Bentley's head boy

Though initially caring little for Motorsport, Woolf Barnato went on to become a multiple Le Mans winner. Bill Boddy recalls the successes of a respected member of the ‘Bentley Boys’

Capt Woolf Barnato, to anyone who remembers the earlier period of motor racing, will always be associated with the wealthy, glamorous ‘Bentley Boys’ at Le Mans, whose tenacious driving skills and stamina have become legendary. In fact, the handsome, sturdy, dark-haired ‘Babe’ Barnato had raced cars and boats before that. The son of a millionaire diamond merchant, he had come to these sports quite late. His first association with motors had been confined to an illicit solo drive on his brother’s two-cylinder Renault through the crowded streets of Cambridge, which ended up in a shop window, from which the young man, too young to hold a driving licence, used his charm and powers of persuasion to extricate himself without repercussions.

There had been a motorcycle before that, but Barnato had little interest otherwise, until he left Charterhouse and, like his brother, went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Then the war intervened, and he served as a First Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, seeing action on the Ypres Salient in 1915 and afterwards on the Palestine front, from Gaza to the Jordan Valley.

Soon after that his interest in motoring as a sport began. Barnato initially used a 10hp Calthorpe and took a second in class in 1920 at Shelsley Walsh. The Calthorpe Motor Co of Birmingham had made a good name for itself pre-war with the Calthorpe Minor light-car and after the Armistice was doing well with its excellent sporting 10.4hp car. They were bought by several prominent personalities in motorsport circles, and when Barnato discovered a single-seater racing Calthorpe had been built before the war but never used he acquired it for Brooklands racing. The little yellow car won its very first race, at Whitsun 1920, by an enormous margin, at 61.75mph. It was sent back to the factory for further tuning, whereupon it won again, against larger cars, at 69.50mph. Later that year it took a third place, as well as a second and third in speed trials on Westcliffe promenade. Barnato had the bug.

In 1921 the Calthorpe frequently non-started, in spite of having the same size side-valve 1260cc engine as the very slim works racer. Barnato did win with it at Whitsun 1921, but had no result from another of its kind, called the Dorsey-Calthorpe, presumably to distinguish it from his yellow one and the works car.

So he turned to a far larger car, to try to improve things. It was a standard 8-litre six-cylinder T-head Locomobile, with a cream two-seater body and artillery wheels, probably one of the ‘gunboat roadsters’, which Barnato had brought back from America. However it lapped 3.5mph more slowly than the tiny Calthorpe, which would go round Brookands at 78.92mph, but did finish third in the 100mph Long Handicap at Easter. Barnato also ran a 5.7-litre four-cylinder strawberry-hued Austro-Daimler with an overhead camshaft prodding one inlet and four exhaust valves per cylinder, probably an aged Prince Henry model; it lapped at 83mph, to no avail.

A change was due for 1922, so Barnato acquired Malcolm Campbell’s 2.6-litre Talbot and a 4½ litre Talbot said to be the one in which Percy Lambert had been killed in 1913 trying to regain his world one-hour record (but I suspect it merely had the engine from that ill-fated car), and a Hispano-Suiza had given him a class second to a 30/98 Vauxhall at Kop hillclimb.

Both Talbots and a 2-litre Ansaldo were entered for the Easter BARC races, but produced nothing, whereas Campbell’s 3.8-litre Talbot had a win. But in May the smaller Talbot scored two second places for Barnato, before winning again. Woolf immediately followed this up with another win in the AnsaIdo, lapping at almost 80mph. But the big Talbot was not up to expectations in these handicap contests.

However, in 1922 Woolf Barnato got his first taste of long-distance racing with the three-car Enfield-Allday team for the JCC 200 Mile race, until his engine seized. The 2.6 Talbot was third at the Royal Brooklands meeting.

The 1923 racing was much better. Barnato had the second of the Wolseley ‘Moths’, which Capt (later Sir) Alastair Miller had made into very fast little cars. Those who knew these ohc 1261cc Tens as decidedly pedestrian must have been astonished when a lap speed of over 88mph was achieved at Brooklands. In his first race in ‘Moth II’ Barnato was second, and it then won at Easter, going faster than Miller’s ‘Moth’. Handicapper `Ebby’ had the measure of it by Whitsun, but Barnato scored a second place that summer and a third with an even faster Enfield-Allday, and another third in the Wolseley.

It was surprising Barnato had time for all this, because he was adept at cricket, playing for the village team and keeping wicket for Surrey, was a capable heavyweight amateur boxer, was a first-class shot and swimmer, hunted with the Old Surrey and Burstow, and besides playing tennis, took golf very seriously indeed. Yet at Easter 1924 he was at the Track again, obtaining a third place and then a win in the Wolseley. Later the big Talbot won again and the Wolseley produced another win, three seconds and a third, but a 1H-litre Crouch proved no faster than the latter.

