Grandiose in conception and bold in construction, it hasn’t hosted a race for over 60 years – yet remains an icon. Gordon Cruickshank explores what remains of this motorsport landmark
There is no need to proffer a history of Brooklands here — that story has been told by someone better qualified than me. Everyone knows what Brooklands is, thanks to WB, the Brooldands Society and the Museum which brings thousands of people to see it. Yet many who visit may not realise just how much of the world’s first racetrack still exists beyond the museum compound.
Today the bulk of Brooklands is an industrial estate, with factories and supermarkets inside and housing nibbling at the edges. But it is still enclosed by, defined by The Track — a concrete Coliseum where technology was tested and heroes made. Built only a few years after Victoria died, it’s been abandoned for twice as long as it was open; yet maybe three-quarters of it still stands. Some of it is invisible behind industrial units or dense foliage. Much of it is closed to the public. But its substantial construction has so far dissuaded developers from demolishing it — amazingly only the Members end is listed — and that’s our good fortune.
It’s an irony that Hugh Locke-King, the man who erected this Circus Maximus of motor racing, didn’t drive. This was his country estate (his house, now a college, stands to the north); yet he turned it over entirely to a new sport and a new industry, spent 1,150,000 (1,25m today), and ruined his health fighting battles over planning and local opposition. It was a stupendous engineering project. Stand by the Clubhouse and look towards the Members Hill. If the soaring 70ft of the Test Hill doesn’t impress you, look at the height of the cutting above the straight It dwarfs the huge hangar where bombers were once built. They removed half a hill to force this track through. Across the top sweeps the Members Banking, a tidal wave of concrete rearing over you.
Imagine the impact: the sudden bellow of the Birkin Bentley erupting from behind the hill at 130mph, an explosion of sound, the car in plan view way above your head. Remarkably, the 30ft-high wall, almost too steep to climb, is only some 6in thick. 200,000 tons of concrete went in to this steel-reinforced eggshell, 2.75 miles round, which aimed to be “safe at 120mph, and reasonably safe at higher speeds”; though Indianapolis and Montlhery followed its lead, Brooklands for years hosted the fastest racing in the world. At 143mph, John Cobb’s all-time lap record in the brutal Napier-Raikon wasn’t matched at the Brickyard until 1955, though long eclipsed at AVUS. Remember that its all-banked form was to give Britain an endurance testing facility to rival France or Italy; the fact that it spawned its own unique cars was a consequence of that. And since Brooklands behemoths were big, heavy and fast, we could not think of anything more appropriate to take to Weybridge than a brand-new Bentley Continental T.
With it perched under the Members Bridge, the banking seems to run out of sight both ways. In fact it cuts off abruptly at both ends. To the east, it was demolished to allow the Gallahers tobacco company to build its HQ; but don’t hiss too loudly, for a wartime workshop had already punctured it, and in return Gallahers leased the 30 most crucial acres to the Museum Trust, allowing the longprojected museum to become a reality. Then Gallahers blotted their copybook by removing the concrete from the only nonlisted section of the Members Banking. Hiss here.
To the west, the huge concrete wall stops dead for physics, not finance. Here the track once leaped the meandering River Wey on the Hennebique Bridge, named after the company which built it. This was an Edwardian high-technology achievement: to follow the track’s line it had to be curved, concave and slope downhill. Only the new ferro-concrete could handle this complex form, and the result was in effect a monocoque 170ft long, where the track itself was the structure, supported only by concrete piles. It was the settling of these foundations which produced the infamous bump that caused the massive Outer Circuit cars to leave the ground as they careered round at 130mph or more, creating the archetypal Brooklands photograph — Birkin or Cobb off the deck in two tons of machinery.
