Updated: Mar 9, 2022
This 1930 Bentley Le Mans poster celebrates the mighty Bentley Speed sixes of the late 1920’s when the ‘Bentley Boys’ dominated endurance motor sport.
The Le Mans race of 1930 was Bentley’s fourth successive win, and the last in which the company would compete. After catastrophic financial losses following the 1929 Wall Street crash and the subsequent collapse of the luxury car market, Bentley pulled out of competitive motor racing and under the burden of increasing company debts, sold out to Rolls Royce in 1931. But their brief racing history had been a glorious one.
In the 1930 event Woolf Barnato (27 September 1895 – 27 July 1948) was seeking his third successive win in three starts, (he remains the only driver with a 100% record of wins to starts at Le Mans) this time partnered by Glen Kidston. These men, two of the most notorious of the Bentley Boys, were most remarkable characters. Prodigiously wealthy Barnato was the heir to a fortune gained in the Kimberly diamond mines in South Africa, and an all-round sportsman, excelling in just about every sport that took his interest. He won prizes in power-boat racing, was a keen amateur boxer, horseman, athlete and even kept wicket for Surrey cricket club. The 24-hour champagne-fuelled parties that he hosted at his country house in Surrey became legendary.
But fast driving at the wheel of a Bentley was his real joy. On one occasion in March 1930 he accepted a bet to race the famous Blue Train from Cannes to Calais but upped the stakes by saying that he could reach his London club before the train arrived at Calais. Setting off from the bar of The Carlton Hotel at 6 pm he arrived at the port of Boulogne in time for the 11.30am sailing to Folkstone and reached The Conservative Club in St James’s at around 3.30pm, 4 minutes before the train arrived at Calais, winning his bet.
Glen Kidston (23 January 1899 – 5 May 1931) was possibly even wealthier than Barnato, his riches coming from shipping and banking. Kidston was a born adventurer, narrowly escaping death on several occasions, including motor boat and motor cycle crashes. As a naval officer in the First World War he survived being torpedoed three times, and as a submariner survived running his vessel aground in the North Sea. In 1929 he was the sole survivor when a commercial airliner crashed en route from Croydon to Amsterdam, suffering severe burns.
In April 1931 Kidston set off on a record-breaking solo flight from Netheravon airfield in Wiltshire to Capetown, South Africa, completing the journey in just 6½ days in his own specially adapted Lockheed Vega monoplane, averaging 131 mph. However, his luck ran out on the return trip when, only a year after his Le Mans triumph, his borrowed de Havilland Puss Moth broke up in mid-air while flying through a dust storm over the Drakensberg mountains, and Glen Kidston was killed.
These two daredevil romantic heroes lived sadly short lives but packed into those years adventures that us unexceptional folk can only dream of.