The BRDC Bulletin, a long way from when it was just a short item every month in Motor Sport, had in its January issue an enthralling article by Mike Cassell, reproduced with permission from the Financial Times, about a re-enactment of the memorable run made by the late great Woolf Barnato in a Speed Six Bentley to win a bet that he could not beat the renowned Blue Train express from Cannes to London. He achieved it with time to spare.
In reports of this epic run there has been confusion about exactly which 6-1/2-litre Bentley Barnato had used, but this has since been cleared up. After US businessman Bruce McCaw bought the Gurney Nutting coupe previously thought to be the car, and illustrated in Terence Cuneo’s famous picture, further research showed that Barnato must have used his saloon 6-1/2. McCaw then tracked down the actual chassis and its Mulliner body, then on a different chassis, and reunited them. For the re-run he brought both cars.
I had never been quite sure whether the £200 wager was for the Cannes-Calais section or for the finish in London, but this article confirms that the challenge was to end in London. Indeed, Barnato was back in his Berkeley Square flat before the Blue Train had disembarked its affluent passengers at the French port. I did not know that his golfing friend Dale Bourne had accompanied Barnato, nor that the millionaire driver had arranged for repeated fuelling places for a car “that barely managed 12mpg”.
As Barnato had done, Cassell left the Carlton Hotel in Cannes before dawn, a sprinkling of snow on the mountain peaks of the Napoleonic route. In newspaper-speak it is told that “we turned on the fuel pump, clutched the huge willowy steering wheel, and pulled out of the hotel just as the train was leaving the station, the Bentley’s headlamps, as big as frying pans, alight ahead of the six-foot-long bonnet”.
Mike Cassell and his team presumably did not get lost looking for the booked petrol stop near Auxerre, nor did they have a puncture, both of which it is said Barnato suffered. But they did succumb to a meal and a short night’s sleep near Dijon, and they “eased their green chariot up when it began to object to a speedometer 90mph, bearing in mind its £1m insurance value”.
An unscheduled stop can put one off a bit; I recall how, before the war when I was trying to get a 4-1/4-litre Derby Bentley from London’s Parliament Square to John o’Groats as quickly as possible, I was perturbed when my navigator Tom Lush and photographer Jim Brymer wanted a breakfast pause, which I could not deny to two close friends…
However, the FT writer made it in 37 hours for their 750 miles. Barnato did his journey in 20hr 35min, four minutes before the train was scheduled to pull into Calais.
It is good to note that the re-enactors were greeted at the finish by Diana Barnato-Walker, Woolf’s daughter, who has written a splendid book about her eventful life.
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