Perhaps the most talented of all the "Bentley Boys", Tim Birkin won the Le Mans 24 Hours on two occasions (once in a private Alfa Romeo) and scored an extraordinary second-place in the 1930 French Grand Prix.
Upbringing, World War I and Brooklands
Born into an aristocratic Nottinghamshire family, his childhood nickname (Tim after the Tiger Tim comic books) stuck into adulthood. Birkin served with the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. However, he contracted malaria while in Palestine and it was an illness from which he would suffer for the rest of his life. His older brother, Thomas, also flew during the war but he was shot down and killed in 1917.
Birkin first raced at Brooklands in 1921 but marriage that year to Audrey Latham and business pressures meant he did not race for another six years, a one-off outing on the Skegness Sands apart.
Birkin's return to racing
He returned to the sport fulltime and as a professional in 1928, just as his marriage was ending. The death of younger brother Archie while practising for the 1927 TT bike races on the Isle of Man hardly helped his family accept his return to motor racing.
But Birkin was determined and he joined Bentley in 1928. He was delayed during the early stages of that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours when his wheel collapsed at Arnage. However, he eventually rejoined to finish in fifth position, repeating that result in the Tourist Trophy. He was paired with the previous year’s winner Woolf Barnato and a Bentley "Speed Six" for the 1929 race at Le Mans. They led from start-to-finish with Birkin setting the fastest lap as Bentley filled the top four positions.
However, Birkin was not entirely happy with W.O.Bentley’s policy of building large capacity and heavy machines. So he commissioned engineer Amherst Villiers to build the supercharged 4.5-litre "blower" Bentley. The project was financed by the wealthy Miss Dorothy Paget and Bentley produced the required production run to enter Le Mans in 1930. Birkin set the fastest race lap once more and diced for the lead before retiring – leaving victory to the works "Speed Six" models.
French Grand Prix success
Fourth in the Irish GP, he also entered the car in that autumn’s French GP on the roads outside Pau. The locals may have laughed at the oversized machine as it towered over the nimble Bugattis but Birkin shadowed Philippe Etancelin’s winning T35C to finish in a surprise second position. The car’s outright speed was proved when Birkin set a new 135.53mph lap record at Brooklands.
Paget sold her team at the end of the year and with Bentley having withdrawn from the sport, Birkin turned to Italian machinery for 1931. He drove Earl Howe’s Alfa Romeo 8C "Monza" to victory in the Irish GP and Le Mans 24 Hours that year – the latter prompting a telegram from Il Duce Mussolini congratulating them on a "win for Italy". He also finished fourth in that year’s French and Belgian GPs with Maserati and Alfa Romeo respectively and won the Mountain Championship at Brooklands when driving the Maserati 26M.
Having endured a disappointing 1932 and suffering from financial problems, Birkin drove Bernard Rubin’s new Maserati 8C in the 1933 Tripoli GP. He finished third behind Achille Varzi and Tazio Nuvolari but burnt his arm on the car’s hot exhaust when reaching for a cigarette during a pitstop.
The wound was infected and Birkin developed septicaemia and blood poisoning. His old Bentley team-mate J.D.Benjafield and other doctors fought to save Birkin’s life but he died a month later in a London nursing home. His life was portrayed by Rowan Atkinson in a 1995 television drama based on Birkin’s autobiography Full Throttle.