Triple Le Mans 24 winner Woolf Barnato was the Tom Kristensen of the 1930s

06th April 2020
Paul Fearnley

How does a modern professional racing driver prepare for the Le Mans 24 Hours? There will be plenty of gym and sim work, no doubt, plus visualisation and nutrition sessions, probably.

Well, 90 years ago Joel Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato warmed up for his hat-trick attempt at La Sarthe with Bentley by playing cricket for Surrey 2nd XI. More specifically he kept wicket.


This millionaire son of ‘Randlord’ Barney Barnato threw his burly frame into a number of sports other than cricket: boxing, swimming, tennis and golf. He ascribed to being coached by the best and training hard. His 1,000-acre Surrey estate contained a golf course, and its terraced lawns were home to top-notch courts and nets, where once Donald Bradman wielded the willow.

Though a latecomer to international motorsport, he arrived strong, fit and ready, used to long periods of concentration and imbued with a powerful team ethic.

He had dabbled with some success since 1920 in a variety of cars, big and small – Austro-Daimler, Bugatti, Calthorpe, Enfield-Allday, Hispano-Suiza, Talbot and Wolseley – mainly in sprint races at Brooklands. But in a pen-portrait in the November 1925 edition of Motor Sport he made it plain that he was too busy to give motor racing the attention it required. That article, however, was somewhat out of date by the time it hit the stands: Barnato was about to become the Tom Kristensen of his day.

He was so impressed by his Bentley 3.0-Litre that he bought the company in 1926, paying off its creditors and investing in new, more powerful models. And already there had been signs of increasing prowess behind the wheel: in September 1925 he answered adventurer/racer John Duff’s late call to help set a 24-hour world record in a ‘streamlined’ Bentley at Montlhéry, near Paris. He lost nothing in comparison with Duff, the scorer (with co-driver Frank Clement) of Bentley’s maiden Le Mans win of 1924.

Barnato was still a busy man and picked his appearances carefully but gradually his racing career would gather pace in line with endurance events for sports cars becoming the hot ticket.

The Bentley Speed Six of Woolf Barnato and Frank Clement on the banking at Brooklands for the 1930 JCC Double Twelve.

The Bentley Speed Six of Woolf Barnato and Frank Clement on the banking at Brooklands for the 1930 JCC Double Twelve.

Brooklands followed the lead of Le Mans when Essex Car Club arranged a six-hour race – for the Barnato Cup – in 1927. Barnato was running second when the 3.0-Litre he was sharing with Dr Dudley Benjafield broke one of its experimental rocker arms. The following year, in a 4.5-Litre co-driven by Clement, he was leading after four hours only to be slowed by brake problems and slip to third.

The race was run by the Junior Car Club in 1929 and extended to 24 hours – albeit spread over two 12-hour heats because noise restrictions prevented night racing. Barnato and Benjafield were leading in the first 6.5-litre six-cylinder Speed Six – ‘Old Number One’ – when its dynamo failed.

Barnato had by this time, of course, prevailed twice at Le Mans.

Barnato at the wheel of his Bentley Speed Six ('Old Number One') on the way to his second Le Mans 24 Hours victory, paired this time with Tim Burkin.

Barnato at the wheel of his Bentley Speed Six ('Old Number One') on the way to his second Le Mans 24 Hours victory, paired this time with Tim Burkin.

His win-on-debut of 1928 was a nail-biter. Partnered by Australian-born Bernard Rubin, he had to coax home the year-old 4.5-Litre ‘Old Mother Gun’ as she threatened to seize due to a lack of water. The second was more straightforward, Barnato heading home the Cricklewood concern’s dominant 1-2-3-4 of 1929.

On the latter occasion he was co-driven by Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, a flamboyant friend and closest rival for ‘Head Bentley Boy’. Birkin had set fastest lap – as he had in 1928 and would do so in 1930 – but Barnato’s steadying influence and clockwork consistency was the ideal foil. His rakish co-driver was every schoolboy’s hero – but Barnato was WO Bentley’s pick of the bunch: fast, he rarely made mistakes and always obeyed orders.

Though he was Bentley’s chairman, Barnato never pulled rank – bar making it known that he was no longer keen on closing stints after his 1928 drama. And although he was always pushing WO to innovate, he preferred to stick with what he knew when it came to racing; his decision to use ‘Old Number One’ in 1930 would pay off handsomely.

Victory in a rain-hit Double Twelve alongside Clement was the perfection preparation for playing against Kent 2nd XI – and, of course, Le Mans.

That year’s Grand Prix d’Endurance boiled down to a fleet of Bentleys ramping the pressure on the lone Mercedes-Benz of Rudi Caracciola, co-driven by Christian Werner. Birkin’s role in this has been rightly lauded: the sacrificing of his Blower Bentley – deemed highly unlikely to finish after an enforced fuelling switch to benzole – to the cause.

But it was Barnato, ably supported by Glen Kidston, who took up the cudgels to keep the pressure on the 7.1-litre Merc, its shrill supercharger – activated only under full throttle – whining noticeably more as the race progressed.

Caracciola was feeling the pressure, too, for Werner was unable to match the Bentley’s sustained speed. The former later admitted that his strategy had been plotted against the performance of the Speed Six in 1929. A telling underestimation.

Glen Kidston (left) and Woolf Barnato (right) atop their Bentley Speed Six having just won the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours.
The Speed Six of Kidston and Barnato, rounding a corner at Le Mans in 1930. Note the high-strength crash barriers at the bottom of the photo.

Despite throttling back when their rival – flickering headlights indicative of its dying battery – withdrew before half-distance, Barnato and Kidston packed in 54 more miles than had been the case 12 months earlier.

Barnato – a performer for the big occasion – was content now to hang up his helmet and return fully to the world of finance. He announced in July 1931 that the Great Depression meant that he could no longer prop up Bentley and a receiver was called in.

Napier looked likely to buy it until Rolls-Royce, hiding behind a shell company, won a sealed-bid auction at the last-minute. Barnato got £42,000 for his shares – but not before he had bought shares in Rolls-Royce. He would be back on Bentley’s board by 1934.

You had get up early – and/or drive hard right through the night – if you wanted to beat him. Either that or play for Lancashire’s County Championship-winning team of 1928.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Le Mans

  • Bentley

  • Old Mother Gun

  • Old Number One

  • Woolf Barnato

  • Glen Kidston

  • Frank Clement

  • Tim Burkin

  • Le Mans 1928

  • Le Mans 1929

  • Le Mans 1930

  • Brooklands

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