Catch the Blue Train

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In Seattle lurks a unique Bentley and a host of other exotica

A friend of mine is a dyed-in-the-wool motor racing enthusiast, as well as a great fan of unlimited hydroplaning. Thus, when he started talking casually about the ‘Blue Train’ over dinner in Seattle’s Metropolitan Grille last November, I wasn’t altogether surprised. But with him, you never quite know. Surely he didn’t mean the real ‘Blue Train’? It was quite within the realms of possibility that he had simply acquired one of those great Pacific North-West diesel locomotives, for this is a man who collects.

It was, however, the real ‘Blue Train’ that we were discussing. Not the train itself, you understand, but the car that beat it. The real, one-off, totally restored Bentley 6-1/2-litre with which Captain Woolf Barnato – one of the original Bentley Boys – successfully raced the Blue Train back in 1930.

Time has obscured the precise reason why Barnato, the victor at Le Mans in 1928 (with Bernard Rubin), 1929 (with Sir Henry Birkin) and 1930 (with Glen Kidston) and a man famed for his generosity as well as his sheer physical strength and joie de vivre, decided to emulate Rover’s feat by taking on the famous Blue Train. The whole thing proved nothing and arose from a casual discussion, but was only ever intended to be a bit of fun.

On March 13 Barnato set off from Cannes at 6pm, shortly after the train itself had left. He reached Boulogne by 10.30 the following morning, and made the 11.35am boat, reaching Folkstone by one. He was at the RAC Club in Pall Mall by 3.30pm, a handsome three and three-quarter hours before the train pulled in to Victoria station. Without exceeding 75mph, he had averaged 43.43mph in France, and it is said that he and golfing companion Dale Bourne, who is believed to have taken the train, celebrated in style.

“Why don’t you,” said my companion as we discussed the car, “come up tomorrow and pick it up with us?”

Well, why didn’t I, indeed. . . It was thus that I travelled from Redmond, just north of Seattle, back into the city with Byron Sanborn and Thor Thorson, Bruce McCaw’s partners in Vintage Racing Motors Inc, a dealer in some most interesting automobiles. We threaded our way to a particularly dingy region down by the railroad tracks, there to locate a small treasure trove in which the great car had recently been overhauled. Such an Aladdin’s Cave was totally unexpected within the locale, but it specialises in all manner of work including a detailed rebuild of a vintage Alfa Romeo which required serious remedial attention in the transmission department.

Mentally I cast around for the trailer on which we would load the Bentley to take it back up to Redmond, but to my surprise Byron swung casually behind the wheel. “Oh no,” he smiled, “we’re driving back.”

I’ve been in some unusual machines, but the experience of chugging along in the Blue Train Bentley, through the streets of downtown Seattle and thence on the I 90 back up towards Redmond, was just too much, our scuttle line almost at the height of some of the cars whose occupants stared agog. Barnato’s grand old lady is in perfect condition, immaculate in British Racing Green (originally it was black with a fabric bonnet) with tan leather upholstery and its side-saddle occasional rear seat. The original cocktail cabinets are intact. With its chopped coupe roofline, massive radiator and flared mudguards it is a truly outrageous shape. Even today it draws incredulous glances; one can only imagine the impact it had in its heyday.

GJ 3811 is a tremendous beast, powered by Bentley’s 6,597 cc, single overhead cam straight six. With four valves per cylinder and twin SU carburettors it produced around 140bhp at 3,500rpm in its day, and has since been developed to create more. Its past owners include Lord Brougham and Vaux, Charles Mortimer, then Reg Potter who kept it from 1941 to 1968. Thereafter it passed into the hands of Hugh Harben, who undertook a highly detailed restoration. For many years it had sat forlornly in a timber garage in the Midlands, its bodywork in particular in a sorry state. Harben installed high compression pistons and a reservoir for the servo brakes, and fitted seven inch rear tyres instead of the standard sixes. At the same time he sealed the hinged windscreen, enlarged the two inch deep pillar box slot that served as the rear window to something closer to four, and fitted a fabric roof. He then raced it at Bentley Drivers’ Club events in the early 1970s, and later it came to rest at Bob Cole’s Candy Store at Burlingame, San Francisco, which is where my acquisitive friend espied it.

The right-hand change mechanism for the four-speed gearbox quite clearly requires the patience of Job himself, but stopping this two and a half ton behemoth was not as arduous as one might suspect. The 6-1/2 was always renowned for the power of its large drum brakes, and GJ 3811 could pull up smartly enough when occasion warranted. We didn’t exploit its 100mph + estimated performance (thanks in part to a final drive ratio said to be the same as the works Le Mans cars), but it was far from outclassed in modern traffic. There is ample torque that obviates the need for endless gearchanging, and while the ride is necessarily jouncy given the nature of the Bentley’s leaf spring suspension it is a thrill to sit on the low bucket seats with one’s legs stretched out, peeking through the slot-like windscreen, occasionally running a finger gently across the walnut burr dashboard with its myriad dials.

