Woolf Barnato’s train racing exploits in the Blue Train Bentley have become part of motoring mythology, but is it true? Eoin tells the story
Agatha Christie could have created the plot — it was one of those myths of Bentleydom that has become history. Or at least, it was history until a Bentley historian uncovered the uncomfortable fact that the famous ‘Blue Train’ Bentley had not been built until 10 weeks after Woolf Barnato’s famous race across France, following a bet with a friend that he could drive home faster than he could make the trip back to London by Le Train Bleu. To be more specific, the bet was that Barnato could beat the train from Cannes to Calais. We speak now of France in the late ’20s, long before autoroutes had been imagined, when motoring was by tree-lined N-roads and driving from Paris to Nice was an adventure to be enjoyed as part of a Grand Tour, rather than a modern grind across the country locked in traffic vexation. The Blue Train was then the last word in luxury and the fastest means of getting from the Riviera to Calais, crossing the English Channel to Dover, and thence to London and Victoria Station.
The Bentley that would be known to generations of Bentley lovers as The Blue Train car was a rakish fastback coupe by Gurney Nutting, a 2+1 with the rear passenger sitting sideways, so steep was the fall of the roofline that there was zero headroom for normal rear seating. There was also the veiled suggestion that the sideways rear passenger seat gave wealthy playboy sportsman Barnato easier access to lady friends. Ken Purdy describes a similar body-style on a Bugatti in his Book of Automobiles: “The Paris firm Million-Guiet built bodies for Types 46 and 50 Bugattis that might have been called menage a trois coupes: they carried three people, the driver and one passenger in front, the other passenger sitting sideways in the rear, with a splendid view out the slot-like rear window and a big triangular cushion on which to rest her feet¦”
Barnato owned the Bentley company, more probably buying it as a favour, and bailing out his old friend and mentor WO Bentley in 1925 to guarantee a supply of the splendid Bentley cars he would race at Brooklands and Le Mans, where he shared the winning car in 1928, 1929 and 1930.
There was no suggestion that the famous coupe was falsely titled to increase its value, more probably that Barnato had never bothered to identify which of his Speed Six Bentleys he had been driving on the Riviera that summer. The Gurney Nutting fastback more or less assumed the title as the story grew in the telling, and Terence Cuneo’s famous painting of the fastback Bentley running hard alongside the speeding French locomotive added further title to the legend and the identity the special Bentley was assuming. There were those who pointed out that the car had never been in sight of the train at any point on the day of the wager, but that was put down to Cuneo’s artistic licence as much as his tiny trademark mouse scuttling along in front of the car.
Breaking the myth
Michel Hay was the Bentley historian who was asked to research the Blue Train car by its present owner, Bruce McCaw of Seattle. In 2002 Hay would write in the Bentley Drivers’ Club Review that “my jaw hit the ground” when he realised he had uncovered a fact that would prove to be a severe dent in Bentley folklore. He found that the chassis for what would be accepted as The Blue Train coupe was not finally tested off the Bentley line until two and a half months after Barnato had won his bet and beaten the Blue Train across France.
Not that Barnato had bothered to deceive. He wrote an article on the run in the BDC Review in 1946 referring to “my Speed Six saloon” which might have caused alarm bells to ring, and the same article makes passing reference to the fact that he had cans of fuel in the boot and was worried about tyre damage because he had only one spare wheel. The Gurney Nutting fastback has two very visible side-mounted spares and no boot. Barnato was simply referring to the Speed Six he was using at the time. It only seems in retrospect that the Blue Train run has gathered its own mystique. At the time he passed it off, saying, “Any woman could have done the same thing without discomfort.”
Once a car has assumed a reputation for whatever reason, the reputation only grows, helped no doubt from the fact that this one was restored by venerable Bentley Drivers’ Club president, Hugh Harben, in the mid-’60s and owned by him until 1981. Mentioning the Harben aura, I recall partnering Murray Smith on a vintage Monte Carlo Rally down through France in the ex-Harben Bentley 3/4½-litre, and there being some muttering by a group of Swiss Bentley folk in their white overalls with winged-B badges, one morning as the Bentley sat burbling and warming-up before the start of the day’s run. It seemed that the cross-shafts had been removed, and this was not the done thing to Swiss eyes. I mentioned this to Smith, who asked the Swiss if they had a problem with his car. One looked suitably disdainful and asked Smith who had removed the cross-shafts, with the thinly veiled suggestion that the perpetrator had to be some sort of philistine. Smith pointed out that it had been Hugh Harben’s car, and that Hugh had carried out the modification. Then it was instantly different. “Oh it was Hugh’s car, was it? Didn’t he make a wonderful job of taking out the cross-shafts.”
An earlier owner was Charles Mortimer, Brooklands motorcycle racer and, post-war, a sports car racer, motor dealer, and latterly motoring book-dealer and a splendid raconteur. At one of our regular Barley Mow lunches in 1982, I interviewed Charles for my weekly column in Autocar, in which I said: “The Barnato Bentley ‘Blue Train’ coupe joined the Mortimer stable from the Used Car Motor Show at Islington in 1938 for the princely sum of £150, and after war had been declared in 1939 he sold it for £25 to a brave dealer who actually managed to move it on for £27.” Changed days.
