Eddie Hall Did All 24 Hours of Le Mans by Himself, and He Did It in This Car
I’m at dinner outside Atlanta with some media colleagues and Mike Sayer, head of the Bentley Heritage Collection. Sayer is part enthusiast, part brand ambassador, and part historian. “Did he really do it?” I asked the table.
“Well, let's just say a lot of people say it did happen, and [we] haven’t been able to find anyone who claimed it didn’t happen," Sayer said. "And in racing, if there is even a sliver of doubt, someone will speak up to that end. So we do believe it happened.”
“It” would be one of the most bizarre and impressive feats in the history of the world’s most difficult motor race, the 24 Hours of LeMans. In 1950, Eddie Hall, the heir to a textile business who used its proceeds to go racing, became the only man, before or since, to drive the entire 24 hours, solo. Of course, as per the rules, he did enter with a teammate, Tom Clarke, but poor Tom found himself a bored spectator. Even stranger, and perhaps more impressively, Eddie finished in eighth place. Stranger still, he did it in a sixteen-year-old car, a Bentley that first raced in 1934.
Today, I’ll be driving that car. Bentley has flown me to Atlanta, put me up in a rather nice hotel and provided a shiny new Continental GT Speed for the two-hour transit to Dahlonega, GA. There, some kind folks from the Revs Institute wait out a massive rainstorm before unloading the priceless, irreplaceable, open-top Bentley from a single-car trailer. Seeing a classic Bentley doesn't immediately make you think of Le Mans, but maybe it should.
Bentley thoroughly dominated LeMans in the Twenties, with overall victories in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930. Once acquired by Rolls-Royce in 1931, Bentley proceeded to… not win anymore. It wasn’t until 2003, under VW’s stewardship, that a Bentley made it back to the winner’s circle. In fact, Bentley didn’t really try, except once—with this car. According to the Revs Institute’s own literature, this very car is the only Bentley ever built under Rolls-Royce that was raced with factory support.
And it wasn’t even really supposed to be a race car. Eddie Hall took delivery of his Rolls/Bentley 3 1/2 Liter with the intent of using it to pre-run the Mille Miglia route in Italy, which he intended to race in an MG later in the year. But 4000 miles of high-speed touring later, he decided that the Bentley should, maybe, be a race car after all.
Hall asked Rolls-Royce to sponsor him. It declined, but the company did agree to help him modify the car for higher performance in order to enter the Tourist Trophy, at the time the most prestigious race in Britain.
He competed in the Tourist Trophy three times and then went back to Rolls to have the new, larger 4 1/2 liter engine and Offord and Sons “Streamlined” bodywork fitted in 1936, which is how the car presents today. In the 1936 race the Bentley recorded an 80.81 mph average, the fastest speed ever recorded to that date. Hall and his Bentley were dominant before the war, allegedly winning their class in every race they entered. But it was the Bentley’s very last race that is the most interesting: Le Mans, 1950.
The idea that a person could race solo for 24 hours and not just finish, but finish in the top 10, finish respectably, is wild. But this was postwar continental Europe, and frankly, for the prior decade and change, methamphetamine use had been rampant. Not to besmirch Mr. Hall’s good name, but come on: Speed, or Pervitin as it was known to Third Reich soldiers who practically lived off the stuff, was everywhere. Nobody has ever directly linked Mr. Hall to uppers, but few had any reason to ask. The great Stirling Moss, when asked about his legendary 1955 Mille Miglia drive averaging nearly 100 mph over 1000 miles, said that it was "the norm," as Motorsport.com reported a few years back:
"I used to take drugs myself," confessed 1950s racing legend Sir Stirling Moss. "Not when racing, but on rallies. It was the norm. They weren't considered drugs at the time. The whole drugs thing only came in as sportsmen and women began using them to enhance their bodies.
"But, as far as I can think, there's nothing you could take that would enhance your skill as a driver. So you'd take amphetamines, Benzedrine or Dexedrine, purely to keep you awake."
Post-WWII it became harder to come by, as the general medical community determined it was both addictive and not-so-good for you. Anyone who lived through the war would have been well familiar with its effects and still likely able to procure it.
Hall was a good driver, no doubt, and had a good, if aging car. But solo? I couldn’t drive a modern Bentley for 24 hours without a whole bunch of speed. It is what it is.
