuaded W.O. to give him the company’s backing, along with the only Bentley works driver Frank Clement as co -driver. With Duff’s Bentley being the sole British contender, W.O. who later described himself as being in “a fever of anxiety and suffering from a very bad conscience” dropped everything the evening before the 1924 race, caught the night boat to France and on arrival at the circuit took charge of the pit. In W.O.’s own words:
“After a few hours in the pit, I decided that it wasn’t at all stupid: that it was, in fact very exciting……. I was quite certain that this was the best race I had ever seen”
Inspired by Duff’s victory the Bentley Company officially entered the 1925 race with two cars, one driven by John Duff and Frank Clement, the other by Bertie Kensington-Moir and Dr. Dudley Benjafield. This was the first year of the Le Mans start when the drivers lined up on the opposite side of the track to the cars and on the fall of the flag had to sprint across, put up their hoods and start their engines. The two Bentleys were first away but Henry Seagrave in the Sunbeam was a force to be reckoned with. Kensington Moir’s 3 Litre chased the Sunbeam for eleven laps and as the race progressed the two cars were evenly matched with the 3 Litre running alongside at times, but failing to get past, until the Sunbeam suffered throttle problems and Moir passed him on the twelfth lap, Seagrave regained the lead on lap thirteen but lost it again on the fourteenth. By the eighteenth lap Moir failed to appear and Duff also was missing.
Despite all the practice, the engineering, the meticulous planning carried out by the Bentley team it was the simple fact of running out of petrol due to hard driving with the hood up, thereby increasing the consumption, that brought the Bentley to a halt just 15 miles before the regulations permitted the drivers to refuel. Duff suffered what he termed as “fuel problems” and added a small amount of fuel whilst “repairing” the car, but a carburetor float chamber broke at 5:00 am the next morning and the Bentley attempt was thwarted.
Were it not for a much needed cash injection into the Bentley company by Wolf Barnato at the beginning of 1926, W.O. would almost certainly have abandoned the racing programme. Barnato recognised that the reputation of the company needed to be restored and two new Speed Models were selected for Le Mans, chassis number LM 1344 - fitted with engine LM 1341 - and LM 1345. S.C.H. (Sammy) Davis and Dr. Dudley Benjafield were to drive LM1344, this car forever after being known as “Old Number Seven” despite various numbers used during its racing life. Its sister car, LM 1345, was driven by Frank Clement and George Duller. A third car, a 9 ft. Wheelbase Super Sports model was driven by Clive Gallop and Scrap Thistlethwaite and was supported, but not owned, by the company.
The race was hard fought and in the early hours of the morning Duller retired with valve problems, followed by Clive Gallop an hour later. Benjafield put in a sterling performance in Old Number Seven, running in third place, when he handed over to Sammy Davis who was under instruction to pass the Lorraine- Dietrichs ahead. Davis passed the second placed Lorraine on the approach to the Mulsanne corner, ran out of brakes and ploughed into a sand bank. Unable to dig the car out, the Bentley challenge was, once again, ignominiously over.
With the decision now to give up motor racing and concentrate on production, the two Speed Models were disposed of to Henlys of Great Portland Street in London. Dr. Benjafield’s unswerving admiration of the Bentley inspired him to purchase Old Number Seven. During negotiation, the Doctor commented that the price was too high in view of “the caning she had had at Le Mans” a statement indignantly denied by the salesman who was informed “she had indeed been well and truly caned at Le Mans as I personally had shared the active part in the caning with Sammy Davies.”
Dr. Benjafield campaigned Old Number Seven, with engine LM 1341 still performing perfectly, in September of 1926 in the George Boillot handicap race at Boulogne. Following instruction from Kensington- Moir in the pits he increased his speed, despite worn brakes, and upon reaching a bend at 90 MPH found the brakes insufficient and swerved into a tree. Fortunately, despite severe damage to Old Number Seven, Dr. Benjafield considered himself fortunate to escape with three broken ribs, four broken teeth and a crushed lower lip. He was awarded the University Cup presented to the Englishman wo was considered to have put up the best show in the race.
Old Number seven went to the works for repair. But was to race again.
