Thank Frankel It's Friday: Chaos at the White House

11th November 2016
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

As I can barely bring myself to think about what’s going on at the American White House at the moment, I’d like to recall another, not a building as such, but a corner at Le Mans.


If you’ve been to Le Mans a dozen times yet still never heard its name, don’t be too harsh on yourself for the corner has not formed part of the circuit since 1972. Indeed the Porsche Curves we know so well were created specifically to bypass it. But White House, or Maison Blanche, is still there and if you drive towards the circuit on the public road from Arnage, soon after you pass the barriers on the right where on race day cars fling themselves at the Curves you will reach White House and appreciate at once why it’s no longer in use. The road narrows and flicks first one way then the other, more reminiscent of the Masta Kink at the old Spa than any other corner I know. Cars used to hammer through here at 170mph, with nowhere to go if something went wrong. So, yes, plenty died here and I’m glad it’s no longer used.

But I want to recall an event that took place there in which no one died though, looking at what happened, it’s hard to imagine how. Although it took place almost 40 years before I was born this single story did more to ignite my passion for racing in general and Le Mans in particular than any other.

It’s 1927 and night is falling. Despite the fact that Bentley has won this race just once in 1924, the team are runaway favourites, not least because under the bonnet of one of its three cars lurks a brand new engine, half as big again as the 3-litre motors in the other two. Frank Clement, the only professional driver Bentley ever hired, has taken the start and simply disappeared from the field, breaking the outright lap record on his second lap despite the inconvenience rules that say you must complete your first stint with the roof up. But now the Bentley is being driven by one Leslie Callingham in his first and what would turn out to be last race for Bentley.


He approaches White House flat-out, even back then the Bentley travelling beyond 100mph, before slowing to perhaps 75mph for the curve. In the murk he spots too late the Theophile Schneider of Pierre Tabourin that has spun and slewed broadside across the road. Desperate to avoid T-boning his rival, Callingham wrenches the wheel and disappears off the track, rolling the Bentley onto its side in a ditch. Far worse is to come. George Duller is next on the scene in a 3-litre Bentley and executes an identical and similarly doomed action plan, swerving and then ramming his team-mate’s car so hard he is thrown clean out of the car, landing winded and bleeding in a field.

Next up comes the last surviving Bentley driven by SCH ‘Sammy’ Davis who disgraced himself here the previous year by throwing away a certain second place by binning his Bentley with less than a hour to go. Driving a car known as ‘Old Number Seven’, he sees dirt on the track and notices that spectators are not looking at him, but further up the road. So he slows, but not enough. Even so he has bought himself a moment’s thinking time and instead of just piling into the other Bentleys, he spins his 3-litre and goes in side on. Extricating himself from the remains of his car he finds Duller and together they start to search through the wreckage for Callingham’s body, who duly turns up entirely unharmed.

It seems Bentley has gone from the road to victory to the road to hell in just a few minutes. But Bentley Boys were never good at quitting, so Davis jumps back into his car and discovers to his surprise that it starts. He finds some gears, reverses back out of the carnage and crawls the single mile back to the pits. There the situation seems hopeless – indeed with a bent chassis frame it would as a road car be considered written off. The front axle is also badly bent, the running board smashed, a steering ball joint cracked and with night only just descending one headlight is already damaged beyond repair. There is no spare.


Step forward Davis’s team-mate, the eminent bacteriologist Dudley Benjafield, a fine driver but one who hates racing at night even with the full complement of lights. How scared he must be heading out into the gloom almost blind in a car that now turns sharply left every time the brakes are applied. And the race appears hopeless: the main opposition, a 3-litre Aries is laps ahead, seemingly beyond reach.

But as the laps accrue, Benjafield and Davis discover that such is the innate strength of the severely wounded Bentley, it’s not going to collapse or shake itself to pieces. What’s more, once light returns they discover that with careful management it can be driven fast. Fast enough indeed to worry the Aries team into chivvying its car along just a little because by 1pm, the gap is down to just two laps. Which is when ace Bentley mechanic Nobby Clark becomes convinced he can hear a strange noise coming from the Aries’s engine. He tells WO Bentley and urges him to force the pace. He holds out the ‘Faster’ board and Benjafield and the battered, broken Bentley respond magnificently. The plan works beautifully: soon the Aries is hors de combat, and the Bentley sweeps to victory. A car that was presumed written off the previous evening wins Le Mans by a greater margin than that achieved by any car before. Or, more impressively, since.

Unsurprisingly, there is a party to celebrate the victory. Hosted by The Autocar and held at the Savoy with ‘Bentley’ cocktails, 1919 Cliquot and Courvoisier 1875, there is silence when Sir Edward Iliffe stands up to speak. Looking around the room he says, ‘I feel there is someone missing here this evening who ought to be present.’ At which moment and presumably to the considerable astonishment of the guests, an engine fires up and Old Number Seven drives into the room to the rapturous applause of all present.

Those who find this a familiar story will perhaps forgive its retelling. I’ve been reading and writing about it for almost as long as I’ve been able to read and write, and I still find inspiration in the courage, guts and indefatigable determination of those involved. At a time when I fear we’re about to see the very worst at one White House, from another on a different continent and at a different time, comes a tale of men at their very best. I hope you enjoyed it.

Lead image courtesy of TH.SCHNEIDER automobile register, rest courtesy of LAT.

  • Bentley

  • Le Mans

  • Maison Blanche

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