Bentley Speed SixS

Way back when the world, and certainly the automobile, was younger, things were... We don't want to argue they were better — having to adjust the fuel mixture and set the coil while you're bumping down a dirt path inadvertently eating grasshoppers surely shouldn't be romanticized too much. Still, the world did seem more adventurous in days of old, especially as cars were concerned. In 1907 an advertisement appeared in the Parisian Le Matin that read simply, "What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?" With those few words, the Peking to Paris Rally was born. (Oh, and the winner got a bottle of champagne.) Today the ad would have contact numbers for dozens of lawyers and more corporate sponsors than a baseball stadium. Oh, and champagne mentioned in the same breath as cars? You sir, are worse than the Kaiser!

All that leads us quite nicely to Bentley. Like most prewar manufacturers, Bentley Motors was founded by a car enthusiast. Walter Owen Bentley (usually just called W.O.) and his brother H.M. began selling French cars in 1912. However, Owen couldn't stand their mediocre performance so he tuned the crankshaft and threw in aluminum pistons. During the war to end all wars, he worked for the Royal Air Force improving the design of the engine used in the Sopwith Camel and Snipe aircraft. For his good work, he was awarded 8,000 pounds sterling by the Commission for Awards to Inventors. It was a fine time to start a car company of his own.

To us, the most remarkable and noteworthy point about Bentley is that W.O. founded the company in 1920 and won Le Mans in 1924. That is, especially considering Carroll Shelby's grizzled words, "Le Mans isn't a race - it's an endurance test." Bentley went on to win Le Mans from 1927 to 1930, a remarkable achievement, largely accomplished because his cars were just so damn stout. Competitor Ettore Bugatti referred to the rival British machines as, "the world's fastest lorries," usually from the pits where his own gorgeous yet Faberge-egg-fragile machines were smoking and wheezing. The Bentleys weren't just fast and reliable, they were also innovative. W.O.'s 1924 Le Mans winner, the Bentley 3-Liter, was the first car to feature four valves per cylinder and dual spark plugs. But even with fantastic racing success, performance that was well ahead of the competition and a well-earned reputation for reliability, W.O. was having a hell of a time making ends meet. Enter the Bentley Boys.

Rapscallions? Absolutely. Ne'er-do-wells? That would be a firm and solid no. The Bentley Boys were a group of wealthy pistonheads and racers who became involved with Bentley when the marque's financial fortunes turned south in 1925. They comprised an aviator, a steeplechaser, a Sir, a doctor and even (gasp) an automotive journalist (the most righteous and revered Sydney Charles Houghton "Sammy" Davis). But chief among all the other boys was Joel Woolf "Babe" Barnato. At age two Barnato inherited millions and millions of pounds from his African diamond mining father, Barney Barnato. (When I was two I came down with an ear infection.) Impressed by W.O. and his cars, Babe Barnato became the majority shareholder of Bentley in 1925.

The Blower Bentley

Bentley Speed SixS

Once established, Barnato along with fellow Boy Henry Birkin, convinced/forced W.O. to develop the infamous Blower model, even though Bentley knew it would be troublesome and perform poorly in endurance races. Still, Babe was the (new) boss. The Blower had an insane thirst. The normally aspirated Bentley 4½ L in racing 130 hp trim returned 15 mpg. With the Blower, Babe and the gang got their 180 hp, but just 2.5 mpg! Worse than that, it broke down constantly. Birkin however, was able to set a Brooklands Outer Circuit lap record of 138 mph in a Blower, which stood until the still-maniacal 24-L Napier Railton went 168 mph two years later. W.O. knew that the key to more power and success at Le Mans lay in a bigger engine.

In 1926 Bentley introduced the 6½ L. It was essentially the 4½ L with two extra cylinders. The OHC straight-six had four valves per cylinder and produced about 200 hp. That was more than the Blower. Better yet, the 6½ L came with the usual bulletproof Bentley reliability, a key ingredient for racing success. Ride and handling were also improved and for the first time since its founding, rival and eventual owner Rolls Royce was nervous. Still, while a fantastic car, the 6½ L was burdened with heavy, formal coachwork. It may have had the power and reliability, but it couldn't run at Le Mans.

A Speed Six In Action

Bentley Speed SixS

In 1928 Bentley released his masterpiece, the Speed Six. Think of it as a 6½ L with twin carburetors, lighter body work and a shortened chassis. Power was up, weight was down and performance was the stuff of both history books and legend. Barnato and Birkin won Le Mans in 1929. In fact, the Speed Sixes finished first, second, third and fourth. Then, in 1930, Barnato and fellow Bentley Boy Glen Kidston did it again, in the same car. The boys nicknamed it "Old No. 1." As Babe Barnato only entered Le Mans three times (he won the 1928 race with Bernard Rubin in a Bentley 4½ L), this gives him a perfect record and one that will probably stand for all time.

Obviously, back-to-back Le Mans victories alone would qualify the Speed Six for our Fantasy Garage. Being utterly gorgeous doesn't hurt its case, either. However, there is one more piece of information that should make the Speed Six a shoe-in: the race against Le Train Bleu. While no doubt tanked one night at the Hotel Carlton in Cannes, Barnato accepted a 200 pound wager that he could drive his Speed Six to London before the Blue Train could reach Calais. So, with his amateur golfing pal Dale Bourne as second driver, Captain Barnato set off from the South of France against the French train the very next evening.

Long story short, Baranto, Bourne and the Speed Six were having drinks at the Conservative Club in London by the time the Le Train Bleu reached Calais. They in fact beat the locomotive by four minutes. (What, you thought Clarkson just thought that stuff up on his own?) For many years it was believed the car Barnato and Bourne used to beat the train was the deeply sexy Gurney-Nutting coupe, which is still known as "The Blue Train Special." Only problem is, the race took place in March 1930 and the Gurney-Nutting wasn't delivered to Barnato until May 21. Turns out that Barnato was piloting one of his three Le Mans spec Speed Sixes, not the coupe immortalized in Terrance Cuneo's painting. Oops. We do know that once delivered, Barnato had the Gurney-Nutting fitted with a bar in the back seat. We'd like a splash of champagne, please. Happy voting.

[Funny tidbit: Bentley didn't bother entering any 6½ L cars in the 1926, 1927 or 1928 Le Mans races because the cars were simply too powerful, fast and heavy for tire technology of the time.]

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