A Bentley original

Glen Kidston drove Bentley into the record books at the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours. His nephew Simon Kidston reflects on the man and how he made motoring history

As I sit here at my desk, writing about events that took place exactly 90 years ago, I only need glance up to see a pair of faded racing goggles on the mantelpiece – goggles that belonged to my uncle, Glen Kidston.

Although he died many decades before I was born, Glen’s image has loomed large in my adult life. War veteran, Bentley Boy, Le Mans winner – he’s become something of a family hero, although at the time, back in the heady days of the 1920s, perhaps less so. After all, he did manage to spend a great deal of the family money…

Glen Kidston was the archetypal Bentley Boy: dashing, elegant, adequately wealthy – these were privileged playboys with a lifestyle that saw them live hard and play hard, with a shared love of cars, many of which were parked on the street in and around their Grosvenor Square homes in Mayfair. Glen also kept a mews house nearby with six cars and a chauffeur living upstairs – and the parties were legendary.

Yet, despite a relentless appetite for fun, the Bentley Boys were far from the idle rich. All had served in the First World War, showing enormous courage in their military careers, and they approached their motor racing exploits with the same do-or-die heroism. Stories of their racing bravado abound, such as SCH “Sammy” Davis’s eye injury in 1930, when a stone smashed his goggles during the Le Mans race and sent shards of glass into his eye. Sammy kept the Bentley at full speed until he was signalled to come into the pits, and only then did the team see the blood and call a doctor to remove the fragments. “Luckily, I had another eye,” was his laconic comment.

And “do-or-die” is no exaggeration. This soon after the Great War, life was cheap and deaths in motor racing were both frequent and accepted. Take Bentley Boy Clive Dunfee’s accident at Brooklands in 1932, when his 8-litre Bentley put a wheel over the top of the banking and cartwheeled. The dramatic, instantly fatal crash can be seen today in excruciating detail on YouTube. It makes for harrowing viewing, not helped by the cheerful music of the 1932 news report. And yet the tragedy of that death, seen at first hand by Dunfee’s wife who was among the spectators, didn’t prevent Motor Sport magazine happily naming it the “finest race of the year at Brooklands”. Different times, different attitudes.

But back to Le Mans. Make no mistake, in 1930 the Bentley Boys went to Le Mans not to take part, but to win. They had already taken the chequered flag in 1924, 1927, 1928 and 1929 and they were well equipped to do so again: first, with the financial wherewithal to take on the motor-racing might of Mercedes, who were entering the 24-hour race for the first time (strictly the Mercedes was a private entry, but the factory’s involvement was obvious); and, additionally, with a determination born of military discipline and enormous patriotism. (My Aunt Eleanor, 101 when she died, told me that Glen asked for Rule Britannia to be played at his funeral, which the vicar refused.)

The result, however, was by no means a foregone conclusion. The Bentley Boys needed every atom of their celebrated determination to take victory in what was – and 90 years later, still is – the world’s greatest endurance race. The main cause of their concern was the lone Mercedes, the great, white, 7-litre supercharged SSK piloted by German aces Rudolf Caracciola and Christian Werner.

It’s worth noting here that despite the Great War, still very much in recent memory, Glen held no grudge against the Germans. He spoke German and considered himself Caracciola’s friend; although, of course, once on the track this was eclipsed by intense rivalry. The more powerful, faster Mercedes was a real threat, having several times humiliated Bentleys in European races of recent years, but Le Mans demands far more than speed; reliability is (almost) everything in a 24-hour race.

So it was that on 21 June, 90 years ago this year, 17 or 18 cars (record keeping on this point was cheerfully approximate) lined up to take the start of the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours. In this, the eighth running of the gruelling and dangerous endurance race, entries were down, motor racing falling victim – like much else – to the effects of the Wall Street crash. But regardless of the small starting grid, it was to be a fiercely fought battle.

Among the starters were five Bentleys: three Works 6-cylinder Bentley Speed Sixes against two privately entered 4½ Litre supercharged “Blowers”. W O Bentley’s disdain for supercharging is well known, although possibly exaggerated – he wanted the Bentley badge to win, no matter what sat under the bonnet. To quote from The Bentley Era by Nicholas Foulkes, “It is possible to detect a hint of revisionism in W O’s tendency in later life to blame the Blower for hastening the demise of an independent Bentley Motors.”

