There are promising plans for the remains of one of the greatest landmarks in British motoring history. We spoke to Brooklands Museum about the future, and considered the circuit’s past in the company of our Founder Editor Bill Bodily, who witnessed much of what went on at first hand. . .
Imagine just for a moment. You arrive at a midweek British Touring Car Championship test session at for argument’s sake, Brands Hatch. Ignoring the public car parks, you thread your company Cavalier straight into the paddock, heading for the pit lane entrance, where a man stands by the gate. Rather than blocking your way, he leans into the car, smiles, accepts your El note and waves you out onto the circuit, where Paul Radisich and Gabriele Tarquini are trading fastest lap times, around the 46.5s mark . . .
An absurd notion, of course. Nowadays, possession of a racing car is no guarantee that you’ll be allowed to test at a registered circuit. No, you need a competition licence, and for that you need to have met certain requirements at a specialist racing school, not to mention medical certificates.
But it wasn’t always thus. Bill Boddy fell in love with Brooklands as a teenager. He’d learned all about the circuit, built by HF Locke King in 1907, through the pages of The Autocar. and he paid his first visit in 1926, more by accident than design. “I walked there — from south London! I was with a friend, the son of lack Hobbs, the test cricketer. We’d got as far as Esher and saw a little signpost for Brooklands. 1 said that we had to carry on. It was only another eight miles . . It was dusk by the time we got there, but nobody stopped us so we walked in and watched the last aeroplane land. Then we checked and found that we just had enough money between us to buy a couple of third class train tickets to Clapham Junction to get back.”
It was possible to do rather more than walk in, too. “You know, anyone could take a car round for 10 bob. Well, my mother was always quite keen to please me and she hired a car one day, an Armstrong Siddeley 14 landaulette, complete with chauffeur, and asked me where 1 thought we ought to go. ‘Well mother,” I said, “I think Weybridge was anybody under age in the car, You just went out.”
As Bill discovered later, when an acquaintance was blasting around on a Cotton-Biackburne motorcycle at six in the evening, oblivious to all around him, the officials were more prone to agitation if they were unable to lock up at the prescribed time of half-past five . .
His first visit to a race meeting came in 1927, aged 14. “I remember very clearly seeing a Thomas Special at my first meeting. I never saw Parry Thomas race he died in March that year at Pendine — but there was a Thomas Special being driven by Purdy. He was racing against a Vauxhall driven by Cobb. It was a 100-mile race, and they had this terrific ding-dong until the Thomas broke a back spring. The Vauxhall won, and that was the first exciting thing recall. After that, I came down every time that I could. “It was always open, that’s the thing. You could test road cars there. I used to go down during the week, just to see what was going on. I’d nip back to my digs up the Kingston bypass and then return again in the afternoon. I once even went down on Boxing Day when someone asked me if I’d like to test his Palmer Special. It was pouring down. I went down in my Austin 7. I saw one figure, waiting around, to refuel any aeroplanes that gents might want to fly home in, but nobody else. . .
“The first car I went round in would have been a road test car of some sort, a Frazer Nash or perhaps an MG. I used to do the figures for MOTOR SPORT there. I did the standing starts with a friend, and they had the braking distances, kilometre and mile posts to use as references. But the parameters were different then; 0-50 in 10 seconds was terrific. In fact it was probably 10-50, as we used to do rolling starts to save the clutch.
“Generally, there was a marvellous atmosphere, something going on all the time. People testing cars, people tuning cars, motorcyclists running around. It was really something of a gentlemen’s estate, where you just happened to have motor racing as well. What more could you want? in the ’20s there were dances on Sundays, although no races (a sharp contrast to modern practice), but it was open the rest of the time.”
Bill’s relationship with the circuit was cemented further whilst he was still working as a freelance writer, in the mid 1930s. “One week, I saw an article ;in The Autocar, written by a racing driver called Gordon Brettell. He was complaining about Brooklands, saying it’s out of date, you can’: see properly, they charge too much, the food’s no good. Actually, he was about 80 per cent right, but I thought if I was clever I could write a counter-article, saying ‘Brooklands is alright’. The next week, the gateman at Brooklands stopped me when i turned up, and said that the clerk of the course wanted to see me in his office. He’d been reading The Autocar and he wanted to find out who WB was. He said that what I’d written was just the shot in the arm Brooklands needed.
He asked me what sort of pass I was wearing, and when I said a ‘day pass’ he said ‘You don’t want that. You want one of these’ — a season pass. He said if I ever wanted to bring friends in or to take a car on is rather nice . . . ‘, and of course when we got there I said ‘Why don’t we go and look at Brooklands. — and I knew that you could go around for JO bob. The chauffeur said that he shouldn’t, but, being gallant, he did. I don’t remember whether you had to sign a blood chit, but there was no fuss at all. They just said ‘Look, go in that direction and if you break down there are bays. Try to get the car into one of those. Whatever you do. don’t turn back .. , But this was an official practice session! So young Boddy was there with his box brownie camera, and when we got a puncture after about 500 yards I got out and started taking pictures of racing cars. They didn’t even check to see if there the track. I was free to do so. I didn’t like to tell him that my Austin 7 wouldn’t do more than 45 mph. .”
