Geneva, 26th May 2023: A century ago, a Bentley 3 Litre would become the first British car and the first Bentley to compete at the grueling Le Mans 24 Hours race in its debut year. Today, as this iconic race – a 24-hour full-throttle test of man and machine – celebrates its centenary, that very first Bentley has been sold to a British enthusiast for more than £3m.
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 – this 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.”
This car, Chassis 141, was entered and driven by Canadian WW1 veteran, 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. He then asked W.O. Bentley to prepare his dependable car for a new 24-hour race to be held at a place in France called 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 4th, 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. And it’s all down to the pioneering achievements of Chassis 141 in convincing company founder, W.O. Bentley, that his cars were capable of not only completing a 24-hour race but winning it.
W.O. 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. It’s not an overstatement to say that the success of the Bentley brand can be traced back to these achievements.
But, in time, Chassis 141 lived a more mundane life. It was later used as a tow vehicle and then had its rear bodywork altered into a shooting brake by the local undertaker. During the late ’40s, 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. He bought them with no idea of 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 centerpiece of Briggs’ York Motor Museum near Perth. Its return to Britain brings its history full circle.
Commenting on the transaction, 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.”
About The Buyer...
Simon Kidston has lived and breathed sports cars all his life. The nephew of 1920s 'Bentley Boy' Commander Glen Kidston, who raced against Mercedes ace Rudolf Caracciola at Le Mans, Simon has turned a love of cars and their histories into a niche global business.
Born in 1967, the son of Commander Home Kidston, a British naval officer who owned and raced cars in his spare time, Simon grew up in Italy and was educated in Switzerland.
Launching his career "with an abundance of enthusiasm over qualifications" in the auction department of a London classic car dealership, Simon was headhunted eight years later to co-found Brooks (now Bonhams) Europe with the late Robert Brooks. Over the next decade, he developed high-profile auctions around the globe including the single-marque Mercedes-Benz sale at the factory's Stuttgart Museum.
Simon finally stepped down as President of Bonhams Europe in 2006 to found Kidston, the consultancy that has since become synonymous with Private Treaty sales of rare and exceptional motor cars. It has offices in Geneva and Dubai and has recently expanded into Italy, where it is developing a car restoration business based on artisanal skills.
In addition to the brokerage of 'Best of the Best' classic cars, Simon Kidston serves as Master of Ceremonies at the celebrated Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este and is a longstanding judge at Pebble Beach. He served as head judge of the Cartier 'Travel with Style' concours in India, an official commentator of the Mille Miglia, and a curator of the Homo Faber Foundation in Venice. His company publishes books including the definitive works on the Lamborghini Miura and produces the K500.com market index. In 2010 he was invited by Mercedes-Benz to drive his favorite car, the 300 SLR 'Uhlenhaut Coupé', one of few people outside the factory ever to do so.
He has spent many years tracking down and buying back family cars, including the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing his father collected new from the factory in 1955.