Bentley’s early forays into motor sport were a mixture of both factory entries and wealthy privateers, and both enjoyed success. The factory fielded cars at Indianapolis and the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, whilst privateers like John Duff would take their own cars to race at Brooklands and, significantly, Le Mans.
Though WO Bentley thought that the 24 hour race was madness he could not stop Duff entering in 1923, when he finished 4th. Returning in 1924, Duff not only bettered the result, but won! By 1925 WO realised the huge publicity benefits that could be harvested from success and decided that a factory entry was the best option for the company. As such, the Bentley Factory Team Entry joined Duff in a two Bentley line-up to take on the predominantly French opposition.
Chassis 1138, the 3-Litre Bentley you see on the stand today, was the first factory works Le Mans entry, piloted by Dudley Benjafield and Bertie Kensington-Moir. WO Bentley had learnt much from Duff’s previous Le Mans exploits, and he went about preparing 1138 in his usual fastidious manner.
The chassis was fitted with a Vanden Plas four-seat body with a lower, more aerodynamic windscreen. A large, 25 gallon fuel tank was installed as well as stone guards to the radiator, head lights, sump and petrol tank. A leather strap held the bonnet in place whilst the standard road springs were tightly bound so as to stiffen the suspension. The engine was also up-rated to ‘Supersports’ specification, which included a higher compression ratio and twin S.U. ‘sloper’ carburettors. Duel fuel pipes, sheathed in rubber, as well as a duel wiring system similar to those used on aircraft were further measures to help defeat the rigours of such a tough race.
1925 was the first year of the classic Le Mans start, with rules stating that the first 20 laps had to be run with the hood up. This also governed when a car could first stop for fuel and water, and Bentley decided to combine lowering the roof and a petrol stop into one. The minimum amount of fuel for the 20 laps had been calculated, and both cars started well, setting a remarkable pace, with Kensington-Muir regularly achieving over 90 mph. However there had been a serious error in the calculations: no one had taken into account the extra fuel used when the hood was erect, and both cars failed to make the 20 laps.
1138 was then briefly used as a factory demonstrator, but led a relatively quiet life after its 1925 Le Mans race. In 2001 it was decided that a complete and absolutely accurate restoration would be made on the car. This was overseen by William Medcalf, who was as fastidious in his attention to detail as WO Bentley. During the restoration, it became apparent just how original this car was, and everything was done to preserve this. Usability was also considered, the engine being rebuilt with a Pheonix crank, new bearings and Arias pistons. With the restoration finished, 1138 went on to win the 2004 Bentley Drivers Club Concours at Hatfield House.
1138 represents a hugely important example not just of Bentley, but British motoring history. The first Bentley factory entry for Le Mans, it remains today a very well restored, original example of one of the most significant British racing cars of all time.