THE first Bentley to race in the Le Mans 24 Hours 100 years ago has been sold for more than £3 million.
In 1923, the Bentley 3 Litre was raced privately at Le Mans by Canadian WW1 veteran John Duff and Bentley test driver Frank Clement to finish fourthoverall, despite a fuel tank leak caused by stones from the unpaved track.
The sale was brokered by Kidston SA, a company founded by Simon Kidston - the nephew of Glen Kidston, who won the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours at the wheel of a Bentley.
It was sold to a British enthusiast and the car represents the beginning of the Bentley legend and the establishing of the tradition of ‘The Bentley Boys'.
Kidston, Clement, Duff and others like Sir Tim Birkin, Dr Dudley Benjafield or one-time Bentley Chairman Woolf Barnato would become known as The Bentley Boys for their hard-charging racing lifestyle.
As company founder W.O Bentley said of this group's antics: "The public liked to imagine them living in Mayfair flats. Drinking Champagne in nightclubs, playing the horses and the Stock Exchange, and beating furiously around the racing tracks at the weekend. Of several of them, this was not such an inaccurate picture."
The car, Chassis 141, was entered and driven by Canadian adventurer and Bentley dealer John Duff at the Double 12 Hour Record at Brooklands - 24-hour racing was banned so locals could sleep - covering 2,082 miles at 86.79mph and setting 38 international records.
Duff then asked W.O Bentley to prepare the car for a new 24-hour race to be held at Le Mans.
Although Bentley thought it mad, he agreed and lent factory test driver Frank Clement to co-drive.
After 24 hours at the wheel - during which they set the lap record of 66.69mph, in a car with rear brakes only - they finished joint fourth, despite having run out of fuel due to stones puncturing the tank
Bentley and The Bentley Boys would return to Le Mans for the following year's 24-hour race. And this time they would win.
From 1927 to 1930, Bentley won the Le Mans 24 Hours four times in succession, marking one of the most dominant runs in the history of the race.
W.O Bentley himself said that he owned a great deal to John Duff and Chassis 141.
Following the Le Mans 24 Hours races in 1923 and 1924, Bentley sold 700 vehicles in two years - all of this from a young manufacturer that had only delivered its first car in 1921.
Over the years Chassis 141 lived a more mundane life and was later used as a tow vehicle, and then had its rear bodywork altered into a shooting brake by an undertaker.
During the late 1940s it was used by its lady owner to transport her St. Bernard dogs to shows.
And then it was forgotten, only resurfacing again in the early 1980s when the owner of the Donington Car Museum, Tom Wheatcroft, received a call from a 97-year-old lady offering him two old cars in her barn, a Bentley and a Voisin.
Wheatcroft bought them with no idea of the Bentley's history, and it sat as a project until a motoring journalist identified it as the long-lost first Bentley to race at Le Mans.
A deal was eventually reached with Australian collector Peter Briggs, whose Brabham Formula 1 car was on loan to the Donington Museum. The Brabham stayed at Donington, and the Bentley headed to Australia to be restored and eventually become a centrepiece of Briggs' York Motor Museum near Perth. Its return to Britain brings its history full circle.
Simon Kidston said: "This week the most famous motor race in the world celebrates its 100th birthday and its pioneering early competitors remain as intriguing as ever. This Bentley isn't just an old car, it's a turning point in motor racing history and a cornerstone of the Bentley legend. And personally, having inherited a family passion for cars which was accelerated by my ‘Bentley Boy' uncle, helping to bring this Bentley home feels really satisfying.
"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. I hope its original drivers will be looking down and smiling."