Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Blue Train Bentley

Woolf Barnato's Blue Train Bentley--but not his the Blue Train Bentley.

In my previous post I decided not to include a paragraph on high speed trains.  But if I had to make an inter-city trip of 500 miles or less, I'd take a high speed train before I'd fly.  If there was one...  A train cruising at 120 m.p.h. could do 500 miles in under 5 hours.

In the 1920's and 1930's, racing cars against express trains was an occasional publicity stunt.  When Rover claimed that its Light Six matched the speed of le train bleu from Cannes to Calais, Woolf Barnato was unimpressed.  Barnato was a wealthy sportsman who had rescued Bentley financially in the mid 1920's and would, with the help of his pals "the Bentley Boys," win LeMans three times.  Over dinner on the Riviera in March of 1930, he said "You'd have to make it from Cannes to London by the time the train pulled into Calais to make your point, and I could do it." He bet 100 British Pounds: $6900 in 2013 money.

He made the run in 15 hours, 40 minutes, arriving in London 4 minutes before le train bleu pulled into Calais.  He'd reached Calais in 10 hours, 30 minutes.  MapQuest says that today, on Autoroutes, the Cannes-to-Calais run is 789 miles, requiring 18 hours: a very conservative 44 m.p.h. average.  Barnato averaged about 75 m.p.h. across France on worse roads.  (Le train bleu averaged 60 m.p.h.)

His feat quickly became public when his times were vouched for in the press by friends who had noted his arrival at checkpoints.  He was fined by the French government after the fact for "racing on public roads."  The fine was bigger than his winnings.

Barnato had turned the Bentley Speed Six into a GT before the idea of a Grand Touring car was invented.  The car in these pictures certainly has GT style to go with its pace.  Or, with its 6.5 liter engine, you could say it was an early muscle car for the wealthy.  This was Ettore Bugatti's passive-aggressive take when asked about Bentley's LeMans wins: "Monsieur Bentley makes excellent lorries." GT, muscle car, or truck, Barnato's Bentley was a fast road car.

The Blue Train Bentley has floated in and out of my consciousness for 50 years without making much of an impression.  (I come down on Bugatti's side: given a choice between a drive in one of his Type 35's or a Bentley Speed Six, I'd take the Bugatti.)  That is, until I saw the Autocar video linked to below.  And it turns out that the car pictured here, a Speed Six with a one-off lightweight body by Gurney-Nutting, isn't the real Blue Train Bentley.  Barnato took delivery of it after his run and nicknamed it to commemorate his feat in his "standard" Speed Six sedan.  Both cars still exist, so there are two Blue Train Bentleys, both owned and driven by Barnato: the "real" one and the "GT."

Here are links to the Wikipedia page where most of the above information came from, and the Autocar video:

Another view of Barnato's Bentley Speed Six Sportsman Coupe.  If it's a truck, it's a very fast and stylish truck.

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