The fifth 24 Hours of Le Mans Grand Prix of Endurance finished

Sunday 19th June 1927

The fifth 24 Hours of Le Mans Grand Prix of Endurance finished. The race is commonly remembered due to the infamous White House crash, which involved all three of the widely tipped Bentley team’s entries, and caused the retirement of two of them. The race was eventually won by the third which, although badly damaged, was able to be repaired by drivers Dudley Benjafield and Sammy Davis. It was Bentley’s second victory in the endurance classic. The winning margin was an incredible 21 laps.

The total entry for the 1927 Le Mans race was only 23, although this was down to 22 by the time of the race itself due to one of the two Tracta entries crashing while en route to the event. In comparison with previous years, when entries had nearly topped 50 cars, the 1927 field had been depleted by mergers, bankruptcies and other financial worries amongst competitor manufacturers. Amongst the list of absentees were the Lorraine-Dietrich team, winners of the event for the previous two years. With three cars entered, it was therefore the Bentley squad who were pre-race favourites to take an easy victory. After a humiliating run of retirements since their victory in the 1924 event, W.O. Bentley decided to enter a strong team, despite the weakened opposition. Dudley Benjafield and Sammy Davis were again paired in the same 3 litre car which they had crashed just an hour from the finish in the 1926 race: Old Number 7. A second 3 litre was entered for Andre d’Erlanger and George Duller, while Leslie Callingham and 1924-winner Frank Clement were entrusted with the 4½ litre prototype, Old Mother Gun. The majority of the cars ranged against the Bentley Boys were an assortment of small-capacity French cars aiming for victory in the Index of Performance, with only the 2 litre Théophile Schneiders and a lone, 3 litre Ariès, driven by Robert Laly and Jean Chassagne, offering serious competition. However, as the only vehicle in the 5 litre class, Old Mother Gun was substantially quicker than even these.

As expected it was car number 1, Old Mother Gun, which led away from the start. The Benjafield/Davis car slipped into second place, with d’Erlanger and Duller in third place making it a Bentley 1-2-3 in the opening laps. Old Mother Gun’s pace advantage was underlined by Clement when he broke the circuit record in only the second lap of the race. Over the following few laps he whittled this down still further, to only 8 minutes 46 seconds for the 10.7 mile (17.3 km) circuit. This early-race performance was yet more remarkable as, at the time, the cars were required to run with their hoods erected for the first three hours of the race. Behind Frank Clement the race was tight, however, with the 3 litre Ariès and the Jacques Chanterelle/René Schiltz Théophile Schneider managing to keep pace with the 3 litre Bentleys as the race progressed into the growing evening gloom. It was just after 9:30pm that the second Théophile Schneider, driven by Robert Poitier and Pierre Tabourin, precipitated the race’s most famous event. A few laps in arrears but being chased hard by Callingham in Old Mother Gun, the driver misjudged his entry speed into the virages Maison Blanche (since bypassed by the Porsche Curves), known amongst the British fraternity by their English translation: the White House curves. The Théophile Schneider slewed to a halt, broadside across the road. Rather than plough head-on into his opponent, Callingham chose to put the Bentley off the road, into a ditch. Unfortunately for him the big car rolled, throwing him into the centre of the road. Unsighted by the corner, when the second Théophile Schneider came upon the accident site the driver did not have time to take evasive action and thus collided, at speed, with the Bentley and its sister car. A similar fate awaited Duller, at the wheel of the number 2 Bentley, and a 2 litre Ariès, before Sammy Davis in the second 3 litre Bentley approached the White House curves.

Davis perceived that all was not as it should be – even tens of metres back up the road its surface was strewn with debris – and so entered the corner slower than would normally have been the case. Even so, his speed was such that, by the time he spotted the wreckage blocking the road in front of him, he did not have sufficient time to brake to a halt. Rather than also hit the stationary cars head-on Davis provoked the big Bentley into a slide. Because of this Davis hit the stricken cars sideways, striking first with the right-hand front wing. In spite of Davis’s prompt action the impact was substantial, but unlike the other unfortunates he was able to restart his car and (once he had assured himself that his team-mates and the Frenchmen were all accounted for and only slightly hurt) drive gently back to the pits.

Once in the pits Davis and Benjafield assessed the damage. External assistance was greatly restricted at the time, so it was down to the drivers to effect any repairs needed to continue. The right wing was badly mangled and had to be reattached to the car using string, while the right headlamp was broken beyond repair. More fundamentally, the right front wheel was bent, as were the axle and chassis, but Davis decided to press on regardless. He volunteered to take the car back onto the track and completed six further laps to check that all was well, before Benjafield retook the wheel. In the time which had elapsed during the incident and as the car was being repaired, the 3 litre Ariès had slipped past and was beginning to establish a sizeable lead. Benjafied set about reducing the French car’s advantage, pushing the Bentley hard despite running with only one headlamp and a flashlight strapped to the windscreen frame to guide him through the dark of night. By midday on Sunday they had reduced Laly and Chassagne’s lead to only a single lap, assisted by a few mechanical maladies which afflicted the French car in the pits. The Ariès had a fault with its ignition system, which had resulted in lengthy delays during driver changes, and on its 122nd lap the system failed completely, stranding Chassagne out on the circuit. With its only remaining rival now out of contention, Benjafield and Davies completed the remaining time of the race at greatly reduced speed, nursing the injured Bentley home. They won the race having completed only 1472 miles (2369 km), at an average of just over 61 mph (98 km/h), far fewer than the record, set the previous year, of 1586 miles (2552 km). Despite the comparatively slow overall pace, the dramatic events surrounding the White House crash meant that the race gained much wider press coverage than had been the case in previous years. In particular, Davis’s honourable and heroic actions in searching the wreckage for his compatriots and rivals, before continuing the race in the teeth of adversity, gained him high praise. That such actions had been taken by a group of young men who had previously been much better known for their lavish parties and fast-living lifestyles only added to the popular appeal. Their pluck and determination seemed to embody much of what the British regarded as best in their national character, and on their return to the UK the team were greeted as national heroes. The Autocar magazine fuelled the Bentley team’s reputation by hosting a grand post-race party at the Savoy Hotel in central London, at which Old Number 7 was guest of honour. A repaired Old Mother Gun (which had sat out the remainder of the race still in its ditch) returned to La Sarthe the following year, and won the race with a new record of 154 laps. Both Benjafield and Davis remained significant figures in British motorsport over the following few decades – Benjafield as founder of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, and Davis as sports editor of The Autocar and one of the founders of the Veteran Car Club – but neither’s racing career managed to equal their achievement at Le Mans in 1927.

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