Broken lights and a policeman’s bike: Bentley’s run at first Le Mans in 1923


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Aug 19, 2023

Broken lights and a policeman’s bike: Bentley’s run at first Le Mans in 1923

In this extract from his new book, 24 Hours: 100 Years of Le Mans, Richard

In this extract from his new book, 24 Hours: 100 Years of Le Mans, Richard Williams retells the ramshackle inaugural race

The first 24 Hours of Le Mans began at 4pm on 26 May 1923. Since the clocks would go forward at 11pm, the last occasion on which France would observe a shift to summer time, it was due to finish the following afternoon at five.

The date had been chosen in the hope that spring would guarantee good weather, but as the cars lined up on a two-by-two grid the circuit was struck by a sudden and vicious hailstorm. The drivers would endure heavy rain, gloom and gusty winds through the first four hours; none of the entries was equipped with windscreen wipers, an invention already in use in the United States but yet to be adopted in Europe.

The two 5.4-litre Excelsiors – painted in the yellow of Belgium – started at the front, but they were soon overtaken by a trio of blue factory-entered three-litre Chenard et Walckers and by a dark green Bentley. Within a few laps mud had covered the cars, making their individual racing numbers all but indecipherable to spectators who had braved the inhospitable weather.

The first driver changes took place after three hours, and as the rain eased a Chenard et Walcker and a Bignan were fighting a fierce battle at the front. The Bentley, although handicapped by the fact that brakes were fitted only to its rear wheels, made the fastest lap of the first 12 hours in 10min 28sec, with John Duff, the owner of the car, taking an initial four-hour stint until Frank Clement, a Bentley employee, replaced him. Neither driver wore head protection nor goggles.

As dusk fell, the lighting system installed by the Société des Appareils Magondeaux of Paris went into action. Army searchlights mounted on lorries illuminated the corners and lights had been strung above the track between the pits and the grandstand. Facilities in the paddock were primitive, but the French representatives of the Hartford shock absorber company had erected a tent in which to feed drivers and guests 150 gallons of onion soup, 50 poulets rôtis and 450 bottles of champagne.

Meanwhile a Grande Fête de Nuit entertained the crowd with an American bar, a jazz band to which spectators could practise their foxtrot or one-step, an open-air cinema, a late-night fireworks display and other attractions, under the direction of Rigollet's Bar of the Champs-Elysées. Soon after midnight, a second Chenard et Walcker overtook the Bignan to join its teammate at the front, the pair running barely 50 metres apart, with the Bentley also coming through to take third place.

Despite the early conditions, and the deteriorating state of the roads as the cars pounded over the unstable surface, there would be 30 finishers from the field of 33, some of them with interesting tales to tell. When one of the Excelsiors went into a ditch, it took its driver an hour to dig it out before restarting to finish ninth; he could not have known that he was inaugurating a tradition.

The Bentley, too, suffered misfortunes. One headlight was smashed by a stone thrown up from the loose surface and the fuel tank sprang a leak shortly before noon on Sunday, bringing Duff to a stuttering halt near Arnage. Stranded, he ran the three miles to the pits, where Clement, his co-driver, borrowed a gendarme's bicycle and set off to the car with two cans of petrol slung over his shoulders, riding against the oncoming cars until he thought better of it and got off to push his bike the rest of the way.

He plugged the hole in the tank with a wooden bung before filling up, restarting and heading back to the pits with the bike across the rear seats. After sealing the tank more effectively, and having lost two and a half hours, in the closing stages he showed what might have been by setting the fastest lap of the race at 9min 41sec, an average of 66mph, while finishing fourth.

The first car home was the Chenard et Walcker of André Lagache and René Léonard, followed by the sister car of Christian d’Auvergne and Raoul Bachmann, with the Bignan of Paul Gros and Baron Raymond de Tornaco in third place. Gros had stepped out of the Bignan just past the finish line and was crossing the track to greet a friend when he was hit by Bachmann's car and thrown up in the air, breaking his arm on landing.

The winners had covered 128 laps, or 1,380 miles – the equivalent, noted the awestruck correspondent of La Sarthe, of driving from Paris to Berlin and back – at an average of 57.5mph. None of those still running at the end of 24 hours had failed to reach their target distances, meaning they all qualified to return the following year and continue competing for the triennial Rudge-Whitworth Cup.

And so Chenard et Walcker would go down in history as the race's first winners. The company had been founded in Asnières, an industrial suburb of Paris, in 1898 by Ernest Chenard, a former railway engineer and bicycle maker, and Henri Walcker, who had trained as a mining engineer. By the time Walcker died in 1912, aged 35, during an operation to remove his appendix, they had become one of France's 10 biggest automobile manufacturers, with agents in London, Vienna, Moscow, Barcelona, Porto and Calcutta.

When Chenard also died, after a heart attack, in 1922, the direction of the company was taken over by his sons, Ernest and Lucien, and the design of the cars was placed in the hands of Henri Toutée. When Toutée's new 15CV Sport model, with a four-cylinder overhead-camshaft engine, won the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans, they were making 4,000 cars a year, mostly two-litre family models selling for around 7,000 francs each, much less than the equivalent Renault.

Of the winning drivers, Lagache was the company's engineer and test driver; he had grown up in Pantin, a northern suburb of Paris close to the factory, where Léonard, a coachman's son from Pau, had taken a job as a mechanic. The Belgian Baron Raymond Ghislain Victor Adolphe Marie de Tornaco, co-driving the third-placed Bignan, became the first of many aristocrats who would take on the challenge of Le Mans.

Reports of the event took pride of place on the front page of Monday's La Sarthe, flanked by news of long-postponed German efforts to satisfy the requirements of post-war reparations and of an anniversary march by survivors of the Paris Commune of 1871.

Equipment suppliers were eager to respond to success: the Chenard et Walckers had been on Michelin tyres, but the Englebert company of Belgium was able to take out advertisements proclaiming its part in the achievements of 15 of the 30 finishers.

The Bentley was the lone user of tyres from the Rapson company of south London, whose products – advertised with royal warrants granted by King George V and the Prince of Wales – were manufactured to a closely guarded design and declared to be "unpuncturable"; they completed the 24 hours without needing to be replaced on a car that had covered more than 1,100 miles at racing speed on a rough surface.

On their return home, the Bentley team discovered that the event had made little impact on the British public. During the days before and after the race, the sports coverage of The Times was focused on county and public schools’ cricket matches, the polo at Hurlingham and Roehampton, the Oxford summer eights and the news that Suzanne Lenglen, the great French tennis player, was intending to return to Wimbledon in an attempt to win the ladies’ singles titles for the fifth time in succession.

The specialist press, however, had taken notice. In The Autocar, a dramatic full-page illustration showed cars racing through the dark and an extensive report by WF Bradley praised the Chenard et Walcker's four-wheel servo braking system, along with the team's "clever and experienced drivers backed up by perfect pit organisation". The Motor called it "an unqualified success" but noted the "atrocious and dangerous" state of the road surface.

24 Hours: 100 Years of Le Mans by Richard Williams is published on 25 May by Simon & Schuster, £20