Charles said, “My most outstanding impressions are still of its squatness and size, for whether or not its roofline really was much lower than standard Bentley models, it always appeared to be, both inside and out. Even compared with an 8.0-litre Bentley I owned later, the Barnato Coupe always somehow seemed larger and yet more compact than any other Speed Six. It was probably some 10mph [16kph] faster than most of its type, but I always had the impression that its designer had done a better job on the engine than with the road-holding or suspension. With fuel at the price it was in the ’30s one somehow never got around to checking consumption, but on a run of 100 miles [160km] or more it probably never did better than 14 miles to the gallon [20.2l/100km] and in traffic probably averaged around eight mpg [35.3l/100km]. Its maximum was just over 100mph but at anything over 85mph [137kph] it began to vibrate, perhaps because of a problem with the crankshaft damping. In that immediate pre-war period it would show its heels to all except out-and-out sports cars, but there were occasions on a run with not enough long straights, and a few too many bends, when determined owners of 3½-litre Jaguar saloons could make life uncomfortable — not so much through performance, I suppose, as concern for whether you could retard the Bentley’s weight in an emergency. Despite it three-figure maximum the Barnato coupe was happier cruising around 75 [121kph] than 85mph, and though it didn’t protest at being pushed to its top speed, it made sure that one knew it was doing it.” In later conversations Charles would comment that the Mini Cooper he was driving then had more interior room than the Barnato coupe.
In my memorabilia and book-dealing days in London I happened upon a set of the original sketches Terence Cuneo worked from with his big Bentley paintings — which included The Bentley and the Blue Train and Pitstop at Le Mans — and I made contact with him to ask about the background to his motoring art. He explained that he had been commissioned to do a painting of a George V locomotive and while working on it, realised the potential for the Barnato picture. He asked Hugh Harben to bring down the actual Barnato fastback to the railway yard and he used the George V loco as a model for the Blue Train at full steam. I noted that in the Blue Train painting Cuneo’s little mouse is legging it out in front of the speeding Bentley.
Sixty years ago, Barnato had been prevailed upon to write about his Blue Train run in Bentley Driver’s Club Review and in the June 1946 issue he wrote about the way reminiscences of races — “one had been fortunate enough to have won” — spoke so strongly of self-eulogy, but he was prepared to put on record his race against the Blue Train, “an ‘unoffiocial’ run I made, and one for which I received no mead whatsoever [in fact it caused Bentleys to be barred from the 1930 Paris Motor Salon] will always remain in my mind as the most interesting.”
Two other motor car firms had beaten the Blue Train to Calais and advertised the fact, but Barnato was dismissive of these claims. “Now as the Train Bleu goes via Marseilles, where it stops for about an hour, and thence to Paris, where it wastes another 3½-hours going from the Gare d’Orleans to the Gare du Nord, I contended the achievements advertised did not deserve much merit, and to back my contention, I wagered I could get to England in my Saloon Speed Six before the train got to Calais. My proffered wager was laughed off as a late-night boast, so I said, all right, we’ll have ‘no bet’ but I say I shall do it, just to prove my contention that beating the Blue Train deserves little merit. Not only did I complete the mission but I actually reached London in my car before the Blue Train got to Calais.
“I admit that when I made my assertion about getting to England before the train got to Calais, I made no stipulation as to which route I should take, and the point never arose in the argument. This is how it was done — I had one passenger, as spare driver, to take over if I got sleepy, the late Mr Dale Bourn, the well-known amateur golfer. We waited in the Carlton Bar, Cannes, until we got word from the station that the train had left (5.54pm), we finished our drinks and left.” Mr Barnato definitely sounds like my sort of chap.
“At Aix-en-Provence we topped up with petrol (100 miles). Knowing how difficult it is to get ‘gas’ at night in France, I had already arranged for a garage pump I knew at Lyons to remain open till after midnight, and for a petrol lorry to be at Auxerre at 4am. I arrived at the pump in Lyons at one minute to midnight (nicely up to schedule). From Lyons onwards it poured with rain which put us a bit behind schedule, so that we didn’t get to Auxerre till 4.20am and then had difficulty in locating the petrol lorry which had gone into town instead of staying on the bypass. After Auxerre, on the high ground, we ran into the cloud front that had been dealing out the rain. The result of which was we were three-quarters of an hour behind schedule getting to Paris. Soon after leaving Paris I burst a tyre, and as I only had one spare wheel I had to take it easy as another blow-out would have meant I’d had it. Happy to relate no other untoward incident took place from there onwards, and I pulled on to the quai at Boulogne at 10.30am.
