I’ve been in an odd mood recently.  I think it was triggered by the latest issue of Motorsport magazine which is leading with reminisces about Gilles Villeneuve by friends and rivals as it’s the 30th anniversary of his death during practice at the 1982 BelgianGrand Prix at Zolder.  I’ve got to thinking a lot about Heroes.  Let’s face it, we all have them.  They are just normal people at the end of the day with something in them that, when the chance comes along, they do something that captures your imagination on either a deeply personal level or on one that captures the public’s attention.    And heroes, when you get down to it, are odd things.  Whether it’s my parents for putting up with me, the disciple Mark immortalising himself as the guy who lost his clothes when Jesus was taken, Wolfe and Brock for making sure Canada remained British for a time (could you imagine a Frenchie, or even worse, an Americanian version of me?  I’m shuddering at the very thought…), Thomas Cochrane for generally out Nelson-ing Nelson, George Mallory for climbing Everest and then falling off it on the way down and Aryton Senna for thrilling me most Sundays for my childhood with death defying feats before he ran out of track at Tamburello.  They are all heroes to me for lots of different personal reasons.  But two racing drivers have been foremost n my mind, in front of Senna and Villeneuve, when I look at that iconic image of Gilles that graces Motorsport’s cover that has got me thinking about heroes and racing heroes at that.  They were both British and products of Empire and Trinity College.  Rich, sure of themselves to a fault and fast in just about everything they sat in, they differed in one way, one would only race British, the other would race for anything to win.  They were Woolf “Babe” Barnato and Richard “Dick” Seaman.  These two have fallen into the dusty pages of racing history, but they are responsible for great and infamous moments in British racing history.  “Babe” saved Bentley so that he could have something to race at Le Mans, “Dick” would be the second Englishman to win a Grand Prix and become a favorite of Hitler.  Let’s start with the Bentley Boy whose daughter, the equally incredible Diana Barnato-Walker, showed up my Dad’s fear of heights many years later by having no fear whatsoever.

Woolf Barnato

Joel Woolf Barnato was born on 27th September 1895 at Spencer House in St James’ Place, and to say he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth would be wholly wrong, his spoon was made of diamonds.  Son of Barney Barnato, a self-made “Randlord” who started out as a trader and sometime juggler in Mile End before saving up £50 and heading to South Africa.  His Barnato Diamond Mining Company was Cecil Rhodes only real competition in South Africa (In 1996 Ken Stott played Barney opposite Martin Shaw as Rhodes in the BBC’s series “Rhodes”).  In the great British tradition of “If you can’t beat them, buy them”, Rhodes sat down with Barney and hammered out a price for the company.  They agreed on £4m (some quote higher, but I’ve taken the conservative estimate), or over £2 billion in today’s money.  More incredibly, Rhodes wrote Barney a cheque for the amount, the largest cheque ever written up to that point.  With Cecil Rhodes’ signature on it, needless to say, it didn’t bounce.  While Rhodes was then able to consolidate what became De Beers, Barney became Kimberly’s MP, doubled his money in the South African gold boom and then lost the gains in the crash that followed.  In 1897, he boarded the SS Scot for home.  Off Madeira, Barney went overboard (suicide or pushed, the conspiracy theories are a fascinating read, as is the murder of Woolf Joel Barnato, his brother in Johannesburg) and the then two year old Woolf became an incredibly rich toddler.  A final, yet important to me, side note on  Barney is that in 1930 Harry Craddock, legendary barman of The Savoy, included the cocktail named for Barney, imaginatively, “The Barney Barnato Cocktail” in his “The Savoy Cocktail Book, a receipe for which can be found HERE.