Notably, 1930 was also to be the first Le Mans race to see female drivers take the start – and, indeed, to finish. The Bugatti Type 40 entered by French heiress Marguerite Mareuse was driven by herself and her co-driver Odette Siko, who went on to become the highest-ranked female driver at Le Mans when she finished fourth overall in 1932. In 1930, the female pairing finished an impressive seventh.

For the 1930 race, Glen shared a Works Bentley Speed Six (carrying race number 4) with his great friend Woolf “Babe” Barnato; Frank Clement and Dick Watney shared a second Speed Six, Sammy Davis and Clive Dunfee a third. Dudley Benjafield and Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin were both driving Blowers, partnered with Italian driver/mechanic Giulio Ramponi and Frenchman Jean Chassagne, respectively.

There was a plan in place. To help ensure a fifth Bentley victory, Tim Birkin had been persuaded to use his 4½-litre Blower Bentley to hound the lone Mercedes, while the Speed Sixes were to maintain the pressure over the full distance. Birkin wasn’t keen on the idea for one good reason: he wanted to finish the race – and to win it, if possible. But eventually he was convinced of the logic of the Bentley ruse.

At four o’clock on that long-ago Saturday in June, the race started with the traditional excitement of a flag dropped, the drivers running across the track to leap into their cars. The following seconds are best described by the evocative words of Motor Sport magazine, reporting on the race back in 1930:

“A whirr of starters and the orderly rank breaks into life and confusion. The Mercedes, with Caracciola at the wheel, is away and the whole Bentley pack on its heels, the 4½-litres screaming, the 6-cylinders thundering, with the field strung out like the tail of a comet.”

Silence then descended on the pit straight, as the cars sped around the 10.2-mile circuit, the atmosphere tense as the crowds waited to see who would be the first to reappear. The circuit was much more dangerous in those days, with poor tarmac, loose stones at the edges and partially lined by substantial trees. It went much further into the town of Le Mans than it does today, before turning sharply and heading up the long straight to the tight Mulsanne corner.

After a long, anxious wait, Caracciola was first to tear past the pits, wearing his cap back to front, his Mercedes some 18 seconds ahead of the pack – but the Bentleys were in close pursuit, still very much in touch. The 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours is well documented, but for a first-hand account of driving in the race – in one of the Works Speed Six Bentleys – nothing matches Sammy Davis’s 1932 book Motor Racing. At the end of the first lap, he tells us, it was “Caracciola first, then Clement, then Kidston, then my car, behind us the whole pack in full cry. Clement gave way as appointed, then Kidston, and I kept the big six going for all it was worth to harry the Mercedes if possible, in the hope that the driver would be forced to keep the blower in gear.”

The point was that the Mercedes supercharger could be switched off; with it on, it was the fastest car in the race but it consumed fuel and spark plugs at an unsustainable rate. Hence, Bentley wanted to force Caracciola to keep the supercharger going.

Davis again: “On the curly section from Arnage the German car gained, on the straight I took back a little of that gain; round after round the machines roared, and when Caracciola looked back after Mulsanne the green Bentley was always in sight, a little too near for comfort.”

He explains how the Bentley drivers were determined to keep in close pursuit of the Mercedes, to “give it no rest”. If they allowed the white car to gain a lap, “it could slow to the pace of our fastest car and remain with something in hand”. He later said that Mercedes’ best tactic would have been for Caracciola to stay behind the leading Bentley, simply keeping pace with it until the race entered its final hour.

“As it was, the German driver was going for all he was worth, and so were we, the passage of the cars, one after the other at full speed, over 115mph, rousing the packed spectators to tumultuous applause, applause one heard above the roar of the exhaust … No more wonderful run than that opening two hundred miles, itself once upon a time enough for a whole race, could be imagined; the very fierceness of it thrilled.”

Davis also describes how the Blower Bentleys had repeated tyre problems. At one point, as he swung fast round White House turn, Davis finds Tim Birkin’s car “limping slowly with one rear tyre torn to pieces, a fuzzy ball of tangled cords”.