“The Boulogne-Folkstone boat used to leave at 11.30 so that it gave the RAC the requisite hour they require for a car to be at the port before sailing, and ourselves good time to have an excellent breakfast in the station buffet. In fact, my car was the first on and, therefore, the first off at Folkestone. A pleasant one hour, 20 minutes’ sea trip, no trouble at the Customs, and super-efficient service by the RAC on the triptique business (word seemed to have preceded us that we were to be given priority), and we were away again before the train left Folkestone for London. We cruised slowly to London Town, for after all, the mission of getting to England first had already been completed and we saw no reason to hurry, especially in view of the fact that I now had no spare wheel.
“On getting to London I noticed the clock at Victoria on the Vauxhall Bridge Road signified the time as 3.20pm. I said to Dale, “Do you know we’ve got to London before the train has got to Calais.” (The train reaches Calais at 3.24pm.) So to confirm this we clocked in at Bourne’s Club, the Conservative in St. James’ Street. Then I thought we ought to register our arrival with the RAC. The news of our successful run had apparently already preceded us, for the hall porter was waiting with the time clock message-stamping machine to mark our cards.
“An interesting sidelight on the story is that in case the petrol pump at Lyons was closed, or the petrol lorry at Auxerre did not turn up, I’d filled the boot with bidons of petrol, the result of which was that I had so much tail weight that I couldn’t do more than 80mph [129kph] without the springs bottoming. I spite of this, the average from Canes to Boulogne was just over 45mph [72kph]. It only goes to show what a high average over a long distance can be maintained by not stopping for refreshments!
“I drove the whole distance, with the exception of the last two hours to Paris, my eyes needing a rest on account of the fog, rain and windscreen wiper.
“It was unfortunate that Bentleys were barred from the Paris Salon of 1930 for this escapade, on the grounds that we’d advertised an unofficial trial, although we put no advertisement in at all; naturally the Press got hold of the story and wrote it up. As I was then chairman of Bentley, this was considered advertising, when in reality the whole thing was done to show that there was no great merit in beating the Blue Train.”
Seventy-five years after Barnato’s trip across France, in October 2005, Bentley Motors and Mulliner celebrated the event with a limited edition version of the twin-turbocharged 6.75-litre four-door saloon to be known as the Arnage Blue Train Series. Top speed is 270kph. A special plaque inside records the Barnato achievement with other special reminders as noted in the official press release: “In homage to the slatted bonnet of the original ‘Blue Train’ Bentley Speed Six, Bentley’s design team has specified vertical slatted vents, painted in body colour, behind the trailing edge of the front wheel arches. The Blue Train Arnage will carry the black-winged ‘B’ inside and out as the distinguishing mark of the most powerful and performance-focused Bentleys, and will also have Blue Train badging on the front wing and door aperture tread-plates.”
It was fitting that Bruce McCaw and his wife Jolene were invited to France with their brace of Blue Train Bentleys for the commemorative run up from the Cote d’Azure on a 75th anniversary tour from Cannes to London. McCaw is a wealthy enthusiast with an impressive personal collection of cars in Seattle, and it was McCaw who received the telephone message from Bentley historian Michael Hay, saying, “Are you sitting down? Because your car isn’t the Blue Train¦” The so-called Blue Train fastback is chassis HM2855 and Hay’s research points to the fact that the actual car Barnato drove across France that night is chassis BA2592. McCaw did the decent thing and bought that car as well, to avoid future problems of identity.
Let Bruce McCaw have the last word on the legend in an email he sent in reply to my questions: “Initially I was of course surprised when the information was received,” McCaw writes. “I decided the first thing to do was locate the other car and then worry about it. We were fortunate that we were able to locate body and chassis (with engine), and with the help of Peter Hageman and Richard Moss, acquire and complete the other Speed Six. Then we had to figure out how to tell the world. At the time I observed that there would now be two Blue Trains, the one the world knew and the ‘other’ one.
Michael Hay didn’t agree with me and thought the mantle would simply transfer, but I think I was right. Even after unveiling both cars at Pebble Beach and putting the whole story in the programme, it was as though no on really cared to alter the lore. The mystique continues, and in spite of some of the information that has surfaced, the questions linger as to which car it really was. Barnato lived for many years after [He died in 1948] and little information surfaced during that time to contradict the coupe legend. His daughter Diana Barnato Walker (a fabulous person — fascinating and accomplished in her own right) remains emphatic that it was the coupe that Barnato drove.
“Having recently completed the 75th anniversary drive we have proven that both cars were quite capable of the run. More importantly, I now fully appreciate Woolf’s extraordinary accomplishment both in his era and even by the standards of today. That was a fabulous and challenging drive, and I am reminded of how great these cars were and still are. Whatever the truth may be, the ‘Blue Trains’ seem quite content with themselves in sharing history and happy to be stablemates once again after all these years. While the stunning Gurney Nutting coupe will always bask in the spotlight of attention that its role as perhaps the first GT supercar seems to command, the Mulliner saloon carries its conservative elegance well with the quiet confidence that it can indeed still run alongside its stylish sibling.”
Words: Eoin Young
This article is from Classic Car issue 190. Click here to check it out.