Playboy or professional? Investigating the track record of Woolf Barnato, high priest of the Bentley Boys
In the run-up to this year’s Le Mans 24-Hour race the thought occurs that it marks the 90th anniversary of Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato winning the first of his three consecutive Grands Prix d’Endurance there, in 1928. ‘Babe’ Barnato was ostensibly the massively-built, Champagne-quaffing, playboy leader of the so-called ‘Bentley Boys’ – that glittering social set of car-crazy backers, customers and amateur or semi-professional drivers for the Bentley Motor Company of Cricklewood, north London.
But I am not alone in having always wondered just how good a driver Barnato really was. He cannot evidently have been any slouch behind the wheel of one of the great works team cars that he bankrolled. Winning the Le Mans 24-Hour race once might be the mark of a multi-zillionaire merely flexing financial muscle, and simultaneously striking lucky. That has happened before – and within living memory. But ‘Babe’ Barnato didn’t just win Le Mans once – that first time in 1928 – he won it again in 1929 and then – glory be – returned to do it a third time – in 1930. You see the pattern emerging here? Such a record reflects not mere money. Neither does it reflect mere luck. Within the motor racing world, ‘Babe’ Barnato actually had a trump card up his sleeve – for I have it on first-hand authority that he really was a very fine racing driver, indeed… Bentley cars had first won Le Mans in 1924, with John Duff and Frank Clement co-driving the former’s new 3-litre. The team was out of luck in 1925 – both cars retired – and in 1926 all three 3-litres failed – but in 1927 what had become ‘the great race’ was of course the stage on which ‘The White House Crash’ played out. ‘Sammy’ Davis, artist and sports editor of The Autocar was involved in that multiple accident in the 3-litre ‘Old No 7’ which he was co-driving with Dr J D Benjafield. He managed to extricate the badly damaged car from the multi-car melée, while team-mate Leslie Callingham had the macabre experience of seeing Davis and the third team member Duller searching the wreckage for his body….
Davis and Benjafield then set out upon an 18½-hour chase of the leading French Aries co-driven by Chassagne and Laly, battling against queasy-feeling steering caused – as a post-race strip-down revealed – by a cracked ball-joint. When the Aries blew its engine ‘Old No 7’ finally took the lead with less than an hour to run – and Bentley Motors had won its second Le Mans 24-Hour race. It was never again to fail at the Sarthe.
But if anything, the 1928 24-Hour race was even harder fought than the ’27 edition. The Bentley works team then comprised a pair of new 4½-litre cars with ‘Bobtail’ bodywork, plus the year-old 4½ ‘Old Mother Gun’ in which Duff and Clement had won the 24-hour Grand Prix de Paris at Montlhéry in August 1927, only to retreat home with neither trophy nor prize money since the promoters went bankrupt during the event…
At Le Mans 1928 ‘Old Mother Gun’ was shared by ‘Babe’ Barnato and his great Australian friend and like-minded all-round sportsman – and serial carouser – Bernard Rubin. Main opposition was the Brisson/Bloch 4.9-litre Stutz which led in the opening stages. ‘Tim’ Birkin in one of the new 4½s set a new lap record, but Barnato soon broke it, followed by Brisson in the Stutz, and then Frank Clement’s Bentley 4½.
Birkin had a rear tyre puncture and wrap itself round the wheel, jamming it solid. He spent 1½ hours struggling to free it, only for the damaged rim to collapse at Arnage Corner as he struggled towards the pits. Bentley works team cars did not carry jacks as standard, the belief being that the cars could easily complete a Le Mans lap on a flat tyre, but the always impetuous Birkin admitted he was tearing back at 60mph when the wheel-collapse occurred. He then ran back to the pits to report the situation, whereupon co-driver Jean Chassagne hefted a jack under each arm, declared “Maintenant, c’est a moi” – “Now it’s down to me” – and jogged three miles back to the stricken car to retrieve it. Total time lost – three hours.
Refuelling the winning Barnato/Rubin ‘Old Mother Gun’ in 1928
The 4½-litres were all racking their chassis over a diagonal ridge which crossed the road near White House. This fatigued the Bentleys’ chassis frames, and Clement’s was the first to crack, the effect pulling off a water hose which emptied the radiator and cooked the engine. Both sister cars’ frames would fail similarly. The leading Bentley was Barnato/Rubin’s – No 4 – and with only minutes to run ‘Babe’ toured past the pits at 65-70mph, signalling thumb down – chassis broken, radiator leaking. The big Stutz was closing, though itself handicapped by lacking top gear. But Barnato nursed his car home, to that famous third win for Bentley Motors, first win upon his personal Le Mans debut. As a wry postscript to this punishing 24-Hours, the long-delayed Birkin/Chassagne team car left the lap record at 79.73mph last time round to hit their required minimum-distance to qualify as a finisher, then on the way home from Le Mans to Dieppe… its chassis finally cracked.
