Thank Frankel it's Friday: The Bentley Boys weren't just playboys – they were war heroes
I am delighted beyond words that next year’s Members’ Meeting will feature a 1920s sportscar race and chuffed beyond description that it should be named after John Duff, one of the very earliest of the Bentley Boys.
This small cadre of amateur racers have always fascinated me, not least because I think they are slightly misunderstood. I think many view them as overgrown schoolboys living fairly dissolute lives on inherited wealth. And yes, there is some truth in that: they played hard and tended to die young. But that’s because so many of them didn’t expect to be alive at all having served in the Great War, whose armistice centenary is on Sunday (November 11th). To me the Boys are heroes and most long before they got into racing Bentleys, and whose lifestyles have to be seen in that context, as I hope the following examples make clear.
Where else to start than with Duff himself, a Canadian who fought and was terribly injured at Passchendaele before Bentley even existed. Famous for being the man who took a Bentley to the first ever Le Mans in 1923 and persuaded WO to properly back his attempt the following year in which he won, to me his greatest achievement in a Bentley predated even this. In 1922 he attempted to drive his 3-litre around Brooklands solo for 24 hours, split into two 12 hour stints because the track shut at night. But his bare aluminium bucket seat was too short for his tall frame, leaving his back in such terrible condition that after the first 12 hours he had to be lifted from the car and then helped into the bath. Mechanic Leslie Pennal who did the helping and lifting presumed the attempt was over. It was not: somehow Duff got back behind the wheel the following day, completed the run, captured 39 speed records including a new 24 hour record at almost 87mph.
Then there was Bernard Rubin, a massively wealthy heir to an Australian pearl fortune who, like so many of them, went to war in France and was so badly injured in 1917 that it was three years before he could even walk again. And yet at Le Mans in 1928 he shared a 4.5-litre Bentley with Woolf Barnato, engaged in an almost race-long battle with a 4.9-litre Stutz to take the victory, the last surviving Bentley, the car crossing the line with a broken frame and no water in its radiator.
Barnato himself is most famed for being a diamond millionaire and a Le Mans win ratio that remains unapproached to this day: played three, won three. But he also fought at Ypres, kept wicket for Surrey, raced powerboats, was a scratch golfer, an effective heavyweight boxer and the owner of a stable of race horses. Although others were more flamboyant in Bentleys, notably Tim Birkin, WO rated Barnato ‘the best driver we ever had.’ Behind the wheel he was Prost-like, doubters requiring stopwatches before they would believe that the man who looked slowest was actually the fastest. He was, in WO’s words, ‘the only driver in my knowledge who never made a mistake’.
But perhaps the most extraordinary of all the Boys was the man with whom in 1930 Barnato shared Bentley’s last win at Le Mans for 73 years. Commander Glen Kidston was a skier, shooter, boxer, fisherman, racer on two wheels and four, and aviator who went to war in the navy in 1914 aged 15, and survived being torpedoed twice before the year was out. He then served on HMS Orion during the Battle of Jutland before deciding he preferred life under the waves dispatching rather than receiving torpedoes. He then survived his submarine getting stuck in the mud of the sea bed, surfacing hours after being presumed dead. In 1929 he was on board a Junkers tri-motor aircraft that came down near Caterham in 1929. He survived by kicking his way out of the burning fuselage, his clothes fully alight. All five others on board died.
Kidston won Le Mans in 1930 but his luck ran out the following year. Turning his attentions to the skies, the following year he flew his Lockheed Vega from England to Cape Town, breaking the record for the journey, and was touring South Africa in a De Havilland Puss Moth when it broke up in bad weather. He was just 31.