A world of its own

The first-ever permanent race track was built in Surrey – but did Brooklands rest too long on its laurels?
Writer Gordon Cruickshank

The Brooklands Gazette. That’s how our life started out, at a time when the world’s first purpose-built race track was still, 17 years on from its construction, the only motor racing track in mainland Britain. After the sun set on the Surrey speedway at the outbreak of WWII it became bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia, and as the museum it has now become it continues, rightly, to play up its halcyon days of spectacular speeds and society glamour. Our own Bill Boddy was instrumental in preserving it, and made this magazine famous as a mouthpiece for the glory that was Brooklands. But it wasn’t always like that.

Even when this magazine took its name the circuit was already deteriorating and, more significantly, becoming increasingly divorced from the motor racing development mainstream. From world leader in laying the foundation stone of this dedicated facility in 1907, Britain’s position slipped backwards until by the close of the 1920s serious racing car development – that’s to say Grand Prix racing car development – was happening in France, Italy and shortly Germany, while Brooklands devotees pushed ever more spectacular blind-alley specials higher and higher up the bumpy concrete banking.

As our inaugural editorial made clear, the magazine was so named not because it planned to report only on the Weybridge track but “because the name Brooklands is synonymous with motoring sport wherever it is held”. But while this view is in tune with a nation that had ruled much of the globe for two centuries and imagined it always would, that wasn’t how the rest of the world saw things. Britain might have got there two years before Indianapolis and ahead of the great continental speedways at AVUS, Monza and Montlhéry, but those speedbowls did not in the end turn out to be the way to the future. Instead serious car development, both road and race, would be pushed on by the one arena mainland Britain had forbidden by law – road racing. 

In pioneer days, running at steady high speeds was a challenge, especially with a nationwide 20mph limit, and droning around a speed bowl or grinding up the Test Hill brought useful lessons – exactly the industry benefit that Hugh Locke King, who conceived, built and paid for Brooklands, had intended. From the Edwardian era on through the 1920s and 1930s, endless records in scads of classes were set, broken and broken again by determined men keen to prove their marque. Early milestones, such as S F Edge’s 1907 24-hour run in his Napier and six years later Percy Lambert’s Talbot packing 100 miles into the hour, made news and drew crowds, and three Land Speed Records were set here up to 1922, but ever smaller cars going further and faster all by themselves around a concrete Coliseum were hardly entertainment. It needed competition to draw a crowd.

In any case, by the 1920s the basic technologies – bearings, lubrication, ignition – were relatively reliable, and roads were becoming busy. Flexibility, braking and agility now mattered, things a banked speedbowl did not demand. Only by subjecting a car to the constantly varying stresses, slopes and accelerations of something reflecting the open road would the breed improve further; with no formula restrictions at Brooklands the constant high-speed foot-down commitment of the autodrome risked producing specialised monsters with feeble brakes, minimal damping and limited agility. Far from bringing automotive progress, many primitive Edwardian monsters found new life on the post-war banking. Count Zborowski’s Chittys, the 200hp Benz, the ancient Lorraine-Dietrich ‘Vieux Charles III’ and John Cobb in the LSR V12 Delage delivered wall-of-death thrills to the crowd as they steamed round the Outer Circuit, but their thunderous noise drowned out the rasp of Bugatti, Delage and Alfa Romeo in paddocks abroad. Here we were engineering mastiffs while the continentals were breeding greyhounds. 

As a base for many tuning and experimental shops, though, the Track did see innovation. Parry Thomas, Reid Railton, Freddie Dixon and Felix Scriven among others created advanced specials, while Frank Halford built what may well be the first turbocharged car. But none of these were international or even production contenders – though, minus turbo, that Halford Special would later be the sole British entrant in the 1927 French GP at Montlhéry. 

Certainly the crowds who flocked to Weybridge every race day were more than content: events such as the JCC’s 200-mile races were a big draw, and the air of exclusivity granted by the idea of the Members’ Hill – shades of Ascot and Henley – kept Brooklands on the society pages as well as in the sporting papers. With no rival it was simply one of the places one went, and if you weren’t exactly part of The Right Crowd in their corral it was nice to feel you were just across the paling fence from the actresses and aristos who made news. And passengers on the 2.15 to Woking got a side-by-side action close-up down the Railway Straight, a free mobile billboard that must have brought thousands extra through the gate.