Woolf was educated at Charterhouse (where another hero of mine, George Mallory, would later become a Housemaster) and Trinity College, Cambridge.  At 19 in 1914, Woolf came into the first part of his inheritance, £250,000.  Woolf had other things on his mind though.  Joining the Royal Artillery, he fought at Ypres, Gaza and in Jordan rising to the rank of Captain.  In the meantime, and continuing after the war, the other battle raging in Woolf’s life was over his inheritance.  After much family infighting, a settlement of £960,000 plus £50,000 costs was agreed, much less than he was owed and less the interest incurred during the period of the litigation.  Not to be out done, he counter-sued his family and won.  As the twenties roared into life, Woolf, besides his business interests, did what we all wish we could do, got his golf handicap to scratch, worked the kinks out of his backhand, played first class cricket for Surrey as wicket keeper and raced cars.

He started with a 8 litre Austro-Daimler, moved onto Malcolm Campbell’s old 1.5 Litre Talbot Ansaldo and a couple of Hispano Suiza’s before, in 1925 fate would come for him and his cheque book.  W.O. Bentley was a great engineer, visionary and a not very great businessman.  His company, founded with his brother H.M. (the Bentley’s were always know by their initials), had started by making rotary engines in World War 1, the BR1 famously powering the Sopwith Camel.  After the war, with the founding of Bentley Motors Ltd and with Clive Gallop’s engineering genius on hand, Bentley developed a straight-four, four valve engine that proved incredibly durable.  By 1924, and Bentley’s first Le Mans entry, funding was very tight.  Nonetheless, John Duff (still the only Canadian to have an outright win at Le Mans) and Frank Clement won the race in a Bentley 3-Litre Sport.  Woolf took notice and bought one of the 3 Litre cars.  Later in 1925, inspired by the victory and his car, using his Baromans Ltd investment vehicle, Woolf invested an initial £100,000 in the company and saved Bentley from closure.  Woolf would then invest a further £175,000 over the next five years, giving himself the majority shareholding and becoming Chairman.  With this backing, W.O. went on to develop a line of cars that Ettore Bugatti would famously deride as “the fastest lorrys in the world.” 

1928 Bentley 4 1/2 Litre

The 4 ½ and 6 ½ litre series of cars would make the marque what it is today and nearly bankrupt Woolf.  But, they gave him the tools for the job he wanted to do, win Le Mans 24 Hours.  It needs to be said how remarkable these cars were, they changed the game and remain in the British conciseness down to today.  When Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale, Bond didn’t drive an Aston Martin, he drove Fleming’s dream car, a battleship grey 4 ½ with an Amherst Villiers supercharger, “one of the last”.  Fleming famously made Bond’s Bentley “His only hobby.”  When Patrick Macnee donned the bowler and became John Steed in The Avengers, he drove two cars, both of the Bentleys, one a Blower 4 ½, the other a Speed Six.  Brian Johnson of AC/DC famously claims to drive his 1928 4 ½ every day.  Today, race models go at auction for upwards of £1m.  For a standard non-blown (i.e. a non-supercharged engine) 4 ½ with no interesting history, the bidding will start at £100,000.  The 6 ½’s are even dearer.

The Bentley Boys

After the 1924 win, and Woolf’s saving of the company, Bentley’s 3 Litre “Speed” cars didn’t finish either the 1925 or 1926 races, being beaten by the French in Lorraine-Dietrich B3-6’s each year.  With the 4 ½ Litre cars developed and the 6 ½’s entering production, a group formed around Woolf that became legendary, The Bentley Boys.  La Sarthe was waiting for this group of playboys, aristocrats and the general great and goods of the Twenty’s to return, they were the ultimate “pay drivers”.  The Boys purchased a range of cars and crossed the channel with Woolf leading the way.  Between 1925 and 1928 Woolf would build up to Le Mans by setting, with various co-drivers, 28 speed distance records for distances from 30 to 2000 miles.  Woolf set most of these records, timed from an hour’s duration up to 24 hours, at the Autodrome de Montlhery south of Paris.  W.O. was not a man to suffer fools gladly, and despite Woolf being the Chairman of his company, Bentley saw something special in Woolf saying “He’s the best driver we ever had and I consider him the best British driver of his day.”  For 1927, Bentley won Le Mans with “Old Number 7”, a 3 Litre Super Sport, with Dr Dudley Benjafield (a bacteriologist who was famed for his effort in combating the Spanish Flu Epidemic and would later found the British Racing Drivers Club) and Sammy Davis (Sports Editor of The Autocar who wrote under the penname Casque).  The prototype 4 ½ car, “Old Mother Gun”, crashed after 35 laps in the infamous White House crash which took out most of the Bentley team cars.  1928 saw Bentley’s works team enter three of the latest 4 ½ Litre cars.  This was Woolf’s first crack at the great race and he was determined to do well.  Woolf took the wheel of “Old Mother Gun” with Bernard Rubin as co-driver and, despite damaging the car mid race and having to repair it on the track, won a full lap ahead of the French team of C.T. Weymann’s Stutz DV16.  For 1929, Bentley upped the ante, the 6 ½’s had passed the 55 cars produced rule to be allowed to enter and “The Boys” complemented the lone 6 ½ by bring over a further four 4 ½ Litre cars.  Woolf would drive the 6 ½ Litre Speed Six dubbed “Old Number One”.  

