The Bentley Boys may have set the pace, but Bentley Girls refused to take a back seat, making their mark in inimitable Bentley Style. Mary Petre Bruce, Dorothy Paget and Diana Barnato – Bentley’s Flying Lady – each played an extraordinary part in building the Bentley legend.
Mary Petre Bruce: born for speed
Mary Petre was born with an appetite for speed. A match for any of Bentley’s racing drivers she was the first woman to be fined for speeding in the UK, aged just 15. In 1926 she married the Hon. Victor Bruce, the winner of that year’s Monte Carlo Rally. Fiercely competitive, she entered the Rally the following year. Covering 1,700 miles in 72 hours without sleep, she finished sixth overall, winning the Coupe des Dames. Not content to rest on her laurels, in 1928 she came second. Over the next few years, Mary and her husband the Honourable Victor Bruce, also set numerous distance records, from 4,000 to 15,000 miles.
An unusual request
In 1929 Mrs Victor Bruce decided to attempt the coveted Class C 24 hour record at the banked Montlhéry track near Paris. But her AC was simply not powerful enough. She promptly made an appointment to see W.O. Bentley and asked to borrow a team Bentley 4 ½ Litre. When W.O asked, ‘Who is your co-driver?’ she replied, ‘I’ve no co-driver. I’m going alone’. There was a long silence. Finally, W.O turned to Woolf Barnato and said, “I believe she may do it”. He lent her Tim Birkin’s 4 ½ Litre Bentley.
Record breaker on land, sea and air
Mary had never driven a Bentley until the day of the record attempt and had to borrow cushions from the official timekeepers so she could reach the pedals. Despite fog, cold and treacherous track conditions she covered 2,164 miles in 24 hours at an average speed of almost 90mph to take the record. That achievement won her life membership of the British Racing Drivers’ Club.
In the same year she set a powerboat record for the fastest double-crossing of the Channel before buying herself an aircraft and learning to fly in just six weeks. Then she set off on a solo round the world flight, breaking record after record on her way – becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the world alone. At the age of 81 she took a refresher course and during her first flight for 37 years looped the loop. Back on land, she exclaimed, “What a lark! It has knocked 50 years off my life!”
Dorothy Paget and the Blower Bentley
The Hon. Dorothy Paget was both fabulously wealthy and deeply eccentric. And she played a vital role in the creation of one of the most iconic Bentleys; the 4 ½ Litre Supercharged, known as the Blower Bentley.
Eccentric and talented
Among other foibles Paget renamed her personal servants after the colours of the rainbow. She was known for gambling all night, sleeping all day and had a reputation as a no-nonsense woman who knew her own mind. It was as a debutante in the 1920s, while other young ladies prioritised finding a suitor, Paget prioritised her passion for speed and power. Her interest in motor racing first developed on a visit to Brooklands, where she took driving lessons from Bentley Boy and racing driver Sir Tim Birkin. He described her as one of the finest women drivers he had ever come across, ‘capable of handling any make of racing car produced in this country or abroad’.
The birth of the Blower
By 1929, Birkin had become obsessed with driving more performance from the Bentley 4 ½ Litre. He was convinced that Amherst Villiers’ supercharger was the way to do it. Despite the opposition of W.O. Birkin persuaded Dorothy Paget to sponsor a racing team of supercharged Blowers. Four 4 ½ Litre Supercharged Blowers were built and Birkin’s team competed alongside Bentley’s team at Brooklands and Le Mans.
Like father, like daughter
Daughter of three-time Le Mans winner Woolf Barnato, Diana Barnato Walker inherited her father’s flair and courageous spirit. She was an accomplished horsewoman and keen motorist, driving a silver-grey Bentley 4 ¼ Litre Park Ward saloon given to her by her father on her 21st birthday.
Bentley’s Flying Lady
Like Mary Petre Bruce, flying became Diana’s lifelong passion. She flew solo at the Brooklands Flying Club in 1938 after only six hours’ instruction and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1941, delivering aircraft from the factories to front-line squadrons. It was a dangerous job – she had to navigate herself without any ground contact, as the radio frequencies were reserved for the frontline squadrons. Famous for her glamorous appearance and exceptional flying skills, by the end of the war she had delivered 260 Spitfires and numerous other aircraft to their squadrons.
The fastest woman in the world
In 1962 she was awarded the Jean Lennox Bird Trophy for achievements in aviation and in 1963 she flew an English Electric Lightning T14 fighter at a breathtaking 1,262 mph – that’s almost Mach 2 or twice the speed of sound.
Bentley through and through
When Team Bentley won Le Mans in 2003, Diana Barnato was one of the few people alive with personal memories of the original Bentley Boys era. At the celebration dinner - held, as part of Bentley tradition, at the Savoy - an impromptu ‘pit stop’ challenge was set to see who could climb into the cockpit of the winning Speed 8 and slam the door shut in the shortest time. 85-year-old Diana Barnato Walker kicked off her shoes, ran across the floor and wriggled her way into the car to thunderous applause. Her father would have been proud.
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