Tim Birkin's Full Throttle — book review

A new edition of Bentley Boy ‘Tim’ Birkin’s autobiography, Full Throttle, first published in 1932, has lost none of its charm or political bite

Henry Birkin And Lord Howe celebratye winning the 1931 Le Mans 24 Hours

Birkin, centre, might have belittled himself in print, but in reality he was a dashing character

Gamme-Keystone via Getty Images

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We all have a copy of Full Throttle, don’t we? A core book of any motoring library, written by a dashing hero of the track. Have we all read it fully? I realise now that having bought it looking for romance and excitement, I skipped what Birkin calls the kernel of his book – lambasting the 1930s establishment about the poor facilities and support for motor racing. Sued by Brooklands, the very place we picture him, for slamming the ageing track as inadequate and dangerous he had to insert a mild retraction – without removing the contentious words.

Did we need a new edition of racing’s most famous title? Out of print for years, second-hand copies nevertheless abound; but within its arresting cover painting this includes a fresh, if small, selection of photographs and a couple of additions. Derek Bell reflects on his famous Le Mans precursor, while a thoughtful introduction from Brooklands Museum’s former director and CEO Allan Winn adds personal details and resets the book’s context: when Birkin was writing Britain, despite those Le Mans successes, was an also-ran in grand prix racing, held back by limited public interest and the ban on road racing, leaving that crumbling concrete speedbowl as the mainland’s only racetrack. Two things today might cheer Birkin: Britain is the home of F1, and we recently changed the law so that roads can be closed. Too late for Tim’s idea of road racing, but then we’re long past the age of using hedges and trees as track borders.

Birkin, of course, didn’t write the book; a young student named Michael Burn distilled it from Tim’s outpourings. Re-reading it, it shows humour, flair and spark driven by Tim’s passions. It’s as much about the sport as about himself, a man anything but vain: he says if his readers picture him as tall and broad he is heartily sorry – “I am quite small, and I do stammer.” When I interviewed Burn in 2004 he said that flamboyant was the wrong word for Tim – he was just innately attractive.

Birkin made little profit from Full Throttle – one of those wealthy people who never has money, he sold the royalties to scrabble a few pounds for his racing. Within a year he was dead, leaving an unforgettable image and a book which he fears is “superfluous, rude, dull and pompous”. Not to me.

Tim Birkin Full Throttle bookFull Throttle
Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin

Daredevil Books, £22.95
ISBN 9781838440930

 


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