Rich, bold, talented and brave, the Bentley Boys of the 1920s and ’30s were gentlemen racers who won notable victories in their huge, rugged Bentleys at Le Mans and Brooklands. Now, in honour of what their rival, Ettore Bugatti, called “the world’s fastest lorries”, Christopher Ward offers a Limited Edition watch containing metal from the most famous of them all, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin’s Blower No.1…
Though there are notable exceptions – drivers from humble backgrounds, be they Michael Schumacher or Kimi Räikkönen – motor racing is at heart a rich man’s sport. Even today, most Formula One teams – outside the big four of Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Red Bull – can only afford to hire drivers who bring pots of their own cash to the party, and in the early decades of the 20th century this trend was even more pronounced. It was a period when the first purpose-built motor racing circuits were constructed, and the earliest pure racing cars designed – and when a group of rich racers dubbed the Bentley Boys pretty much kept British motor sport alive.
Bentley had enjoyed a reputation for high performance in the early 1920s, but by the middle of that decade the marque was floundering. Luckily, though, its fans were numerous – and loaded. The core ‘Bentley Boys’ included playboy barons, heirs to shipping companies and banks, pearl magnates, and one Joel Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato, due to inherit a South African diamond empire, who bought the underfunded company from founder W.O. Bentley in 1925.
Despite his nickname, Barnato was a hulking figure, and the Bentleys were hulking cars – their main rivals at the time, the Italian-French Bugattis, were delicate, bird-like things in comparison – and under the new regime they added superchargers to their already huge 4.5 litre engines, despite W.O.’s initial distaste at the idea. “To supercharge a Bentley engine was to pervert its design and corrupt its performance,” he once said – but even he had to admit that it made for a hugely potent car, and one that was relatively lightweight for a Bentley too. In racing spec the Blowers made 240hp, considerably more than the contemporary 6.5-litre normally aspirated models.
Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin
The driving force behind the Bentley Blower project was leading Bentley Boy Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, 3rd Baronet. He and his backer, the eccentric and loaded racehorse owner Dorothy Paget, bankrolled and supervised the development of five lightweight Blower Bentley racing specials in 1929, and W.O. reluctantly produced the 50 supercharged cars necessary for the model to be accepted into the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Bentley Blower No.1 – the first of the five, and a car later owned by the great watchmaker George Daniels – never actually raced at Le Mans or the French Grand Prix, though two of its sister cars did. It did, however, compete in other races as late as the early 1930s. In 1932, for instance, Birkin and the car – now painted a bright red – clocked 137.96mph at Brooklands, a new track (and world) record.
Though the Blowers were spectacular, however, it was in the even large 6.5 litre models that the Bentley Boys had most success. In the most famous of the so-called Blue Train Races, Barnato outran Le Train Bleu – the famous overnight express running from Calais to the French Riviera – on public roads in his Bentley Speed Six, promising he could get from Cannes to his London club before the Blue Train even reached Calais. He did it, too – winning a £100 bet, and a far larger fine from the French authorities for racing on public roads.
In all, Bentleys won Le Mans four times in the 1920s, and again in 1930, with 1929 being their highlight year – a mixture of Speed Sixes and 4.5 litres came first, second, third and fourth.
And then it was over. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had decimated the demand for large, fast, expensive cars. Claiming they had “learned enough about speed and reliability”, Bentley withdrew from motor-racing, and in 1931 the company was bought in a sealed bid sale by a mysterious new British company – which proved to be a front for Rolls Royce. From then until the very recent past, all Bentleys would be modified Rolls Royces of one sort or another.
Birkin kept racing, however, buying an 8C Alfa Romeo and 2.5-litre GP Maserati for most races, but continuing to use Blower No.1 at Brooklands, forever modifying it. Indeed, at its peak the car was capable of a massive – for the time – 145mph. It remained in the hands of Dorothy Paget after Birkin’s sad death in 1933, seemingly from a combination of malaria and a hot exhaust pipe burn turning septic. He was just 36 years old.
Beyond Barnato and Birkin, other Bentley Boys performed great feats.
‘Benjy’ Benjafield MD and early motoring journo ‘Sammy’ Davis – nicknames were de rigour with these guys – won the 1927 Le Mans only after making frantic on-the-spot repairs to their crippled car, while brothers Clive and Jack Dunfee suffered one of the most spectacular and horrific crashes of the era, their monstrous 8-litre Bentley flying off the track at the 1932 BRDC 500 Miles Race at Brooklands, instantly killing Clive, who was driving at the time.
Then there was the ex-Royal Flying Corps pilot Clive Gallop, who created a number of important Bentley engines and helped develop Blower No.1, as well as the original Chitty Bang Bang, powered by a monstrous 23-litre Maybach aero engine. That car provided inspiration for Ian Fleming’s book of a very similar name.
And there was Glen Kidson too, an early submariner and naval flight pioneer as well as racing driver, who became the lone survivor of a German airline crash when he kicked out the fuselage while completely on fire and, badly burned, then rolled in wet grass to put out the flames.
After Dorothy Paget eventually sold the car, Blower No.1 went through various hands – and a number of new bodies – before ending up in more-or-less its classic single-seat form, at which point it became part of the collection of the famous watchmaker George Daniels. It was through George that the metal from one of Blower No.1’s pistons, which appears in the new Limited Edition watch, was procured by Christopher Bennett of TMB Art Metal, a frequent Christoper Ward collaborator.
To celebrate all these brave and fascinating Bentley Boys, the C8 Birkin’s Blower TMB LE is available now, priced £2,495.