Tim Birkin (Left) with Woolf

This car would become as famous as its two drivers for this race, Woolf and Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin.  Birkin (a hero of Rowland Atkinson’s, who played him in the BBC’s “Full Throttle” in 1995) was the heir to a lace empire and as obsessed by speed as Woolf.  Together they would lead Bentley in a new direction, but first they would romp to Bentley’s fourth win at the race and Woolf’s second.  The 1929 race was Bentley’s greatest, their cars filled the first four places overall, with only one failing to finish, but times were changing.  1929 saw the great stock market crash and the mood for racing was turning sour as budgets, even Woolf’s, couldn’t stretch to funding independent manufacturers to build these types of cars anymore.  Woolf would lead one final roll of the dice for 1930.

The victorious Bentley after the 1929 race

Ardenrun Place

During this period, Woolf lived at Ardenrun Place in Lingfield.  Orginally built by Ernest Newton for H.H. Konig, Woolf bought it in 1921 and made it home.  This place sounds epic, suiting someone like Woolf down to a tee.  It sat in 1000 acres of land with its own golf course, cricket pitch and a pub, The Ardenrun Arms, in the basement.  Such was Woolf renown, in 1930, the Surrey cricket team practiced there and the touring Australian Cricket team, which included Don Bradman, popped in for tea.  Diana had an autograph book with the signatures of both teams and other famous visitors.  Guests to the house would race their cars along the drive up to the house, they even built a pits complex to ensure the racers were catered for.  Sadly this rather wonderful country pile burnt down in 1933.  Woolf decamped to the flat in Grosvenor Square.  Not content, he bought the flat next door and knocked through as he felt they needed the space, and commissioned Robert Lutyens to build him a house on the edge of Great Windsor Park called Ridgemead House.  With 25 bedrooms, almost all en-suite and 20 acres of garden, even in the midst of the great depression, Woolf went all out.  It took seven years to build and once it was finished, it’s white finish was immediately repainted in camouflage colours as it stood out a bit and was feared to present a rather tempting target to the Germans.

1930 Blower 4 1/2

With all this entertaining of Cricket’s great and good, you wonder how he found the time to prepare for the 1930 race at Le Mans.  But prepare he did, and W.O. wasn’t a huge fan of his ideas.  Mercedes-Benz was leading the way with its high performance supercharged “Kompressor” cars.  “Tim” Birkin feared the 6 ½’s wouldn’t be able to match the pace of the 7 litre Kompressor SSK Rudolf Caracciola was entering for the race.  With Woolf’s blessing and against W.O.’s wishes (W.O. felt “forced injection” was an abomination), Birkin set out to build the “Blowers” Bentleys, with additional backing from Dorothy Paget after he had spent all his own money.  Basing his cars on the 4 ½, as they were lighter, Birkin felt they would prove faster than the bigger, heavier 6 ½ cars.  The plan was to have them ready for the 1929 race at Le Mans, but they were not.  Woolf, as we have seen, won it with a 6 ½ and Birkin concentrated on 1930.  Of the four cars he planned to get there, only two made it, but they were fast.  The problem was, so was Caracciola.  