Undaunted, Birkin changed the wheel in the pits, caught up with the Mercedes and passed it, only for another rear tyre to throw its tread in exactly the same way. The two powerful Blower Bentleys both suffered this way, as Davis reported, “stripping tread after tread”.

Davis himself didn’t make it to the finish, however, as his teammate Clive Dunfee had buried their car in the heaped sand, two hours into the race, and on the first corner after taking over from Davis. It took several hours to dig the car out, only to find that it was too badly damaged to continue.

But the Bentley strategy worked. The Mercedes and Birkin’s Blower Bentley both retired while the surviving two Speed Sixes cruised on to a crushing victory – Glen at the wheel of the winning car as it crossed the finish line, the Clement/Watney Speed Six in second place.

Bentley had taken victory at Le Mans for a fifth time. It also marked a hat-trick for Woolf Barnato, who won three times in a row, in 1928, 1929 and 1930 – indeed, every time he drove in the race. History can add to this remarkable achievement the fact that Barnato rescued Bentley from financial collapse, becoming first chairman of Bentley Motors and then remaining on the board after the Rolls-Royce takeover in 1931.

Glen, meanwhile, had not only won Le Mans but proved yet again that he was a survivor. As a 15-year-old cadet in the British Navy during the First World War, he survived two torpedo sinkings in one day, and later the grounding of his own submarine, the X1, in mud on the seabed. He lived through everything from a high-speed powerboat break-up in the Solent, to charges on safari in Africa by both a wounded lion and a wounded rhino, to a 1929 air crash in which he was the sole survivor after punching through the fuselage of the burning plane, his clothes on fire. Glen insisted on taking a short flight immediately after the accident, before retiring to bed fully bandaged, in case he lost his nerve.

His motor racing accidents were also numerous but he survived them all. It therefore seems particularly poignant that on the morning of 5 May 1931, less than a year after he and Barnato won Le Mans in style, he met his death in a flying accident when his plane broke up over the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa, having just set a new record for the flight there from England. He was only 31.

His sisters and younger brother (my father) were left with the memory of a brother they adored. All the sisters were fairly wild: they smoked, drank, married multiple times and lived long, racy lives… and they all worshipped Glen. I remember my aunt, who died in 2005, telling me stories of her “darling brother”, such as the time he roared round to her London flat in his Bentley and instructed her to “grab a dress, we’re off to Paris for dinner” (she wore red, to match the interior of the car). “Glen could charm the birds down from the trees and back again,” she claimed.

Glen had his clothes made by Sulka of Bond Street (I still have two of his silk dressing gowns, his name and address sewn inside, the pockets stitched shut, ready and waiting for a new owner who never had the chance to collect them), his goggles by Meyrowitz, his helmets by Herbert Johnson.

And, of course, there were his cars. It wasn’t only Bentleys that Glen loved. In recent years, I’ve bought back his Bugatti Type 35 Grand Prix car and short-chassis Hispano-Suiza 8-litre in which, according to my father, Glen had just collected him from Eton for lunch when a small MG “cut them up”. Glen rammed it off the road, apparently.

Such was life in the 1920s; but 1930 brought that wild era to a close. Bentley withdrew from motor racing and it would be 71 years before the marque returned to Le Mans – and 73 years before it regained the winner’s title. The official reason given was that “…sufficient data have been acquired. There is little more to learn either in speed or reliability at the present time”. But the real reason was almost certainly financial. Bentley was about to go bust, only to be saved by Rolls-Royce.

Today, we’re left with the memory of that dashing group of young men and their intoxicating adventures, summed up by a private letter written by Glen not long before he died: “I feel one is not made just to exist… Mere existence to me is just wasting one’s life.” And in a separate, scribbled note, shortly before his fatal trip to South Africa, in which he left sadly prophetic instructions for his own funeral: “I’ve had a good run for my money and I’ll die quite content… just say, everyone, he’s had a good show and tried to do his bit.”

Simon Kidston is the founder of Kidston SA, a boutique advisory firm for motorcar collectors around the world. For further information go to www.kidston.com