Once a fixture at Brooklands meetings, he became acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of many names since lionised by the sport. He much regrets that he never saw Parry Thomas compete, “though it was clear that he was one of the best, always full of advice for beginners. Segrave wasn’t terribly approachable, nor Campbell, while Cobb was a little reserved. Not unfriendly, just shy.” Other less well known individuals, such as Mr Ebblewhite, the starter and handicapper. were none the less charismatic.
“He was just about the busiest man there. He had a big tray of stopwatches, and he’d go down to the startline and stand in front of the cars and flag them off. Then he’d have to get in his old Morris and move to the other side of the track to get into the judges’ box. Because he’d done the timing himself he knew that the limit car wouldn’t arrive for another five seconds, or whatever. People used to ask him not to cross the track, but there he’d be. driving over as something came thundering down off the banking. He was a very clever mathematician, very meticulous and always present. He never seemed to miss a meeting. And without handicaps there wouldn’t have been any racing because there weren’t enough cars to any one class.”
And then there was Middlesbrough’s Freddie Dixon, an intuitive engineer and skilful racer, but not from the same mould as the majority of Brooklands’ aristocratic regulars. “He had a two-litre Riley and he was lapping at about 130 mph, so he had to go pretty high up the banking. Cobb was the gentleman driver, well respected, and on one occasion he came up behind Freddie, who wouldn’t move over. Afterwards he said he’d have won that race, had Dixon not got in the way. So Dixon was called before the stewards who were all rather trembly old men in suits.
They said to him, ‘Mr Dixon, explain yourself. Mr Cobb wasn’t able to get past your Riley.’ ‘Well,’ he said. ‘it’s a very fast car.’ Then he looked out of the window and said ‘The car’s still down there, there’s still some juice in the tank. My man will push-start you. Which of you gents is going to show me how to do it?’ He was never accepted after that. One time, as his Riley had no handbrake, he asked if he could have his mechanic there with a chock so that he wouldn’t stall the engine and could thus get away with the others. Their response was that ‘If Mr Dixon’s asked for a chock, it shall not be allowed.’ If it had been anybody else, they’d they’d doubtless have said that it was perfectly alright.
“Earl Howe was a fearsome sort of chap, but he’d wander round the paddock saying ‘good morning’ to everyone, and you’d get Dixon lying under his car, working on it, and Howe would walk over and say ‘Morning, Dixon, how’s the car going?’ and Freddie would bark back from underneath ‘Don’t you bloody well interrupt me!’ “After the DixorVCobb incident they decided to paint lines on the track at the Fork, to keep the slower cars away from the edge. In the programme it said that ‘the following cars will keep to the left, and the others to the right’. If someone was going too fast and strayed across the line, and somebody saw it, then they’d be disqualified. But there were never any real controversies, nothing like these judicial enquiries that you see nowadays.”
The end effectively came with the advent of World War II. Hangars were built to enable Vickers and Hawker to construct aircraft, and some parts of the circuit disappeared beneath the new structures. When peace was restored, Malcolm Campbell called a meeting of shareholders, at which it was decided that investment could best be recouped by selling the site, rather than renovating the track.
Thus it passed to Vickers Limited, for £330,000. “I was terribly sad when it closed, although I suppose that it wouldn’t have survived in the long run because cars would have become too fast for the circuit. John Cobb used to say that going around fast was a bit like seeing how far you could hang out of a high window without actually falling. But people forget how much enjoyment was had here. Motorcycle and cycle racing, car racing, the aerodrome .. I really enjoyed the 500-mile races.
They were at the end of the year, around Motor Show time. You’d have Cobb in the Napier-Railton lapping at about 135, and there’d be Austin 7s lapping at 102. Poor old Cobb had virtually no brakes at all, and he had to plan his passing pretty carefully as he threaded his way across the banking. He was pretty brave. At one time there were no bafflers at the top, though they put a few sleepers up after Dunfee’s Bentley went over. Only II drivers and two passengers were killed in all the time the circuit was in operation, quite a good record considering how many high-speed miles were covered between 1907 and 1939.”
Despite the intrusion of an industrial estate and supermarkets on parts of the old site, a surprising amount remains. And most of what’s there is protected by preservation orders.
Brooklands Museum is in the middle of an ambitious restoration programme which has seen the annual number of visitors rise from 8000 to 75,000 since 1991, quite remarkable given that the national average increase in attendances for museums is only around four per cent. The museum’s director. Morag Barton, already has half an eye on centenary celebrations, in 2007, but there are plenty of shorter-term development projects. “We started with the Malcolm Campbell shed, but we realise that we still need to improve it and introduce interactive displays.
The next big project Is the ERA shed, where the RAC will sponsor displays fora speed record exhibition. If we’re to continue development, we need to raise funds. We don’t get grants from local or national government, so we have set up Brooklands Limited to market our shop, catering and conferencing facilities. In the autumn, we’ll also be launching a mail order catalogue. “Displays will change. We want to make sure that there’s always something new, so that there’s an incentive for visitors to return.
People seem happy to come and monitor developments as they happen. We’ve got a 30-acre site, with 25 buildings and features. We’d like to install a motoring art gallery, and to restore the restaurant buildings as a possible social venue for motor clubs. Our objective is to restore as much as possible to the way it was in the 1920s and 1930s, but we want to be a living museum,” — S A
Visitors to Brooklands Museum, Brooklands Road, Weybridge, Surrey can obtain a discounted admission rate of £4 upon presentation of a copy of this month’s MOTOR SPORT.