The man to soon be dubbed the Regenmeister (Rain Master), 60 years before an unimaginative German press gave Michael Schumacher the same title, and future team mate to Dick Seaman, Caracciola was a brutally fast racer and the car seemed bullet proof.  So Woolf, W.O. and The Boys hatched a plan Birkin didn’t like, but knew it gave Bentley, and Britian, the best chance of beating the Germans.  Birkin and 1927 winner Benjafield in blower 4 ½’s would be rabbits.  This meant taking off like scalded cats at the start and pushing at maximum pace for as long as possible, forcing Caracciola and his SSK to keep up.

Rudolf Caracciola

The 4 ½ blown cars were brutally fast and brutally unreliable, the 6 ½ reliable and fast, the perfect combination to scare Caracciola.  And it did.  As the Bentleys ran into the distance, trading places with the SSK of Caracciola, Woolf in “Old Number 1” keeping station in forth and sharing the drive with Glen Kidston, probably the richest of The Bentley Boys.  His family’s holdings became The Clydesdale Bank.  After 85 laps, the plan came to fruition; Caracciola’s SSK came limping into the pits with a blown generator, forcing him out of the race.  Bentley’s now sat in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th places, with British Talbots in 5th and 6th.  Unfortunately it wouldn’t last.  Birkin would manage another 53 laps before his Blower blew its last, Benjafield’s would soldier on for another 6 laps past Birkin’s car before pulling up too, handing the lead to Woolf and Kidston and what would be Bentley’s last overall victory at Le Mans for the next 73 years.  There was no works Bentley entry for the 1931 race at Le Mans.  Anthony Bevan would privately enter his 4 ½, but only last 29 laps.  Tim Birkin would join up with Francis Curzon, the 5th Earl Howe, in an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 and won Alfa’s first of three consecutive Le Mans.  Birkin was not pleased that he won in an Italian car and disgusted when he received a telegram from Mussolini congratulating him.  But Birkin was forced to drive Italian marques for the rest of his life as British firms suffered in the depression.  One would eventually kill him.  At the Tripoli Grand Prix in 1933 while he was racing his new Maserati 8C, Birkin came in for a pit stop.  While stopped, he reached for a lighter and burnt his arm on the exhaust of the car, the wound later turned septic, coupled with the malaria he never shook after contracting it in Palestine during the First World War, he died a month later back in London.  During this same period, Woolf was reading the rites for Bentley.

Woolf had entered Motor Racing folklore.  With three overall victories out of three attempts, Woolf remains the only driver to have a perfect record at Le Mans.  But a couple months before that famous final victory at Le Mans, Woolf did the thing that makes him a true hero in my books.  In January 1930, while Woolf, Bentley and Birkin were worrying at Mercedes and Rudi, Rover announced it was going racing, against a train.  Le Train Beu was the Calais-Mediterranee Expree, a luxury overnight train between Calais and Cannes on the French Riviera.  This was a popular race for the well to do in the racing world and each attempt got it share of newspaper inches.  Rover’s new Light Six needed column inches in those dark early days of the depression, so Dudley Noble announced he would race the train from Calais to Cannes.  To be fair, as the train usually only averaged 40 km/h so it wasn’t that taxing for Dudley’s Rover, and in a little over 20 hours of driving, he beat the train by twenty minutes.  While on a sailing holiday in March of that year, Woolf stopped in Cannes.  Over dinner in the Charlton Hotel, the subject of Rover’s achievement came up.  Woolf scoffed at the result, saying going faster than a train was nothing special.  So he made a wager.  

