Woolf Barnato, heir to a vast fortune from the Kimberley diamond mines in South Africa, was the ultimate ‘Bentley Boy’. A brilliant sportsman, bon viveur and generous host, he became Chairman of Bentley Motors in 1926 when the company was struggling for capital. W.O Bentley considered him the best of all the team’s drivers, and Barnato’s 100% record at Le Mans – three wins in three starts – confirms WO’s judgement.
Barnato was at a dinner party on board a yacht near Cannes in March 1930 when the subject of racing the famous Blue Train came up, as both Rover and Alvis had recently beaten the train from St Raphael to Calais. Barnato wasn’t impressed, calling the achievement ‘no great shakes’. He wagered £200 that at the wheel of his Speed Six he could beat the train to Calais with ease.
Knowing how canny Barnato was, none of his companions would take the bet – so he resolved to do the run anyway, to prove his point. The next day at 5:45pm, as the Blue Train left the railway station at Cannes, Barnato and his companion, amateur golfer Dale Bourne, left the Carlton Bar in Cannes and set off in the Speed Six.
During the 185 miles from Cannes to Lyon, the two men encountered heavy rain which slowed their progress. At around 4am, between Lyon and Paris, near Auxerre, the team lost time searching for their pre-arranged refuelling rendezvous. Despite this setback, some dense fog near Paris and a puncture which used their only spare tyre, Barnato and Bourne finally reached Calais at 10:30 in the morning. They had covered over 570 miles at an average speed of 43.43 mph, an impressive achievement on the dusty and rough roads of the time.
Barnato had arrived in Calais so far ahead of the train that he decided to continue on to London. After crossing the Channel in a packet steamer, being waved through Customs and driving hard for almost 700 miles, Woolf Barnato parked his Speed Six outside the Conservative Club in St. James’ Street at 3.20pm. Just four minutes later the Blue Train arrived at the station in Calais.
Barnato had won his unofficial dare, although the French Motor Manufacturer’s Association fined Bentley Motors around £160 for racing on public roads and barred Bentley from the Paris Salon of 1930. Barnato claimed that he had raced as a private individual and not as the Chairman of Bentley…a claim that failed to convince the authorities.
Few cars embody the glamour, speed and power of the pre-war Bentley era better than the ‘Blue Train’ Bentley Speed Six. Barnato’s achievement was so exceptional that a 2015 re-run by Car Magazine in a Continental GT3-R only just managed to beat Barnato’s average speed set in 1930.
For years, the Bentley that beat the Blue Train was thought to be a Speed Six coupé built by coachbuilders Gurney Nutting. The low roofline and 2+1 cockpit with a single ‘side-saddle’ rear seat gives it a lean, low and purposeful profile; this unique design was cited by Bentley’s design team as one of the inspirations for the modern-day Continental GT.
Facts & Figures
• Gurney Nutting Speed Six Coupé a one-off design
• Powered by same 180bhp engine as the Le Mans winning Speed Sixes
• Interior fitted with a side-saddle single rear seat – and cocktail cabinet
• Achieved 43.43mph between Cannes and Calais on pre-war Routes Nationales
• Controversy over which Speed Six Barnato drove to win the bet
• Barnato and co-driver Bourne reached the Conservative Club four minutes before the Blue Train reached Paris
• Collector Bruce McCaw owns both ‘Blue Train’ Bentleys – the Gurney Nutting and the Mulliner cars
• Bentley was fined for ‘racing on public roads’ and barred from Paris Salon
All images Bentley Motors Limited