Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


JOEL WOOLF “Babe” Barnato, British financier, international sportsman, one of the Bentley Boys, heir to South African diamond and gold mining wealth, was dining at the Carleton Hotel in Cannes, along the French Riviera. It was March 1930, and everyone was talking about the Rover Light Six automobile and its January 1930 drive beating the Blue Train on the run between Calais and the Riviera.


The Rover Light Six “Blue Train” on display at the Heritage Motor Museum, Gaydon, England. Image by MilborneOne.

What with its scheduled stops, the Blue Train averaged about 38 mph over the 752 miles between Calais and Cannes. (See The Rover, driven more or less non-stop, had beaten the Blue Train to Cannes by 20 minutes—and, because of Britain’s Daily Express tabloid, gained much notoriety.

Barnato, however, recognized the capabilities of his Speed Six Bentley parked outside the Carleton. After all, he had co-driven a Bentley at the Le Mans 24-hour race three times—and won each time.


Joel Woolf “Babe” Barnato (1895-1948), British financier, international sportman, race car driver.

Barnato claimed that he and the Speed Six could do better than any mere Rover: He would drive from Cannes to Calais, then ferry across the English Channel and drive to his London club—before the Blue Train even got to Calais.

His wager on this feat was (depending on the source) either £100 or possibly £200. Either way, this was not a huge amount of money for Barnato (£100 was about $475 in 1930 dollars, around $6700 today). Yet, there was also the Bentley Boys honor to uphold.

At 5:45 p.m. on March 13, 1930, the Blue Train steamed out of the Cannes station. Barnato and his pal Dale Bourne charged off in the Bentley.


The Blue Train’s—and, more or less, the Bentley’s—route north, Cannes to Calais.]

Barnato and Bourne hit heavy rains from Lyon north and fog through central France. At 4:20 a.m., they lost time searching out refueling in Auxerre. Just north of Paris, the Speed Six blew a tire.

Our boys reached Calais at 10:30 a.m., caught the next cross-Channel packet and continued on to London. Barnato parked the Speed Six outside The Conservative Club, St. James’s Street, London, at 3:20 p.m. The Blue Train arrived in Calais at 3:24 p.m.—and Barnato won his wager.

Two months later, on May 21, 1930, Barnato took delivery of another Speed Six Bentley, this one with particularly rakish Sportsman Coupe coachwork by Gurney-Nutting.


Will the real Blue Train competitor please stand out? On the left, Barnato’s H.J. Mulliner Speed Six; on the right, his Gurney-Nutting Speed Six.

Barnato named this two-door coupe his Blue Train Special, though, of course, the actual Blue Train victor was his rather more formal four-door saloon.

Careless automotive historians have been befuddled for years about which car won the wager.


This lovely poster by Terence Cuneo only complicated matters through its faux depiction. The Gurney-Nutting Blue Train Special didn’t leave the Bentley works until months after Barnato’s famous run.

Speed Six Bentleys of any sort are impressive machines, with wheelbases ranging from 140.5 to 152.5 inches. (Today’s Long Wheelbase Mercedes-Benz S Class has a wheelbase of a mere 124.6 in.)

The Speed Six powerplant is a 6 1/2-liter inline six-cylinder with particularly advanced features: twin sparkplugs and four valves per cylinder, the latter actuated by an overhead camshaft. Its integrated block and head eliminated any sealing problems.


The Bentley Speed Six has four valves per cylinder and three-throw camshaft drive. Images from The 6 1/2-Litre Bentley, Classic Car Profile Number 22, by Darell Berthon, Profile Publications, 1965.

The camshaft drive is especially novel: A mini three-throw crankshaft is gear-driven off the engine’s crankshaft. Vertical connecting rods link this to another mini crankshaft integrated into the overhead camshaft.

To conclude the story of the Blue Train Bentley(s), both the H.J. Mulliner Speed Six Blue Train victor and its swoopy Gurney-Nutting Blue Train Special sibling are owned by Seattle classic car aficionados Bruce and Jolene McCaw. The Mulliner car has a more interesting history—as the real Blue Train victor, perhaps it should: Over the years, components of this saloon had gone separate ways. Bruce had to buy three different cars to put the original together again.

Not to confuse matters anew, there are at least two Replica Blue Train Bentleys listed for sale right now. Both appear to be of the “bitsa” variety (a bit of this/a bit of that) patterned after Barnato’s Blue Train Special.

I’d think it would be cooler to have a replica of the real Blue Train victor. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013


  1. Bill Urban
    November 13, 2013

    Dennis, two more great stories’, this one only surpassed if Dale turned out to be Jason’s grandfather 🙂 Nor, from my viewpoint, can the Gurney-Nutting coachwork be surpassed.

    And for those that aspire to exotic rail travel, the August 9 Sir Peter Ustinov post led me to a captivating video about the Orient Express. It stars – and is narrated by – the same Sir Peter. Included is a `30’s Hitchcock movie snippet, and none other than the ghost of Mata Hari makes a pass at Ustinov (!)

  2. Bill Urban
    November 13, 2013

    I neglected to add, thanks Dennis for this latest example of Simanaitis Says synergism.

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This entry was posted on November 12, 2013 by in Classic Bits and tagged , , .
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