The American populace embraced motorization at an early stage, notably with the introduction of the Ford Model T. This vehicle became an integral part of the societal infrastructure, serving as the primary means of transportation. Meanwhile, in Europe, the situation was somewhat distinct. Until the approach of World War II, automobiles remained a luxury, often perceived more as playthings than practical transport. Europeans preferred to engage in competitive driving, pitting cars against each other or different forms of transportation. Among these competitions, the Blue Train Races stand out as one of the most audacious automotive endeavors undertaken by thrill-seekers.

If you're under 70 years old or haven't delved into Agatha Christie's "The Mystery of the Blue Train" it's worth noting that the Blue Train, or Le Train Bleu, was an overnight express designed to transport affluent Britons to the French Riviera's delights. This train epitomized luxury travel, boasting Pullman coaches, dining cars, and, likely, numerous onboard parties. The guest list of Le Train Bleu was studded with luminaries such as Winston Churchill, Coco Chanel, and Scott F. Fitzgerald, highlighting its status as the transport of choice for the elite.

Although the Blue Train could reach speeds exceeding 100 km/h, its average speed was around 65 km/h across the 1200 km route, primarily due to the need to bypass Paris and the requirement to stop twice for locomotive changes. In 1930, this inspired Dudley Noble, a PR specialist for Rover, to conceive a promotional stunt: demonstrating the prowess of their new Light Model Six by outracing the opulent overnight train. To ensure the event captured public attention, Harold Pemberton, the Motoring Editor for the Daily Express, was enlisted after extensive efforts to persuade the newspaper's management. Frank Bennett, a test driver for Rover, also participated, serving both as a mechanic and a backup driver.

Promotional Rover Light Six poster after Noble beat the Blue Train. Note the £325 price, the Bentley Speed Six cost more than 5 times that
Promotional Rover Light Six poster after Noble beat the Blue Train
© Hemmings
A Rover Light Six Saloon like this was used to beat the Blue Train.
A Rover Light Six Saloon like this was used to beat the Blue Train
© Charles Dawson, Flickr

The race recommenced on a Sunday evening, laden with anticipation. The intensity reached such a peak that, just 50 km in, Pemberton pushed too hard, lost control, and the car ended up in a ditch. Fortunately, the damage to the car was only cosmetic, and after being towed out, the trio was back on track. Despite the initial hiccup and adverse weather conditions, the Rover team managed to reach the canal crossing 20 minutes ahead of the train.

Seizing the opportunity for positive publicity, Noble skillfully spun the narrative and disseminated it across national news platforms. He framed the event as a casual competition among friends, some opting for the train while others chose the Rover. The Daily Express was captivated by the tale, though not all shared their enthusiasm. The Autocar magazine expressed disapproval of the reckless act and only gave a cursory mention of this pioneering challenge.

Inspired by Noble’s promotional efforts, numerous British automobile enthusiasts were motivated to challenge the Blue Train, leading to mixed outcomes. Among the most memorable attempts was that of Woolf Barnato, who outpaced the train to London in his Bentley Speed Six. An heir to a fortune from South African diamond mines, Barnato was part of the illustrious ‘Bentley Boys’—affluent, spirited individuals who raced Bentleys leisurely, significantly contributing to the brand's racing legacy. Barnato, a three-time Le Mans victor for Bentley and the company's chairman, played a significant role in enhancing Bentley’s esteemed reputation.

Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato appropriately posing beside a Bentley
Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato appropriately posing beside a Bentley
© Hemmings
Four-door Speed Six coachbuilt by Mulliner and supposedly driven by Barnato from Southern France to London
Four-door Speed Six coachbuilt by Mulliner and supposedly driven by Barnato from Southern France to London
© Simon Davison, Flickr

Barnato embarked on his journey from the Côte d’Azur to Britain with a bold wager of £200, asserting his ability to outstrip the Blue Train. He reasoned that if a modest working-class Rover could achieve the feat, then it should be even more feasible with a Bentley at his disposal. Dale Bourne, an amateur golfer, was enlisted as his backup driver for the challenge.

Mirroring the experiences of Noble's team, Barnato and his companion faced their own set of hurdles. Adverse weather conditions, including thick fog and rain, hampered their speed. However, the most significant obstacle arose when the Bentley Speed Six suffered a flat tire. Fortunately, they had a spare tire on board, allowing them to quickly resume their ambitious endeavor.

Mulliner saloon and Gurney Nutting coupe variants of Speed Six side by side
Mulliner saloon and Gurney Nutting coupe variants of Speed Six side by side

Barnato arrived in Calais at 10:30, significantly ahead of the Blue Train, prompting him to take the ferry and continue his journey to London. He reached the British capital in less than 5 hours, arriving just before the Blue Train approached the Channel. Despite the challenging road conditions of that time, he managed to maintain an impressive average speed of almost 70 km/h.

Though it was a clear victory, the French authorities were not pleased with the British engaging in such races on their public roads. Woolf Barnato faced a £160 fine for his reckless driving, and as a consequence of the incident, Bentley was prohibited from participating in the 1930 Paris Auto Show.

Gurney Nutting coupe recreation of the Blue Train racer
© Bentley

For decades, it was believed that Barnato's remarkable victory was achieved in a Speed Six coupe, custom-built by Gurney Nutting, leading to several replicas being constructed, including some by Bentley.
Fascinating detail: A replica was available for purchase on
However, recent discoveries in historical documents suggest that the Gurney Nutting coupe might not have been completed in time for the race, indicating Barnato might have used a different vehicle from his collection for his legendary run. Some speculate this could have been a four-door model by Mulliner. Even Bentley has expressed uncertainty regarding the exact car used.

The RAC (Royal Automobile Club) publicly denounced the Blue Train races, effectively bringing an end to this adventurous era. This did not deter enthusiasts, who shifted their focus to challenging other trains. Dudley Noble himself attempted to outpace the Oriental Express from London to Venice, while others took on the challenge against the Scottish Express. Despite these efforts, none of these subsequent races captured the imagination and grandeur of the original Blue Train Races.


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Bentley Blue Train | Bluetrain 1953 - Racing Green