Chapter 7 - Woolf “Babe” Barnato

Woolf “Babe” Barnato

The Bentley Boys (Woolf far left)

Born in Westminster, London in 1895, Joel Woolf Barnato was only two when his father committed suicide aboard the SS Scot on the way back to England in June 1897.

After many years of wrangling, Woolf was finally given his inheritance.

As he grew older, he joined a social set of very rich dare-devil amateur drivers called the 'Bentley Boys' as they liked the cars of W.O.Bentley.

These Bentley Boys knew how to party. Woolf 'Babe' Barnato had a large private house in Surrey, in the country just outside London. It was huge, lavish and splendid yet somehow thoroughly British even though W O Bentley said it was more like visiting the Savoy Hotel than someone's home.

One of Barnato's parties there saw Brooklands-style racing pits constructed along the gravel drive. Guests in powerful cars, with beautiful girls as passengers, sped down the drive, pulled into the 'pits' to grab their first glasses of champagne and tore away again up to the house. The waiters were dressed as race drivers, complete with linen helmets and goggles. These parties invariably started at 10pm and went on officially to six in the morning: usually, however everyone was having such fun that they went on long after that.

Nicknamed 'Babe' because of his heavyweight boxer's physique, he agreed to finance W.O.Bentley when he ran into trouble and subsequently became a major shareholder and Chairman of the company in 1925.

He was later appointed to the Board of Rolls Royce when the two companies merged.

Woolf raced Bentleys in the Le Mans 24hrs races in 1928, 1929 and 1930 (Photo), winning each time; the only person ever to have a 100% record of entries to wins.

He began racing at Brooklands and, aged 29, in 1925 he co-drove a Bentley to break the World's 24hr record at 95.03mph at Montlhery in France.

Brooklands was a 2.75 miles motor racing circuit and airfield built near Weybridge in Surrey, England. It opened in 1907, and was the world's first purpose-built motorsport venue. The circuit hosted its last race in 1939, and was also one of Britain's first airfields.

It was on the raised and rounded part of the track that the famous Bentley No 1, that Woolf owned and raced to victory twice at Le Mans, with his friend Dunfee driving, crashed during the August 1932 BARC meeting.

History records that, at an estimated speed of over 120 mph, Dunfee lost control and the car went over the top of the bank. He was thrown out of the car and received fatal injuries. The car appeared to break up and turn over. Woolf Barnato was very upset at the death of his friend. The car was recovered but it never raced again.

Just off the M25 near Weybridge in Surrey, between Byfleet and Adlestone is the “Brooklands Centre”. It is now a shopping Centre with Tescos and M&S.

A few years ago I walked over the spot where Dunfee crashed the Old No 1.The raised part of the track where it happened, although grass and weeds are slowly taking over, is still there. Gave me goose pimples!

In 1930 Woolf accepted a challenge to race his Bentley against an express train. The train was the Le Train Bleu (the Blue Train) and the race was from Cannes on the Cote d’Azur in the south of France to London. Barnato bet that he would drive his Bentley from Cannes to London and beat the train to London.

The actual Bentley Speed Six "Blue Train Special"

Reminiscent of the final moments of Jules Verne’s novel, 80 days around the world, after averaging 43.43mph during the 570 mile journey to Calais, Barnato crossed the Channel and finally reached the Conservative Club in St James Street, London, beating the Blue Train to Calais by four minutes and winning his £200 bet.

W.O.Bentley said of Woolf that he was the finest British racing driver of the time.

Woolf was also wicketkeeper for Surrey county cricket club, a champion athlete and keen horseman.

During World War Two he was an RAF Wing Commander.

Woolf was married three times. His first wife was, Dorothy Falk, an American from White Plains, Virginia.

They had two daughters, Virginia and Diana. They divorced in 1899. He had two sons with his second wife, Jacqueline Quealy. He married his third wife Joan Gladys Jenkinson in December 1947.

Woolf Barnato died of cancer the following year aged 53. His Le Mans winning Speed Six Bentley led his funeral cortège.

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