Undeterred, Benjafield repeatedly approached W.O. about racing, eventually suggesting using the repaired Number Seven as a nucleus for a team of cars. W.O. capitulated and provided an additional 3 litre to run in the Brooklands Six Hour Race, a trial run for Le Mans, in May 1927. Two further Bentleys competed driven by Sir Henry Birkin and Shell Petroleum executive Leslie Callingham, but it was a disaster for the Bentley team once again as mechanical failure, largely, but not entirely, due to a new design of duralumin rockers saw each car drop out of the race.
With these mechanical defects overcome, the 1927 Le Mans race saw the entry of Old Number Seven (running as number 3) one other 3 Litre and the new 4 ½ Litre known as Mother Gun making its debut. With its increased capacity the 4 ½ litre took a comfortable lead, passing both 3 Litres and with Leslie Callingham at the wheel at around 9.30 in the evening took the White House corner at the usual 90 MPH to find another car across its path. The resultant swerve by Callingham caused the Bentley to roll into a ditch. George Duller in the 3 Litre came round the corner and ploughed into the wreckage of Mother Gun. A few seconds later Sammy Davis in Number Seven arrived on the scene and although warned by debris had no time to lose enough speed and piled int the wreckage of the other two cars.
Knowing nothing of this at the pits WO and the rest of the Bentley team in the dark in every sense waited. And waited.
1925 Le Mans. No Bentley finished. 1926 Le Mans. No Bentley finished. 1927 Brooklands Six Hour Race. No Bentley finished. This was surely the end for Bentley.
The drivers were unhurt, and Sammy Davis surveyed the wreckage. Despite considerable damage to Old Number Seven the engine was still running. With a bent chassis and vague steering Sammy Davis reversed from the wreckage and headed off.
A cursory inspection at the pits revealed a buckled front wheel, one working headlamp, a severely bent chassis and front axle, the battery hung loose and the wing and running board were in mid-air. Sammy improvised. A lantern was lashed to the Bentley to replace the crushed headlight and the wing was straightened by hand as much as possible. Deaf to the entreaties of W.O. Bentley, Sammy set off.
At midnight Dr. Dudley Benjafield took over. It drizzled. It poured. With its one headlamp and temporary lamp the visibility was, at best, poor. Old Number Seven continued. At midnight Dr. Benjafield took the wheel determined to finish in his car at all costs. Old Number Seven continued. Sammy Davis changed in the morning. Old Number Seven continued. When Dr. Benjafield took the wheel again the fast sign was hung out from the pits, and he dutifully increased his speed. With Sammy Davis at the wheel Old Number Seven crossed the line in victory having won the Vingt -quatre Heures du Mans at an average speed of 61.36 mph. Despite a checkered career the Bentley known as Old Number Seven had emerged victorious. Sammy Davis wrote about the Bentley:
“The bonnet was never lifted, all eight plugs were firing at the end, the engine was every bit as lively when the old car finished as it was at the commencement.”
Old Number Seven became a hero, more so in the eyes of the spectators than the drivers themselves and became guest of honour at a celebratory dinner held at the Savoy. The first time a machine had achieved a heroic status.
Engine LM 1341 is the only part of the Le Mans winning hero to survive. In 1934 Old Number Seven was destroyed in a road accident, striking a telegraph pole at Englefield Green in Surrey, a short distance from the Home of former Bentley chairman Wolf Barnato.
The engine was placed into another vintage Bentley and its history is well documented. Because it ran in the under 3 Litre class with a capacity of 2998 CC in period it was subjected to rigorous inspection by the RAC whose inspector applied the RAC stamping These stamps, applied as hallmarks to precious metal, are preserved on the crankshaft and casing confirming that LM1341 is the engine which took Old Number Seven to its heroic victory in 1927. Bentleys won at Le Mans on five occasions in 3 Litres in a 4 ½ Litre and in 6 ½ Litres None of those engines survive. LM 1341 is the only Le Mans winning engine in existence.
There is much correspondence on file regarding the engine which has been beautifully preserved,
But not as a mere showpiece.
Engine LM1341 today performs beautifully in another Bentley- the ex Wolf Barnato, Leslie Callingham 3 Litre Speed Model. A fitting stage for a unique performer.