In 1929 five Bentleys contested Le Mans, and four finished first, second, third and fourth. Three of the Bentleys were works team entries, the Speed Six 6½-litre ‘Old No 1’ for Barnato/’Tim’ Birkin, and two 4½s, including ‘Old Mother Gun’. Entries for Birkin’s two new supercharged ‘Blower’ cars were withdrawn at the last moment, and two additional 4½s had been substituted.
Facing three Stutzes, two Chryslers and a Du Pont, the Speed Six in Birkin’s hands led from the start. Earl Howe would retire the 4½ he shared with Bernard Rubin due to magneto failure, but the surviving Bentley quartet simply rumbled round the Sarthe to their imperious, utterly dominant victory. W O Bentley always had a conservative approach to race strategy and he slowed his cars’ pace so much that Jack Dunfee famously parked the 4½ in which he and Glen Kidston would eventually finish second, at the Hippodrome on the Mulsanne Straight to enjoy a refreshing drink. At 4pm that Sunday the Barnato/Birkin Speed Six No 1 boomed across the finish line to win, its three sisters following in line astern. Score two for ‘Babe’…
Barnato (right) on the winning car with team-mate Birkin
In 1930 – the hat-trick attempt for Barnato – he chose to co-drive the 1929-winning Speed Six ‘Old No 1’ – registered MT3464 – with Glen Kidston. The Bentley entry comprised three Speed Sixes backed by three of the new supercharged 4½-litre ‘Blowers’ which overheated on the poor-quality French fuel provided. It was decided to run them on pure Benzol which required raising the compression as a last-minute fix. Conversion time simply ran out for one of the cars – for Jack Dunfee/Beris Harcourt-Wood – which became a non-starter. So the ‘Blowers’ set out to lure the main rival Mercedes of Caracciola/Werner to destruction. Birkin lapped at 89.69mph in the process. But ‘Babe’ Barnato also did his share in the Speed Six, taking the lead on lap 36 and forcing Caracciola into engaging his car’s supercharger excessively. Barnato pressed the German car relentlessly, and it broke. Caracciola told WO that the Mercedes race strategy had been based upon the 1929 Speed Six performance, so Bentley’s conservative pace that year – contrasted by the real speed in this 1930 edition – really had laid the foundation for another triumph.
With the Mercedes removed, WO slowed his entire fleet to cruising pace. A rival Stutz caught fire, another broke its back axle. Birkin’s hard-pressed ‘Blower’ broke a valve late-morning on Sunday, and Benjafield’s 10-hour solo stint in the sister car ended when a piston collapsed. His co-driver Giulio Ramponi had fallen ill with a fever (including visions) and drove just one lap during the night – and that under protest. Clive Dunfee had crashed the Speed Six he was sharing with ‘Sammy’ Davis, which left Barnato and Kidston leading from Frank Clement and Dick Watney in the only other Speed Six. And they toured home first and second for the fifth and – until 2003 – the last Bentley victory at Le Mans… and ‘Babe’ Barnato’s third in just three drives in the world’s most prestigious endurance motor race.
Back in the 1970s, I was talking to Walter Hassan, the former Bentley works team technician who had served as Barnato’s riding mechanic, and who postwar became chief engineer of Coventry Climax. There he worked with Jim Clark and Team Lotus, providing the Formula 1 V8 engines with which Jimmy won his two World Championship titles. And I was surprised when Wally assured me, level-eyed, that ‘Babe’ Barnato had in fact been the greatest driver talent he had known and – very significantly – the most like Jimmy Clark. “Despite being the company’s financial backer he absolutely obeyed every pit signal he was given. He combined tremendous pace with terrific mechanical sympathy – and he could just make the car do whatever he wanted…”. And for that capability, Wally Hassan plainly considered that ‘Babe’ Barnato – ‘The Captain’, the massive man who had inherited vast wealth from South African diamond-mining, who had shone at boxing and who kept wicket for Surrey County Cricket Club – had never received adequate credit. Well, 90 years ago – and in the 50th anniversary year of Jimmy Clark’s tragic demise – ‘Babe’s winning debut to launch his Le Mans hat-trick – and his true driving talent – is surely worth recalling.
Doug Nye is the UK’s most eminent motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s