There isn’t really a good way to calibrate one’s expectations for a ninety-year old racing car unless you are one of a few dozen people on Earth who live and breathe this stuff, and who have driven seemingly every variant out there—two of whom I’m spending a rainy Georgia day with. Eddie Hall’s Bentley isn’t the oldest car I’ve ever driven, but it did its last race just three years before a different racing legend was born: the Cunningham C-5R. That car was designed and built in 1952 for the 1953 running, and I've had the opportunity to drive it. Body and brain calibrated by the Cunningham—which was fast, but drove like a truck, with a low-revving V-8, a clunky, crunchy gearbox, and somewhat unpredictable braking behavior—my expectations were pretty low. These expectations were compounded by the fact that this very Bentley was purchased from Cunningham 38 years ago, himself buying it from Hall after the 1950 race. He owned it before the C-5R was built.
Hall’s Bentley may have been twenty years older than the Cunningham C-5R, but it was still a Bentley, and one with heavy Rolls-Royce involvement, at that. You can learn a ton about a car in the first couple hundred feet, and I was instantly blown away by the controls of the old thing. The big straight-eight idled smooth. The four-speed (gated!) shifter may have been tucked a little far under the dash for my personal taste, but the gears engaged more like an Eighties Italian exotic than something old enough to birth one of those cars. The clutch pedal had great feel and easy engagement, and the throttle response could make a modern Lotus hide in shame.
Twenty years is a long time, but not that long. A Bentley Continental GT built in 2003 is, in many immediately noticeable ways, a vastly superior automobile to a one-off racing car built in a shed, in Florida, in 2023.
Mr. Hall must have been quite small, as I imagine all prewar racing drivers were. Even with the seat cushion removed, this is no spacious luxury GT. I had to remove my shoes, leaving them on the original, exposed wooden floorboards, just to get my legs under the wheel and my feet on the pedals. The large steering wheel dug into my thighs. I had to repeatedly remind myself to keep my arms away from its hub, where protruding levers to control ignition timing and choke kept getting caught on my flannel sleeves if I went hand-over-hand.
There is fundamentally no learning curve to the Hall Bentley. If you can drive a Subaru BRZ with a manual transmission, you can drive this with virtually no secondary instruction, aside from needing to double-clutch down into second or first. The steering is sharp, the ratio fast and predictable, but it does feel like the front wheels are a world away. I had to remind myself a few times that the rear wheels sit quite far outboard of the body, and to take care not to drop one into wet grass.
The brakes are linear and offer great feedback, though on wet roads and five-inch wide tires, I wasn’t inclined to find their limit. The pedals are a benchmark that modern carmakers should follow; brilliantly spaced for (bare)footwork. And though the torquey straight-eight maxes out around 4500 RPM where it makes only 167 hp, the car weighs just a hair over 3000 pounds. The power-to-weight ratio is roughly what you’d get in a new Audi A3.
My immediate thought after five minutes on the road, in the rain no less, was: “If I had a few more inches of legroom and a bunch of meth, I could absolutely do 24 hours in this car.” I have never driven anything remotely this old that was so easy to drive.
Is this what luxury cars were like in the Thirties? Is this what racing cars were like in the Thirties? Is this what luxury racing cars were like in the Thirties? If so, I had really been sleeping on this genre. Those octogenarians in their Panama hats are really on to something.
“Are all old Bentleys like this?” I ask Andrew Frankl of The Intercooler, an experienced Bentley motorman.
“Ha! Unfortunately not. This one is very special, and very sorted,” he replies.
Sayer agrees, “Old Bentleys are better than a lot of other very old cars to drive. But even by that high standard, this is one of the best.”
At least partial credit for that must go to Mr. Miles Collier and his Revs Institute, which keeps this and many other historically significant cars ready to drive at all times. Pedro Vela, the man Mr. Collier has sent to mind the Hall car today, tells me that Collier has done over 20,000 miles in this car under his 38-year stewardship, many of those miles on long vintage rallies like the Copperstate 1000, climbing mountains as high as 12,000 feet and dicing it up with super sports cars 20 and 30 years newer.
Collier himself referred to “Eddie” (its nickname) as, “one of the best, if not the best prewar vintage car I’ve had the pleasure of driving.”
Though my experience, compared to one of the biggest car collectors on earth, is a bit more limited, I can’t help but agree.
You Might Also Like