The small three-liter engine performed remarkably well, averaging 86.52mph (139.210 kph), covering 2,082 miles (3,351 km) during the dual-time stint. The man responsible for this momentous achievement was John Duff, a name synonymous with speed, piston-related perils, and an overall full-throttle lifestyle.
As for the car, it set 38 international class records during that 24-hour rally at Brooklands – something of a big deal for a carmaker with just two years of automobile-building experience and just one production model.
“Nobody will finish. Cars aren’t designed to stand that sort of strain for 24 hours,” said W.O. Bentley after hearing of the request. He also immediately realized that trying and persuade the valiant Canadian otherwise was nonsensical.
The speed-addict motorist was already famous for his high-velocity car antics. Perhaps one of his most notable feats of automobile insanity was taking the wheel of a 21-liter Blitzen Benz racecar, thrashing it around the track at Brooklands, and setting the fastest lap at 114.49 mph (184.214 kph).
That’s just one of the many adventures that lead John Duff to ask for a factory-prepared car to compete in the new 24-hour challenge. W.O. agreed to commission the Bentley but asked that factory driver Frank Clement be the co-driver.
Duff accepted and then enlisted the Bentley to the Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO) Grand Prix d'Endurance de 24 Heures (24 Hours Grand Prix of Endurance). The Duff/Clement Bentley was the first entry received by the organizing body (the ACO) for the race that was to take place near the city of Le Mans.
The race-hardened 3 Litre Sport – chassis 141 – had it rough at the debut of the day-long race. The automobile had a critical flaw (from a racing perspective): rear-wheel-only braking. This meant early braking before cornering, allowing other cars with four-wheel brakes to overtake. During one of these nerve-racking moments, a passing rival unwillingly stabbed the Bentley in the belly.
A stone slingshot off the unpaved track perforated the British team fuel tank, retiring the racecar to the pits. The team’s mechanics mended the automobile – with a cork – but precious time was lost. The incident occurred far from the pitlane, and Frank Clement walked back to get fuel.
However, it honored its driver’s speed-chasing fame and set the first Le Mans lap record at 66.69 mph (107.3 kph). The nighttime runs were another nuisance, with a headlamp pulverized by gravel thrown from under competitors’ wheels.
Despite the hardhips, the Bentley more then proved its worth and earned its place in the pantheon of automobile demigods. The 3.0-liter straight-four was a sophisticated masterpiece of engineering. Four valves per cyclinder - thanks to the hemispherical heads and fully-enclosed single overhead camshaft architecture - and dry-sump lubrication allowed greater durability. Two spark plugs per cylinder and twin carburetors helped the undersquare engine output around 70 hp (71 PS), and the four-speed gearbox took the bentley to over 100 mph (161 kph).
The performance of 1923 determined Walter Owen Bentley to continue supporting racing his cars, and the 1924 victory made Bentley an automotive sensation. The primordial 3 Litre Sports model accounted for over half of the company’s total sales between 1921 and 1929. Over 800 of the first Bentleys were the same model as the Le Mans hero (more than seven hundred were sold after the 1924 race).
That race started at 4 PM on Saturday, May 26, 1923 – precisely one century ago – and ended on May 27, 1923, at 5 PM. The reason is ironic – France switched to summertime that weekend, and clocks were set one hour forward at 11 PM.
The first Le Mans Bentley declined in fame over time and was demoted to tow car; by the end of the 40s, it was converted into a shooting brake (an undertaker performed the modification). It was then sold to a nice lady who liked to take her dogs (large St. Bernards) for long rides.
The dog enthusiast kept the historic Bentley – unaware of the car’s historical prowess and importance – for over three decades. At 97, the woman decided to part ways with the derelict vehicle and called a car museum owner to sell it. In 1987, a car enthusiast laid eyes on the old 3 Litre and called Bentley Drivers Club to check the chassis and engine numbers.
To everyone’s awe, the results revealed that the long-lost Le Mans hero was still around, and a restoration to 1923 specs soon followed. As the 24 Hours of Le Mans turns 100 this year, the legendary Bentley that saw the first edition of the iconic race was sold for over £3 million (in excess of $3.7 million - the exact value is not disclosed) to a British collector.