“All the evidence anyone needed to understand the shifting realities of the world car market was visible when just 22 cars backed up the pit counters at Les Raineries on 18 June, 1927.
Whole marques vanished; the old order was passing away. The last Model T had left Ford’s vaunted assembly lines and the whole Ford Motor Company held its corporate breath while Henry dithered over its replacement.
The dainty Montier-Ford, perhaps the best Model T-based speedster ever created from the pedestrian farmer’s fliver, was absent from Le Mans. So was the seminal Chenard & Walcker marque, The winner of the first 24 Hours had merged with Delahaye, Unic and Donnet: the purpose was to meet cheap competition from imported (American) cars like the late Model T.
The big Lorraines-Dietrichs that had made Le Mans history with their unprecedented 1-2-3 finish just a year earlier were also absent. A lone but fast three-liter Aires driven by the accomplished team of Chassagne and Laly was gridded to protect French honor.
W.O. Bentley had seen the true path and focused his attentions on the Sarthe during solstice. Again he checked his three-car team, including a new 4 ½ liter model, into the Hotel Moderne and painted the numbers “1, 2 3” on his green cars.
The 4 ½ was the biggest car in the race and was gridded first and was away first to the applause of the French. Nine minutes and 35 seconds later the Clement/Callingham 4 ½ led the first lap with Baron d’Erlanger in the #2 4 ½ third on the road.
Bentley pro Frank Clement eclipsed the fastest lap on his second circuit at just under 72 mph winning a cheer from the British fans who had taken up position across from the Bentley pits.
The green train was stalked by the Aires, the only French car with a chance to outrun the Bentleys, and a trio of 1100 cc Samsons running close in squadron order with the rest of the small field on pace. It began to rain at dusk but Callingham was still the fastest man on the course having twice set new lap records.
In the slowly retreating light on the run from Arnage to Maison Blanche he saw a dark blue silhouette sideways in the road. It was Tabourin in the number-eleven 2-liter Theo. Schneider. Disaster. Callingham did all that was possible, but the stout Bentley spit him out and ended up in the ditch on the right side of the road.
Staggering to his feet he began to walk toward Arnage intent upon warning the other drivers. That’s when George Duller arrived at speed in the number-two 3-liter and crashed into the stricken 4 ½. Duller literally bailed out; his car hit its bigger stable mate with such ferocity that the wreckage of the big car was propelled back into the road.
Davis’ number three 3-liter was running over 80 mph toward White House when he sensed, as much as saw, the tumult ahead: the road, clear and wet on the previous lap was now strewn with gravel and dirt.
Instinct and intellect simultaneously triggered hard braking as the headlamps exposed the inert corpse of the big 4 ½ liter, seemingly blocking the whole road. In the ditch on the right — the driver’s side, the side that would bear the brunt of the pending impact – – was another twisted heap leaning on the tail of Callingham’s 4 ½.
And there was something else in there but the headlamps were pointed at weird angles; Davis’s 3-liter began to slide sideways toward the whole mess. His right front fender snagged the wreckage of the bigger car. That shifted the pile with sufficient force to topple Duller’s 3-liter and it fell with Mack Sennette precision on the #3 Bentley.
In a matter of a few seconds the entire three-car Bentley team was wrecked or crippled at White House. Duller, badly shaken and bleeding wandered away from the accident intent on warning others. Davis was unhurt and, convinced that he had seen his teammate staggering behind a hedge chased him calling his name.
Reunited the pair began to search for Callingham, whose body, there were certain, was still in the wreckage. When Callingham appeared Davis became possessed with the notion of saving his car; the right front fender was a mess and the headlamp was worse. The Bentley’s front axle seemed bent but Davis drove the cripple back to the pits to report and repair his car.
His cool and determined actions forever codified proper Le Mans behavior by summoning that casual British stubbornness, usually witnessed at places like Balaklava, Rorke’s Drift or in the skies above London during the summer of 1940.
