The 24 Hours of Le Mans was first run on May 26 and 27, 1923
, through public roads around Le Mans. Originally planned to be a three year event awarded the Rudge Whitworth Triennial Cup, with a winner being declared by the car which could go the farthest distance over three consecutive 24 Hour races, this idea was abandoned in 1928 and overall winners were declared for each single year depending on who covered the farthest distance by the time 24 hours were up.
The Bentley Boys
What made the 1928 Le Mans so interesting was that it was won by two drivers who had never raced there before - Barnato
and Rubin - sons of men who had amassed enormous wealth in the business of trading in diamonds and pearls. Woolf Barnato's father, the famous "Barney" Barnato, had disappeared overboard at night from a ship off the coast of Africa when Woolf was two years old. It took seven years of courtroom battling to establish his right to the vast fortunes made by his father in the diamond and goldfields of South Africa, but the case was settled in 1926 and in May that year, "Babe" Barnato took over Bentley motors. He paid stockholders one shilling in the pound for their shares, spending 90,000 Pounds on a venture regarded by his advisers as rash in the extreme.
Bernard Rubin was something of a mystery man among the flamboyant "Bentley Boys". He was born in a remote township on the northwest coast here in Australia and brought up with the children of Chinese and Japanese pearl divers. His father was a pearl merchant, enduring the privations of the rugged coast to build up a fortune. Bernard and his brother were sent to England to be educated at Eton, and when young Bernard returned to establish himself at home, he decided to take over a sheep station in the outback rather than follow his father as a pearl trader. During regular visits to Britain, Rubin met W.O. Bentley
's brother, Horace, and was introduced to Woolf Barnato
A Historic Partnership
The two men made a wry partnership. Both had inherited huge wealth, but both were cautious in their management of it. Barnato
spent freely, but was staying within his means - there was a lot to spend. When he was chided at the loss of close to 10,000 Pounds when Bentley Motors finally failed, he dismissed the matter saying he had made 120,000 Pounds on a single diamond transaction during that period. Barnato was a sportsman in the grand style with a natural skill. He kept wicket for Surrey, was a scratch golfer, a boxer, a horse-breeder and a speedboat racer. He also raced Bentleys.
Some say it was simply to maintain his supply of Bentleys to race and drive on the road, that Barnato took over the ailing Bentley company in 1926. His home was a large country house named Ardenrun near Lingfield in Sussex. Rubin and Barnato owned adjoining apartments - town houses, really - in Grosvenor Square, an elegant setting for the ranks of Bentleys and other sporting machinery that drew up for the Mayfair parties that were hosted by "the Bentley Boys". Partying was banned at the track. Barnato was strict on personal discipline when he was racing, even though he did it very much as an occasional sport. He raced at Le Mans only three times, but a measure of his dedication and determination - to say nothing of the special skills required by that long-distance event - was that he shared the winning car on all three occasions!
The famous 4.5-litre shared by Barnato
and Rubin at Le Mans in 1928, was the prototype, an enlarged version of the three-litre which was being outpaced. A bore of 100 mm and a stroke of 140 mm gave the new engine a capacity of 4398 cm3. A new and stronger crankshaft was made up, the crankcase was remachined, the sump was retained from the latest three-litre, new racing pistons were fitted and connecting rods were borrowed from the 6.5-litre model. The big four-cylinder motor had four overhead valves per cylinder, operated by a single camshaft driven by a vertical shaft and bevel gears from the front of the crankshaft. The crankshaft and camshaft ran in five main bearings. The chassis used for the prototype 4.5 -litre was a three-litre Long Standard type with a 10ft 101/2in wheelbase, and it carried the number ST3001.
The White House Crash
was by semi-elliptics front and rear. The radiator
on the prototype distinguished the car from later production versions by being similar to the general shape of the three-litre, but wider and shorter. The petrol tank was enlarged to carry 72 litres. The end result of the re-worked motor was an extra 20 bhp over the three-litre, bringing power up to between 100 and 110 bhp, which was good for a safe 100 mph at 3500 rpm. The first 4 -litre was entered for Le Mans in 1927 to be raced by Clement and Callingham, as well as a brace of three litres. History was made that June night when the Bentley team all but eliminated itself in the famous White House crash. Only Sammy Davis managed to extricate himself in a battered car which he coaxed on to win.
