Rain and Covid nearly put paid to this anniversary, but Bentley drivers are a hardy lot and aren’t inclined to let a bit of water or a pandemic stop a commemoration of the marque’s first-ever race victory at Brooklands yesterday.
It was 100 years to the day that Bentley test driver Frank Clement drove his works EXP2 to victory in a two-mile handicap, The Whitsun Junior Sprint, against six other cars at the 2.75-mile concrete track near Weybridge in Surrey, which was the world’s first banked motor race circuit and billed as the home of “the right crowd and no crowding”.
“It took him one minute and forty seconds,” said organiser Allan Winn. “That 100 seconds and 100 years since he did it.”
Winn explained that if all had gone to plan back then, the anniversary would have been held the previous weekend. “Clement turned up the week before, but the car was doing terrible things; oiling its plugs on the start line.”
The victory set the tone for Bentley, which at that point was only two years old and had yet to deliver a car to a customer. Walter Owen Bentley nurtured all publicity for his eponymous new car company and while this first win was in a minor race, it meant that he could truly claim that the new three-litre model was a race-winner.
Clement was the only professional racing driver ever hired by the factory, a shrewd judge of a car and the only one of the fabled “Bentley Boys” to have contested all eight Le Mans 24 Hours races the factory entered. His steed was the centrepiece of yesterday’s celebration. EXP2 was a three-litre model, the second-experimental works Bentley and probably built out of fair parts from EXP 1.
These days it is owned by Bentley Motors, part of the factory Historic collection. Clement’s name also headed up the old Brooklands race board, ahead of Sawers, who came second in a Douglas, and Humphries, third in a Calthorpe.
Also present among the 26-strong field were Old Number 3, the works car built for Sammy Davis and Clive Dunfee, which competed in the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours race and “The Bitch”, the last works three-litre car, built for the 1927 Le Mans.
Bentley won an unprecedented five Le Mans races, the first in 1924 with Clement and John Duff at the wheel, then four on the trot between 1927 and 1930 which saw Clement come in second. At that point the company stopped racing and the following year it was purchased by Rolls-Royce. The Bentley winged badge did take the chequered flag at the French classic again, 73 years later, however. Under its current owner, Volkswagen, the Bentley EXP Speed 8 won at Le Mans in 2003.
Organised by Winn and Phillip Hine of the Bentley Drivers Club, the event was much pared down from the original, which would have seen driving tests, road driving, picnic luncheons – and the public. Instead, participants were limited to a driver and crew and a few of Brooklands organising team.
“It’s such a shame,” said Hine, “we’d put so much into this day, but we’re going to do it all over again in front of the public at Silverstone on August 7 and Bentley has kindly offered to bring its entire heritage fleet.”
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