The 24 Hours of Le Mans began exactly 100 years ago today—and one collector is celebrating buying a piece of its history.
The first Bentley (and the first British car) to compete in that grueling inaugural race a century ago was just snapped up by an English racing enthusiast for more than $3.7 million (£3 million), according to Swiss outfit Kidston SA.
The Bentley 3 Liter in question (Chassis 141) actually placed fourth at Le Mans back in May of 1923 but cemented the marque as a formidable competitor. Not only that, the car put Bentley on the map and spurred on all-important sales.
The four-wheeler was first driven by Bentley dealer John Duff in the Double 12 Hour Record at Brooklands. Duff covered 2,082 miles at 86.79 mph and set some 38 international records in the process. Buoyed by success, he then asked founder Walter Owen Bentley to prepare the car for a new race in France that would go for 24 hours straight. Bentley agreed and put forward factory test driver Frank Clement as co-pilot. The duo didn’t win the first Le Mans in Chassis 141, but they did set the lap record of 66.69 mph.
More importantly, they set Bentley on a winning streak. The nameplate won the following year’s race and subsequently sold 700 vehicles in two years. Considering the automaker was only established in 1921, the sales figures were quite astonishing for the time. Bentley won Le Mans another four consecutive times from 1927 to 1930 in what was one of the most dominant runs in the history of the race. W.O Bentley himself said that he owed a great deal to John Duff and Chassis 141, according to Kidston.
“This Bentley isn’t just an old car, it’s a turning point in motor racing history and a cornerstone of the Bentley legend,” company founder Simon Kidston, who brokered by the recent deal, said in a statement.
After its successful racing career, the racer fell into obscurity until it was discovered in a barn in the early ‘80s. A motoring journalist identified it as the long-lost first Bentley and the car was sold to Australian collector Peter Briggs. Briggs restored the Bentley to its former glory and it became a centerpiece of the York Motor Museum near Perth. Chassis 141 is now back in Britain and ready for the stage.
“It won’t be leading a quiet life: it’ll be lining up on the grid of the Le Mans 100th anniversary race for vintage cars next month,” Kidston adds. “I hope its original drivers will be looking down and smiling.”
Click here to see all the photos of the Bentley 3 Litre.