Big 5.8 Excelsiors (#1 and #2) were swamped away from the 33-car start
We celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first ever Le Mans 24 Hours
This weekend, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest plans to celebrate the centenary of the Le Mans 24 Hours in fine style, not just with the most exciting grid in years but also a fireworks and drones show, pop concerts and an aerobatic display from the ‘Blue Arrows’.
This is one of the world’s most famous races, reflected by the fact that the competing prototypes, sports cars and GTs are commonly referred to as Le Mans cars. How did it come to be, though? The 1923 event is, of course, now out of living memory, so let’s retell the story.
France was the leading light in cars’ early years, and the ACO played a part in organising what is considered the first-ever grand prix in 1906. GP racing quickly became established as a popular spectator sport and re-emerged as such after the Great War, when the ACO came up with another great idea: a race of endurance – lasting a full day – between cars like those people might buy for the road.
The old GP circuit, running over 10.7 miles and seven corners between the city of Le Mans and the villages of Arnage and Mulsanne, was recycled for the event. The narrow rural roads were left unmetalled, while wooden grandstands and pit buildings were erected and generators brought in to power lighting (including over a huge, hand-updated scoreboard, and helped by army trucks holding floodlights at some corners) and the PA system.
Seventeen makers entered, all French except for Britain’s Bentley and Belgium’s Excelsior: the big names were Brasier, Delage, Chenard-Walcker and Lorraine-Dietrich, and the various minnows ranged from bicycle makers to a modifier of Ford Model Ts and an upstart Bugatti.
The 33 cars varied greatly in size and from 1.1 to 5.8 litres, necessitating six classes. The grid being determined by the order of entry led to a thrilling massed standing start at 4pm, the jockeying for positions between mismatched cars made yet more precarious by hail then heavy rain.
The wretched weather along with the muddy surface made for very unhappy drivers, especially those who hadn’t worn goggles.
The early favourites were the Chenard-Walckers, with their experienced drivers, best-drilled pit crew and four-wheel braking system – a lack of which severely disadvantaged John Duff in the Bentley, although he and the blue Bignans chasing his tail were still in with a shout of victory.
Stints began to end around 7pm, as drivers refilled with fuel and oil, handed over to their co-driver and entered the ‘hotel’ of damper maker Hartford to be gratefully regaled with onion soup, roast chicken and champagne.
It stopped raining as darkness fell about 8pm but the headlights weren’t similarly merciful, with a third of the cars losing time due to electrical or acetylene-gas lamp issues within a couple of hours.
The dark also caused one of the Excelsiors to go off and bury itself in sand, taking two hours to dig out; then Duff came inches from a nasty crash as a Bignan’s rear tyre burst right in front of him.
As a fine dawn began to break, the Bentley, now driven by Frank Clement, was just two laps behind the Chenard-Walcker of André Lagache (who had built its body himself) and René Léonard. Sensing danger, the French duo’s team principal told them to sprint away from the Bentley, and they duly set a number of teeth-gritting laps at an average of more than 64mph.
But Duff was able to follow suit and, in one of the race’s most interesting periods, the Canadian captain went wheel to wheel with the blue car and its now-second-placed sister. But then disaster: a telephone call came through to say that the 3.0-Litre had become stranded, its tank pierced by a flying stone, to the obvious regret of the crowd.
As a cold, muddy Duff trudged back to the pits, Clement had a bright idea: he nabbed a soldier’s bicycle and pedalled out to the car with petrol bidons slung over his shoulders to drive it back and patch it up with corks and soap.
An admirable effort, but already two and a half hours had elapsed, so Bentley had to settle for fastest lap (67mph), finishing fourth while the glory headed east to Paris.
Front brakes had made a big difference. As if to prove the point, the final driver to finish was able to stop sufficiently from 60mph at the sight of third-placed Bignan driver Paul Gros walking across the track, making the difference between a sling and a funeral.