Estimate:£750,000 - £850,000 Sold For £855,000
Registration No:GU 1927
- First registered to Bentley Motors' Head Office, Pollen House, Cork St, London W1 for the use of marque saviour and thrice Le Mans winner Captain Woolf Barnato
- Matching chassis, engine, gearbox, steering box, bonnet, front axle and rear axle numbers. Originally fitted with open Vanden Plas four-seater coachwork but since rebodied in the style of a Le Mans car
- Treated to much mechanical fettling during the current ownership with tens of thousands of pounds and hundreds of hours of labour being lavished on the car
- A great car with which to celebrate Bentley's centenary next year!
'The best driver we ever had and, I consider, the best British driver of his day. One who never made a mistake and always obeyed orders . . . He won Le Mans three times running, an achievement no one else has equaled. He was a formidable man, behind a glass of whisky, behind a driving wheel, and behind a boardroom table. He enjoyed himself with Bentley Motors, enjoyed the racing and the status it brought him in the public eye. In spite of 1931, and the bankruptcy, 'Babe' and I never quarreled' (W.O. Bentley on Woolf 'Babe' Barnato)
Son of Barney Barnato who became a billionaire in today's terms when he sold the Kimberley Central Diamond Mining Company to Cecil Rhodes' competing De Beers firm in 1889, Woolf Barnato was born on 27th September 1895 at Spencer House, 27 St. James Place, London. Educated at Charterhouse School and Cambridge University where the lack of a driving licence did not prevent him from crashing his elder brother's two-cylinder Renault through a shop window, he joined the Royal Field Artillery during World War One. Enduring the horrors of Passchendaele and fighting as far afield as Gaza and the Jordan Valley, Barnato had risen to the rank of Captain by the advent of peace.
Forced to take legal action so as to unlock his inheritance, the early 1920s saw him emerge as one of the UK's richest people. A supreme sportsman, Barnato excelled at golf, cricket, shooting, swimming, boxing, power boat racing and motor car racing. Ardenrun Hall, his 1,000 acre Surrey estate, boasted its own golf course, pub and cricket nets (the latter good enough to entice Don Bradman to practice in). A familiar face at Brooklands and personal friend of both Sir Malcolm Campbell and Ettore Bugatti, Barnato campaigned a variety of machinery but did not buy a Bentley until 1925. Legend has it that the ebullient playboy would have acquired one of Cricklewood's products sooner had he not mistaken W.O.'s reserve for standoffishness. Enticed into becoming a 'Bentley Boy' by marque concessionaire and fellow WW1 veteran Captain John Duff, Barnato swiftly became leader of the pack.
Part of the Works Team alongside Duff and Dr J.D. Benjafield which set new 1,000km and 24-hour speed records at Montlhery in September 1925 aboard a Bentley 3 Litre, that same year saw him save the fledgling manufacturer from bankruptcy via a cash injection of £100,000 (c.£6,000,000 today). A further £175,000 followed by the decade's end as did a restructuring of the company which left Barnato as Chairman elect with 149,500 shares (out of 150,000). Single-handedly responsible for bankrolling Bentley's 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930 Le Mans 24-hour victories, he co-drove on the latter three occasions and thanks to his perfect starts-to-wins ratio at La Sarthe was christened 'Mr 100%' by the event's organisers, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest.
Having funded the development of the 6½ Litre and 4½ Litre, Barnato had his pick of Cricklewood models and was only too happy to demonstrate them to the Bright Young Things of the Jazz Age. As well as Ardenrun Hall, he had a flat at 50 Grosvenor Square in London's Mayfair and hosted legendary parties at both. Fellow Bentley Boys Bernard Rubin, Tim Birkin and Glen Kidston also had flats on Grosvenor Square and quickly established a 'Bentley Corner' for their parking needs. Barnato's country house guests included starlets from the West End musicals he invested in who were treated to impromptu races along his drive complete with faux pits serving champagne (his garage rarely held less than twelve cars). A frequent visitor to America, he was a regular on the Cote d'Azur too typically driving there in the latest Bentley (and famously racing the Blue Train back on one occasion).
According to Clare Hay's authoritative tome 'Bentley The Vintage Years 1919 - 1931', Captain Woolf Barnato is known to have been the original owner of just two normally aspirated 4½ Litre cars. The first - chassis ST3001 (or 'Old Mother Gun' as the Works nicknamed it) - was the 4½ Litre prototype that he co-drove to win the 1928 Le Mans 24-hours with Bernard Rubin, while the second - chassis NX3457 - is the car now on offer. 'Old Mother Gun' evolved into the Bentley Jackson single-seater Brooklands racer which featured a bespoke chassis and 6½ Litre engine. An accompanying copy of the Bentley's factory maintenance record shows that chassis NX3457 was built with 'Glacier lined steel shells fitted to conrods' and 'Vanden Plas Sports 4-seater - Our Own Body' for the use of Capt. W. Barnato. The same document reveals that the 4½ Litre had '4 new Dunlop Fort Covers Fitted' during September 1929 and its clutch changed the following month. The guarantee for chassis NX3457 was transferred in November 1929 which was presumably when Barnato ceased to drive it (the mileage covered during his stewardship being an indicated 9,860 or more).