However, Barnato’s 8-litre Boulogne Hispano-Suiza, in standard form, gave him 1-1D at the Littlestone speed-trials and a number of Class H records at the Track. Then, in May 1925, he took delivery of a 3-litre Bentley with £400 Jarvis two-seater racing body. It won once that year and was third three times. There was also the 2-litre straight-eight ex-Indianapolis Bugatti, one of five cars which had gone to the USA in 1923 under Count Zborowski’s influence for the famous 500-mile race, all but one sustaining serious engine failures. Zborowsld and the jockey George Duller had this car and Barnato now used it to good effect, lapping at over 106mph to give him a first, second and third at Brooklands, where you always had to try to outwit the handicappers. Late in 1925 a ‘phone call sent Woolf out to Montlhery to aid John Duff on his successful 24-hour record bid in a 3-litre Bentley.

Living at Ardenrun Hall, his estate near Lingfield, Surrey, the social round continued, with boisterous house parties, when as prizes the girls were given fast rides down the drive (the back drive was half a mile long) in racing Bentleys, driven by Sir Henry Birkin or Barnato. Top cricketers like Percy Fender and Jack Hobbs, and Don Bradman’s team, practised at the nets below the house’s five terraces. The 12-car garage at Lingfield contained a Rolls-Royce saloon and the sports Hispano-Suiza for fast runs to the south of France, a 3-litre Bentley, a 3-litre Sunbeam and a hack Model T Ford. Barnato considered the Boulogne Hispano-Suiza one of the finest sports cars on the road, and the then-new Bentley Big-Six as the best car yet produced. By November he had two of the latter, a Barker sedanca and an H J Mulliner limousine. Outside his town house in Grosvenor Square, the police were accustomed to seeing a line-up of racing Bentleys. After Ardenrun burnt down, the family lived at the 1901 Lutyens mansion overlooking Windsor Park, rebuilt to Baranto’s requirements.

Cars apart, Barnato had two Saunders-hulled racing boats, one with a Wolseley engine, the other with a twin-cam Sunbeam power unit. He raced them abroad and won the Duke of York Trophy race on the Thames. The handsome 100mph Jarvis-bodied Bentley scored a first and a second at the Easter 1926 BARC races, but for some reason it was disposed of to Parry Thomas, who had announced he was preparing a Bentley for the 1927 season, before his fatal accident in `Babs’ at Pendine. It emerged in 1928 with typical Thomas frontal cowling, driven by Dudley Froy. Meanwhile W Bentley had Barnato as one of his drivers in the abortive 24-hour record attempt at Montlhery in 1926, when the car was crashed before the 17th hour.

This was to institute Barnato as one of the fabled ‘Bentley Boys’, when he shared a 3-litre with Dr Benjafield in the 1927 Essex Six-hour race at Brooklands, until a rocker arm broke. The same race the following year saw Barnato paired with works driver Frank Clement in a 4H-litre Bentley and beset fastest race lap at 76.57mph over the artificial road course at Brooklands until brakerod stretch retired them. Then came Woolfs first Le Mans, with wealthy Bernard Rubin, in a 4H-litre. He eventually led the battle with a Stutz but then water began to leak from the radiator, and when the top hose pulled away Barnato had to coast where he could with the engine off, but knowing that if it did seize, victory was lost. After the agonising last laps, he won from the Stutz and a couple of Chryslers but never wanted to drive the last spell again.

Barnato now concentrated on the more serious racing, for W Bentley, who regarded him as a very fast and reliable member of the team, who always obeyed orders. It became properly serious in 1929 when he shared the first Speed Six with ‘Dr Benjy’ in the JCC Double Twelve race at the Track; they were leading when the drive to the dynamo sheared and caused their withdrawal from this sportscar contest. This was retrieved at Le Mans when, with Birkin, the same 6H-litre won Bentley’s fourth victory there. Barnato then won the BARC Six-hours, this time with Jack Dunfee in ‘Old Number One’ Speed Six, at 75.88mph over the ‘road’ course. Driving with Clement in 1930 in another of the great Speed Six Bentleys, he won the Double Twelve at 86.68mph (2080.64 miles) in spite of rain towards the end.

Bentley’s fifth victory at Le Mans had Woolf sharing with Cdr Glen Kidston, RN, in ‘Old Number One’, taking the Rudge Cup for the second time. The Bentley company then gave up racing but Barnato had Walter Hassan build him the single-seater Barnato-Hassan for BARC participation. It was driven by blond barrister Oliver Bertram to a lap speed of 142.6mph. Barnato was happy to retire, having won Le Mans three times, defeating Caracciola and the supercharged 38/250 Mercedes-Benz after a stirring duel on the final occasion.

‘Old Number One’ received a new H J Mulliner coupe body, having already had numerous body and engine changes and what was virtually a new chassis; Barnato himself wrote during the war that the only part of it left was the radiator in his study, despite which it is considered to have a ‘continuous history’, although I thought a car’s identity rested with its chassis.

Although his racing days had ended, Barnato remained a keen Bentley driver. He owned many examples of the marque, his first 6H an H J Mulliner tourer in 1927. A Wing Commander in the war, he died in 1946.