Bentley Speed Six - the Blue Train Legend
Back in the 1920s, British and European aristocrats, celebrities, and other rich people adored the French Riviera, especially during the winter because of its mild climate. In December 1922, the private French railroad company PLM started to operate a luxury night express train from Calais to the French Riviera. The train, officially named Calais-Méditerranée Express, was colloquially referred to as ‘Le train bleu’ or ‘The Blue Train’, because of its dark blue wagons.
In the late 1920s, as the automobile industry was progressing and the cars were becoming increasingly faster, races of cars against trains became popular. Manufacturers often sponsored those races because they wanted to show how reliable, durable, fast and comfortable the cars were and wanted to establish the cars as feasible modes of transport for individuals.
Everybody wanted to race against the Blue Train
The Blue Train was one of the most popular trains of that era, so it was appealing for car manufacturers to prove that they could be faster than that particular train. According to the archives, the Blue Train was beaten for the first time in January 1930 by the Rover Light Six driven by Dudley Noble. In the 1210 km journey from St. Raphael to Calais, Noble was 20 minutes faster than the train. Two months later, E.J.P. Eugster raced Alvis Silver Eagle against the Blue Train and beat it to Calais by three hours.
Woolf Barnato, chairman of Bentley and winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in previous two years (1928 and 1929), bet that he would not only beat the Blue Train, but also that he would reach his club in London before the train would get to Calais. He planned to use the Bentley Speed Six, the top model of the British manufacturer of luxury cars.
Lots of problems for Barnato and co-driver
On March 13, as the Blue Train steamed out of Cannes station at 17:45h, Barnato and his relief driver, amateur golfer Dale Bourn, started their journey from the bar at the Carlton Hotel. From Lyon onward, they had to battle against heavy rain. At 4:20h, in Auxerre, they lost time searching for a pre-arranged refueling rendezvous.
Throughout central France they hit fog, then shortly after hitting Paris they had a burst tire, requiring the use of their only spare. They reached the dock at Boulogne at 10:30h. By then, they had covered over 570 miles at an average speed of 43.43 mph, an impressive achievement on dusty and rough roads of the time.
French authorities fined both Barnato and Bentley in 1930
After that, they sailed to England on the cross-Channel packet, and were parking outside The Conservative Club in St. James’s Street, London, at 15:20h, four minutes before the Blue Train reached Calais. The French authorities promptly fined Barnato for racing on public roads and Bentley was excluded from the 1930 Paris Salon for advertising an unauthorized race. Despite those fines, the legend of the Bentley Blue Train brought the kind of publicity that even a lot of money could not buy.
Coupe or Saloon – is there any controversy?
Now, we get to controversy and mystery of the Bentley Speed Six ‘Blue Train’. The question is which type of Speed Six was Barnato driving – H.J. Mulliner-bodied saloon or Gurney Nutting Sportsman Coupe?
According to all available records, Barnato drove a H. J. Mulliner saloon! Two months later, on 21 May 1930, he took a delivery of a new Bentley Speed Six “Sportsman Coupe” by Gurney Nutting. Barnato named it the “Blue Train Special” in memory of his race. The car became commonly referred to as the Blue Train Bentley and that contributed to the controversy.
As time passed, the Gurney Nutting-bodied car was regularly mistaken for being the car that had raced the Blue Train. This was reiterated in many articles and also in the painting of famous painter Terence Cuneo, who showed the Bentley coupe racing the train.
Mystery is always good for PR materials
Bentley officials also contributed to controversy in their PR materials. For example, in 2005, they featured the coupe in the promotional material celebrating the 75th anniversary of the race. They knew the reality, but were also aware that keeping the mystery alive was a better marketing strategy than the actual true story without any controversies.
Speed Six Saloon is the real Blue Train racer
There actually is no real mystery, because proof can be found in certain written materials. For example, the British Racing Drivers’ Club had published the annual review in 1946 with Barnato’s words about the 1930 race. He wrote about ‘my Speed Six saloon’ and ‘keeping petrol cans in the boot and having only one spare tire’. So, if we know that the Sportsman Coupė had no boot and had two spare tires, it’s easy to conclude which car Barnato drove.
At the end of the day, perhaps it does not matter; both cars have been fully restored and still are running at various historic events, thanks to the current owner Bruce McCaw. Everybody can enjoy watching the machines and can remember the time when a train could be beaten by a car.
Video : The story about the famous race between Bentley Speed Six and the Blue Train