A lap-record pairing
Very few people have had the privilege of driving two mighty Brooklands lap-record holders – but Bill Boddy is one
In this centenary year of Brooklands Track it is natural for journalists to want to sample the 24-litre Napier-Railton with which John Cobb set the ultimate lap-record there of 143.44mph in 1935, his outer-circuit tour taking 1min 9.44sec for 2 miles 1350 yards, or slightly more as Cobb used the top of both bankings.
Andrew English wrote of his drive in a Daily Telegraph Brooklands Supplement, and our own Andrew Frankel was let loose in the famous 1933 lap-record car over the Brooklands bankings as they exist today. When Tony Dron tried the famous giant for Octane magazine on a test track, he made a point of how few people had had this privilege since the Cobb days, quoting them as Victor Gauntlet, actor Rowan Atkinson, Doug Nye, a few industry and test-drivers, and Geoff Dovey, who looks after the historic racing and record-breaking car for the Brooklands Museum which now owns it. Dron excluded me, although I too drove the N-R, at Silverstone in 1970 when it was owned by the Hon Patrick Lindsay who drove it at VSCC events.
Dron is surprised that in the first edition of my Brooklands Giants book (Haynes, ISBN 1 84425 315 5) I quoted it as having a reverse gear which Doug Nye knows to be incorrect. But I took this from the original press hand-out when the car was first shown to us in 1933, though it was not then run. It could be that this was then correct but that reverse was later eliminated, as Cobb would only require it if he overshot his pit in a long race, when his helpers would have been allowed to push the car back.
But remember that in 1920 Ernest Eldridge had been denied his Land Speed Record until his Fiat had been given a reverse gear; perhaps Reid Railton, the designer, had ensured against this odd rule still being valid when Cobb went to take world records of over 160mph for 24 hours at Utah. In fact, Cobb by then had an external electric motor to help him reverse.
To obtain the required speed and reliability, Railton used the renowned W12 Napier ‘Lion’ aero-engine designed by ex-Rolls-Royce technician A J Routledge. It was producing 530bhp by 1933, which Andrew English and Tony Dron quote. But in fact at the Acton works it had produced 584bhp at 2300rpm on a 6:1 compression ratio before it was put into the Napier-Railton, and this wonderful long-lived power unit eventually produced 1450bhp in supercharged form.
I have also driven another Brooklands lap-record car, the Sir Henry Birkin Bentley with which he achieved this record twice, in 1930 and 1932, at 137.96mph, or 5.38sec slower then the last of Cobb’s three attempts, of which the ultimate one was 0.84mph (0.41sec) better than Oliver Bertram’s 1935 record speed of 142.60mph in the 8-litre Barnato-Hassan.
It was in 1973 when B M ‘Rusty’ Russ-Turner, who had a garage business, owned the Bentley. He had removed the two-seater body used by John Morley, and put back the proper Birkin single-seater body. The car was almost original when I tried it, but Russ-Turner had fitted front-wheel brakes, the back axle ratio was now 3:1 as against 2.56:1 and the tyres were now 700×17 Dunlops.
I drove up to Russ-Turner’s Sussex cottage in the BMW 520i, my then Motor Sport company car, to find the Bentley standing on the lawn, already warmed up. I had some difficulty in getting my legs under the big steering wheel and needed a cushion behind me, although Birkin had been a slim person. All I then had to do was switch on, press the starter button and drive out onto the public road, not knowing where it went – and there were lots of public on it, many in large commercial vehicles! However, Clive Gallop had told me that he used to drive the car from the works at Welwyn where it was prepared to Brooklands, stopping on the way at the KLG depot on Kingston Hill if a plug had oiled or he wanted a new set of plugs, as this downhill road made a rolling start easy.
Taking stock of this fast Bentley, I had before me the big Jaeger rev-counter reading in 500rpm steps to 6000rpm, water and oil temperature gauges, an oil-pressure gauge reading to 100 lb/sq in, and the pressure gauge for the Villiers supercharger, fed by the two 2in SUs, calibrated 0, 3, 6, 9, and 12. Then there was the horn button, Ki-gass, the hand-throttle and the glass bowl for the oil-drip feed to the blower, plus the switch for testing the twin magnetos and an ammeter, as a starter had been installed.
I had been shown the switch to use if engine heat rose above 90deg C. So I then engaged the starter, pushed one of the two control levers on the steering wheel to advance the ignition, selected bottom gear with the external lever, let in the clutch with its short travel, and I was off on a busy road with no idea where it went.
If the driving position of this 140mph car was cramped, the left-hand side of it was remote, and, as I soon discovered, contained a panel of ignition switches, a Smiths speedometer and a pair of spare goggles, and also that the floor accommodated a battery master switch, a brake adjustment knob, and a fire extinguisher.
Somewhat overawed at being in charge of such an historic possession, I soon found that the brakes coped well in traffic, that the steering and ride were unexpectedly acceptable, and that the gear change for the D-type box invited me to use the gearbox. Indeed, only a touch of throttle was needed when double-declutching and the change from second into third gear was so easy as to encourage going into second at a roundabout for the pleasure of going back into third, and then nicely into top gear.