But deterioration and the threat of collapse caused the bridge to be demolished in the ’60s, and now a grove of tall trees closes the vista. Right across the river, though, the circuit continues: you can drive along the potholed runway and pick it up where the banking eases down into the Railway Straight Stand with your back to the missing bridge and a broad apron of pink concrete stretches ahead; even though since WWII a hangar has blocked the straight, the line of it is obvious by the trees. Behind them runs the railway line — imagine sitting on the 11.15 as Parry Thomas careers past only yards away at three times your speed. The track is astonishingly wide — 100ft: it’s like the M1 without a central reservation. Plenty of room to keep out of Sir Malcolm’s way as you buzzed along at a foot-flat 69mph in your tuned Austin Seven.
They could chive eight abreast for half a mile towards the Byfleet Banking; we have to trickle between a parking pound and a motorcycle training slalom to regain the straight beyond that obstructive shed. Here the ancient concrete is a parking lot for buses; we divert again, this time through smarter industrial areas. By poking the Bentley’s mesh-screened snout down every possible side road, we hit pay dirt again: right behind AC Cars, home of the Cobra, a rising lip of green moss-covered concrete marks the beginning of the Byfleet Banking.
Not so high as the north end but even grander in scale, this section swept the cars in one relentless plunge through more than 180 degrees to fire them back towards the ffill. It must have been arm-aching in your friction-damped Bentley, the chassis jouncing and thumping for endless seconds as you fought to balance gravity and centrifugal force, all the while looking up and left over the screen to try and keep within your private artificial horizon and not collect any of the tiddlers down below. We have the opposite problem. Our modem Bentley weighs perhaps a ton more than a 4H and we have only the static adhesion of its fat Goodyears to keep it plastered to the banking. There are two gaps in the Byfleet section, and all we can do, once a security gate is unlocked, is creep up the mossy slope and perch on the edge of the first.
Here, just where the Byfleet Bridge once led in to the Flying Village, a new road slices through the track to feed customers into a supermarket To their credit, the road builders have made a dramatic sculpture of this, a concrete prow emphasising the 21ft height of the banking. The yellow Continental looks surreal hanging above passing Mondeos and Vectras. Across the ravine of the new road the banking runs another 200yds and once more stops dead — WWII again. Vickers-Armstrong took a swathe out to allow take-off clearance for the Wellingtons it remade here. Now trees hide the fact that the track continues, but we have insider information.
We thread between scrubby bushes, and suddenly more concrete rears up and disappears out of sight to our left. Here the southern banking is flattening down, and fora moment you almost expect to see the notorious Fork ahead — but it’s another dead stop. The River Wey again. This bridge, however, is intact; the track stops on the other side of the water. It’s not the 1907 structure, though, for floods damaged that one, and these low steel girders date from 1933. Sixty or 70 years back this was the hardest part of the circuit; not clinging to the steep bankings, but wrestling your machine down from the Byfleet Banking and setting up for the Fork. For Brooldands wasn’t just a bowl: this was a substantial right-hand bend. On the last lap you kept left and tore down the Finishing Straight, but if you were one of the big boys, an Outer Circuit racer, you had to sweep right, shaving the big shed of the Itala (later Vickers) works. Now, though, this is all gone. This is the biggest gap, the circuit’s major amputation: there is nothing left of the lower Finishing Straight, the Fork or the Outer Circuit until you reach the museum grounds again. Instead the way is blocked by a housing estate, a new access road for the Brooldands estate, and the landscaped grounds of two company headquarters. Where drivers once made their peak-revs dash for the flag, rows of company cars now park. But among the neat lawn and shrubs there’s a surprise survival: part of the pits for the Campbell Circuit. As racing moved on in the ’20s and ’30s, the groundbreaking track became seen as old-fashioned, artificial, irrelevant to modem road-racing.
Donington Park and a planned new circuit at Crystal Palace looked like serious competition. Innumerable track variants up, down and all ways round Brooklands, with chicanes of sandbanks or hay bales, only tinkered with the problem. So for 1937 the BARC laid out a road-circuit named after its designer, that Boys’ Own hero, Sir Malcolm Campbell. Parts of it can still be found. The southern end, where the new layout took a U-turn left off the Railway Straight, has gone, but the pale concrete of Aerodrome Bend, Sahara Straight and Howe’s Corner still show clearly, snaking round the barren runway and down to cross the Wey again by Vickers Bridge still extant. Beyond, the Campbell Circuit crossed the main straight and took its own parallel line back up to the Members Hill, with a new line of elaborate pits featuring roof-top viewing. It’s a section of this structure which remains in Proctor & Gamble’s car park, restored by them to carry the names It Mays’ and ‘M Campbell’ an honourable reminder that ERAs and Alfas once streaked between these neat lines of Nissans and Peugeots.
