Racing has always been something that I am very passionate about, yet the best way to experience it is sometimes not at all. What I mean by that is the stories you hear of racing legends, underdogs, or even grand adventures of machine vs machine. One such tale is that of the ‘Blue Train’ Bentley Speed Six.
Before we get into the legend of the Blue Train we have to talk about Bentley’s famous racing pedigree. Sure we know of Bentleys that race now, but not in the sense they did back at the turn of the century. The company was in a crisis and needed a new identity and new management. It got that and more in the form of Woolf Barnato, a wealthy investor turned racing enthusiast. Bentley went on to form a team that was called the ‘Bentley Boys’ of which Barnato was a part of. The Bentley Boys went on to dominate the racing scene from 1926 to 1930, with 4 consecutive wins at the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans. The cars were both incredibly dominant machines with exquisite road manners, the trademark of a good Bentley. And while their many Le Mans victories are impressive, nothing is as notable as the time one of them raced a train.
The year was 1930, the trailing end of what was the golden ages of Bentley racing heritage. The setting was Cannes, France where a few men were having a wager over some beers. Rover had just caused quite the stir by announcing that their car had just beat the famed ‘Train Bleu’ from the port town of Calais, France to that of Cannes, the French Riveria. While the proud Frenchman were vigorously disputing Rover’s claims a man emerged to protect the Rovers honor, even raising the stakes. It was none other than Woolf Barnato. By this time Barnato was a millionaire due to his families wealth and strategic business ventures, and he was ready to put his money where his mouth was.
Barnato challenged the men in the bar to a £100 bet, the ‘Train Bleu’ vs his 1930 Bentley Speed Six in a race from the French Riviera, where they currently were, back to Calais. This was the same route that Rover claimed but in the opposite direction. But then Barnato raised the stakes once more, claiming he could end up in London well before the train hit Calais, and even further distance than that of the Rover. Before you laugh at £100 bet keep in mind that in 1930 the average income in the UK was only £165, annually. It was quite the wager, for anyone that wasn’t a millionaire that is. The wager was excepted and the race was on.
What they didn’t know was that Barnato was one of the famed ‘Bentley Boys,’ and with his experience in tow, he was set to compete against the famous train. Barnato took off just after the train left the Riviera station embarking on the epic journey through the French countryside. It wasn’t easy, it’s said that Barnato had several issues along the way like a blown tire and even rumors of him running out of gas. Even with these major pitfalls, the 180BHP Bentley was able to get Barnato onto a ferry and back into central London before ‘The Bleu’ hit Calais, winning his bet with considerable ease.
Word of the race spread like wildfire, eventually reaching the French authorities. Needless to say, they weren’t happy with the playboy millionaires escapades, or the fact that their beloved train has now lost two races in a row. With this, they slapped Barnato with a hefty fine, and they subsequently banned any and all Bentleys from entering the Paris Motor Show. As we know now this didn’t really do anything to hinder Bentley’s reputation, if anything it made the brand more distinguished.
Unfortunately for Bentley it was their last hoorah, the great depression had already started but by 1931 it had already taken a massive toll on the British-based company. Even Woolf Barnato wasn’t in the position to save to company, which was eventually bought by Rolls-Royce. The company never competed in racing like it had previously, making the race against the Blue Train Bentleys last grasp at its former glory. In a way, it’s a fitting end for the colossal car company, a Grand Touring victory like no other.