The 4.5-litre clearly had had the legs on the field. On the second lap, Frank Clement set a new lap record (with the hood up!) and before his first fuel stop at 20 laps, he had lapped both three-litre Bentley team-mates and set a new lap record at 73.41 mph. By 9.30 that night, Callingham had lapped the two three-litres for the second time, but coming into White House corner at around 85 mph he came upon a French car stalled across the road. He took avoiding action, but slid into the ditch and turned over. Duller arrived seconds later in the first of the three-litres, missed the car in the middle of the road, but slammed into the stricken 4.5-litre. Sammy Davis
in the third Bentley was warned by debris on the track and had dragged off speed so that he had a slower accident and managed to avoid the terminal damage of his team-mates. He struggled back into the race after repairs and eventually won.
The Stutz Black Hawk
Two months later, Clement and Duller drove the 4.5-litre to its first win in the 24-hour Grand Prix de Paris at Montlhery and after that "It was used by its owner, Captain Barnato, for private touring." This throwaway line appears in one of the superbly-produced achievement books published by Bentley Motors when Le Mans was almost regarded as their private promotional exercise. These books were soon to become collectors items. At Le Mans in June, 1928, the same three 4.5 -litre cars were entered as the Bentley works team with the following driver pairings: Barnato and his Grosvenor Square neighbor, Rubin in the prototype and lap record holder; Birkin and Chassagne; Clement and Benjafield. The main opposition was a lone black American Stutz
of 4.7 litres, the largest car in the race, and four 4.1-litre Chryslers. The Stutz Black Hawk had a straight-eight, single overhead cam motor delivering 90 bhp at 3200 rpm and was driven by Frenchmen, Brisson and Bloch.
Remember that in 1928 the Austin Seven Chummy
was one of the most popular forms of family motoring in Britain. Fifty miles an hour was performance motoring on the public highway, so the 100 mph top speed of the 4.5-litre Bentleys was regarded with some awe. In 1928 a doctor named Alexander Fleming discovered a green mould which he named penicillin - the first antibiotic. The Underground station in Piccadilly opened to serve the heart of London. Kingsford Smith was the first man to fly the Pacific; Amelia Earhart the first woman to fly the Atlantic. Exciting days for a backdrop to the exciting race at Le Mans.
Hoods were not required to be raised at the start of the race in 1928 because the race organisers felt no hoods would withstand the speeds expected. With no requirement for a full-height screen, the three works Bentleys were fitted with fold-flat screens of wire mesh. A giant-sized extra headlight was mounted on stays ahead of the radiator. S.C.H. (Sammy) Davis
was to later become sports editor of Autocar, the very driver who emerged from the White House fiasco to win Le Mans in 1927
. When asked what sort of men Barnato and Rubin were, as drivers about to embark on their first Le Mans race, he said "Rubin didn't talk much. At our Bentley drivers' meetings he would sit there and smile, but he'd say nothing. He was absolutely reliable. He did as he was told and he was an ideal second driver."
The Other Bentley Boys
Opinions on Rubin differ. Chief Bentley racing mechanic, "Nobby" Clarke recalled Rubin as "a quiet old stick", but team mechanic Wally Hassan (later to gain further fame as an engineer with Coventry Climax and Jaguar) said "I wouldn't ride with him - he was a shocker!" Sammy felt that perhaps Wally was too engrossed in the mechanical side to be a good riding mechanic. "Rubin was a bit naughty now and then, perhaps, but in a controlled way. You might wonder if he was ever going to cut off, you know ... but your job as a riding mechanic was to watch the instruments and who was behind. Hassan was probably more worried about the way Rubin was treating the car..."
Hassan's caution was borne out at Ards in the 1929 TT when Rubin overturned his Bentley. "I refused to ride with him because I had a shrewd idea he'd be pickled' said Hassan in Elizabeth Nagle's book "The Other Bentley Boys". Historian Cyril Posthumus confirmed that it wasn't unusual for drivers in those days to nerve themselves for the fray with a nip or two to reinforce their 'courage'. "Would you want to race a lorry like that for 20 laps round the Ards course stone cold sober?" Davis
felt that Barnato
had failed to receive due credit for his drives because "he was a Jew, a millionaire and a banker" in an age when it wasn't fashionable to be all three, and so overtly successful as well.
