Speed / October 2017

The Bentley Boys' Roaring Twenties

They were the prototype playboys: a bunch of privileged gents who drove hard
and partied harder. And while they ruled the motor racing world between the wars,
Britain couldn’t get enough of the Bentley Boys.

Bernard Rubin, Woolf Barnato, Sir Henry Birkin, Fran Clement and Joseph Dudley Benjafield at Le Mans in 1928.

As the works Bentley (affectionately named ‘Old Mother Gun’) crossed the finish line of the 1929 Le Mans 24 Heures, the winners (unknowingly) ushered in the end of an era. The Bentley Boys era, the rise of the stock market and global political stability were about to come to a grinding halt. One more victory awaited the Bentley Boys at Le Mans the following year, but only at the expense of camaraderie and sacrifice. The bon vivant esprit de corps that had so typified their exploits had been torn apart by W.O. Bentley’s implacable resistance to change. But on that June day in 1929, when Bentley filled the first four places, the car driven by the two quintessential Bentley Boys — Woolf Barnato and Tim Birkin — took first, ingraining themselves in the national consciousness. Arguably a large part of what we see as the glamour and excitement of motor racing can be traced back to the achievements and exploits of a set of privileged and wealthy gentlemen who raced Bentley cars, lived in quasi-debauchment in Mayfair, and celebrated in eccentric and lavish style at The Savoy or Barnato’s country house. Although the drivers did not necessarily care for the title, they were nevertheless known as ‘the Bentley Boys’.

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Andrew Hildreth