* * *

The Track was always busy, seven days a week, and would remain so to the end in 1939. In between race days, tuners, testers, salesmen and manufacturers pounded around the concrete curves; the Track was providing a service and if those continentals were inconveniently closing public roads to race on, that was their affair. (Shutting the centre of Monaco? Mad idea…) Britain had offshore territories for that. The Isle of Man was perfect for the early Tourist Trophies and Mannin races while Ireland had hosted the 1903 Gordon Bennett Trophy, and the Ards circuit in Northern Ireland would be swamped with half a million spectators when the TT moved there from ’28, where as a (mostly) sports car contest it attracted a healthy international field. Why did we need mainland road-racing? Motor Sport ran an article ‘Concerning Brooklands’ by H M Chubb in April 1928, with the line “In spite of continuous changes in our earth the sun remains ever constant. So let it be with Brooklands…”

The blinkers weren’t universal. While some were happy to keep driving down Seven Sisters Road to see what ‘the crowd’ were up to, others were throwing out warnings. Dashing, profligate Tim Birkin, every schoolboy’s hero and the very personification of Outer Circuit derring-do, would state in his 1933 autobiography Full Throttle that Brooklands was “the most out-of-date, inadequate and dangerous track in the world”. Remarks for which the BARC sued, forcing him to insert an apology in later copies.

Even Brooklands’ own Clerk of the Course Col Lindsay-Lloyd, writing in our first issue extolling what the circuit had done for car development, conceded that “as a sporting venue I am quite ready to admit that the Track is not ideal. The very qualities of size and design that make it so valuable as a testing ground, themselves somewhat detract from its virtues from purely spectacular considerations”.

He went on to remind readers that the gate income “provides the revenue for the maintenance of the Track as the trade’s testing ground. Thus the spectators, as well as the motorists who do not go to Brooklands, benefit in the ultimate by far more than an occasional afternoon’s sport”.

Those who in the previous year had travelled to watch Alfa Romeo take victory among Sicily’s mountains, or Henry Segrave in his (Fiat copy) Sunbeam win a first Grand Prix for Britain along the open roads at Tours, might feel they had a different view of sporting excitement from the Colonel, who in the same article suggested that three laps of any race was enough for the average spectator. 

But he was right in one regard: the spin-off from all that testing was that in the 1920s Britain was building fine touring cars, and in racing for standard vehicles we had a proud record. While Ballot, Delage, Fiat, Bugatti and Alfa Romeo fought out Grands Prix in the mid-20s without a serious British rival as Sunbeam faded, Bentley’s five Le Mans victories topped a pyramid of sports car and record achievements. A Motor Sport editorial in January 1928 said, “If the story of 1927 is not encouraging from a national point of view as far as the Grand Prix-type races are concerned, the performance of British cars in races for standard productions is distinctly meritorious.”

Clearly when the Colonel wrote his piece there was no incentive among the BARC (B then standing for Brooklands) board to consider a major change of direction, especially as in the post-WWI resurgence other countries appeared to be following where it had led: speedways appeared at AVUS (1921 though begun pre-war), Monza (1922), Sitges (1923) and Montlhéry (1924), though Monza and Montlhéry had the foresight to include ‘road circuit’ elements that would ultimately prolong their lives. In America building a board track or speedway was for a while essential for any town’s self-respect, and as late as 1929 Sir Malcolm Campbell, writing in these pages, was promoting a plan for a new 15-mile speedway along the Wash. “New speedways are most necessary today” he wrote. “Tracks such as Brooklands are out of date for some purposes and will be even more antiquated in a few years. It is impossible to do much more than 140 miles an hour on Brooklands and this speed is becoming tame to the blasé young men who want to think in terms of 200mph.”

But when the RAC managed to attract the Grand Prix title to the UK for 1926 (seven entries) and ’27, the Surrey bowl remained the only option and the resulting wiggles around sand chicanes on the runway-sized Finishing Straight were an embarrassing contrast to the sea-fringed undulations of San Sebastian, or the spectacular Nürburgring then nearing completion. A Grand Prix would not return to these shores until Donington Park, which opened to cars in 1933, finally offered proper road racing without craning cars onto a boat.

Meanwhile Brooklands soldiered on, the famous bump as the banking crossed the river getting worse (“it seems as if when they ironed out last year’s bumps they ironed up fresh ones” said Motor Sport), the concrete flaking and racing split between wealthy individuals who could afford to build specialised Outer Circuit monsters to attack lap and endurance records, and those wanting to race more standard cars. The vast size of the Track – 100ft wide: imagine the M6 with no central reservation – dwarfed any small car buzzing down it, especially viewed from half a mile off, high up on the Members’ Hill. In the memorable simile, the effect was “like watching flies crawling around a dinner plate”. But at Brooklands handicap racing was the norm, brilliantly managed by the ever-present bowler-hatted ‘Ebby’ Ebblewhite, so while the big cars were the highlight, everyone had the chance of a cup. 

