Tribute: The Bentley Boys

November 24, 2016

Brooklands Raceway, the home and birth of Britains love affair with motorsport in the 1920s. A group of Aristocratic and Playboy millionaires begin racing their own Bentley motorcars, leading to them flying the flag for Britain around the world in the emerging era of motorsport.

 

 

The Bentley Boys included former fighter pilot Sir HRS ‘Tim’ Birkin, Harley Street specialist J.D. ‘Benjy’ Benjafield, racing journalist SCH ‘Sammy’ Davis, ‘born adventurer’ Glen Kidston, led by Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato – all men of independent means. They lived life to the limit, hitting the headlines for their exploits off the racetrack as often as for their performance on it.

 

The full "members-list" of Bentley Boys were:

  • Woolf "Babe" Barnato, heir to Kimberley diamond magnate Barney Barnato

  • Dr. J. Dudley "Benjy" Benjafield

  • Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin

  • Dale Bourne

  • Frank Clement

  • S. C. H. "Sammy" Davis, automotive journalist, Sports Editor of The Autocar

  • John Duff

  • George Duller, steeplechaser

  • Clive Dunfee

  • Jack Dunfee

  • Dudley Froy

  • Baron Andre d’Erlanger, playboy

  • Clive Gallop, engineer

  • Glen Kidston, aviator

  • Bertie Kensington Moir

  • Bernard Rubin, pearl fishery magnate

  • Jean Chassagne, French racing driver

Four of the Bentley Boys lived in adjacent apartments in Mayfair’s exclusive Grosvenor Square, where their parties that went on for days became legendary. It was common to see their Bentleys lined up in the south-east corner of the square, leading London cab drivers to refer to it as ‘Bentley Corner’.

 

"The public like to think about them living in expensive Mayfair flats, drinking champagne in night-clubs, playing the horses or stock exchange, and beating furiously around the racetrack at a weekend" 

W.O Bentley

 

Thanks to the dedication of this group to serious racing, the company, Bentley located at Cricklewood, north London, was noted for its four consecutive victories at the 24 hours of Le Mans from 1927 to 1930. Their greatest competitor at the time, Bugatti, whose lightweight, elegant, but fragile creations contrasted with the Bentley's rugged reliability and durability, referred to them as "the world's fastest lorries".

 

 

Designer, owner and founder of Bentley motors was W.O Bentley. A railway engineer by training, who then enlisted in the Royal Navy during WW1 and began designing aircraft engines. So it's understandable where the "train-like" heavy Bentley design came from with such a background. 

 

 

During the 1920s the Bentley Boys were unstoppable, taking many prizes with ease. The Bentley was fast and above all reliable, with it's heritage as a long distance cruiser designed to take wealthy aristocrats in comfort, it blasted the competition. Their fame and exploits meant they were recognised and celebrated wherever they went – even inspiring Harry Craddock, the famous barman at the Savoy, to create The Bentley Cocktail. In 2003, the head barman of the American Bar at the Savoy mixed the Woolf Barnato cocktail in honour of the chief Bentley Boy.

 

 

BREAKING RECORDS, MAKING HEADLINES.

The Savoy was also the location 
of one of their most renowned celebrations. Following the triumph of a 4 ½ Litre Bentley at Le Mans in1927, the Bentley Boys were invited to a special dinner at the hotel, hosted by The Autocar magazine. The guest of honour was, of course, the car itself, which became known as Old No. 7 – still dirty and battle-scarred from the race. The Boys sat down to an eleven-course banquet around a horseshoe-shaped table with the car in pride of place in the centre.

 

 

In March 1930, during the Blue Train Races, Woolf Barnato raised the stakes on Rover and its Rover Light Six having raced and beat Le Train Bleu for the first time, to better that record with his 6½ Litre Bentley Speed Six on a bet of GBP100. He drove against the train from Cannes to Calais, then by ferry to Dover and finally London, travelling on public highways, and won. The H. J. Mulliner-bodied formal saloon he drove during the race, as well as a streamlined fastback "Sportsman Coupe" by Gurney Nutting delivered to him on 21 May 1930 became known as the Blue Train Bentleys. The "Sportsman Coupe" has been erroneously referred to as being the car that raced the Blue Train, while in fact Barnato named it in memory of his race. 

 

The hey-day however was not far away, crashes on the stock market destroyed the luxury car market. The rise of fascism in continental Germany and Italy brought the party to an un-climactic end in the mid-30s. Bentley Motors too was in financial trouble, it's wealthy backers, who had seen investing in Bentley as similar to owning a racehorse rather than a business, finally pulled out. Bentley was sold to Rolls-Royce just a few months later, but the legend of rich playboys, risking their lives at 120mph in cars without seatbelts, roll bars and slim tyres, set the pace for motorsport for the next several decades. 

 

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