His many friends in the motor club world will join me in mourning the loss of Holland Birkett, who, with his third wife Margaret, was killed when his Auster failed to find Le Touquet aerodrome last month due to bad weather, radio aid being of no avail on this occasion. The day before he had been judging the pre-war Austin 7 rally at Beaulieu.
In whatever way the end came, a remarkable personality has been lost, and the motoring fraternity sadly shaken. I came to know Holly during the war, when he worked at Miles Aircraft at Woodley and later returned to his veterinary practice at Fleet. The generous if unconventional hospitality of Joan Birkett and the “motoring vet” was proverbial and it was a pleasure to spend most of one’s spare time, even periods of temporary sick-leave from the near-by R.A.F., with them. Holly, who ran an Austin Ulster before the war, was engaged in improving the performance, especially from the road-holding aspect, of a whole fleet of Austin Sevens, from saloon to sports model. He achieved quite remarkable results and the article I persuaded him to write for Motor Sport on the subject in 1950 remains a standard reference work on better motoring from pre-war Sevens. Arthur Mallock, now of U2 (“you too can have a bolide like mine”) fame, was a disciple. When the basic petrol ration was confined to motorcycles and 3-wheelers I remarked to Holly that he ought to build an Austin 7-engined tricycle. The speed with which he went to work, under primitive war-time workshop conditions, and the stability and speed of the resultant vehicle, were entirely typical of Holly’s practical and theoretical engineering prowess.
Alter the loss of his first wife, Birkett turned to Bugattis for consolation. Many were the long, rapid, adventurous, always enioyable jorneys we made to collect these cars. Types 30, 40, 44 and 5-litre were rebuilt and raced with the same genius and adaptability that Holly had displayed over Austin 7 problems of modification and trials driving.
Although I originated the 750 M.C. through an announcement in Motor Sport, I felt I was not the person to run it, and others developed it. The Club’s present position is owed largely to Holly’s enthusiasm, and the 750 and 1172 Formulae was his concept for inexpensive post-war racing. In conjunction with the Hants & Berks M.C. this versatile vet devised these ambitious Night Navigational events on which the whole structure of modern map-reference rallies are based. It was a delight to go route-finding with Holly before these annual winter nocturnals, and from these expeditions I developed a love of exploring Hampshire (and now Welsh) lanes and remote areas and learned how to use a 1 in. ordnance-survey map. Holly convinced me that a tuned Chummy Austin was the appropriate car for such occasions….
The fact is that this adaptable man, addicted to bursts of specIslised humour, moments of melancholy lingering the notes of his piano, liked motoring as much as working on motor-cars. Memory would be strained to recall all the long runs we made together but one I remember clearly. On my honeymoon, just about to set off to Yorkshire where my wife and I had been posted, on a rapidly darkening winter afternoon, I happened to remark: “I wonder what Porlock Hill looks like now!” Within the hour we were on our way to Devon in Holly’s current mobile Bugatti, a 2-carburetter Type 44 with Type 43 body, which in my opinion made Bentleys seem ponderous. This out and back night drive, some 300 miles of it, in war-time, in winter, in an open Bugatti, was made on impulse, for the sheer love of motoring. My wife still reminds me of how she waited with Joan for our noisy return in the early a.m…..
After the war Birkett’s organising ability knew few bounds—The Eight Clubs’ Race meeting, the 750 M.C. Relay Race, the British Mobil Economy Run: the first two stemmed from his inventive mind, the last-named was developed by him, over many miles of motoring for motoring’s sake. For all his flair for leadership, Birkett had a kindly tolerance for weakness, but not foolishness, in others. In recent times, married again, to his third wife, Holly took to Minis as he had to pre-war Sevens but seemed less addicted to hotting them up. Then came his Auster, based at Blackbushe, and Chairmanship of the Aero Club at that airfield.
On that final, fatal flight Holly died as I believe he would have wished to die, doing something adventurous, something slightly dramatic…. he would wish for no fuss, no elaborate funeral. The events he originated, with which many of his friends are closely associated, constitute a better memorial. Remember him, but do not grieve. — W. B.