When he took over Bentley Motors in 1926, Barnato
was 31, having served in the first war attaining the rank of Captain. As chairman of the Bentley board and very much master of the team, Barnato
could have chosen the best car to race, but he took orders from W.O. Bentley
as team manager, and invariably took one of the lesser cars. Tim Birkin was set off as the "hare" at Le Mans in 1928, a role that he enjoyed totally. He set a record of 72.7 mph for the standing lap, Barnato set a new record of 74 mph on the second lap, Brisson raised it to 75.5 mph in the Stutz on the third lap, and on the fourth the honors were back with Bentley when Clement raised it to 76.2 mph.
On lap 20, Birkin in the leading Bentley blew a tyre
at high speed and the flailing rubber wrapped itself around the hub. The Bentleys carried no jacks that year because they reasoned the cars could be driven at an easy speed to the pits with a flat tyre. They hadn't reckoned on Birkin's blow-out. He spent 90 minutes hacking at the mangled tyre with a jack-knife until he freed the wheel, then set off to drive to the pits. Even though he was trying to run with the rim on the grass verge, 60 was too much and the wheel finally collapsed at Arnage. Co-driver Chassagne, grey-haired at 47, gathered a jack under each arm when Birkin had arrived exhausted at the pits after a three mile run, and set out for the stricken Bentley. Three hours after the puncture, they were back in the race.
Clement had taken the lead with Barnato second and the Stutz
third, but a broken oil line and later minor ailments dropped Clement/Benjafield to fourth among the Chryslers. During the night the Barnato/Rubin 4.5-litre and the Brisson/Bloch Stutz
traded the lead back and forth. Early on the Sunday morning with fog making conditions tricky, the Clement/Benjafield car started to overheat and eventually retired with a broken water joint. It was no ordinary leak. The chassis frame had cracked. "It had not been a freak fault, but metal fatigue and it could surely only be a matter of time before the same thing happened to Babe," W.O. Bentley
wrote in his autobiography. Unaware of the looming drama, Barnato moved the well-used old prototype back ahead of the Stutz and into the lead again.
Driving With A Broken Chassis
The lone Stutz
was now in trouble and jumping out of top gear in the three-speed box. By noon Barnato
and Rubin were 20 miles ahead of the American car, and by 1 pm they had exceeded last year's record distance for the whole race. Both drivers in the leading car were now uncomfortably aware that their chassis frame could break, but the secret was kept within the team. W.O. Bentley
agonised at having to send Rubin out to stay in the lead when the chance of a serious accident was so real, but the Le Mans "rookies" were aware of the risks and still anxious to race on. The first signal that their frame was failing came when the radiator began to move in its mountings and a water leak started. Barnato cut his speed as much as he dared because the last permitted water stop had already been made. The Stutz pit were obviously keeping a careful eye on the leader's speed and when the Bentley slowed, the signals went out to Brisson to increase speed.
Long after those anxious final laps, Barnato said that as he set out on what he thought to be his last lap, he knew the chassis had finally broken. "The door would not shut properly. The accelerator pedal would not come off under 1500 revs, and it was just a question of the thing holding together." Barnato was timing his run to the chequered flag on the dashboard clock but it was a minute or two fast and as he crossed the start/finish line there was no flag! He had to set off on another lap. "As I passed the pits and got to the top of the slope, I felt water in my face. I looked up and thought 'Oh, it's coming on to rain again - No. Lovely blue sky'. Then I looked down at the instruments and saw my temperature gauge go straight up to 100. I knew then what had happened. My top water joint had pulled out, but I still had to complete the lap if I was to be the winner."
Barnato eased back to 45 mph, as slow as the Bentley would run with the throttle jamming at 1500 rpm. The Stutz driver was three laps behind and convinced that Barnato was "grandstanding", cruising on that last lap in a display of blatant superiority. "I switched off down every possible hill, trying to cool the engine off and I was listening for the slightest little sign of tightening-up, at which I was determined to stop, let it cool off, and start again - because there was a rule that you had 20 minutes to complete your last lap. Never in my life have I been more thankful to get to a finishing line; and that was why, on succeeding Le Mans races, I never wanted to drive the last few hours ..."
