IV. SIR HENRY BIRKIN.
IT is sometimes said that the temperament of the average Englishman is too phlegmatic to allow of his performing in a motor race with that verve and dash which is common among the leading drivers on the Continent.
‘Whether this is so or not is very much open to question, but if there is more than a shred of truth in it, one can cite at least one notable exception in Sir Henry Birkin whose spectacular and vigorous handling of high-speed automobiles invariably make any event in which he takes part something which is well worth watching, and indeed, in the absence of “stars ” from France and Italy, he can be relied upon to give onlookers all they require in the demonstration of superb and masterly driving.
In some respects Birkin is a little unique as a motorist : for instance, although he comes second to none as a most consistent British entrant in every event of note both at home and across the Channel, his mileage as an ordinary road user amounts to not more than 600 per annum. This is because the “open road” holds little charm for him, and he does, in fact, confess to a certain dislike of traversing highways which, in his opinion, are now so overcrowded with incompetents as to be really unsafe! Naturally, he graduated to the track and the race circuit via the
usual channels by owning and using ordinary common-or-garden vehicles. But that was long ago. One vaguely remembers that, just before the outbreak of the War, he drove sundry Morgans in hill-climbs and trials, though, as he says, without any particular success. The commencement of the “great unpleasantness,” as with the majority of Birkin’s generation, compelled the abandonment of these peaceful pursuits, and he joined up, to serve in the infantry—in the Notts and
Derby Regiment — subsequently transferring to the Royal Flying Corps, where he rose to thearank of captain. In this way, Sir Henry’s War-time career was similar to those of many other racing drivers, and one is led to the belief that flying during the 1914-1918 period must have induced an urge for high-speed travel on the ground. At any rate, a little time after his demobilisation, he started to race in earnest at Brooklands, and during the seasons of 1920, 1921, and 1922, he regularly appeared at the track with D.F.P.’s—a make which in years gone by, met with no small measure of success in racing, but which is now no more. Then came a break, and Birkin gave up racing for five years, to return in 1927 at the wheel of a 3-litre Bent ley. He drove this car, it may be remembered, in the Essex Six Hours Race, and gained third place in spite of the fact that he had experienced gearbox trouble. His performance in this race may be said to mark the entry of Sir Henry into the ranks of first-class race drivers, for from that
time up to the present day he has piled success upon success, and in achieving them, he has shown himself to be a man who is equally at home both on road and track. The expression “a born driver •’ is very often loosely applied. A man may be supremely confident and skilful in controlling a racing machine, but it does not necessarily follow that he has an entirely natural aptitude in that direction. Deprive him of the opportunity of gaining
experience over a long period, and _of constant practice, and it may well be that his ability will not be above the average. With Sir Henry Birkin, however, one would not be exaggerating in calling him a born driver, for his intense precision, his skill, his finesse, while obviously having the backing of lengthy experience, does not appear to vary with the amount of time he puts in at the wheel. Years ago, before he had attained the position he now holds in the racing world, he revealed a definite flair for the game, and with no intensive training and practising he drives always in a manner which might lead one to imagine that racing was his sole pursuit. But such is not the case, and as a general rule he occupies the driving seat only when he is competing in some event, utilising the rest of his spare time in shooting—a sport of which he is very fond, though it seems far removed from that in which he has made his name.
Of his many triumphs onelhas only space to recount the most outstanding. And by ” triumphs ” one does not necessarily mean the gaining of premier awards. There was that affair at Le Mans in 1928, for example. During that strenuous event a tyre burst, when Birkin’s Bentley was travelling at a terrific speed, and the mangled cover was so entangled in the wheel that he had to cut it away. He then proceeded on the rim. This harsh treatment culminated in the collapse of the wheel before the stands were reached, and the delay in getting jacks and fitting a new wheel cost Birkin three precious hours. Nevertheless, he did not retire, and by dint of a marvellous piece of driving he brought the Bentley into fifth place, set up a record lap at 79 m.p.h., and finished just within the time limit for the Rudge-Whitworth Cup. In the same year, at Ulster, he gave another brilliant display, and led for the first few laps. He met with some ill luck, however, when an oil pipe broke, and he was held up for some considerable time. But
having carried out repairs, he set out on a dogged battle to gain a place, and though he was not in the first three, he succeeded in finishing well up the list—and in doing so made a record lap at 65.67 m.p.h.
In considering his outstanding achievements in past seasons, one readily recalls his winning the 1929 Le Mans 24-hour race with a sixcylinder Bentley, when in company with Barnato he thundered home at 73.6 m.p.h. And, again on the same circuit in the following year, when he put up a lap at 89.69 m.p.h., with a smooth tyre, and gave Caracciola a great run for his money—to the intense delight of the dense crowd which thronged the course. A ” side-show ” which attracted less attention than it deserved, was the gaining of second place by Sir Henry Birkin in the French Grand Prix during the same season. On this occasion he used a four-seater supercharged Bentley which was simply stripped of wings and accessories. His speed for the entire race was 88.5 m.p.h., and he finished only three minutes behind Etancelin, who was on a 2-litre supercharged Bugatti.
During last year his greatest triumph was, perhaps, at Le Mans. On this occasion he was driving, in company with that other great sportsman, Lord Howe ; the car was a 2,300 c.c. Alfa Romeo, and by a brilliant piece of driving, they worked their way through the entire field—and won at 78.7 m.p.h. Though much of Birkin’s racing has been done on the road, he is, as has been said, equally at home at Brooklands. Like Kaye Don, he may be described as a “lap record specialist” ; previous to the latter annexing it, with the ” Tiger ” in 1930, Sir Henry held it with a 4litre Bentley, and now it has fallen to him again, for only quite recently he beat Don’s figure by one-fifth
of a second, and the speed now stands at 137.96 m.p.h.
Up to the present, Birkin has used Bentleys, Alfa-Romeos and Maseratis for his racing, but for this season, like Don and Earl Howe, he has added a 4,840 c.c. Bugatti to his stud. He will use this machine in the French, German and Belgian Grands Prix, and also in the Avus race, which is scheduled to take place on the 22nd of this month. Sir Henry, in an interview, told us that he is looking forward greatly to the latter event ; the route lies over two stretches of arterial road which are connected by two acute bends” the whole providing the very best chances of blowing up one’s motor car,” as Sir Henry remarked. After outlining his racing programme (which will keep him very much engaged, from what he told us), we touched upon the sore and delicate subject of ” British cars suitable for racing.” “English drivers are certainly handicapped by the lack of cars of the right type,”
he said, and he contrasted the Le Mans races of 1929 and 1931. In the former his mount was a 6i-1itre and weighed 2f tons. By driving it as hard as he knew he was able to average about 72 m.p.h., while in 1931 with 2i-litres he got home quite comfortably at 78 m.p.h. “Obviously,” he said, “I am not prejudiced against British cars, and if I can get one which will suit my requirements I shall use it at Ulster, but it is clear that, up to the present, our own manufacturers have not turned out anything which can compete with the Continental stuff on equal terms.” But like a great many of us, he is watching the progress of the new Rileys, and awaiting the arrival of the Bentley-Rolls with hopeful anticipation.
Meanwhile, with some of the finest cars in the world at his disposal and a whole-hearted interest in the sport, Sir Henry Birkin has an excellent chance of enhancing his reputation still further before many months have passed.