The Blue Train Bentley

Bruce and Jolene McCaw of Medina, Washington settled any doubts about which 6½ Litre Bentley beat the Blue Train. Following research. They bought both. Was it the fastback (above) or the saloon, pictured below in June 2006 Motor Sport?

Notwithstanding Terence Cuneo’s well-known painting, there was some conjecture that the Blue Train from Cannes to Calais had been outpaced with a different car. Barnato referred to it only as “my Speed Six saloon”. The car in the Cuneo painting, GJ 3811 was commissioned by Barnato with a sweeping roofline, and one of the first ever fastbacks in which the rearmost seat was placed sideways. The rakish black (and later also dark olive) Gurney Nutting body had smart gadgetry, a cocktail cabinet, and reputedly accomplished the dramatic drive in March 1930 as a result of a wager in a gentlemen’s club. The Blue Train ran from Cannes to Calais, Barnato aiming not so much to beat it, as show how easily it could be done. The company needed all the publicity it could get, it was on the brink of receivership, and as principal shareholder he was fretting.

In reality the contest demanded neither great speed, nor exceptional staying power, except perhaps from the crew of the car. Barnato set off with his golfing friend Dale Bourn, not from the railway station at Cannes - that would have looked like a stunt - but from the bar at the Carlton. They waited for word that the Blue Train was departing, finished their drinks, and left. There were no autoroutes. Fuel was arranged in advance overnight, Esso filling stations remained open at Aix-en-Provence and Lyons, and a tanker lorry at Auxerre, while the train made its leisurely progress. From Cannes it went west along the Cote d’Azur, stopping for 70 minutes in Marseille, before heading North for Paris where it wasted three hours going from the Gare d’Orleans to the Gare du Nord. The Bentley pressed on without a pause, reaching Boulogne with an hour to spare before the ferry, and getting to London in time for a celebration drink at Bourn’s club, The Conservative, in St James’s Street. It was 3.20 on the London Victoria clock, according to Barnato, and the Blue Train was not due in Calais for another four minutes. The pair then parked outside the RAC in Pall Mall for the hall porter to stamp their cards having averaged 43.43mph (69.89kph).

Writing this in The Complete Bentley, I was careful to take into account a possibility that the Gurney Nutting fastback was not the car that took part. In 2006 Mike Cassell wrote in the Financial Times about a re-enactment, trying to clear up the confusion. After US businessman McCaw bought the Gurney Nutting coupé illustrated in Cuneo’s picture, research suggested that Barnato may have used his saloon 6½. The McCaws tracked this down from its chassis number, reuniting it with its original Mulliner saloon bodywork, which had been re-mounted on another chassis.

They then owned both. Mike Cassell’s re-enactment left the Carlton Hotel in Cannes before dawn, finding a sprinkling of snow on the mountain peaks of the Napoleonic route. They were not burdened with finding where Barnato’s pre-arranged refuelling stops were, nor did they suffer a puncture. However they did manage a meal and a decent night’s sleep near Dijon, completing the 750 miles in 37 hours against Barnato’s in 20hr 35min.

INTRODUCTION first registered May 1930
BODY Gurney Nutting Speed Six.
ENGINE 6-cylinders, in-line; front; 100mm x 140mm, 6597cc; compr 5.3:1; 180bhp (134.23kW) @ 3500rpm; 27.28bhp (20.34kW)/l.
ENGINE STRUCTURE 4-valves, double springs; 8-bearing camshaft, 3-throw coupling rod drive; cast iron cylinder block with stainless steel jacket plates; single port block; 2 vertical HVG5 SU carburettors; two Champion plugs per cylinder; Bosch magneto and Delco-Remy coil; Autovac fuel system; 8-bearing crankshaft, with damper; water-cooled
TRANSMISSION rear wheel drive; sdp clutch; 4-speed C-type gearbox, right hand change; spiral bevel final drive 3.53:1.
CHASSIS pressed steel frame 0.188in (4.77mm), 7 cross-members; semi-elliptic leaf springs; Bentley and Draper friction dampers; self-wrapping, Dewandre servo mechanical brakes, front Bentley-Perrot; 15.75in (40cm) drums; worm and sector steering; 25gal (113.6l) fuel tank; Dunlop tyres 21 x 6.00, rear 21 x 7.00; Rudge-Whitworth centre lock wire wheels.
DIMENSIONS wheelbase 140.5in (356.87cm); track 56in (142.2cm); length 187in (474.9cm); width 68.5in (173.99cm); ground clearance 7.25in (18.4cm); turning circle 47.5ft (14.5m).
EQUIPMENT Smith and Jaeger instruments, white figures black faces, German silver parallel-sided radiator shell; Green Label badges. Zeiss headlamps; Bosch electrics; Hobson fuel telegauge; brake vacuum gauge
PERFORMANCE maximum speed 92mph (147.7kph)-100mph (160.9kph); fuel consumption 15mpg (18.83l/100km).
PRICE chassis £1800.
Detail from Dove Publishing: The Complete Bentley

Always a winner, Woolf Barnato (right with Sir Tim Birkin) the only drivers to win all three Le Mans 24-Hours races he entered. This picture captioned "a quarter of an hour before the start, 1929."