Major endurance challenges such as the Double-12 hour (no sleep-spoiling 24-hour events allowed in suburban Surrey) and the BRDC 500-Mile races did provide spectacle from the late 1920s – the latter would be the fastest race in the world for years, outdoing Indianapolis. To spice up lesser racing, the various clubs employed every patch of concrete plus the Test Hill in increasingly eccentric ways, up, down and backwards, striving to inject interest with titles like Mountain Circuit (one loop of banking used in reverse), but it was only in 1937, with Donington and Crystal Palace showing the way, that Brooklands would invest in a ‘road race’ track – the Campbell Circuit, which while still using the Members’ Banking actually boasted a couple of right-hand bends.

* * *

Grand Prix racing, meanwhile, had its own problems. Running to a 2-litre formula from 1922 had speeded technical progress – twin cams, Fiat’s supercharged six, Delage’s delicate V12 – and the hope of a continuing world championship through cross-channel exchange with Indianapolis, the one pioneer speedway track still flourishing. But speeds rose and for 1926 the AIACR, precursor of the FIA, lowered the limit to 1500cc, resulting in ever more sophisticated straight eights from Delage, Talbot and Maserati and Fiat’s supercharged H12. Indianapolis continued to follow GP rules, adopting the 1500 formula too, and Duesenbergs and Millers would both prove fast in Europe. The dedicated US speedway machines, however, grew less and less suitable for road racing and with their departure the idea of a true world series faded.

Which was just as well for Britain, on the Grand Prix sidelines following the abandoning of a home GP as France and Italy shared the laurels and Mercedes dominated sports car events on the ’Ring. Looking back on 1927, Motor Sport said, “It is not encouraging to look at the part that England has played in this year’s events. Enthusiasts in this country are sufficiently aware of our unenviable position, but it cannot be too often repeated that somehow we must pull ourselves together. The truth of the matter is that, as a motor racing country, England has become insignificant.” 

It wasn’t a widespread worry. The Brooklands grandstands still filled every weekend, and our racing isolationism looked a positive plus when a recession hit Europe, seriously knocking back expensive Grand Prix development, causing the withdrawal of French and Italian factories and the cancellation of races. Indianapolis switched to a stock formula, ending the trans-Atlantic challenge.

We had this to say in March ’28: “In England there seems to be a strong tendency to regard the eclipse of Grand Prix racing with equanimity. The reason seems to be the extremely insular one, that while this country has been reaping the honours in touring car races, we have not been making a very creditable showing in Grand Prix races. On a somewhat ‘sour grapes’ principle, therefore, one hears a great deal nowadays about ‘freak’ Grand Prix racing cars. Presumably this appellation means that these cars would not be suitable for the average unintelligent ‘all-on-top-gear’ driver ; but when one considers that Bugatti’s ‘freak’ 2.3-litre supercharged car will move off on the starter with top gear engaged, this argument seems to fall rather flat.”

The writer went on to propose a Tote betting system to re-energise the Grand Prix circus, something which was already a Brooklands speciality. Meanwhile international racing action centred on formule libre and sports cars, the latter playing well to Britain’s, and Brooklands’, position. By December 1929 Motor Sport’s respected columnist Kent Karslake commented on how road racing for sports or touring cars was flourishing, stating “the Le Mans race has now become the cardinal event of the year”. 

He went on to say, “On the other hand, events for real racing cars have practically vanished from the calendar. The French Grand Prix has become an affair of very little importance, and the 200 Miles Race has faded. As a result no special racing cars are now being built. The Targa Florio became a battle between the standard-type Bugatti and the equally standard Alfa Romeo, while the Monza Grand Prix united a collection of sports models and old racing cars.”

Another thing that had been vanishing was Brooklands patrons. Attendances dropped in 1928, perhaps due to the gathering recession, and the BARC took steps. By 1930 there were major improvements to facilities and a new more forward-looking Clerk of the Course. Under Percy Bradley’s direction the Track would through the 1930s gain more industry, better access, tempting ticketing packages and, more important, an entertaining assortment of racing. It was also conveniently close to London, one of its greatest assets. The 30ft-high embankment continued to echo to massive mechanical bolides such as ‘Tim’ Birkin’s single-seater Bentley, Barnato-Hassan and that ultimate Brooklands behemoth the Napier-Railton, taking the lap record to an eternal 143mph, but the British Empire and International Trophies produced something more like conventional racing, pitting MG, Riley and Aston Martin against Bugatti, Maserati and Alfa Romeo – even if much of the circuit was defined by straw bales. 

But if Britain merely watched as new formulae and economic recovery brought an overseas Grand Prix resurgence that would lead to the ear-piercing shriek of supercharged Mercedes and Auto Union, she did at least have a reason to wave a Union Jack, and it was partly built and honed at Brooklands. Through the 1930s 1500cc voiturette racing was an unofficial Formula 2 to the Grand Prix arena, and from 1935 ERA would often dominate the category. The compact, simple machines offered a perfect privateer choice and in the hands of Mays, Howe, Seaman and Bira won many a race at the Track and around Europe; here at last was something with a claim to be a product of Brooklands that could hold its head up in international single-seater racing.