Woolf stated that in his Bentley Speed Six saloon, with body by H.J. Mulliner of Chiswick (Woolf had a cocktail cabinet built into the boot should he feel the need while touring), he could not only beat the train from Cannes to Calais, but be in his club, The Conservative, in St James’ in London with martini in hand before the train reached Calais.  His audience scoffed, so he raised the bar and put £100 on the race, which was matched by his guests.  As the train departed at 17:45 from Cannes, Dale Bourne offered to co-drive.  On the 13th March 1930, they left the Charlton at just after 18:00 and sped north.  Battling heavy rain, a flat tire just outside of Cannes, stopping for fuel four times (including getting lost in Auxerre), they reached Boulogne at 10:30 the next morning and had to wait around for an hour for the ferry.  Across the channel, they raced into London and arrived at the The Conservative Club at 15:30, drinks in hand, four minutes before Le Train Bleu pulled into Calais.  They had covered 830 miles in around 22 ½ hours with an average speed of 69.89 km/h.  Woolf won over £200.  The French, being renowned for lacking a sense of humour, issued him with a fine that totaled more than his winnings for excessive speed on French roads.  Ironically, as legend has it; he was issued with the fine during practice at Le Mans.  Woolf’s Bentley now resides, fully restored, in the collection of Bruce and Jolene McCaw in Washington State, USA.

“The Blue Train” by Alan Fearnley

By the end of 1930, Bentley was on borrowed time, Woolf knew that two mortgage payments the company owed his holding company the following July 1931, wouldn’t be met, so with his business head acting over his racing heart, he put Bentley into receivership.

With Bentley Motors in receivership, and Napier looking to buy the company, Woolf invested heavily in Rolls Royce.  Bentley’s assets went into a sealed auction which was won, ironically or inevitably depending on how you look at it, by Rolls Royce for £125,000.  Bentley Motors Ltd. became Bentley Motors (1931) Ltd. And by 1934, Woolf was back on Bentley’s board of directors.  He knew how to look after the things he loved.  

By now though, war was looming.  Germany’s rise was everywhere, especially on the race track, with Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union winning everything they entered.  And they entered with four cars each.  Woolf had hung up his helmet by the time war had broken out, but he joined the RAF nonetheless.  Rated too old at 44 to fly, he was given the rank of Wing Commander and was made responsible for factory defence in the South-East.

Diana at the controls of an Airspeed Oxford

His daughter Diana by this time had made quite a name for herself.  In 1936 she was presented at the Debutante’s Ball to King Edward VIII at age 18.  By 20 she was flying Tiger Moths from Brooklands, where her Dad had raced throughout the 20’s and 30’s.  When war was declared she signed up as a Red Cross nurse and joined the BEF in France, being evacuated from Dunkirk and then driving ambulances during the Blitz.  In 1941 she got her chance and like Woolf, seized it with both hands.  She joined the Air Transport Auxiliary and a year later was delivering aircraft to all branches of the forces.  Spitfires, Hurricanes, Mustangs, Wellingtons, Mosquitos, Tempests (the fastest piston engine aircraft of the war) all went into her log book, which lists 80 types (and 270 individual Spitfires) by the end of the war.  She wasn’t done though.  With a force of will, she badgered the Air Minister into letting her into a Lightning.  On 26 August 1963, Diana took a T4 two seater to Mach 1.65, becoming the first British woman to break the sound barrier and set a new world record as the fastest woman alive.  My parents would meet this amazing lady while working at the Edenbridge and Oxted Agricultural Show.  Going up to a not very great height in a cherry picker with my Dad to overlook the show grounds and take pictures.  Diana hung over the side wanting to go higher, claiming she used to deliver her Spitfires at a lower height than this.  My father was quite happy to be told that that was as high as they could go.  Diana’s autobiography Spreading My Wings is a fantastic read.  The Telegraph’s obituary for Diana and be found here.

Woolf died following complications from an operation in 1948, aged 53.  He was buried next to his Son-in-Law, Derek Walker, in Englefield Green in Surrey where, as his coffin was brought to the graveside, a Le Mans Speed Six, covered in flowers awaited next to the grave.  A rather fitting tribute.

“Dick” Seaman wouldn’t die as peacefully.

  1. Fantastic edit of the family history I keep encouraging a film writer friend of mine to promote Wolfe’s life as a film .he is a true hero of mine along with WO

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