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Woolf Barnato versus the Blue Train

Crewe, 31st October 2005... Woolf Barnato - heir to a vast fortune from the Kimberley diamond mines in South Africa - was the epitome of a 'Bentley Boy'. An accomplished sportsman, bon viveur and generous host, he became Chairman of Bentley Motors in 1926 when WO Bentley's original enterprise was struggling for capital. Bentley himself considered Barnato the best of all the team's drivers, and the latter's 100% record at Le Mans - three wins in three starts - confirms the accuracy of WO's judgement. Woolf 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, one guest questioning whether it was possible to beat the train by road from St Raphael to Calais. Barnato wagered £200 that at the wheel of his Speed Six, he could not only arrive in Calais before the train but would be in his London club before the train arrived at the French port. The bet was accepted, and the next day, at 5:45pm, as the Blue Train left the main railway station at Cannes, Barnato and his companion, amateur golfer Dale Bourne set off in Barnato’s Bentley 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 necessitated the use of their only spare tyre, Barnato and his companion finally reached Calais at 10:30 in the morning, a distance of over 570 miles, having maintained an average speed of 43.43 mph, no mean feat on the dusty and rough roads of the time. After crossing the Channel in a packet steamer and driving hard for almost 700 miles, it was 3:20pm when Woolf Barnato parked his Speed Six outside the Conservative Club in St. James’ Street in London. Just four minutes later the Blue Train arrived at the station in Calais.

Barnato had won his bet, although the French Motor Manufacturer’s Association attempted to fine Bentley Motors the equivalent of £160 for racing on public roads; Barnato’s response being that he had raced as a private individual and not as the Chairman of Bentley!

There is, however, a fascinating postscript to this story. For many years it was believed that the Bentley Speed Six in which Woolf Barnato beat the Blue Train was a two-door coupé bodied by the coachbuilders Gurney Nutting. Certainly, the Bentley chairman did own such a car; and it was the Gurney Nutting coupé that contemporary artist Terence Cuneo depicted in his excellent painting of the duel.

But recently, Bruce McCaw, present-day owner of Barnato’s Gurney Nutting Speed Six, uncovered evidence that this particular Bentley was not completed until after the date of the dare, which took place in March 1930. It seems that Barnato, who owned a stable of Bentleys, probably raced the Blue Train in his Mulliner-bodied four-door Speed Six saloon, not the coupé.

Commendably the Seattle-based McCaw traced the chassis and engine of the Mulliner-bodied car, and also discovered the bodywork, albeit on a different Bentley chassis. He reunited the chassis with its original bodywork and showed the restored Mulliner Speed Six alongside his Gurney Nutting Speed Six at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August 2003.

"We were therefore thrilled that Bruce McCaw accompanied his two Blue Train Bentleys on the re-enactment of this great feat," said Richard Charlesworth, "The cars rose to the challenge famously and took the distances in their stride."