“The effects of the American stock market collapse spread quickly. A tentacle of poverty reached Le Mans in only seven months: just 17 cars lined up, tails to the pit counter, on June 21, 1930. But a stout crowd in a fine party mood was an ideal counterpoint to the economic gloom and lack of entries.
The French had all but surrendered an overall Le Mans victory to W.O. Bentley’s seemingly unbeatable cars . A dearth of large displacement blue cars culled the field as much as the grim performance on Wall Street.
America sent only a pair of Stutz Black Hawks to face the Speed Six Bentleys from the factory team plus The Honorable Dorothy Paget’s three-car supercharged 4 ½ liters privateer outfit of Tim Birkin. Only two of them made the start. Italy was well represented by Lord Howe’s British-entered ALFA-Romeo 1750 . But it was the massive 7-liter supercharged Mercedes-Benz of Rudolph Caracciola and 1924 Targa Florio winner Christian Werner that had the Bentley Boys on full alert.
Caracciola was a gifted driver with a plump CV by the time he arrived at Le Mans. Warner was a technically astute, dignified but relentlessly competitive driver who spent his waking hours driving and working for the Mercedes racing and experimental department. This was an unpleasant reality for the band of British amateurs who retired the Rudge-Whitworth Cup to the hallowed chambers of the BRDC’s London office.
The 1930 24 Hours of Le Mans was to be about speed and endurance, exactly what the ACO had envisioned less than a decade earlier. The fans came to play and dance and eat and drink and watch the big fast cars, rather than attempt to cipher Monsieur Durand’s baroque indexes and handicaps. They weren’t disappointed. Those who judge the quality of any race simply by car count should have been at Le Mans on 21 June, 1930.
Caracciola was the first man to his car a 4:00 o’clock and the Mercedes was the first away. W.O. knew the big Benz was faster than his entire fleet but arranged his cars as a pack of harriers. With tactics familiar to any contemporary Le Mans chef d’equipe Tim Birkin on a 4.5 Blower wearing a Union Jack on its doors, became Caracciola’s chief tormentor. It was a job for which he was ideally suited. His third lap was an eye-poping 6:48, 89.69 mph; At least 12 seconds faster than any other car in the race. Behind this master class Glen Kidson lurked at a discreet distance producing a 22 lap sting of extraordinary regularity and fast economy.
Birkin finally caught sight of the white car as he roared past the pits on the third lap; close enough to catch a brief glimpse of Caracciola’s pit signal board as he entered the dusty wake of the blown SS. Bentley’s rabbit had demolished the lap record for the 10.15 mile circuit raising the ante to 88 mph. He caught Caracciola on the run to Mulsanne, but as he maneuvered to pass a loud bang issued from the rear and sent the entire tread of a Dunlop tire flying off, mutilating the fender as it went. Witnesses claim Birkin never flinched and passed Caracciola anyway.
A lap later the mangled Dunlop carcass gave up entirely at Arnage and the Speed Six began a drunken slide as Caracciola howled past with the supercharger wailing. The unseasonable heat was too much for the tires on the Speed Six. But Caracciola’s 7-liter had no such trouble with his identical Dunlops. The pit stop for a fresh cover dropped the Birkin/Chassange Blower to seventh position. W.O. moved Sammy Davis in the number-three Speed Six into attack position.
But Dunfee buried Davis’ number-three Bentley in the sand at Mulsanne on his out-lap actually running back to the pits to report. When Sammy Davis arrived at the scene he dug for over an hour (with the lens of a headlamp!) to reveal that the front axle was bent beyond his ability to repair it. The number-three Bentley had became the first retirement after 21 laps.
Things remained static but fraught until the cool of the evening. At the top of the field “Petit” Jean” Chassagne – the French Bentley Boy — took over from the astonishingly brave Birkin: Werner relieved Caracciola. The Mercedes’ stop was slower and more methodical than the well practiced Bentley team’s, and while Warner was never able to match his partner’s ultimate pace he took the lead from Kidson on the 59th lap after a string of laps never slower that 7:15. Slowly, regularly Barnato began to close on the number-one Mercedes.
