Long before the age of the pop idol seen on every magazine cover, there was a group of chaps that everyone wanted to be like; the ‘Bentley Boys’. These dashing derring-doers were England’s finest; being from the wealthiest stock, they dressed immaculately, had impeccable manners and a limitless passion for speed and luxury. Exactly when or who coined the phrase isn’t clear but it was used to describe a core of around a dozen or so early playboys who earned a reputation for their daring, cavalier attitudes on the track and their outrageous, indulgent activities off it. And as Dame Barbara Cartland herself once said of them, “…and they danced divinely”. The triumphs and incredible speeds achieved by drivers on the iconic racing track brought with it fame and reputation and the car of choice for many of these speeding Lotharios was the Bentley and so the name was born.
The world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit was built at Brooklands, Surrey in 1907 and, as a post-First World War Britain began to flourish again and a new decade beckoned it quickly became established on the social calendar as the place to be. Attracting the rich and the famous and a firm favourite with Royalty, by the 1920s racing had become a serious business and the glamour and daring that went with it caught the attention of the press and lifestyle magazines that were emerging at the time. Reading like a thriller novel, the public held the Bentley Boys in awe imagining them living in lavish Mayfair apartments with a girl on each arm playing the Stock Exchange and gambling in nightclubs.
One of the most distinguished of this group was Woolf “Babe” Barnato. A wealthy, gifted individual who excelled at sport and athletics and bred racehorses, when he wasn’t racing or sailing he divided his time between the south of France and at his magnificent house in Lingfield, Surrey where he threw parties to match Gatsby himself. Looking more like the Savoy hotel than a home, one such party saw guests tearing up and down the 400 metre gravel drive with beautiful girls in their cars stopping at specially constructed Brooklands-style racing ‘pits’ to refill their champagne glasses. He even had his house staff dress as racers complete with linen helmets and goggles. Barnato won Le Mans three years in a row: 1928 – ’30 and won the 1929 Six Hours Race and the 1930 Double Twelve, both at Brooklands.
According to founder Walter Owen Bentley (known simply as ‘W.O.’), Sir Henry Ralph Stanley ‘Tim’ Birkin was “the greatest British driver of his day” and lived at a furious speed even after crossing the finishing line. Life was never dull with Tim around and it was the lacklustre period after the War mixed with his enormous wealth gained from the lace business that fuelled his desire to race. Both he and Barnato, along with fellow reveller and record breaking aviator Glen Kidston, resided in adjacent flats in the south-east corner of Grosvenor Square in London’s Mayfair and to this day, some London taxi drivers still refer to the area as ‘Bentley Corner’. The group shot illustrated clearly shows why as often, a row of Bentleys would be parked up outside no doubt still warm from the previous nights revelry. From left to right and looking as sartorially splendid as their cars, they are: Frank Clement, S.C.H. ‘Sammy’ Davis, Dr. J. Dudley “Benjy” Benjafield, Bernard Rubin, Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato and Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin. The sign on the railings says Mount Street Public Gardens and is in the Mayfair district. Located just off Mount Street, the pillars, railings and the arched building on the left still remain to this day. Benjafield’s old residence at No. 28 Berkeley Square possibly has the most fitting reincarnation of all as it is the address of Morton’s Club, “…the most exclusive, yet relaxed private members’ club in Mayfair”.
Like all good things, there has to be an end and gradually the clan dispersed going their separate ways. Barnato served in the RAF in WWII and died at just 53 years of age in 1948 after an operation. On 7 May 1933 during a pit stop at the Tripoli Grand Prix, Birkin bent down to pick up a cigarette lighter and burnt his arm on an exhaust pipe. It is said that the wound became infected and this led to complications and ultimately caused his death. He was just 37. The news of Kidston’s death in 1931 after his aircraft broke up over the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa reached the London evening papers and it is believed that both Margaret Whigham, later Duchess of Argyll, and Barbara Cartland, (both former lovers of Kidston) fainted on hearing the news. Cartland subsequently named her first son Glen in his memory.
Undoubtedly, the Boys’ fierce competitive spirit and dedication to the marque contributed to Bentley achieving four consecutive victories at the 24 hours of Le Mans from 1927 to 1930 and, supported by a great deal of Barnato’s own wealth to save it from decline, created a ‘brand’ image for Bentley that has stood for luxury, style and performance ever since.