• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

First Bentley to race at Le Mans sells for over $3.7 million


May 27, 2023
First Bentley to race at Le Mans sells for over $3.7 million


What’s the big deal with Bentley? After all, the luxury marque has spent much of its life as a Volkswagen sub-brand or Rolls-Royce understudy. Well the big deal is, in short, racing provenance. In its very early days, before it became an nouveau riche status symbol, Bentley staked a claim as a force in the motorsports world. And people who remember that still hold the brand in high regard. Case in point: The first Bentley to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans has just sold for more than $3.7 million.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the famed French enduro, hailed by many as the greatest auto race in the world. In 1923 Bentley 3-Litre, chassis 141 became the first of many to enter the race. In fact, it is billed as the first international entrant, period. 

Prior to its arrival at Circuit de la Sarthe, the car had been raced by WWI veteran and Bentley dealer John Duff at the Double 12 Hour at Brooklands. At the time 24-hour races had been outlawed in the U.K. due to noise so the race was divided into two segments. Duff set 38 international records as he covered 2,082 miles at an average 86.79 mph. Based on that success, he asked founder W.O. Bentley to help him prep the car for a new day-long race in France.

Duff and his co-driver Frank Clement, a Bentley factory test driver, managed to finished fourth despite a hole in the fuel tank caused by a rock on the track in this pre-paved era. Along the way, they set a lap record of 66.69 mph average speed. Duff and several other racers became known as the Bentley Boys, a cadre of free-wheeling daredevil rascals.

Bentley, Duff and Clement returned the following year and won the race outright. The Bentley Boys would then set a four-year streak from 1927-30 at the fledgling event, cementing the brand into legend. Then Rolls-Royce bought the company in 1931 and ceased its racing activities. A Bentley works car would not appear on the starting grid at Le Mans until the EXP Speed 8 in 2001.

Despite its pivotal role in Bentley history, chassis 141 was pretty much treated as a used car after its retirement. According to the brokerage firm that arranged the $3.7 million sale, at some point a local undertaker covered the rear and used it as a wagon, perhaps for macabre cargo. In the 1940s it served as transport for a woman’s Saint Bernard dogs. 

In the 1980s the car became a barn find, when a 97-year-old lady called up the Donington Car Museum to see if they had any interest in the old Bentley and Voisin in her storage. The museum took in the cars, not knowing their history at all. It sat around awaiting restoration until a journalist realized it was the pioneering car to race at Le Mans. Eventually it found its way to Australia in the hands collector Peter Briggs, who restored the car to its former glory. Now it has returned to the U.K. under ownership of a British collector. The broker, incidentally, was Simon Kidston, nephew of Bentley Boy Glen Kidston.

When Duff entered chassis 141 in 1923, Bentley had only delivered its first car two years prior. Dominating the race at such a young age gave Bentley invaluable press, and catapulted the brand to world renown. So despite a 71-year absence from motorsport, the Bentley was able to ride on the coattails of its successes that few alive today would have remembered. It just goes to show how important racing is.

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