Soon he began to gain on the huge white Mercedes, but catching is one thing and overtaking quite another. Worse, whatever strain his car might be feeling, his tyres were feeling it more and as he closed up on the SSK on the Mulsanne Straight, a rear tyre threw a tread. Undeterred he pressed on. But there wasn’t space to get past. He never thought about lifting. At what has been estimated to be 126mph – an unimaginable speed for a road legal sports car 86 years ago – he overtook the SSK with two wheels on the grass and proceeded to break the lap record with a tyre in tatters. For me, that was the moment. Every element was there: the most heroic car on the most heroic track, defeating a far superior foe by force of spirit alone. It was Bentley, it was Birkin, it was Britain and it was duffing up the Germans in France. And please forgive the jingoism – I was only eight.
Best of all, Birkin knew it would all be for nothing. He would have both felt and heard the tread being thrown from the tyre and should have instantly backed off and returned to the pits for the spare. But he kept going, because that’s what chaps did. He was enjoying himself too much, it was too important to him to meekly lift and abandon the hunt.
Neither Birkin’s Blower nor its sister finished the race. Indeed and in period no supercharged Bentley ever won a significant motor race. But he had pushed the Mercedes faster than it cared to go too, and when it also duly retired, the path was left open for Barnato to cruise to victory in Old Number One, the same Speed Six that had won the year before.
But while that Speed Six would go on to be evolved and modified so much over time it took an expensive court case simply to determine that it indeed remained entitled the identity of Old Number One, Birkin’s blower is today largely as it was the day Birkin drove it at Le Mans. It is I am sure the most original of all surviving works Bentleys racing cars and, I would imagine, the most valuable Bentley in the world.
Owned by Bentley Motors, it has been my inestimable privilege to drive it on a couple of occasions. And I can tell you that the first time I sat Birkin’s seat, held his huge twine-bound, Bakelite wheel, pressed those pedals and surveyed a cockpit so crammed with instruments it looks like a fighter plane, it was in the most literal sense a dream come true. As for what it is like to drive, just look at it and imagine. It drives exactly like that.