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Wally Hassan: The Wizzard of Brooklands

October 10, 2017

It was late in the afternoon in July 1990 when an elderly gentleman made his way down the steps of the High Court of Justice on the Strand in London. It had been oppressively muggy that day and Walter Hassan OBE had spent most of it in court. Actually, it had been his first time in a courtroom of any kind. Wally had been retired from the motor trade for almost twenty years. Then, at the beginning of the year he had been called as a primary witness for the defense in a case before the high court involving the sale of a car he had been instrumental in building a lifetime ago in 1929. Wally had almost forgotten about it but as he sat down that morning in the witness stand the memories had all come flooding back. (Photo: below left: Walter Hassan)

 It had all started in 1920 when, less than enthused by his father’s clothing business he had apprenticed himself to W.O. Bentley in Cricklewood. From his first day in the former aircraft engine factory, Hassan absorbed information like a sponge, determined to become familiar with every aspect of the cars the company produced. His talent came to the attention of Frank Clement, Bentley’s only professional racing driver who suggested Hassan join the company’s racing mechanics. (Photo: Walter Owen Bentley. founder of the venerable company that bears his name to this day.)

In 1926 the Bentley team came to Montlhery outside Paris for the first ever attempt to set a 24hr record of over 100mph. Woolf Barnato and George Duller were to drive the single-seater “slug” racecar prepared by Wally Hassan. More than 1000 miles into the record attempt George Duller skidded on the banking and returned to the pit to allow Barnato to take over. He was surprised to find it deserted but for the 21-year-old Hassan. The rest of the team had gone to dinner.  Duller had barely sat down, when unwilling to let the record attempt go to waste, Hassan jumped into the car and set off down the track. Just as he roared round the first corner, Barnato and the rest of the team returned from dinner in time to hear a loud screeching sound followed by a metallic crash and then silence. When they reached the scene of the crash they found the 3 liter Bentley straddling a ditch and Hassan lying unconscious under the wreckage. The record attempt was done for, especially since Hassan was not a driver of record and therefore nothing would have been recorded anyway.  W.O Bentley asserts in his biography that it was a miracle that Hassan managed to get as far as he did. He was also very pleased that the American Hospital in Paris treated the fearless mechanic free of charge for three weeks.


Despite of the debacle at Brooklands, Hassan soon became one of Bentley’s most distinguished racing mechanics. Above all he was integral in preparing both the 4.5 liter “Old Mother Gun” and the new Speed Six “Old Number 1” for their successive wins at Le Mans in 1928, 1929, 1930. (Photo below left: Wally Hassan, Jack Dunfee, Woolf Barnato, Stan Ivernee and "Old Number One" at Brooklands in 1929.


But the Wall Street Crash and the depression that followed dealt a serious blow to the finances of all the “Bentley Boys” as well as the company itself. By 1931, Barnato’s advisors discouraged him from more largesse and the company went into receivership, eventually to be acquired by Rolls Royce. But in the midst of the sale, Barnato acquired two of the company’s most prized assets - “Old Number One” and Wally Hassan - for himself. 

(Photos Below Right: Old Number One Winning at Le Mans in 1929 and 30)


Hassan was now in charge of all things fast at Barnato’s country house Arden Run in Surrey. First thing on his to do list was to get Old No. 1 ready for the 1931 500-mile race at Brooklands. With the same streamlined body it had worn there in 1929 and in the hands of the talented Cyril Paul and Jack Dunfee it came second.


Barnato however wanted it to be competitive for years to come. The 6.5 liter chassis side members had begun to crack and so they were replaced with new ones from a 4 litre model. A new two seater Gurney Nutting body was fitted as well as an 8 liter engine, and it was in that configuration that the old track warrior was demonstrated at Brooklands ready to compete in the 1932 500 Mile Race.


Jack and Clive Dunfee were to drive the car. Clive had recently married the actress Jane Baxter having promised her he would stop racing. He had been released from his promise for the 1932 Brooklands race only, but one race was enough for disaster to strike. In the 99th lap, after coming in for another tire change the big car disappeared behind a hill as both team and spectators waited for it to reappear on the other side, but nothing came. Clive Dunfee had been in the middle of passing Lord Howe’s Bugatti when he went over the top of the banking and off into the trees. He was thrown from the car and died instantly while his trusty steed landed on the private road below, heavily damaged. (Photo: Clive Dunfee in Old Number One at Brooklands.)


Hassan and Barnato would never race Old Number again. It was rebuilt as an enclosed coupe and taken to California for Barnato’s honeymoon after his wedding to Jacqueline Claridge Quealy of San Francisco in 1933. (Photo below: Woolf Barnato and his Wife Jacqueline Claridge Quealy)






Shocked by the death of his friend Clive Dunfee, Barnato turned his attention momentarily away from the outer circuit speed record races to the Brooklands Mountain Circuit. As the discipline required short bursts of acceleration followed by hard braking, Barnato asked that a new racecar be built with double tires (duallys) in front and in the rear. The German Auto Union had begun to use double tires on the rear of its notoriously powerful and twitchy mid-engine racers for hill climbs around the same time, which might have been where Barnato got the idea from.


Hassan believed Bentley components would be used and therefore feared it would make the car too heavy but Barnato wouldn’t budge and so his engineer resigned himself to beginning the project. Luckily Barnato soon tired of the idea and instead, Old Number One’s original 6.5 liter Le Mans winning engine was mated to a new custom narrow frame with a single-seater configuration.


As Barnato’s country house, Ardenrun has recently burnt down; the Barnato-Hassan Special was built in Barnato’s private garage in Belgrave Mews, which also housed his road-going Bentley’s. During the long winter as Hassan labored away on his masterpiece the chauffeurs suffered sleepless nights knowing that the road cars in their care were in constant danger of being wounded by errant tools or swinging chassis rails. Finally in spring, the car was driven to Brooklands much to the chauffeurs’ relief. The car achieved the second fastest lap, behind Tim Birkin’s “Blower No.1” that year. In 1935 the car would finally set the overall lap record at 142.60 m.p.h. (Photo: The Barnato- Hassan Special)



Wally Hassan would infuse his magic into one more Bentley Special. Working with his old Bentley compadre Wally Saunders, Hassan concocted his most extreme build yet. Based on a standard 4 ½ liter car, the engine was bored out to close to 4.8 liters and the compression ratio hiked to 9 to 1. The beast was run on alcohol fuel with a small portion of benzole and the engine oil was specially heated up and poured into the engine before the start of each race. Tuned to within an inch of its life the Pacey-Hassan made podiums in all the races it entered in 1936 and won the Gold Trophy race that year at Brooklands, and with that triumph Hassan’s Bentley chapter came to an end. (Photos below: Pacey-Hassan Special.)