During the early days of Bentley, the brand came to be associated with glamour, speed and luxury. Much of the glitz was thanks to Chairman Woolf Barnato, who courted public favour through his racing and extravagant lifestyle. Barnato was at the centre of the story of one of Bentley’s most famous models. The ‘Blue Train’ Bentley Speed Six is remembered for outpacing the Blue Train from Cote d’Azur to Calais. Barnato was behind the wheel at the time. There has been speculation on which Six Speed he drove, so we’ve done some investigating.
A driver and a dare
In 1930, Barnato was at a dinner party on a yacht when he became involved in a conversation about the Blue Train. He overhead that Rover and Alvis had recently beaten the train from St Raphael to Calais, but wasn’t impressed. Barnato bet £200 that he could drive a Six Speed and beat the train easily.
None of his friends took the bet, though Barnato resolved to make good on his promise. At 5:45 PM the next day, the Blue Train left Cannes, with Barnato hot on its heels. Accompanying him was amateur golfer Dale Bourne. On the way from Cannes to Lyon, Barnato encountered heavy rain, which slowed him down. At 4 AM, the duo couldn’t find their pre-arranged refuelling spot near Auxerre, losing precious time.
Despite the setbacks, Barnato and Bourne made it to Calais at 10:30 AM. They’d covered over 570 miles at an average speed of 43.43 mph. Barnato had arrived so far in advance of the train that he decided to keep going until he reached London. He boarded a packet steamer and drove another 700 miles, parking the Speed Six outside the Conservative Club in St James Street at 3:20 PM. Four minutes later the Blue Train showed up at the Calais station.
Barnato won his dare, but the French Motor Manufacturers Association fined Bentley around £160 for racing on public roads. The company was also banned from the 1930 Paris Salon.
Which car was used?
For a long time it was thought that the car that Barnato used was a two-door coupe designed by coachbuilders Gurney Nutting. Yet the current owner of the car, Bruce McCaw found evidence that the Gurney Nutting Speed Six may not have been finished until after the date of the drive.
Some historians believe Barnato drove a Mulliner-bodied Speed Six saloon. McCaw decided to trace the chassis and engine of the Mulliner and found the bodywork of a different Bentley chassis. He reunited the chassis with the original bodywork and showed the restored Mulliner next to the Gurney Nutting at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2003.
Although definitive proof have yet to be found, the Gurney Nutting is widely viewed as the Blue Train Bentley. It remains one of the most iconic British cars in history.