By Clare Hay
On Thursday the 13th of March in 1930, at 6 p.m., Woolf Barnato, Chairman of Bentley Motors, and his secretary, Dale Bourne, left the Carlton Bar in Cannes, and got into Barnato’s Speed Six Bentley to see if they could get to London before the famous Blue Train. Driving through the night, they reached Boulogne at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, catching the 11:35 boat to Folkestone. Arriving there just after 1 p.m., they reached the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall at 3:30, 15 minutes before the Blue Train pulled into Calais. Of the 786-mile drive, Barnato said later that “Any woman could have done the same thing without discomfort,” and indeed they probably could, in a Speed Six Bentley. But which Speed Six Bentley?
For many years now, it has been universally believed that Barnato drove his Gurney Nutting coupé, a fabulously flamboyant Grand Touring three-seater with rakish helmet wings, the third seat fitted sidesaddle beneath a sloping roof, the whole ensemble finished off by a pair of huge Zeiss headlamps to the front, a long, louvred panel along the both sides of the chassis and a neat trunk to the rear of the body (chassis HM2855, registered GJ3811). So it came as a huge surprise to find that, despite its immortalization in a painting by the well-known motoring artist Terence Cuneo, Barnato could not have driven this car in March of 1930, because it hadn’t even been built at the time.
It wasn’t until I sat down to research the Gurney Nutting coupé-bodied Speed Six at the behest of its present owner that I realized that the dates simply don’t line up. A whole sheaf of press cuttings for the Blue Train run give the date definitively as the 13th /14th of March 1930. But the Bentley Motors Service Record for the coupe shows that it wasn’t passed off Final Test at Bentley Motors, and the Five-Year Guarantee issued, until the 21st of May 1930, ten weeks after the Blue Train run. Further, the records show that on the 2nd of June, it had only covered 391 miles. From which two questions arose: how had it come about that the Blue Train run had been attributed to the Gurney Nutting coupe, and which car did Barnato actually drive?
The answer to the first is that the first recorded attribution is 1967, in an article in the Bentley Drivers Club Review by Johnnie Green. Barnato himself, writing up the run in the 1940s, simply refers to “my Speed Six saloon,” which is insufficiently clear to say which car but doesn’t support the Gurney Nutting coupé, an utterly distinctive motor car that it would be surprising to find Barnato describing as a saloon. All the fruits of research showed that there is no evidence to support the attribution of the Blue Train run to the coupé, and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It also turned out that I wasn’t the first person to realize that there is a problem with the dates. Faced with this, one author invented a story about “the longest pre-delivery run on record,” based on no evidence whatever. One of the major auction houses in their catalog entry changed the date of the Blue Train run, from March 1930 to March 1931. If the facts don’t fit. . . .
It is easy to see why you would want to believe that the Gurney Nutting coupé is the Blue Train car, because it is such a striking example of automotive engineering, a marvellous chassis wedded to a stunning piece of coachwork. The mystique of the Gurney Nutting coupé is so strong, and the attribution to it of the Blue Train run so ingrained, that it is hard to forget that it isn’t the car that Barnato drove. The fact remains that all the evidence points to Barnato carrying out the Blue Train run in a rather more down-to-earth (insofar as a Speed Six Bentley is ever down-to-earth) four-door Weymann fabric saloon by H J Mulliner (chassis BA2592 registered UU5999) delivered to Barnato in June 1929. Barnato evidently liked this car, because he drove over 16,000 miles in it in just under a year. And there in the Service Record is a small piece of evidence that UU5999 is the Blue Train Bentley: on the 15th of March 1930, the day after the Blue Train run, UU5999 was in Bentley's Service Department at Kingsbury, North London, to have a new starter Bendix fitted; its mileage, 13,519. Easily enough to drive to the South of France and back, several times over. For the first time since 1930, when they were owned by Barnato, both cars are in single ownership, and we are indeed lucky to have both of them on the lawn at the 2001 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
Our thanks to Clare Hay, who wrote this piece for our 2001 Concours program. Clare is the author of several books on the Vintage Bentley, including Bentley: The Vintage Years and Bentley Factory Cars, and numerous articles in the BDC Review. Her knowledge of the history of the Vintage Bentley is unrivaled.