There are often historic moments at Goodwood’s motorsport events, and even without spectators lining the circuit, SpeedWeek presented by Mastercard was no different. Among many exciting and notable moments across the weekend, two Hassan Bentley Specials were set to line-up on the Goodwood Trophy grid together for the first time since the Second World. We knew we had to find out more.
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Walking through the paddocks, it didn’t take long to track down the two massive, yet still strikingly beautiful motor cars. Sat side by side, the jet black battle-scarred Pacey-Hassan Special and the larger, curvier sky-blue Barnato-Hassan Special look quite the pair. Waiting for us was William Medcalf, owner of Vintage Bentley, a world-renowned Bentley restoration business situated not too far from Goodwood in the outskirts of Petersfield.
Introductions made, we’re ready for our Hassan Specials history lesson, so we quickly let William and his encyclopaedic knowledge take the lead.
“The reason these cars exist is because Woolf Barnato was chairman of Bentley Motors and bank rolled the company from 1924. When the company was sold in 1932 to Rolls-Royce, Barnato walked through the factory and hand-picked engines, parts and engineers to take away with him, including a man called Wally Hassan.”
Hassan, who was identified as a genius engineer, ended up working out of Woolf’s garden shed at home, helping him to create a single seater that would be capable of breaking and holding the Brooklands record. More than a motor race, Brooklands events in the 1930s were akin to international diplomacy and postering. It was about nations competing for top spot, proving their engineering endeavour, commitment and expertise when Western Europe was gearing towards another World War within a generation.
The stakes, then, were high. But Wally Hassan, as a gifted engineer with plenty of Le Mans experience under his belt, delivered in spades, initially with the Barnato-Hassan Special. “The Barnato has just been rebuilt after 10 years of hard work and passion. It is now in the exact specification that it raced in period. Huge thanks must go to David Ayres who has restored it over the last two years, testing and finally driving this weekend with me," says William.
No detail was left for chance with the restoration. Even the colour was the result of meticulous research – it took William and David months of searching through old paper cuttings, historical archives and race entry forms to find a single mention of its original colour. Simply jotted down alongside an entry as ‘Sky-blue’ in the notes panel.
“It was built as a 8.0-litre motor car, and is arguably the fastest to go round Brooklands. The Napier-Railton was an aero-engine you see, so a bit of controversy there for you. It still holds the Class B record which was 143.6mph average speed in 1937, which is absolutely incredible”.
We notice a small brass lever on the right hand side of the Barnato’s cockpit and ask what it’s for. As it turns out, the runs were so bumpy around Brooklands, drivers were physically unable to keep their foot planted on the accelerator, so at a certain speed, the drivers would have to set a hand throttle and then hang on for dear life. Mind-blowing.
The 4.5-litre 1936 Pacey-Hassan is essentially a smaller version of the Barnato and looks somewhat more lived-in than its resplendent sky-blue brother.
“A guy called Bill Pacey was a racer and he approached Barnato because he was so impressed with the work him and Hassan were doing. He asked if it was possible, over the weekends, for Hassan to build him a car too. They struck up a deal and Wally Hassan built the Barnato in the week. The Pacey was a weekend project”.
It’s the Pacey that looks the scariest, thanks to its balloon tires which, thankfully, are removed these days for racing. “In period they ran very thin tires, only about 3mm thick. Every race meeting someone died. It was a totally different mentality. Barely any crash helmets, rolled-up shirt sleeves, and they just got on with it. The Barnato on the straights can pull over 150mph, the Pacey over 140mph”.
William can’t talk highly enough about both of the cars. And it’s clear that the experience of restoring them enabled him to get within the mind of Wally Hassan himself. Breaking the cars down to reveal the thought process and engineering problem-solving deployed by Bentley’s most revered engineer, piece by piece, bolt by bolt.
Perhaps it’s this innate understanding of the cars that allows William and David to race them as they were designed to be driven: at the absolute limit.
“When both cars were built, they were only built to go in a straight line. To put them both around a racetrack like this which is 2.8 miles long and has five big fast right hand bends and one left, you’re just fighting against physics the whole way round. You light them up and you’re instantly on the edge. There’s loads of horsepower and not a lot of grip. To slither around here is just insane basically. But it’s great fun too. Yesterday we caught each other in the race and we had about three or four laps of playing together. It was really lovely to see the two cars on track again”.
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