The greatest of the "Bentley Boys" was a bear of a man and hardly of racer physique. Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato enjoyed an unrivalled record at Le Mans – winning on each of his three starts in the race. Despite eventually owning Bentley, he never pulled rank and was happy to drive as instructed.
Upbringing, cricket and Brooklands
Barney Barnato immigrated to South Africa with £25 to his name but when ready to return, he was a millionaire from the diamond mines. However, he was lost overboard on the voyage back to London. His two-year-old son Woolf inherited that considerable fortune but only after a court case that lasted until adulthood.
Having served as a Captain in World War I, Woolf Barnato first raced a Bentley at Brooklands in 1921. When W.O.Bentley hit financial trouble Barnato invested and served as Chairman of the company from 1926 until 1931. He was also a founding member of the British Racing Drivers’ Club and wicket keeper for Surrey County Cricket Club from 1928 to 1930.
Unbeaten at Le Mans
However it is as a driver at Le Mans that Barnato is best remembered. Joining the works team in 1928, he shared the winning 4.5-litre Bentley "Sport" (known as "Old Mother Gun") with Bernard Rubin that year – starting his historic run of success in the race.
He repeated the victory in a "Speed Six" in 1929 and 1930 with Tim Birkin and then Glen Kidston sharing the honours. Barnato is the only man to win his first three Le Mans 24 Hour races and he promptly retired from motor racing. The stock market crash of 1929 had put a severe strain on the company’s finances and he struggled to keep it alive before eventually selling to Rolls-Royce in 1931.
With Europe at war again in 1939, Barnato joined the Royal Air Force and reached the rank of Wing Commander. He married for a third time shortly before his death during an operation in 1948. An outgoing, generous and gregarious fellow, a great sportsman was lost aged just 53.