Interestingly, chassis NX3457 was the first of the NX-series cars to be delivered in March 1929 (a month or two ahead of its siblings). The NX-series engines debuted a new type of more durable conrod design and it is entirely plausible that chassis NX3457 was used as a guinea pig. Barnato not only covered a far greater mileage (at higher speeds) than the average motorist but was also more likely to be understanding of mechanical failure. One of its sister cars, chassis NX3451, was built to 'Le Mans' specification by the Competition Department for William Berkley 'Bummer' Scott who raced it at the Irish Grand Prix and Brooklands (6-hour and BRDC 500-Mile) in 1929. Another noteworthy point is that when the Open 4-seater was first road registered as 'GU 1927' on 23rd March 1929 by London County Council it was not to Barnato's city or county addresses but in the name of Bentley Motors, Pollen House, Cork St, London W1.
The ex-Barnato machine's next keeper is noted as Colonel J.F. Neilson of Pear Tree Cottage, Woodbridge, Suffolk and while we have been unable to establish whether they were one in the same person another Colonel J.F. Neilson acted as liaison to the newly formed Bolshevik army during World War One. Thereafter, the 4½ Litre is known to have belonged to - or passed through the hands of - Jack Barclay Ltd of Hanover Square W1, Walsh & Gillson Ltd of Bruton Place W1, Sir John Donaldson Hudson of the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool (a partner in John Logie Baird Ltd), J. Rudd Esq of 'Arcadia', Bramhope, R. Taylor & Co Ltd of Lozells, Birmingham, William Landless Esq. of 'Norwood', Rossendale, James Bown Esq. of Stockport, Harry Faulkner Esq. of Stockport, Malcolm Holt Esq. of Cheadle Hulme, John James Pennington Esq of Gatley, Reg Parker of Nuneaton, William Loughran, Mr Whittaker (Isle of Man) and Leon Litchfield prior to entering the current ownership in September 2011.
Extensively restored by John James Pennington during the 1960s, chassis NX3457 was treated to a second thorough refurbishment some two decades later. Commissioned and overseen by Reg Parker, this more recent work included a mechanical rejuvenation by Wiltshire-based marque specialist Tony Townsend and the fitting of a new Vanden Plas-style 'Le Mans' body by H&H Coachworks of Henley, Oxfordshire. Always an Open 4-Seater, few would argue against the appropriateness of a car first owned by thrice Le Mans winner Woolf Barnato wearing 'Le Mans' style coachwork especially as it remains so original in other respects. Dr Clare Hay has prepared a report on 'GU 1927' copies of which will be made available to interested parties. Interestingly, a photo taken by Autocar magazine in the yard at the Hotel Moderne makes her think that the 4½ Litre was present for the 1929 Le Mans 24-hours (though, whether Woolf Barnato drove it there and back himself is unknown). Our own inspection has revealed that the number 'NX3457' is visible to the chassis (dumb iron lozenge, front cross member), front axle, back axle, steering box and bonnet. The C-Type gearbox numbered '6545' is original too and the engine bears the correct number 'NX3459' to its crankcase and magneto tower. The 4½ Litre unit is fed by 'Sloper' SU carburettors (rather than vertical ones) but they are of an unusually large internal diameter - 1 7/8-inches.
Scarcely driven whilst part of Leon Litchfield's collection, the Bentley has been thoroughly recommissioned by the vendor. Entrusted to Formhalls Vintage & Racing Ltd for a £28,492.80 overhaul, the engine had its crankshaft reground, camshaft reprofiled, water pump / oil pump rejuvenated, flywheel refaced, crankshaft / flywheel balanced and cylinder block rebored before being treated to new bearings, con-rods, pistons and roller rockers etc. Neil Davies Racing supplied a new pressure plate for the reconditioned clutch and replacement engine / drivetrain mounts, while D.H. Day (another marque specialist) refurbished the thermostat and reconditioned the twin ML ER4 magnetos. North Wales Radiators Ltd re-cored what appears to be the factory-installed Gallay radiator, while MWS International Ltd rebuilt or renewed the five 21-inch wire wheels and fitted new Dunlop F4 tyres. A lifelong enthusiast who learnt his mechanical skills from his older brother and garage owning father, the vendor spent a considerable time experimenting with different carburettor needles (courtesy of D.H. Day) so as to get the engine revving freely and pulling strongly. He also paid attention to the steering, brakes and suspension. The gearbox retains its original speedometer drive for a 15/53 rear axle ratio but the current ratio is thought to be 13/51 so the speedometer under reads slightly. All in all the fettling has cost tens of thousands of pounds and taken hundreds of hours. The result is a W.O. Bentley with a pleasingly gentle patina and in rude mechanical health.
Next year marks Bentley's Centenary and what better way to celebrate it than to acquire the 4½ Litre of marque saviour and three times Le Mans winner, Woolf 'Babe' Barnato?
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