“Six cars all piled up at White House!” he called to his anxious teammates, “A most unholy mess!” And then he leapt from the #3, assessed the damage, fixed what he could with tape and string and disappeared into the gloom for six more laps while W.O kept a weather eye on the lone Aires of “petit Jean” Chassange.
An hour later it was Benjafield’s turn to be as brave as his teammate; it is no small matter to board a car that has been crashed but Benjy remained on the same lap as the #29 Aires and, by midnight, and the end of his fuel, had put the 3-liter French car a lap down while driving with a flashlight attached to the windshield frame.
W.O. himself was paying careful attention to the condition and tone of the lone, and now leading, Aires during the wet and filthy hours of Sunday morning. Davis and Benjafield put their chins down and pretended that nothing was wrong with their wounded car and the weather wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed.
Mustn’t grumble. Press on, even though the Aires seemed a sure winner. W.O. wasn’t so sure. The Aires was making ugly noises. Was it a clutch, he thought, or perhaps an ailing differential.
At dawn the wind shifted and banished the rain and low clouds. It had been a brave fight in foul conditions but the Bentley crew were all but certain that a French car would again win the 24 Hours. The Aires had a four lap lead.
The battered Bentley was closing with an almost agonizing slowness. No matter how often Bentley’s timing team fiddled with their slide rules the numbers refused to come up in the Grosvner Corner gang’s favor.
By 9:30 Sunday morning Laly was due to relieve Chassange. The stop was routine until Laly climbed in and pushed the starter. Silence. Nothing. W.O. had been right; the noises he had heard through the sizzle and splash of rain had been fatal. The starter motor refused to crank.
The heroic Davis grabbed the race by the throat and began to work on the Aires four lap lead. The crowd, largely French, willed Laly to repair the stricken Aires. After Davis had passed the pits and put himself on the same lap Laly got a spark and little Jean Chassange went to work. But on the 129th lap the Aires failed to appear and the battered Bentley was the uncontested leader. The 1100 cc Samsons were over 18 laps behind.
At 3:45 p.m. Dr. “Benjy” Benjafield pitted unexpectedly and surrendered the leading number three Bentley – “Doc’s”own personal car, entered as part of the factory team – to the heroic Davis who had resurrected the #3 and a Bentley victory from the extraordinary event at White House.
The wounded Bentley had failed to outrun the previous year’s winning distance, but Frank Clement won Bentley 2000 Francs (1000 from the Auto Club du Nord, another from Morris-Leon Bollee company) for setting the fastest lap in the 4 ½ liter #1.
Bentley’s Le Mans adventure invested W.O.’s firm with priceless publicity that still clings to the marque and totally captured the imagination of the British public, enthusiast and casual fan alike.
The legend of Dr Benjafiled’s winning three-liter did even bigger magic for the lore and legend of Le Mans, turning les Grand Prix d’Endurance into a British race conveniently located on French soil. British cars had won Le Mans twice in five years and the tale of the lone Bentley was all the primer necessary to start the first British invasion of Le Mans.
WO & Company returned home to a party at the Savoy hotel hosted in their honor by Autocar. After Bentley cocktails, Tortue en Tasse au Sherry, Mignon d’Agneaus, Asperges de Paris – all washed down with Clicquot 1919, Perrier Jouet 1917 and some Courvassier 1875, Sir Edward Ilffie stood to offer a toast.
“Gentlemen, I feel there is somebody missing here this evening who ought to be present . . .” Footmen drew back the curtains behind him. There was #3, filthy with mud and battle scarred. Someone started the engine. None of the hotel’s guests complained.
When Bentley won Le Mans in 2003 a reprise of the 1927 Savoy celebration banquet was scheduled for 18 June, exactly 76 years, to the day, from the 1927 24 Hours. The winning Bentley coupe was eased through the same doors at the Savoy; the Clicquot and toasts flowed again. “