We proceeded across Lake Washington (itself a splendid experience) and on to another secret treasure trove whose identity and location is best left undisclosed. Here, in a warehouse in which a number of enthusiasts garage their prized cars on carpeted floors amid other similarly rare exotica, the Blue Train was eased back to rest. Around it sat a Pierce Arrow, a Cord 810, a Jaguar XK140, a Lagonda LG6, a Jaguar SS100 and the ex-Eoin Young Stutz.

The day was incomplete, however, for Vintage Racing Motors offers some equally delectable motor racing machinery that would make Donington and the National Motor Museum flood with salivation.

There’s the ex-Beltoise BRM P201 which is currently being regeared after finishing ‘only’ third last time out at Laguna Seca. “It’s a wonderful car,” says Sanborn. “Pleasant to drive, the very last development of the V12. the short-stroke unit. It’s got a very narrow power band, around 1,500rpm, from 8,200 upwards.” In fact, that day the engine was on its way back home, as I was, as it headed for Hall & Fowler in Bourne for a rebuild. The car is in beautiful conditions (as are most of VRM’s wares), and Sanborn is unstinting in his praise for Bourne’s workmanship. “It’s very good; the best thing I’ve seen out of the United Kingdom.”

Elsewhere lives Pedro Rodriguez’s Spa-winning P153 (ex-Nick Mason) and an ex-Anthony Mayman P261, both equally immaculate. Then there are the Porches: a 910 Siffert team car and a Siffert/Bell 917 that is either chassis 017 or 004. Or the Elvas, a passion for the company. There’s the beautiful little GT160 with BMW power which ran at Le Mans in 1965; a 200 Formula Junior car and a 300 chassis; Mk7s with Ford twin-cam and Climax power; a MK7S with two-litre BMW, a Mk6 with Alfa engine and a brace of Mk8s. Almost tucked away are a Brabham BT8 with 2.7 Climax, an F2 BT16 which originally ran a Cosworth SCA in the UK before being rejigged for Formula B work Stateside, a Chevron B19 still in DART colours, a Lotus Seven; an Alfa Romeo Giulietta; a TransAm Chevrolet Camaro Z28 which produced 527bhp at 7,900rpm “before it hurt itself”. A ’63 split-window Chevrolet Corvette once run by Augie Pabst shares workshop space with a Sbarro Lola T70 MK3B in roadgoing guise with Ferrari 330 V12 powerplant and the occasional ground clearance problem. Incongruous beside them are the Crossley Hotshot whose blue and orange colours deliberately reflect those of the Mirage M3 opposite. This is the converted M2 which currently has a Weslake Ford V8 and ZF gearbox but which will eventually revert to its original Cosworth DFV and Hewland transmission. Interestingly it has a GT40 radiator and very different bodywork to the guise in which it ran at the Osterreichring in its heyday.

Throw in Ronnie Peterson’s First National City Traveller’s Checks March 761B (with 2-1/2in longer wheelbase), an ex-Chico Serra Fittipaldi F9A which was the newest car when it appeared last year at Monterey; an ex-Hap Sharp Cooper T53 which is beautifully authentic; and Jim Giese’s Cooper Monaco-based King Cobra which was in for work. Nice Triumph Herald front uprights it had, too.

In other locations there are an ex-Lauda Ferrari 312T2; a McLaren M8E; Lothar Motschenbacher’s M1B; Denny’s M8F Can-Am championship winner; a 283cu in Chevrolet-powered Devin (tamed by its limited slip diff); an ex-Sam Hanks ’36 Offy-engined Midget and the Mercury pace car he won at Indy in 1957. An ex-Masten Gregory Allard J2X with 400bhp from its 354 Chrysler hemi; the ex-Mason Dayton Steel Foundry Special; one of the fibreglass replicas of BRM’s PI80.

The BRMs apart my favourite was the unique McLaren M5A, the car with which Bruce would have scored a first time out victory at Mosport Park had he fitted an alternator back in 1967. This is also the car with which Denny Hulme finished fifth in South Africa in his first race for McLaren the following year, and which Denny and Tyler Alexander trailered from the airport and ran themselves . . . It, too, is undergoing a thorough rebuild, and lurking atop a shelf is an M4B chassis which is that car’s immediate predecessor.

VRM has connections with the Unlimited Hydroplane Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, which in recent years has brilliantly restored the legendary Slo-Mo-Shun IV and V hydroplanes which so revolutionised the sport in the early ’50s. The first time I went to Seattle in 1990 the latter was just a pile of matchwood hidden underneath everything else; today it is running better than ever. As the museum now works on refurbishing the great Bill Muncey’s Miss Thriftway racer, there are fresh aspirations to create a facility capable of displaying some of the cars and some of the region’s famous hydroplanes which did so much to put the city on the map. Given the debt that Seattle owes its bygone heroes, a memorial to their commitment and success is long overdue. D J T