The Bentley Boys are remembered as the brave free spirits of a golden age, but in all the hero-worship it is too easy to overlook the important role played by a heroine. An unlikely heroine, it’s true – notoriously rude and domineering, and with a proclaimed dislike of men despite entering a male-dominated sport – but a heroine who nevertheless saved the 4½ Litre Supercharged Blower Bentley from premature demise. Her name was Dorothy Paget.
Like some of the Bentley Boys, Dorothy Paget’s immediate forebears were monied aristocrats. Her American mother was an heiress, whose uncle had been one of the founders of the Standard Oil Company, and her English father was Lord Queensborough, who made his fortune in coal and steel before becoming a Member of Parliament. However, unlike the Bentley Boys, who spent their inheritances with great speed, and unlike Bentley Motors itself, which too often teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, Dorothy’s wealth was apparently inexhaustible.
In the 1930s Dorothy dedicated some of her immense fortune to becoming the greatest female racehorse owner the British Turf had ever seen. She also gambled heavily, often staying up all night to place bets with her favoured bookies by telephone. After Dorothy died in 1960 at the age of 54 – from heart failure hastened by that nocturnal lifestyle and smoking 100 cigarettes a day – one obituary recalled the moment when, as she congratulated her thoroughbred Golden Miller in the winner’s enclosure, an observer remarked that this was probably the first time she had ever kissed a male. Golden Miller won the Grand National in 1934 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup every year from 1932 to 1936, but when Dorothy poured her money into racing cars, the winner’s circle proved more difficult to reach.
The Bentley Boy who lured Dorothy into a man’s world was “Tim” Birkin. The baronet’s real name was Henry, but his childhood nickname, inspired by the comic-book character Tiger Tim, stayed with him. With his trademark blue-and-white spotted scarf billowing in the wind, Birkin challenged “Johnny Foreigner” on the race track with the same bravado he demonstrated when serving with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. Birkin’s famous idea was to boost the power of Bentley’s 4½-litre engine with a supercharger designed by Amherst Villiers. Initially he received financial backing from fellow Bentley Boys Bernard Rubin and Woolf Barnato – whose family fortunes came respectively from pearls and diamonds – but after the 1929 season there was so little to show for this engineering escapade that they withdrew their support.
When rescue came in the unlikely form of Miss Paget – hat pulled down hard over her round face, long tweed coat wrapping her stocky figure from neck to knees – Birkin must have pinched himself hard. Birkin would later refer to Dorothy as his “Fairy Godmother”, and with good reason: she made it possible for him to carry on racing in 1930, when he would otherwise have been forced to stop, by paying for the rebuild of three existing road going Blower Bentleys plus the construction of a new short-chassis road car. The latter was adorned with a small Paget crest between its radiator filler-cap and Bentley badge.
The Blower Bentleys were immensely powerful and extremely fast, but also unreliable. Birkin’s cars failed to finish the Double Twelve at Brooklands in May 1930; the Le Mans 24 Hours in June; the Irish Grand Prix at Phoenix Park, Dublin, in July; and the Tourist Trophy on the Ards circuit near Belfast in August. The season’s redeeming result came at the French Grand Prix at Pau in September, described by The Motor magazine as “by far the fastest [Grand Prix] on record”, where Birkin finished a close second to Philippe Étancelin’s Bugatti T35C.
By the end of 1930, however, equine fanatic Miss Paget had concluded that Mr Birkin was flogging a dead horse. Yes, Bentley had scored its fourth consecutive victory at Le Mans that year, but this success, like that in 1929, had been achieved with a normally aspirated 6½-litre Speed Six. Dorothy decided she should concentrate her spending on horses rather than horsepower, and in October 1930 a Belfast Telegraph headline broke the news, “Speed Queen Quits”.
Dorothy Paget is just one of the many colourful characters who populate a new book researched by Bentley authority Dr Clare Hay and written by award-winning author Giles Chapman. Painting a vivid picture of one of the most recognisable cars in the history of the automobile, this beautifully produced tome is titled Gentleman Heroes: YU 3250 - The First Blower Bentley and the Men Who Made It Happen. That title would have become rather convoluted if it tried to explain that a woman made some of it happen too, but she did, and as the book illustrates, she’s worth remembering.
By Phillip Bingham