"A straightaway race for genuine racing cars"

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That was the billing for the Brooklands 500, a bold experiment by a new club. Bill Boddy outlines the BRDC’S birth and its testing race

The British racing drivers’ club is one of the most influential organisations in the world of motor racing. It owns the Silverstone circuit, where it holds some of the most important British races, and looks after the interests of 833 racing driver members, Lord Hesketh is president of this exclusive club, John Fitzpatrick its secretary.

How did it come about? It arose from dinners given by Dr JD Benjafield, a well known Bentley driver who had also raced a Salmson, De Dion Bouton and a Panhard-Levassor, to his friends around 1926/27. At one of these such a club was suggested for those who knew what racing was about. At about the same time, at a dinner given to speed Malcolm Campbell on his way to Daytona, AV Ebblewhite, the indefatigable Brooklands timekeeper and handicapper, suggested much the same thing. From these ideas, the BRDC was formed. Originally, those elected had to have taken part in a road race, been placed not lower than third in a BARC race at Brooklands or have ‘proved their mettle’ in other racing events. Membership by achievement, not invitation!

This also applied to the committee, and after Earl Howe had been elected president, succeeding `Ebby’, the BRDC grew rapidly in stature. SCH Davis was an ardent supporter and Head, his colleague at The Autocar, designed the club badge, depicting a car in British racing green on a silver shield with the Union flag.

The first committee consisted of Kaye Don, Frank Clement, SCH Davis, Captain A Frazer Nash, Captain GET Eyston, Vernon Balls, Jack Dunfee, LG Callingham, Captain AG Miller, and JP Turner, with Dr Benjafield as treasurer and Harry Edwards its honorary secretary. The club’s objects were to promote motorsport, hold dinners for outstanding performances, extend hospitality to overseas drivers and look after the interests of BRDC members racing abroad. These aims remain today with a 12-strong board of directors, all ex-racing drivers, in control, administering 10 national championships.

The club formed, the question arose as to what kind of event it should hold. Donington and Crystal Palace were in the future so the venue had to be Brooklands. What better than an outercircuit race of 500 miles? This was brave, for 500 miles was a long way… The BRDC pointed out that as its ‘500’ would be held at the close of the season it would matter little if cars “blew up”.

Earl Howe explained that there was a growing tendency towards races for touring cars (he was thinking of Le Mans and the TT). Pure speed was no longer the principal objective. But stripped out racing cars built round a powerful engine, rather than beneath a cumbersome body, still existed and so did the drivers to handle them. That, postulated His Lordship, was why the BRDC race would be for all racing cars. He was later delighted when a 35-strong entry was received for that first ‘500’, including some of the fastest ever built for track work.

It was to become a highly respected fixture in the calendar, faster than the Indianapolis 500-mile race, which didn’t catch up until 1947. More, the BRDC race was typically British, inasmuch as instead of fields of Millers with Duesenberg engines and vice versa, and cars with sponsors’ names instead of the maker’s designations, the home “500” was noted for its remarkable variety, ancient track cars competing with sports cars and racing-bodied specials. It was all very exciting, and continued annually for eight years. After that, economy decreed the distance be reduced to 500km, a race won by John Cobb and barrister Oliver Bertram in the 24litre Napier Raikon at a rousing average speed of 127.05mph…

Back to 1929, and the first 500-mile race. The handicapping was hard on the 750cc entries, as they were classed with the 1100cc cars. Nor did unblown engines have any advantage over supercharged ones — maybe to ensure a faster race? The date fixed was October 12 at “Brooklands, England” and the stewards were Sir Henry Segrave, A Percy Bradley and Major Oates, OBE. With boy scouts of the 1st Weybridge group manning the scoreboards, the scene was set.

The first group of up-to-1100cc cars were flagged away at 10am, the last, of over 5 litres, at 11.08am. A minimum lap speed of 80mph was imposed and the course stayed open for 30 minutes after the third finisher had crossed the line, or 5pm, whichever was earlier. Prizes were generous. The winner had 250 sovereigns and the Wakefield Trophy, second home 100 sovereigns, while the BARC gave a cup f-or the fastest lap.

Those who arrived early at Brooklands would have seen the cars being pushed from the finishing straight to the Fork to await Ebby’s start signal. Among the varied entry were five A7s, a lone supercharged Riley 9, a strong team of Type 37 Bugattis, Scott and Cobb in the GP Delage, both “Flatiron” Thomas Specials, a team of three TT Lea Francis, one driven by Tom Delaney (who is still driving them), and Archie Frazer Nash in a supercharged ‘Nash. Of the faster stuff, Kaye Don put in a Sunbeam threesome of “The Cub” shared with Eyston, and Froy and Cyril Paul in the 4-litre “Tiger” and “Tigress”. Bouts had his aged 4.9 Sunbeam and Sir Henry Birkin a blown 4 1/2 Bentley, backed up by normal 4 1/2s; Jack Barclay planned to drive all the way on his long-tailed car. The top class would be a contest between Barnato’s Speed Six Bentley and the unbelievable ex-Zborowski 16 1/2-litre aeroengined Mercedes of the two RAF officers John Nod and John Pole. What other race than the BRDC ‘500’ could encompass such an entry? When Bamato did not turn up to drive with Clive Dunfee, Sammy Davis bravely took over at short notice, as he describes so splendidly in his book.

