The ACO’s radical idea for an touring car endurance race struck a chord or, perhaps, a nerve. Especially in France. Of the 35 entries for the first 24 Hour of Le Mans for the Rudge Whitworth Cup all but three were French.
On the morning of 26 May, 1923 33 of the 35 entries received from 18 manufacturers were represented: only a pair of Voisins failed to appear.
The Belgian Excelsiors had the biggest engines in the field and were assigned numbers one and two accordingly. This charming Le Mans tradition ultimately evolved into the practice of gridding all cars in descending order of displacement regardless of practice results.
But for the inaugural 1923 event the 33 cars were gridded on the main straight in order of entry receipt with the six classes mixed regardless of performance. The 5.3 liter Belgian Excelsior has the honor of the first car to wear the number one in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The flag dropped at 4:00 P.M.; almost simultaneously hail began to fall. The field sprinted off toward Pontlieue with the trio of French Chenard-Walckers and Cpt. John Duff’s lone 3-liter Bentley already at the front.
The Duff/Clement Bentley was handicapped with two wheel (rear) brakes and was the sole car in the field so equipped. But Duff, Bentley’s London agent, had paid attention to the details of the 1921 Grand Prix de l’ACF run over the same 10.726 mile Le Mans circuit. Emulating Duesenberg’s winning tactics Duff’s 3-Liter carried no spare tire and completed the entire 24 hours without a tire change.
His team manager, W.O. Bentley himself was, at 4:00 P.M. Saturday, not an especially enthusiastic Le Mans supporter.
The Headmaster but had built a car with a low seating position, high scuttle and abbreviated windshield. Save the rear wheel-only-brakes the design was perfect for the foul and primitive Le Mans road conditions.
When the hail storm receeded it began to rain. Duff, wearing neither helmet nor goggles pressed on toward dusk in pursuit of the fleet duo of 3-liter Chenard-Walckers that had led from the first pass through the Pontlieue hairpin.
By 7:00 o’clock the first pit stops began. ACO Regulations specified only two drivers per car and just one could work on or service the car at a time. The majority chose to service the car before handing over to their partners.
It was dark by 8:00 P.M when Duff finally pitted the lone British entry, handing over to Bentley’s factory driver, Sunderland’s Frank Clement.
The electric lights along pit straight had come on and the first stylish evidence of race course hospitality was in full flower: Hartford, the British premium shock absorber manufacturer had created a hospitality suite under the canvas tents in the pits.
As the drivers pitted, completed their service and deferred to their co-drivers they were ushered into the Hartford hospitality tent that quickly became known as the Hotel Hartford.
The shock absorber company fed the soaked and mud encrusted drivers roasted chicken, hot onion soup and bottles of chilled champagne before bundling them off for a snooze.
The French cars led at the half-way mark (4:00 A.M), and throughout the night until dawn. By 9:00 A.M. John Duff was back in the Bentley four laps (over 40 miles) down and pursuing the fleeing Chenard-Walcker duet with sufficient passion and pace to cause the French team to race even faster.
The long night had been a trial for the primitive electric lights and fuel tanks. The appalling track surface became a shooting gallery of small stones and rocks: lights were extinguished or destroyed outright by flying stones.
Many drivers ran off the road in the gloom. Fuel tanks were breached and repaired regularly. The lone Bentley lost a lamp to a barrage of stones during the night.
The gallant Chenard-Walcker team offered their only true competitor a spare which was declined: it was decided that the repair would take too long and Clement soldiered on with one lamp.
As the morning passed Duff recorded a series of lap records and found himself between the leading Chenard-Walcker and its teammate. All this verve found Duff a bit deep into the Mulsanne corner and the Captain was forced to take the escape road. Others had tried to improvise the corner at the end of Mulsanne only to slide into the sandbank.
Just before noon a telephone call to the pits informed W.O. Bentley that his London agent was walking in from three miles out on the circuit.
A stone had pierced the gas tank and the record setting the 3-liter was out of fuel. The competitors and the spectators assumed that this was the end of the Bentley and the race for the lead. But some field expedient tactics and a quick huddle with the officials saved the dry and stranded Bentley.
When Duff arrived in the pits Frank Clement set off cross country on a bicycle borrowed with haste and force from a French soldier. He carried spares, tools and a can of petrol set off for the stranded Bentley.
His repairs took nearly two and a half hours but the Britons earned the cheers that went up when Clement arrived in the pits in the number eight Bentley.
The Chenard-Walckers were home first at 4:00 p.m. but were not officially classified as winners because the Tri-Ennual Cup rules would only declare a winner after three races.
The Duff-Clement Bentley was never able to regain the lost time and tied a 2-liter Bignan for fourth. The whole obtuse notion of a race without a winner sent the rules makers back to their conference table for the 1924 round.
W.O. Bentley profited most having become, sometime during the night, a Le Mans convert. He would return and for 1924 his car would have four wheel brakes: It was not a fad or something just for a pure racing car like the Grand Prix-winning Duesenberg after all.
The experts, who claimed that not a single car was sufficiently reliable to finish the 24 Hours were, as most experts ultimately are, proven wrong. Only three cars failed to finish; two of them little 1100 cc S.A.R.A.s that were deliberately retired by their drivers who had became increasingly weary and miserable while regularly drenched and shot-peened as the faster, more powerful cars lapped them.
The spectators knew a winner when they saw one and anointed the Lagache and Leonard Chenard-Walcker the winner regardless of the rules surrounding the Rudge Whitworth Triennial Cup. They covered an amazing, for 1923, 1372.928 miles. Tough little Frank Clement set the fastest lap in the third place Bentley. And the French soldier who loaned his bicycle to Clement and the Bentley team had his transport returned with appropriate thanks.