Historic scene: Finishing touch

Brooklands gets a little closer to its past, hosting the Double 12 on the re-opened Straight

When Alan Wynn, Brooklands museum director, told me a couple of years ago they planned to move the Wellington hangar wholesale across the site and open up the Finishing Straight as it was in racing days I was impressed by the vision and doubtful about the timescale – not to mention the budget. Yet on June 17 at the Double 12 meeting, the Earl of March stood on that Finishing Straight and snipped a black and yellow ribbon officially to re-open a hallowed stretch of concrete, exactly110 years since the circuit’s opening. And the hangar that since WWII had stood four-square in the way of any more racing is currently being reassembled a hundred yards further west.

Now the Straight’s vast concrete expanse sweeps uninterrupted up to the Members Banking, a view unseen since war extinguished racing and turned Brooklands into an aircraft factory, and it formed the centre of celebrations at the Double 12 meeting. A big crowd watched the ribbon ceremony before a drive-past of more than 100 actual Brooklands cars re-enacted the 1907 opening parade, led by a 40hp Itala like the one Ethel Locke King drove 110 years earlier. An amazing four Delage Grand Prix cars appeared, two of them in action, a reminder of the 1927 RAC Grand Prix when Delages streaked up this very straight to a 1-2-3 finish, along with other machinery with Brooklands history – the LSR 10½-litre Delage, the 1912 GP Lorraine Dietrich, Babs, the Marker Bentley, the towering Fiat S76, EXP2, first Bentley to win here, and of course the Napier-Railton. Plenty of other appropriate cars and motorbikes made up a busy field – and if an oval loop around haybales isn’t quite as dramatic as vast machines bellowing round the Outer Circuit, well, it was at least aBrooklands circuit.

“It was the first competition on the straight since 1939,” says Alan Wynn. “It makes a brilliant events space – there’s so much room now. Perfect for concours and the like. We’ll use it to teach people to drive pre-war cars, and our active aeroplanes will be able to roll straight out of the new Flight Shed and taxi around on the straight.”

That Flight Shed will link to the transplanted hangar, to be called the Aircraft Factory to reflect the hundreds of planes built here. You can see rapid video of the hangar being unpeeled and unpinned on the Brooklands website.

“The structure is complete, the camouflage is going on the doors now and the fit-out starts soon,” says Wynn. “It will have a mock production line with four or five planes in ‘final assembly’ and demonstration workshops around that where people can try their hand at making parts.”

Heading the line will be the Wellington recovered from Loch Ness, currently in its own temporary storage, while the A V Roe shed with the replica of the pioneer aviator’s machine has also been relocated off the straight.

Lord March, of course, has strong connections with the Track – his grandfather Freddie March raced there often, winning the 1930 ‘500’ and the ’31 Double 12, and went on to design and produce sports car bodies and complete aircraft before post-war turning a redundant airfield into the Goodwood circuit, considered the spiritual successor to Brooklands (especially by WB in this magazine). Fittingly even the scissors that sliced the ribbon were historic – they’re the ones Ethel Locke King used to open the Campbell Circuit in 1937.

With the straight noisily inaugurated, competitors launched into the Double 12 Festival, run along with the VSCC, with speed trial, driving test and concours elements. Given the bumps on the old Track (some of the potholes are ancient monuments themselves) the fast stuff happens on the Mercedes-Benz World loop, with success in the racing car classes for Terry Crabb in ERA R12C, his son Jamie runner-up, Sue Derbyshire quickest lady in her usual Morgan, and Julian Grimwade in the FN Norris Spl. But the FTD shoot-out came down to Ian Baxter’s single-seater Alta and the venerable R4D, crewed for the first time by Ben Fidler, son of owner Brian. He must have been well schooled as he shaved a victorious 0.2sec off the Alta.

Back to the Track and the Test Hill for Sunday’s driving tests, where the reopened area offered fresh challenges mixing racers, sports and saloons, and to show there’s no age snobbery in the VSCC test victory went to Steve Taylor’s Sierra XR4i. I attended the launch of that car – and now it’s a vintage racer…

In the concours the hot sun made everything sparkle, with class winners ranging in era from John Dennis’s 1916 Packard Twin Six to Neil Manley’s 1962 E-type. But there was little argument and lots of applause for the winner, the Grand Prix Delage that the Miles Collier Collection sent over from the States. It couldn’t have been more appropriate.

With the ‘best of two sections’ points totalled it was Robin Gale who accepted the champion’s trophy, his 1934 Riley Spl bringing him class wins in both speed and driving arenas. And where better for the ceremony than on the rediscovered Straight.

The Finishing Straight’s re-opening marks the end of Phase One of the museum’s £8m redevelopment, but while the museum area is surging ahead, a lot of the Track is almost invisible and forgotten. And it’s crumbling. Despite all of the surviving circuit being listed (and that’s some two-thirds of the original), weeds and trees and sheer age are taking their toll on these unseen areas behind industrial and retail units that have multiple tenants and owners who aren’t all old car people. If you can reach the south-east section of the Byfleet banking (don’t take this as an invitation – check about access), you can stand and marvel that the circuit still sweeps out of your vision in both directions, a longer if less vertical stretch than the Members banking.

Along with the museum and local councils, Historic England is backing a conservation plan (you can comment on it at the Elmbridge Borough Council website), and encouraging tenants and owners to maintain their section. And it’s preparing an ‘owners’ guide’ on how to look after your bit of it. Because not everyone has an Ancient Monument in their back garden.

Dogfights and donuts

Where else can you see WWI and WWII at the same time?

More cars, more planes and especially more motorbikes packed out this year’s Flywheel Festival at Bicester Heritage in June, when the one-time RAF base resounded to engines radial, vee, inline and inverted (De Havilland Gypsy aero engines run upside-down, if you’re wondering).

Marking 100 years since the Royal Flying Corps first used this site, the Tiger 9 team displayed in their Moths, the amazing Great War Display Team did its impressive stuff with bombs and bullets and a MkIX Spitfire duelled with a Hispano Buchon – the Spanish-built version of the Messerschmitt Bf109. Not something the incumbent RAF back in the 1940s expected to see over their aerodrome.

On the ground the small, twiddly circuit gave the crowd a close view of Bugattis, Bentleys, Simon Taylor’s HWM Stovebolt Special and the fearsome Fafnir with dragon grille disguising a 10½-litre Hall-Scott aero engine. A collection of Broughs looked very Superior, with Scott, Velocette and Vincent keeping the bike standard high, and all backed by Catalina, Dakota and Lysander aircraft nosed up to the fence so the public could investigate under the guns of Scorpion and Sherman tanks and about a division of military hardware. Visitors could even watch the Home Guard doing noisy bayonet practice. And if your hearing is too good you could stand by the static Merlin V12 as they fired it up and deafened you for a few minutes.

“Best year yet for Flywheel,” said organiser Richard Grafton. “We took a big step forward, with a much bigger crowd; we expanded the range on the demo course, and on top of the display aeroplanes 30 other vintage aircraft flew in including a Rapide and an Anson. We’re especially proud that anything you see in the air will land in front of you and you can meet the pilots. There seems to be a real synergy between classic cars and aircraft.”

And with its grass runways Bicester Heritage is an ideal location to bring them all together. There was originally talk about a live circuit using the airfield perimeter roads, but that would change the character of this event. Which would be a shame.