At least until the Germans came to Donington, where the gap between the Silver Arrows and the ERAs, the nearest thing to a Grand Prix car we could field, turned out to be even vaster than we thought. The dope-snorting high-tech missiles were stupendously quick, and obviously far too fast for a crumbling speedway. Brooklands was never going to see another Grand Prix.

Once the Campbell ‘road’ Circuit was opened Brooklands again became a rival, if less scenic, to Donington and Crystal Palace, but the ageing banked structure was a burden.

Without the war that closed and fatally punctured it, could it have continued? Monza, AVUS and Montlhéry served up banked racing post-war, so it’s not impossible. But on the world’s oldest race track maintenance was a constant struggle. The insularity of that concrete island, set in a Surrey sea, wasn’t entirely self-imposed: it was to a broad extent imposed on it by laws forbidding racing on Britain’s public roads and a lack of government interest that would have been needed to build a British Nürburgring.

Brooklands managed to ignore the outside world for many years thanks to a combination of novelty, snobbery and re-invention, but as our own motoring technology park it may have achieved more than we acknowledge. 

Greatest cars
Website poll results

1 Bugatti Type 35
Cornerstone of a legend. Beautifully engineered sports racer with rasping eight-cylinder motor. Prolific race winner and privateer favourite in almost any event from clubbie to Grands Prix.

2 Bentley 4½-litre
Torque-fuelled British bulldog that made Le Mans its own, aided by flamboyant owner-drivers. The great all-rounder of the day, which even placed second in a Formule Libre GP.

3 Alfa Romeo P2
Pivotal Jano racing car design with supercharged straight-eight engine. Won 14 Grands Prix and brought 1925 World Championship to Alfa – hence laurels on badge.

Greatest drivers
Website poll results

1 Antonio Ascari
Cut down at the height of his brilliance in 1925 in the French GP, Ascari was Alfa Romeo’s star through three seasons. At Spa he had such a lead he had time to stop for refreshments.

2 Sir Henry Segrave
Relentless racer and patriotic record-breaker who achieved Britain’s first Grand Prix victory, in a Sunbeam in 1923. Took LSR three times up to 231mph and held water record simultaneously. 

3 Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin
Dapper and dashing, Bentley Boy Birkin was England’s hero, especially at Le Mans. Blew the family fortune on cars, created Blower 4½, died tragically early from a race injury.

From Motor Sport December 1929

Another year has come to an end, another succession of epic battles has been fought out on road and track, and once more we may look back on the year that has passed and see how we stand for the future. There is no doubt that the 1929 season was eminently successful. We must see to it that the future is equally well filled with scope for the racing enthusiast.

In the first place the point which stands out is that the race for standard cars has swept everything before it. Starting as almost a local affair in 1923, the Le Mans race has now become the cardinal event of the year. We have got our own Tourist Trophy on an assured footing. Ireland has started her own race, and the Italians in typical fashion have set the seal on their own idea of reviving almost the town-to-town races of the young years of the century.

On the other hand, events for real racing cars have practically vanished from the calendar. The French Grand Prix has become an affair of very little importance, and the 200 Miles Race has faded.

There is no doubt that the new type of racing has provided excellent sport. Entry lists are very much better filled than they were in the latter days of the Grands Prix, while the public are definitely more interested in comparing the performances of various cars they can buy than they were in noting the success or failure of some novelty in design. The fact, however, remains that as a result of this situation, no special racing cars at all are now being built. In Italy alone have any successful races of the old type been run – the Targa Florio and the Grand Prix at Monza. Neither of these events, however, occasioned the building of new and special cars. The Targa Florio became a battle between the standard type Bugatti and the equally standard Alfa Romeo, while the Monza race united a collection of sports models and old racing cars. Finally the Brooklands 500 Mile Race organised by the British Racing Drivers’ Club witnessed a battle between modern production models and special racing cars two or three years old. This race alone showed how quickly things still move in the automobile world, for it was the modern sports car and not the racing car of yesterday that carried off the prize in a straightaway track race of 500 miles.

This situation, however, is one that must give us pause. There is, without doubt, no better way of finding the weak points in a production model than in racing it against its rivals. No one can deny that the sports car race is an excellent idea, and ought never to be abandoned. On the other hand, one may ask how well we are going to get on without any races of the old type. What is going to be the effect of running no races for special cars?

Take the outstandingly successful cars of this year – the 4½-litre Bentley, the big Mercedes, and the Alfa Romeo. The last-named especially may be taken as a good example of how we are using the lessons of the post-war Grands Prix. Would Alfa Romeo now be building a car with a supercharged multi-cylinder double overhead-camshaft engine, had it not been for the firm’s experience in the Grand Prix races of 1924 and 1925?