On the day, this testing race went well. Soon after the 1100cc group had been released, the drivers of the big cars facing a one hour wait before their turn came, Vernon Balls was lapping very fast in his Amilcar Six to build up a good lead over the A7s, of which Spero’s, with an oddly streamlined body, was by no means outclassed. Of the 1500s, the straight-eight GP Delage was hotly chased by the Frazer Nash and a great battle ensued between Birkin and Don driving one of the V12 4-litre blown Sunbeams. Birkin’s blower Bentley was later to become his famous lap record track car, but in 1929 it had a fabric two-seater body which the exhaust eventually set on fire, causing his retirement. There was ample excitement. Sammy Davis, who had never driven the Speed Six before, took the lead when the Birkin Bentley stopped for a clean-up, as it was now spraying oil over everything in the cockpit. Before that, Birkin had been lapping at 121mph, but the smaller cars were still ahead on handicap, after 72 of the 181 the Amilcar two 181 laps, the Amilcar two A7s and the Speed Model Riley. But the pace was taking its toll. After Balls had a valve break, George Eyston in the Sunbeam “Cub” took the lead at 108 laps. However, the impetuous Jack Barclay was not to be denied, and in spite of a lurid skid down the Member’s banking, which necessitated a wheel change, the Bentley went off again and gained the lead.

Kaye Don and Dudley Froy with the Sunbeam stopped when a back spring broke, the GP Delage went out, and Paul toured round after the 4-litre Sunbeam he shared with Cobb cracked its chassis, while “The Cub’s” run ended when it, too, had a spring break. Jack Dunfee’s Sunbeam was another casualty. Frank Clement finally took Barclay’s Bentley over the finishing line to win this first BRDC 500-mile race, at an average of 107.32mph. The Speed Six had given Clive Dunfee and Davis a memorable race and brought them home in second place with the highest speed of all, 109.40mph, and also lapping fastest, at 126.09mph. The Paul/Cobb 4-litre Sunbeam managed third, at 102.48mph.

Of the rest who survived, nine out of 22 starters, the 1750 Alfa Romeo of Headlam and Callingham was fourth at 96.74mph, looking out of place as a stripped four-seater sports car among the racers. The Fiennes/Brian Lewis 4 1/2-litre Bentley came fifth at 98.80mph, an A7 shared by Holbrook and Gunner Poppe was sixth, having averaged a 80.55mph and these were followed by the Pellow/Margets blown Lea-Francis (89.19mph), the Martin/Stapleford Riley 9 (80.12mph) and Earl Howe and Sir Ronald Gunter with the Lea-Francis (88.38mph, class handicapping explaining the varied speeds). The ancient Mercedes had been flagged off after 178 of the 181 laps, so it’s clear how close it had come to an honourable place. This monster had been held to a 100mph lap speed at Dunlop’s suggestion, as its tyre wear was unknown. Its drivers must have wondered whether they could otherwise have finished in the money.

This adventurous race had been a great success, even if it left “Bummer” Scott regretting that his Delage insisted on boiling its engine dry, as did Wilkinson’s 1 1/2-litre OM, and Capt Frazer Nash had a too-new piston break up. Jack Dunfee, driving Richard Norton’s 4 1/2-litre Bentley, experienced the destruction of the engine, and the “Flatiron” Thomas Special caught fire.

So the BRDC had a unique race. It was fast, it was testing. It was always won by a British car, from the wonderful 750cc Austin and MG Midget to the 24-litre Napier-Railton. The last named was the star turn, winning one ‘500’ and the fast 500km edition of it. John Cobb, I thought, was brave. He had to lap at over 130mph to beat his handicap, and the effort of taking the heavy car on and off the bankings must have been great. And as the car had only rear-wheel brakes, what chance had he if a slower car moved into his path, short of lifting off and hoping for the best? He had to endure these dangers for more than four hours. After 1937 this race became extinct but it had been a great spectacle, Wan inveterate car-breaker…

The experiment of 1929 was entirely worthwhile. Lack of space precludes me from telling the full story; perhaps there should be a book on the ‘500’s (any offers, BRDC?). I find them unforgettable — many were the times I would sit in an unoccupied pit, feet inside the counter, and speculate whether any car would finish! Great days indeed, and all part of the unique Brooklands scene.

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