One Lap From Defeat
The magazine and newspaper reports of the day were strangely coy about the stricken Bentley at the finish, either ignoring, avoiding mention, or totally unaware that the winning Bentley could not have survived another lap. I asked Sammy Davis why this had happened. "They didn't know. Would you have told anyone that your chassis had broken, if you were selling cars to the public? We did our best to keep it out of the papers ..." Barnato was to race at Le Mans three times and win three times, sharing with Rubin in 1928, Birkin in 1929 and Kidston in 1930. There were interesting coincidences woven around the winning Bentleys at Le Mans. In 1926 Sammy Davis
had crashed his three-litre with failing brakes
while lying third in the last hour; he won with the same car in 1927.
Old Number One Retires
The prototype 4.5-litre that set the lap record in 1927 and then crashed at White House, was the car which returned to win in 1928. When Barnato and Birkin won in 1929 they were driving the first of the 6.5-litre "Speed Six" models to be raced by the factory, and when Barnato and Glen Kidston won in 1930, they were driving the same car. When Bentley Motors withdrew from racing in the face of a downturn in world fortunes that reflected almost instantly on the number of customers for expensive motorcars, Barnato retained "Old Number One" as his two-times Le Mans winner had become known. When the car broke its crankshaft during a race early in 1932, Wally Hassan (now Barnato's personal mechanic) dismantled it to build a special track car for Brooklands.
As he remembered, the only part of "Old Number One" used in the new open two-seater was the rear axle. He used the chassis from the then current production four-litre Bentley and fitted an eight-litre Bentley motor. He also used the chassis number, LB 2332, transferring it from the "Speed Six" frame to the four-litre frame used in the new Track car and as far as Hassan could recall, the frame of "Old Number One" was scrapped. The Dunfee brothers, Clive and Jack, shared the new car in the BRDC 500-mile race at Brooklands in 1932 and when the car plunged over the top of the Member's Banking, Clive Dunfee was killed. This special Bentley was again rebuilt by Hassan, this time with a close-coupled coupe body and the original "Speed Six" radiator with the race successes engraved on the cowling.
When Rolls Royce
effected a takeover of the Bentley company in 1931, Woolf Barnato
relinquished his position as Bentley chairman, but retained a seat on the board of Rolls Royce. Always interested in racing, even though not competing himself, Barnato was a founder member of the British Racing Drivers' Club and an enthusiastic president of the Bentley Drivers' Club until his death in 1948. The hearse carrying his coffin was preceded by a "Speed Six". Bernard Rubin stayed around the verges of racing, although his interest was more taken with flying. It was suggested that when the Hon. Dorothy Paget (Whitney Straight's cousin) withdrew her backing from Tim Birkin's "Blower Bentley" project, it was Bernard Rubin who helped to fund Birkin's racing. Rubin certainly partnered Birkin in an 1100 cm3 K3 MG in the 1933 Mille Miglia
and in August that year, Straight drove a 2.3-litre Alfa Romeo for Rubin, finishing second to Brivio's 2.6 Alfa Romeo in the Swedish Summer Grand Prix.
The Sir McPherson Robertson Centenary Air Race
In 1934 Rubin bought one of the three De Havilland Comets specially built for the Centenary Air Race from England to Australia, an event sponsored by the Melbourne chocolate millionaire, Sir McPherson Robertson. The Comets were forerunners of the Mosquito fighter/ bombers — built of spruce and plywood, powered by two Gypsy Six engines and fitted with retractable undercarriages. Poor health prompted Rubin to announce that Cathcart-Jones would take his place with Ken Waller in the race and when his Comet (GA-CCSR) finished fourth, "The Aeroplane" reported that Rubin rose from his sick bed to see the plane land.
The intrepid pair refuelled the Comet and headed straight back to England, setting a new record for the round trip of 13 days 6 hours and 43 minutes. A few weeks later, Rubin's Comet was fettled and ready for another record run, this time to Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo. It carried mail with Belgian stamps bearing the special franking "Raid Bernard Rubin". Rubin diedhere in Australia in 1935 having never recovered from the illness that forced him to miss the air race..So passed a relatively unsung sportsman; the only Australian "Bentley Boy".