Woolf Barnato bought the Bentley company in 1926. A wealthy socialite and member of the Bentley Boys, he won Le Mans three times as well as famously racing the Blue Train from Cannes in the South of France to Calais, while he had to get to the Conservative Club in St. James Street, London. He won with four minutes to spare.
Woolf Barnato's father, Barney Barnato, left for South Africa when he was 21 with £25 in his pocket to join his brother and make his fortune in the Kimberley diamond mines. He ultimately became super wealthy but, many years later, on returning to England by ship with his two year old son Woolf, he disappeared over the side and Woolf ultimately inherited his fortune after a seven year legal battle in later life.
He had not long received this inheritance when he bought a 3 litre Bentley to race at Brooklands. When he learnt that the supply of what had quickly become his favourite sports car could well dry up, he bought the Company to secure its immediate future. With John Duff, he set the world 24 hour record at 95.03 mph at Montlhéry in 1924.
He became it's chairman until it was eventually bought out by Rolls Royce, a company in which he also owned shares and was involved in.
The real beginning of the 'Barnato' era was in 1928. Despite having owned the Company for two years, it wasn't until 1928 that he became a fully-fledged part of the group of rich amateur drivers known as the Bentley Boys, but it wasn't long before he was recognised as their principal Member. Whilst they had a reputation for the highest living, they were also fully committed to their racing, and Barnato in particular achieved spectacular success.
The Company, with the backing of Barnato's millions, embarked on a packed racing programme. Out of five major races entered this year, Bentleys acquitted themselves well, with a 1st at Le Mans the best result of these, when Barnato & Bernard Rubin drove the prototype 4½ litre, 'Mother Gun', to a third 24 hour victory for Bentley. Other places were achieved, at home and abroad, cementing the reputation of these iconic motor cars as a world-beating sports car.
Despite his muscle in the company he was always prepared to accept team orders and he was regarded as one of their most reliable drivers. Out of eight races he started wit the Bentley team he was first in five of them, three of which were Le Mans wins. 1928, with Bernard Rubin in a Bentley 4½ Litre, 1929, with Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin in a Bentley Speed Six and 1930 with Glen Kidston in a Bentley Speed Six. These three Le Mans wins came from his only three entries, giving him a 100% record.
1929 had seen the Wall Street Crash, the reverberations of which could be felt throughout the whole world, not least of all amongst the wealthy classes in England. Sales of Bentleys fell throughout this year and, if it wasn't for the deep pockets of Woolf Barnato, Bentley Motors would have folded before 1930 had even got under way.
In March 1930 he accepted a challenge to race his Bentley against an express train, Le Train Bleu, from Cannes to London. Barnato wagered £200 that he could arrive in London before the French train had arrived at Calais. At 17:45, Le Train Bleu left the station at Cannes, and Barnato drove off in his Bentley Speed Six, accompanied by amateur golfer Dale Bourne. They maintained an average speed of 43.43 mph across a distance of over 570 miles, and reached Calais at 10:30 the next morning. After crossing the English Channel by ferry they arrived at the Conservative Club in St. James’ Street, London at 15:20. Le Train Bleu arrived at Calais station at 15:24, four minutes later.
He gave his name to the car he commissioned Walter Hassan to build around the original engine from the Bentley Old Number 1. This of course was the 6½ litre Barnato-Hassan which was later acquired by Oliver Bertram who after changing the engine set the Brooklands Outer Circuit lap record on the 5th August 1934 to 142.60 m.p.h.
Barnato also played first-class cricket, as a wicket-keeper with Surrey County Cricket Club from 1928 untill 1930.
Barnato was married three times, his third marriage being only a few months before he died in 1948.