GRR

Thank Frankel it's Friday: The one-man squad that took on Le Mans

17th August 2017
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

I always thought I knew a bit about Le Mans. Indeed I’ve written countless articles about the race and have attended, I think, 25 of the last 30 races. So I was a bit dumbfounded to discover that something I’d always believed to be true, indeed probably wrote as truth one time or another, appears not to be true at all.

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Which is this: so far as I was aware and although some have got close, no-one had ever tackled Le Mans single-handed. At least not successfully. I recall Raymond Sommer drove over 20 hours to win in 1932 after co-driver Luigi Chinetti got sick, and, 17 years later, Chinetti driving for longer even than that to claim a victory for Ferrari on its debut in 1949. And of course I think quite of lot of us know about poor Pierre Levegh, the man tragically most famous for losing his life when his Mercedes went into the crowd at Le Mans in 1955, whose missed shift after almost 23 hours of driving in 1952 denied him perhaps the most heroic Le Mans victory of all. 

But no-one, surely, got all the way around the clock twice and all by themselves? It now seems that at least one person did. Allow me to introduce you to my new hero, one Edward Ramsden Hall known, if at all, simply as Eddie.

Eddie Hall was one of those irritating people who was not only born into considerable wealth but excelled at anything to which he turned his hand. He may not have been quite in the Woolf Barnato league, who was not only diamond millionaire but also an extraordinary racing driver, a decent shot, an accomplished boxer and powerboat racer who kept wicket for Surrey, but he still managed a racing career 30 seasons long and fit in time to represent Britain in the 1928 Winter Olympics in the bobsled team, a year after winning the European Champions for both the two and five man bob. He was also a photographer who published a well-regarded book of his images of figure skating.

Born in 1900 into a wealthy textiles family, Eddie started racing in 1922, always in his own cars and at his own expense, in the true spirit of the well heeled amateur enthusiast. He raced Bugattis, MGs, Talbots and Lagondas, usually in long distances races. In particular, he loved the notoriously tough RAC Tourist Trophy races on the Ards circuit in Northern Ireland.

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But it was in a Bentley that Eddie achieved what I had hitherto believed to be unachievable even if, it should be said, he took his time about it. He bought the 31/2-litre Bentley brand new in 1934, one of the earliest examples of new ‘Silent Sports Car’ conceived under Rolls-Royce ownership. He at once drove it to Italy to reconnoitre the Mille Miglia course, in which he was to compete in an MG. He did not one but two laps of the 1000 mile circuit, driving the Bentley as fast as it would go and was stunned by its speed and faultless reliability. So impressed indeed that he decided to race it at Le Mans in 1936, which is exactly what would have happened had the race not been cancelled due to the terrible economic conditions in France at the time. Still, he did manage to drive it to a hat-trick of 2nd places in the TT between 1934-36.

However, the Le Mans dream still burned and once global conflict had come and gone and the race returned to the calendar, he wondered if the now ancient Bentley might have one last hurrah to its name. Which how a man on the eve of his 50th birthday entered a 16-year-old car into the world’s most gruelling race. And while the rules required him to have a co-driver, they did not require said driver to drive. So it seems that Eddie simply climbed into his Bentley on Saturday afternoon, left Tommy Clarke in the pits, and climbed out again 24 hours and 2000 miles later. What’s more, in a car never designed to race from a completely different era of racing, the Bentley placed eighth out of 29 finishers. 

I’ve tried to find an account of his time in the race but have so far drawn a blank. It also now occurs to me that maybe he’s not the only one to have completed Le Mans solo. Perhaps one or more of you can help me with that? In the mean time I did discover one comment he made, some years later. When asked what provision should be made for the, er, more fundamental of human functions during a 24 hour solo drive Eddie Hall’s advice was short and succinct: ‘Wear green overalls.’

Photography courtesy of LAT Images

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