OF ALL THE larger than life team of racing drivers known as the Bentley Boys, the most outrageously extrovert was Woolf Barnato, whose vast personal fortune helped the Bentley Company survive its mid-1920s financial crises; yet the Barnato millions dated back only one generation to the 'Babe's' father Barney, son of an East End of London shopkeeper called Isaac Isaacs.
Young Barnett Isaacs, armed with little more than his wit, changed his surname to Barnato, emigrated to South Africa and made a vast fortune in the diamond fields. When he vanished overboard on a boat sailing home from Cape Town, in the 1890s, his money went mostly to his two-year-old son, Woolf, born in 1895.
Woolf grew up to be a keen sportsman, with a consuming desire to excel at whatever he did. He was a big man who liked big cars and his first venture into motor racing was with a 48 hp 8-litre Locomobile he had brought back from a visit to the United States.
He entered this for the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club's Easter 1921 meeting, coming third in the 100-mile Long Handicap. By the Whitsun meeting, he had transferred his allegiance to a bilious yellow Calthorpe, replaced for the next season by Malcom Campbell's old 2.6-litre Talbot and an Ansaldo.
For 1923, Barnato changed to a Wolseley Moth, which he also ran at Brooklands in 1924, the same year that he set up Class H (7784- 13,929 cc) records up to 300 miles at the wheel of his touring 8-litre Hispano-Suiza. In 1925 he bought his first Bentley, the prototype
short-chassis, 100 mph 3-litre, which he had fitted with a pretty, boat-tailed, two-seat body by Jarvis of Wimbledon. With this car Barnato won several major Brooklands races and, partnered by John Duff, set a new world 3-litre 24-hour record of 95.03 mph in September 1925.
It was around this time that W. O. Bentley persuaded Babe Barnato to back Bentley Motors; Barnato, a natural gambler, sank nearly £100,000 in the venture, as a calculated risk investment which failed to payoff. Though Barnato was prepared to risk 'money on this scale, and spent around £1000 a week on his lavish social life, he was parsimonious in small things, and expected full value for his investment. So one condition of Barnato's backing Bentley was that he had his pick of the firm's products for his own use - he always had a brace of 6½
- litres, one open, one closed - another was a place in the works team, which was revived on his orders.
But Barnato was no rich dilettante - on the contrary, W. O. Bentley regarded him as the best driver of the period, and one who never made a mistake and always obeyed orders. During a later interview, Barnato is claimed to have said ... 'I think the danger of motor racing is greatly over-rated', insurance. 'It is not as dangerous as it seems.'
In 1928, Barnato shared a 4½
-litre Bentley with Bernard Rubin in the Le Mans 24-Hours race: As both were in their first Le Mans, theirs was the slowest of the three team cars, but the other two cars, driven by Birkin and Benjafield, were put out of the running by a wheel failure and a broken oil feed respectively, leaving the team honour in Barnato's hands. The Babe managed to overhaul his principal rival, Brisson's Stutz, which eventually dropped back with stripped gearing, but at the expense of a cracked frame, which caused the engine to lose all its water 40 miles from the finish Somehow Barnato managed to nurse the sagging car to the finish-and win.
Three Le Mans Wins In A Row
Barnato repeated the victory the following year in easier style, driving a 6½
-litre Bentley. The team took the first four places in the event and the victory was celebrated with a particularly wild party at Barnato's huge country house, Ardenrun, near Lingfield, Surrey. In 1930 Barnato pulled off the unique feat of three Le Mans wins in a row, after a spirited battle with Rudolf Caracciola's Mercedes; it was also his last Le Mans for the team, and the Bentley team's last race. By 1931, Bentley's finances had become so strained that Barnato's advisers recommended that he put no more money into the company, which passed into the hands of Rolls-Royce.
Ironically, Barnato had bought a large holding in Rolls-Royce, not long before Bentley Motors was liquidated, and, by 1934, he was on the board of Bentley Motors (1931) Ltd. In 1934, Barnato decided to sponsor a Brooklands track-racing car; his mechanic, Wally Hassan, converted Barnato's 6½
-litre Bentley tourer into an offset single-seater, with the chassis underslung at the rear. On its first outing, it lapped Brooklands at 115 mph - and burst. Hassan replaced the damaged engine with an 8-litre unit with raised compression, running on alcohol.
In 1935 Oliver Bertram took the All-corners Brooklands lap record in the Barnato-Hassan at
142.6 mph; the car was further modified in 1936, but was not fast enough to beat the Brooklands handicappers, though Bertram managed to lap at over 143 mph in an attempt to regain the track record from John Cobb. Woolf Barnato died in 1948 and, despite his seat on the new Bentley board, it was one of the 'old school' Bentleys which drove to his graveside to pay the marque's last respects. MT The Speed Six Bentley in which, during March 1931, Barnato beat the 'Blue Train', a famous French express of that era