60 years ago in June, Britain lost one of its most dashing heroes. ‘Tim’ Birkin, debonair baronet, flamboyant racing driver, pilot, crack shot, sailor and sportsman, died, not as he and many others expected, in a lurid smash on the track, but in a nursing home in London. True, it was a racing injury — septicaemia following a burn on the arm as he leant over the exhaust pipe of his Maserati — but it was an undramatic end to a life of action and fame — and some notoriety.
To celebrate this bright, short life, David Ward, Chairman of the Federation of the Motor Industry, backed by the Bentley Drivers Club, organised a two-day Memorial Rally based on Blakeney, the Norfolk town Birkin loved and where he lies buried. It was not a competitive event, but a relaxed gathering where the participants formed part of the spectacle: around 100 sporting cars which drove to Gresham’s School and the spectacular Blickling Hall on Saturday, and, after a Sunday outing on the North Norfolk Railway (once part of the GNR to which W Bentley was apprenticed) reconvened at Blakeney Village Hall for the public display. Here there was an excellent lunch for invited guests who included Sir John Birkin (second cousin — Tim left no sons), Wolf Bamato’s daughter Diana, Billy Rockell (Birkin’s mechanic), Wally Hassan (whose chauffeur for the day was Jack Fairman), Lord Buxton (Birkin’s son-in-law), and many others connected with the family, Bentleys or the sport. Sir John, himself a television director, is now filming a 50-minute drama of Tim’s life starring Rowan Atkinson, which will be shown on BBC in the New Year. I also met Tim and Eileen Measures, who are restoring ‘Ida’, a svelte 30ft racing launch which Birkin often used in Norfolk waters, powered by a 6-cylinder Sunbeam. After lunch, there was a memorial service by Birkin’s grave, with the Bentleys assembled close by.
It was unfortunate that the event clashed with the BRDC’s unveiling of the Birkin plaque at Brooklands, or we might have seen the single-seater there; but there were several Birkin cars, including his first Bentley, a 1925 3-litre Speed Model, his brother Archie’s 3-litre, Stanley Mann’s ’27 team 3-litre (Mann had sprinted up from the Brooklands do the day before), and Jack Sears brought his Paget team supercharged 4 1/2 with which Birkin took the lap record at Le Mans in 1929. And even rarer, and much modified since Birkin’s time, the ABC which Tim bought from his brother Archie in 1921. All of this was recorded in a splendid 40-page souvenir programme, and copies are still available for £2.50 post-free from the FMI, 71 Morston Road, Blakeney, Holt, Norfolk NR25 7BD. Proceeds go to BEN, the Motor Trade charity. G C