Only a wire fence separates this point from the remains of the Finishing Straight in the museum complex, but completing our lap means driving round to the museum entrance once more. Fitting, because the entrance-way takes the Bentley along the most obvious section of the Campbell Circuit, a great serpentine slice out of the base of the Members Hill which led the cars round the back and left-handed onto the banking again. Above, on the hill, hundreds of spectators could sit in the grandstands looking down on the likes of Bira caning his ERA over the rough surface. If you weren’t part of the ‘in crowd’ in the Paddock, you would most likely find yourself on this elevated place, having entered the precinct through a tunnel under the Members Banking you can still peer inside the dank, gloomy burrow. Leading up from it, the track winds around the Members Hill to a little hamlet of buildings, shuttered and derelict. These were once a social centre, where you could take luncheon in the BARC members’ rooms and then settle in the stands looking over the circuit. Those stands are long gone, and some of the view, too after 90 years, the woods Locke-King felled have returned. But the Test Hill has preserved an avenue through the trees and what an outlook. Only from here can you absorb the vast scale of Brooklands.
Once highlighted by the gleaming belt of concrete, it is now the border of tall trees which leads the eye round this astonishing landmark. Despite the fringe of industrial development, the centre of the site remains largely empty, due to the risk of floods such as recently devastated the Museum. It was never good land, yet it beggars belief that this huge area should have been turned over to a vision by one prescient man. Down below, the Paddock looks much as it did. Despite wartime use and then aviation research, the Clubhouse has survived intact, as have many of the venerable timber sheds which once housed a variety of racing activity. Restored, the Campbell and ERA sheds look as they did when Sir Malcolm was building Bluebirds here and Humphrey Cook was trying to bring British racing cars centre stage. Wooden pit bays have been built to match the originals, and the Press Office is much as WB knew it. There’s one final relic to explore: north of the Clubhouse a road still dips down to the Entrance Tunnel. It’s blocked up now, but this once made a theatrical entry: you dived down under the Members Banking, then breasted the rise and the whole circuit came suddenly into view, throbbing with noise and smell. tmust have been magical. Every day something was happening: testing and tuning never stopped, and at weekends it was a society venue to equal Ascot. Indeed it was strongly modelled on horse racing not only the separate Finishing Straight, but a Paddock where competitors would parade before the event, disc-topped finishing post, elaborate handicapping and, very early on, even personal colours for drivers, aping jockeys’ silks. And Brooldands would not have been the same without its gesticulating tic-tac men.
It’s easy to look back and see this speedbowl as a dead end for racing, but when the only reference points were horse racing and cycle tracks, Locke-King’s vision was remarkable. Today we have distinct disciplines of road-racing and banked ovals, and separate test facilities like MIRA and Millbrook; he built Brooklands to offer all of that in one place. Endurance and sprint records, two grands prix, even three Land Speed Records happened here. And though latterly much criticised, entry lists bulged right to the end.
Could it have recovered from the war? Post-war banked racing resumed at AVUS and Monza, but the Outer Circuit could never have attracted international attention. Survival needed grands prix, and that meant a road circuit perhaps an update of the Campbell track. But in a country bankrupted by war that would have been a frivolous investment when Silverstone airfield offered acres of ready-made Tarmac. Rather than face the huge task, the shareholders voted in 1946 to sell to Vickers.
Now it is an ancient monument, blended of Edwardian confidence, Thirties indulgence, wartime necessity and post-war commercial inertia. A racing cul-de-sac perhaps, but we were, and are, lucky to have it. Our Track Tests series will continue in the autumn.