As if on schedule Barnato caught Werner in the gloom of dusk and passed for the lead. When Caracciola returned to the number-one Mercedes he quickly dispatched the leading Bentley and remained in front until 9:30 when Barnato passed him again near the end of his shift. But Caracciola fought back and Barnato pitted his Bentley almost simultaneously with the white German car. Capt. Wolf double-stinted and was out of the pits first as the blown seven-liter six-cylinder Mercedes had a huge gulp of oil. But Caracciola was after Barnato almost instantly with the supercharger screaming.
The white car led until the first hours of Sunday when it was again forced to the pits. This time the headlights were flickering and the Mercedes team had even bigger problems though they were vague on the specifics. The routine inspection of the number-one car turned into an autopsy. The batteries were fried, said team manager Alfred Neubauer, and they lacked the power to crank the engine. The Mercedes team even tried push staring the car to clear the pits, but even this didn’t work. Finally, after 82 laps, the massive German car was abandoned in the pits as it was too heavy to push all the way to the dead car park!
From there it was a Bentley benefit and parade save some laddish madness on Sunday morning. WO had Kidson producing conservative and regular laps in the 7:40 neighborhood. Benjy Benjafield in the 4.5 Blower he shared with an ill Ramponi was lapping at 7:20. Benjy caught the leading Speed Six near Mulsanne early in the morning and spent nearly a lap trying to pass, which he finally did by putting two wheels on the grass, sometimes at something over 120 mph, for over half a lap! His normal serious demeanor was shattered. At least temporarily. He shook his fist at Kidson who pulled beside him under braking for Mulsanne and yelled at Benjy, who remembers him saying .something like . . . “IF YOU WANT TO HOT STUFF ME, I CAN HOT STUFF YOU!” Then with Kidson leading the race, a shoving match ensued! Which caused BRDC founder and so-called gentleman driver Dr. J.D. Benjafield to miss his braking point and wobble into the woods near Arnage. That’s when Kidson re-passed putting him, again, four laps behind the leading works Speed Six.
W.O., acting in his unofficial role as “headmaster” (Adult supervision was occasionally required: Dr Benjafield was also a customer who took delivery of his first Bentley – a
3 Liter wearing heavy Harrison-bodied saloon coachwork — as a sort of Christmas present on December 23, 1923.) was appalled when the story reached him and forced Kidson to walk to the Padgett/Birkin/Blower/Bentley pit and apologize! Which he did rather sheepishly only to receive a similar regret from Benjafield!
The surviving Speed Sixes composed a team photo finish ahead of the very fast Talbots that fought a race long battle with Lord Howe’s lone ALFA. The sole Bugatti of Le Mans first distaff racers, Mademoiselles Mareuse and Sake, were a fine seventh and second in the 1500 cc class. Just nine of the 17 starters finished. Neither Stutz made it home and the Brisson/Rigal Black Hawk had nearly burned to its axles between the Hippodrome café and Mulsanne.
Woolf Barnato, whose financial largess supported W.O.’s company well beyond the bounds of traditional business practice, won his third Le Mans in three tries in WO’s cars. Today he has his own page in the record books as the only man to win the 24 Hours at each successive attempt.
After their fifth — fourth consecutive — victory W.O. Bentley’s factory cars never appeared at Le Mans again. His company survived just one more year before a receiver was nominated in July, 1931. A lone privateer Bentley was entered through 1933 but achieved nothing. Rolls Royce took control of Bentley and the marque was seen again on the Sarthe in 1950 (8th overall) and 1951. A fastback Bentley Mulsanne was used as the course car during the Fifties and Sixties
In less than a year Glen Kidson was dead, killed in a bizarre aircraft accident in South Africa. Le Mans’ Bentley era was over.”