Obviously acceleration and speed were most impressive, even though I was not exceeding 3200rpm. Thus this Bentley, which attracted many glances from pedestrians, proceeded easily through the traffic. There was even a traffic jam in which I had to stop, the temperature rising to 90deg so that I switched on the fan. Russ-Turner was following in his Bentley Corniche with Michael Tee, son of Motor Sport’s owner, to produce the pictures. He told me that on one derestricted stretch of road I had got the Bentley up to 100mph.
I had not broken his car, so Russ-Turner now wanted me to try it at Silverstone. I went up there and Russ-Turner said he would go out to warm up the Bentley while I went to the car park to get a crash helmet, which was compulsory, that a daughter wore when parachuting. I returned to be told that the Bentley’s engine had developed a leak on going out of the gate onto the circuit. I was disappointed (or relieved) but Russ-Turner than let me do some fastish laps in his 4¼-litre Derby-Bentley Special to which he had fitted a supercharger.
Today the Birkin Bentley belongs to George Daniels, and I know it could not be in the hands of a more caring owner.
Bank Holiday outing
May I correct errors I made in my reference to the Brooklands centenary? The Napier I described as 1904 was the ex-Blake brothers 1903 car, on which I was given a brisk lap of the Track, and it was not a royal princess who asked to see a racing car in action during the 1914 Red Cross Field Day, it was the Patron, H M Queen Alexandra. Unfortunately no car or driver could be found.
Also, not of my making, may I say that the picture of a start line-up at the Track (above) was not of the 1910 Easter meeting because none of the cars carrying the number six at that meeting was of the small, long-stroke, chain-drive type shown in the foreground of the photo. I suggest the picture was taken at the 1910 August Bank Holiday meeting, when, as No6, Dr J Warren Davis in his 6.2hp Jackson averaged 45.37mph in the Private Competitors Handicap. If this inspired anyone to buy a similar car, these were made until the outbreak of WWI.
A forgotten figure
The Centenary of Brooklands Track has been effective in recalling famous personalities, cars, and events of 1907, and the whole year will still be a centenary one. However, in all this I do not recall mention of Mr Kenneth Skinner, whom Locke King made Secretary of the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club. It was considered that it should have offices in London and the address became Carlton House, Regents Street, SW.
Mr Skinner lived in a house near the outskirts of the Track; his hobby was collecting birds’ eggs. Alas, the noise of racing cars was not conducive to nesting: no longer could Locke King’s former Estate Manager partially devote his weekdays to searching for rare eggs! One hopes that he was provided with a first-class season ticket to London and back and that a car, or cab took him to and met him from Weybridge Station.
Incidentally, the unforgettable C G Grey, when he started The Aeroplane in 1911, had similar ideas, saying that he had taken an office above that of the Aero Club at 175 Piccadilly. When important visitors came to London they would naturally walk down Piccadilly and those who had important information to divulge to Grey could appear to be going into the Aero Club, on their way to giving some confidential information to his influential magazine.
When The Brooklands Society which I had started was able to have its annual meetings at the Track I invited Mrs Skinner to come to one of them, as she was still living in Weybridge. One of my daughters fetched her in my VW Beetle. We had never met and she asked whether I had met her late husband. “He was sometimes rather a hard man,” she said, perhaps recalling his attitude to the BDC when it had hoped to revisit Brooklands after the war. I was instantly transported back, to a day when, as a schoolboy, I had gone to the BARC office with my shilling, to buy the Club’s Year Book. “We don’t sell them to boys,” said Mr Skinner, so I had to obtain a few extra pence and buy a postal order.
The Year Books were first published in 1913, discontinued in 1914 due to the war, then resumed in 1924 until 1939 – I have them all.
One of the most recently formed one-make clubs is for De Dion Bouton owners. Most of its members own autocars from the very early days, when De Dion Bouton made some of the best of these. At the club’s Portmeirion Rally, DDB types BG, KI, Q and W were among the nine entries, plus a Lambert with a De Dion engine. The next event will be in Kent. Members’ cars include two 3½ hp vis-à-vis. Nick Perrett, who owns a 1914 TT Sunbeam, the Roesch Talbot GO 54 and a rare Newton-Bennet, looks after the club magazine DBB Motorvations; the Secretary is Shaun Crofton of 7 Ascott Avenue, London W5 3XL.
One of the Singers driven in the LCC Relay races at Brooklands in 1933 and 1934 was that of Rex King-Clark, who bought one in 1935. It was scrapped in 1946. David Swann, the Singer OC’s historian, decided to make a replica (below) of the King-Clark car, using a Singer Nine sports model which had gone to a Southsea garage a week after the 1932 Motor Show. Swann now seeks the full story of the car.
The recent cyclecar weekend has no doubt revived affection for these odd little vehicles. But when the Junior Car Club organised its 200-mile races at Brooklands from 1921 onwards it had 1500cc and 1100cc classes, and later introduced a 750cc division. It refrained from regarding the winning Salmsons or even the victorious GN as cyclecars, an error which has crept into Canning Brown’s Austin Competition History and David Venables’ Brooklands Centenary book.
Another book to celebrate Brooklands’ centenary is All The Years at Brooklands by Gerry Belton (Centennial, ISBN 978 0 9546789 28, £29.95). This covers motorcycle racing from 1908-39 with very clear pictures in landscape format, which should please all interested in BMCRC history. There is a tribute to Le Vack to conclude this enjoyable pictorial volume, which is an extension of the earlier book by the late Dr Joseph Bayley.