Battle of the 'B's

Updated: Jan 18

The enormous success of the 2019 film Ford v Ferrari, demonstrates that historic rivalries in the flamboyant world of endurance racing, are enjoying something of a renaissance in popular culture. Therefore one wonders what other episodes from motor racing history are worthy of gracing our cinema screens?


If we're to continue on the Le Mans theme, then I believe you could do a lot worse than to serialise the first golden age of endurance racing, the 1920s.


There are numerous contenders to go head-to-head in our hypothetical Ford v Ferrari sequel, with strong entries from Mercedes, Alfa Romeo and Stuz. However, the two most iconic racing cars of 1920s, were undoubtably made by a Mr W.O. Bentley and a certain Monsieur / Signor (if we're being pedantic), Ettore Bugatti.



There are few cars so evocative of their era as the offerings from Bentley and Bugatti during this time. Both are instantly recognisable to any car enthusiast and akin to the rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari in the 1960s, the two manufacturers took very different approaches in their pursuit of automotive perfection.


Bugatti's approach to building cars was not dissimilar to Ferrari in 1966. Bugatti's legendary 35 was dainty and lightweight, featuring early examples of alloy wheels and a hollow front axle. Both of which helped to reduce unsprung weight, making up for their comparatively small 2 litre engines. Bentley's offerings were no less exquisitely engineered, but the design ethos was clearly closer to that of the Ford GT40. Prioritising brute force over weight saving measures, Bentley made use of both 3 and 4 1/2 litre engines which apparently burned 4 litres of petrol a minute at full chat.



There existed one matter on which W.O. and Ettore were in agreement. The two men shared an intense dislike for the use of forced induction. Some examples of Bugattis and Bentleys were successfully supercharged over the decade, but neither found favour with their creators, in spite of the improvements in performance. W.O.s obsession with reliability is often cited and clearly the man had a point. The naturally aspirated car was famed for its reliability whereas the infamous 'Blower Bentleys', despite their increased performance, often failed to complete races, notably including Tim Birkin's at Le Mans in 1930. The French Grand Prix of the same year saw a Bugatti-Bentley 1-2 finish, which is thought to have prompted Ettore to call W.O.'s 4 1/2 litre car, the "fastest lorry in the world".


"The irony is of course, that a ten year old Nissan is going to struggle with E10, but a 80 year old Bentley will purr along on anything remotely flammable."
 

As if this story wasn't already shaping up nicely as a Ford v Ferrari sequel, we haven't moved onto the most exciting part of the Bentley v Bugatti story; the drivers.


Most of us have heard of the high jinks and high stakes world of the high flying "Bentley Boys", with names Glen Kidston, Babe Barnato and Tim Birkin, etched into Bentley folklore. Bugatti likewise had Jean Chassagne, Louis Chiron and Jean-Pierre Wimille. These men were widely revered for their daring escapades and caddish behaviour.



Take Glen Kidston for example: During WWI, aged only 15 he was torpedoed twice on the same day, later he was the sole survivor after an airliner on which he was a passenger crashed soon after takeoff. On other occasions, he also survived a powerboat racing accident, being charged by a rhinoceros and crashing his Bentley during the Irish Grand Prix. It was a second flying accident that unfortunately caught up with him aged 31. Suffice to say, there's a movie in Glen Kidston himself!


Sadly forgotten by many, are the so-called "Bentley Girls". In 1927 Mary Petre Bruce enjoyed great rallying success in Monte Carlo and the most famous Bentley of them all, the supercharged 4 1/2 litre, would not have been possible if it hadn't been for Dorothy Paget. She gave financial backing to Birkin's development of the car after W.O. refused to co-operate.


 


We were fortunate enough to meet Paul from Petrolheads Welcome while we were at Kop Hill Climb in September, who gave us the opportunity to pore over his 3 litre Bentley and discuss the enduring genius of W.O.

Even sitting behind the enormous steering wheel gives one a sense of the heroism, or perhaps the sheer insanity of the "Bentley Boys". One can only imagine what 100mph+ in such a vehicle must feel like and owner Paul assured me that his could do so "and more"...


When I asked about the impact of ethanol in modern petrol on the Bentley's brass carburettors, Paul evidently delighted in reminding me that petrol in those days was, "terrible, it had dead rats in it". The irony is of course, that a ten year old Nissan is going to struggle with E10, but a 80 year old Bentley will purr along on anything remotely flammable. Again, this is testament to the enduing reliability and robustness of W.O. Bentley's engineering. As Paul points out, the Bentley had adaptive damping on the suspension, adjusted by altering torque settings, the Bentley utilised thin discs of rosewood as friction shock absorbers. It even made use of what in essence was a disc brake on the clutch, which would entirely halt the input shaft, allowing for those enormous gear sprockets to mesh.


 

So there we are. I don't know if Hollywood shall ever take on The Battle of the "B's", but I'm sure you will agree, it's as compelling a story as you're ever likely to find and this article barely scratches the surface of it...


JP

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