Beating the blue train

Among the various ways in which enthusiasts thought up challenges for themselves and their cars in pre-war days was that of setting up personal 'records' over difficult or interesting journeys. Of these, one of the more romantic was attempting to beat the 'Blue Train'. In those faraway times this was the crack train which took the titled and the wealthy away from the fogs and frosts of a winter in England to the more acceptable climate of the French and Italian Riviera.

The crack 'Blue Train', consisting of blue painted luxuriously appointed pullman coaches and restaurant cars, waited in the 1930s in Calais for the 11am boat-train and steamer to arrive from Victoria Station. It then steamed away at around 2.30pm, bound for Vintimille, just beyond Menton, having dropped off at Nice those who preferred the French Riviera. To beat it seemed a challenging motoring accomplishment. In fact, the first successful attempt was made, not by amateur enthusiasts, but as a professional publicity stunt for the Rover Company, organised by their efficient PR chap, Dudley Noble. The stunts then used to publicise cars were almost without end and one day, perhaps, someone with more tenacity than I possess will put some of the more notable ones into a book. Meanwhile, let us look at what was involved in trying to beat the 'Blue Train'.

Noble claimed that many attempts had been made to do this, all of them unsuccessful. In January 1930 he set out to make a successful onslaught, with the latest version of the Rover Light-Six saloon. Being a capable publicist, Dudley took with him Harold Pemberton, motoring correspondent of the Daily Express and Frank Bennett, a tester from the Rover factory, to administer, if necessary, to the car. It was high pressure stuff, necessitating clearance by the Express' Editor Beverley Baxter, its Advertising Director W Needham, and even the newspaper's General Manager EJ Robertson. Noble had obviously tied the stunt into a story for the Express. Incidentally, even in those times, taking space on the paper's front cover cost £750, and similar advertising in the Daily Mail, with its circulation of over 2,000,000, was charged at up to £1200.

The improved Rover which this run was to advertise was not an expensive car. Indeed, the two-door saloon with cycletype front mudguards cost £325, or £332 with the optional four-speed gearbox. Dudley Noble had ascertained that, exciting as beating the crack train sounded, in fact the rail journey was run at a modest average speed. This was because it took time getting round Paris from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon, it stopped at Dijon to change locomotives, and did this again at Marseilles, so that its average speed, far from being a glamourous 60 mph, was less than 40 mph for the 750 mile journey from Calais to St Raphael. Moreover, the run did not involve a car crossing the Channel, as on the pioneering record breaking attempts from London to Monte Carlo and vice-versa. (See Motor Sport, March 1990).

So Dudley and his two companions took the Rover across the sea and at the appropriate time stationed the Rover Light-Six at the level crossing at Calais, engine running, ready to drive off, at the first 'puff' from the engine of the 'Blue Train' (railway enthusiasts will know what kind of loco this was likely to have been).

It is sad to have to record that after 5½ hours driving, when the Rover was an hour ahead of the train, fog came down and they had to abort at Chalon, their average down to 25 mph for those opening 300 miles.

They then decided to do the run in the opposite direction, so motored on to St Raphael and left with the train from there on the Sunday evening. Alas, after about 30 miles Bennett misjudged a corner in teeming rain, went over the bank on the outside and the Rover flew down a ravine. How embarrassing! Pemberton was temporarily knocked unconscious, but the car was towed by a lorry back onto the RN7 and was found to be undamaged apart from some dents and a broken silencer. So off they went again and this time, in spite of bad weather conditions, the Rover was successful, running into the Gare Maritime at Calais 20 minutes before the 'Blue Train' arrived. In mist the speed had dropped to 28 mph but 48 miles were put into the best hour and the overall average was 38 mph.

Excellent publicity was obtained in the daily newspapers, especially with Pemberton's story in the Daily Express, but The Autocar, which did not approve of such runs, gave the train-vanquishing dash only one and a half column inches and a single picture. Incidentally, the car was the one which the magazine had used for its road test report the previous year. The deception indulged in for these publicity stunts is rather revealing. For instance, the attempt was put about as done by a party of friends, one of whom was supposed to have travelled in the 'Blue Train' while the others took to the Rover. No mention was made of the crew being professionals, with Noble attached to the Rover Company, nor in his book does he say that one of the party went on the train, yet in the newspapers, the clear intention was to imply that the driver was an ordinary owner and the presence of the car in St Raphael quite incidental!

After this much publicised run, others found excitement in racing the 'Blue Train'. Lack of space precludes describing all such efforts, even if records of the attempts still exist; but I can appreciate the fun and sense of adventure they must have represented, particularly to the younger, keener drivers. However, the RAC began to object, as it had to the pre-1914 onslaughts on the Monte Carlo record. Another famous train which was also the subject of efforts to beat it by car was the Orient Express. Dudley Noble made his bid in 1937 with a latest Humber, taking Bill Mackenzie, then motoring correspondent of the Daily Mail, after getting support from that paper's advertisement manager Leonard Raftery. They had to give up due to big-end failure. But you should try to read about this adventure and other publicity stunts in Noble's very readable book Milestones In a Motoring Life (London, 1969).

Yet another train that a car set out to race was the Scottish Express, when in the winter of 1931 GE Scott, who was on the staff of Clement Talbot Ltd, beat it by 33 minutes, from Glasgow to London, an average speed of 53 mph. Scott used one of the sports/racing Talbot 105s, still carrying its racing number, 28, and using Trade number plates. His exploit began to arouse criticism that such runs were dangerous, especially when the owner of a Rover Meteor claimed to have beaten this crack express by as much as 55 minutes. This driver was anxious to improve on his performance and 'take on' more powerful cars, if these were driven by non-Trade persons. He said his run was done without risks being taken, which I can believe, and he made the novel suggestion that if future attempts took place, a traffic policeman should ride in the cars. However, already objections to car versus train racing were increasing.

Before leaving this subject one successful onslaught on the 'Blue Train' deserve to be mentioned. It took place soon after Noble's run, when in March 1930 the famous Bentley racing driver, Capt Woolf 'Babe' Barnato, was holidaying at his place on the Riviera and a friend bet him £100 that he could not get to the coast before the express. When informed that the 'Blue Train' was leaving, Barnato got into his Speed-Six Bentley Gurney Nutting coupe, the one with the low sloping roof line which necessitated a single transverse back seat, and drove alone as quickly as he could to Calais, got a cross-Channel boat and continued on to London, where he was in his apartment some four hours before the boat-train reached Victoria, an average speed of 43.44 mph.

The speed across France must have been appreciably higher and resulted, it is said, in Barnato being fined the equivalent of £160 by the FIA, although how they could inflict this on a British citizen for a public road drive I am not sure. This gave rise to Terence Cuneo's fine painting of Bentley and 'Blue Train' racing side by side on this epic journey. Road and rail certainly ran side by side between St Raphael and Brignoles but artistic licence was involved, because both the Rover and the Bentley took this part of the route in the dark. The 'Blue Train' Bentley was rebuilt recently by Hugh Harben and is now in America.

It is interesting that the actual Rover which started such 'Blue Train' races is now being restored by the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust for display at its Syon Park Motor Museum at Brentford, Peter Mitchell, the MD, having known of the car's whereabouts for some ten years. The Rover's top speed is quoted in the Trust's handout as 80 mph; but unless it had been tuned up for Dudley Noble I would have put this at not more than about 70 mph, and then under favourable conditions.