Sir Henry Birkin

‘I was asked to be at a certain house in the Berkeley Square area at 2.30pm, the prospective buyer a member of the peerage (real, not synthetic) who had just become engaged to a girl whose name was a byword in matters Mayfair. I was duly shown into an anteroom, wondering what sort of people I was about to meet I was kept waiting no more than two minutes, and then the prospective buyer appeared himself. “Sorry we’re late,” he said, “but come and join us and have a drink.”

`Thus in one fell swoop a complete stranger became my host, and I joined an exceedingly jolly party.

‘The trial run was conducted in the same friendly spirit and I came back with an order.

‘I am aware that this has a flavour of snobbery about it, but nothing is farther from the truth. The episode is quoted in order to show how the majority of sales were secured, and how essential it was to have salesmen who could enter into the social aspect of selling.’

This extract is from one of my very favourite books, Those Bentley Days, published in 1953, the work of A F C Hillstead. If you are a Wodehouse fan — or can hear the words being spoken by Terry-Thomas — I can’t too highly recommend the book; if you’re an apostle of contemporary political correctness, it is probably best avoided.

I reread the book recently, and again relished its dry wit. Hillstead was the first sales manager of Bentley Motors, and most of his tales have to do with the great Le Mans years of 1927-30.

What prompted me to go back to Those Bentley Days was a huge box of mainly racing-related newspaper and magazine cuttings which I bought at auction. Among the quirky items in the box were a booklet entitled, Hints on Remedying Stoppages in the Lewis Machine Gun, which need not detain us, and an article, written at the end of 1929, about Sir Henry Birkin, who had won Le Mans for Bentley that year, partnered by Woolf Barnato.

The story, which appeared in Auto and Motor Journal, was entitled Thrills and Luck in Road Racing — An Interview with Capt HR S Birkin, the Celebrated Racing Motorist. There was, of course, nothing so vulgar as a byline, the writer identified only as TRM’. His surname comes to light in the course of the interview.

I wondered where it was conducted, and concluded that the only proper setting was a drawing-room in Belgravia. I might these days sit in a motorhome somewhere, taping with Rubens Barrichello or Juan Montoya for half an hour, but things were a little different then.

`TRM’ seems to have been unnerved merely by talking with Birkin, and from the tone of his article he clearly felt he had been granted an audience. One imagines a housemaid taking his hat and coat, a butler ushering him into the presence of the great man, the offer of tea or a whisky and soda, depending on the hour. Birkin was known to his friends as Tim’, but evidently Christian names were not appropriate on this occasion.

“You ask me,” the story begins, “to express my views regarding my 1929 motor racing experiences, to give a forecast for the coming season; my views on the possibility of a road race in England; and what I consider the outstanding thrill of my career. Very well, let us deal with them as we go along.”

‘So exclaimed Captain Birkin, the well-known and popular racing motorist, in reply to my request at a recent interview; a full and ready reply which admirably illustrates the methodical and wholehearted sportsman that he is.’

Birkin, I fancy, would have been ill at ease with the attitudes prevalent in the Formula One paddock of today. In those far-off times, handicapping was an integral part of many races, and when his interviewer suggested he had been unfairly dealt with in this regard, he declined the invitation to whinge. One simply didn’t.

“I have two reasons for competing in any racing event. First, I do it because I want to see a British racing car in the limelight; second, because I love it! It is life, Mr Mulcaster! Life!”

No mention of money, you see. Birkin lived at a time when the only way to make a small fortune out of motor racing was to begin with a large one. Sponsorship was 40 years down the road, and would doubtless have been considered heresy, in any case. One can hardly envisage an ad for Black Cat cigarettes, or something similar, on the flanks of a dark-green Bentley. No, if you wanted to go motor racing, invariably you signed the cheques yourself.

From the flowery language of Thrills and Luck in Road Racing, it would be all too easy to conclude that Birkin, and others like him, were mere dilettantes. Sir Henry, though, was a truly great racing driver, who went through his considerable riches in pursuit of his passion.

Undoubtedly, patriotism — in the real, rather than Union Jack T-shirt, sense of the word — was central to his motivation. There was Brooklands, of course, but he deeply regretted the absence of a major road-racing circuit in this county.

“I think it positively absurd, Mr Mulcaster, that an Englishman should have to cross the seas, if only to Ireland, in order to see his countrymen competing in a British road-racing event,” he said, in reference to the Tourist Trophy, then run on the Ards circuit, outside Belfast And he went on to propose a similar event in Richmond Park.

The weather had been terrible at the Ards TT that year. “Did you find driving particularly difficult on those awfully slippery roads and corners?” Mr Mulcaster incisively ventured.

“Difficult?” Birkin replied. “Yes! On occasions the car in front was sending up great sheets of water right and left, a sheer wall of spray through which it was impossible to see. To me, it was a case of a stentorian blast on my hooter, a final attempt to penetrate that blanket of spray. It definitely constituted my most thrilling motor racing experience.”

To Birkin’s great regret, no competitive British car was available to him by the early ’30s. He continued to race his Bentleys at Brooklands, but his second Le Mans victory, in 1931, came at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo; he bought a Maserati for GP racing.

In the Tripoli Grand Prix of 1933, he finished third, behind Achille Varzi and Tazio Nuvolari, but in the course of the race he burned his forearm on the exhaust pipe, which ran alongside the cockpit. Afterwards he ‘treated’ the wound by wrapping a handkerchief around it.

A few days later, Birkin complained of feeling unwell, and a friend summoned Dr Benjafield, himself a man who had won Le Mans for Bentley.Birkin was diagnosed as suffering from blood poisoning, but declined to go into hospital unless ‘Benjy’ could promise he would be out in time for the next race, at the Nürburgring.

As it turned out, though, he was already beyond saving, and died of septicaemia.

‘Birkin,’ concludes Hillstead, who knew him well, `was inclined to be a little too hard on his engine and tyres, but he was a magnificent driver, with no sense of fear.’

Autocar put it this way: ‘We have lost one of our finest drivers, simply because the temperament which had brought him such success acted against him in the last vital moment’.

Mr Mulcaster, I imagine, will have been much moved by the news, as was I, in a curious way, by his interview. Birkin comes across like a blend of Gilles Villeneuve and Bertie Wooster. Both heroes of mine.