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Brooklands' motoring history rivals Goodwood, Silverstone and Brands Hatch

PUBLISHED: 10:14 11 June 2014 | UPDATED: 13:18 05 August 2014

Brooklands at night

Brooklands at night

Archant

The world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, Brooklands was a mecca for the early heroes and heroines of motorsport. While post-war Goodwood, Silverstone and Brands Hatch have stolen the Weybridge track’s thunder, Nick Wallis discovers that the good times are once again ready to roll

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2013

***

The motoring enthusiasts who visit Brooklands Museum near Weybridge may be aware of the site’s extraordinary history, but for many modern visitors, Brooklands means one thing - shopping.

Every day, thousands of vehicles trundle through the retail park on the south western edge of the Brooklands site. The asphalt roads and regulated traffic flow make it easy to miss the connection between the cars of today and the awe-inspiring mechanical beasts whose roars ripped through the same Surrey air less than a hundred years ago. But the connection remains, and it’s this that makes the Brooklands story so compelling.

Built in eight months by two thousand men working seven days a week, Brooklands race-track was a unique engineering achievement. Landowner Hugh Fortescue Locke King commissioned it, handing over the design to Colonel HCL Holden, who returned a purpose-built, two and three quarter mile race circuit, covering more than 300 acres and incorporating two vast stretches of banked track.

When it opened in 1907, there was nothing like it on earth. It was believed to be the largest concrete structure in the world: one hundred feet wide and 50 feet tall at its highest point, with a steepest incline of 26 degrees! The ability to throw a 4.5 litre engine attached to a tonne of metal along the Brooklands banking at speeds of 100 miles an hour was to deliver a thrill which no human being in history had experienced before. If you had the money, this was better than any drug. This was it.

 

The right crowd

Between the wars, the allure of Brooklands grew, attracting wealthy racing enthusiasts and a social scene which reflected the mores of Britain’s upper-middle classes. One Brooklands marketing slogan “The Right Crowd, with No Crowding” clumsily encapsulated the snobbery of the era. Yet great things were achieved. Speed records were made and smashed. Men and women raced in dangerous conditions and lives were lost, all too regularly.

Alongside motor-racing, a growing air industry developed at Brooklands. From Britain’s first ever flying display in 1909 to the wartime factories of Hawker and Vickers, Brooklands has a history which justifies its claim as the home of British aviation. The preliminary design meeting which led to the development of Concorde was held at Brooklands. More of Concorde ended up being built at Brooklands than any other manufacturing site.

Wartime damage put paid to the circuit as a race venue, and the site’s importance as an aircraft manufacturing centre took precedence over its preservation.

The first major track breach was in 1950, when the postwar owners, Vickers-Armstrong, removed a 200m section of the Byfleet Banking. This allowed the construction of Brooklands’ first concrete runway (up until then it had been purely a grass airfield) to accommodate the Valiant, a four-engined jet bomber.

The next was in 1969, when the unique concrete bridge that carried the track over the River Wey was demolished. Flood damage had rendered it unsafe.

By this stage a Brooklands preservation society had formed, but it could do nothing to stop the area being parceled up and sold to developers. A housing estate was built on the eastern section of the track, office blocks appeared on a north-eastern chunk and a further cut in the Byfleet Banking was made to facilitate access to a new industrial estate.

 

Hope on the horizon

In 1983, a popular exhibition at the Elmbridge Museum in Weybridge sparked renewed interest in Brooklands’ heritage. Elmbridge Borough Council resolved to establish a museum on the site.

Within five years the council had secured a 30 acre plot around the north eastern section of the track by leasing it from the cigarette firm Gallaher. Armed with this, a trust was formed, and in 1989 the Brooklands Museum opened its doors for the first time. Two decades later the museum has become a profitable and well-established visitor attraction. A small army of 700 volunteers assists the 150,000 visitors who pass through the gates every year to gawp at the beautifully restored cars and soak up the history.

Recent significant additions include a retired Concorde and the entire London Bus Museum, which has set up shop inside a purpose-built hangar, bringing yet another aspect of motoring history to life. Alongside this, some 50 special events are held at Brooklands, of which the Double Twelve in June is a highlight. Five thousand visitors are expected to watch more than a hundred vintage cars in competition this year, amid a jolly atmosphere of period-costume, family fun.

The museum’s director is Allan Winn, a bluff, genial sort who has just celebrated ten years in charge. Allan can often be seen driving to work in his own 1929 three-litre Bentley and is one of the three regular drivers of the 1933 Napier Railton, a 24-litre aero-engined record-breaking masterpiece designed to be raced at Brooklands.

Allan told Surrey Life the Double Twelve meeting is special because of its competitive element - enthusiasts from all over the country will be utilising the Test Hill, the Mercedes-Benz World circuit and, of course, the banking. The lack of a complete original track doesn’t bother him: “We can run all sorts of events on our own site - where else in the south-east can you blast your car up a one-in-four hill? A lot of people don’t want to, or can’t afford to, go racing, but they’ll queue up for the opportunity to do a few laps in their beloved car on the Mercedes circuit.”

But surely he must hanker after the glory days? “Even if we could rebuild the full circuit, the Brooklands of 1907 just couldn’t satisfy current safety regulations. And our neighbours might have something to say about our running a modern race track yards from their homes.” Which is a fair point.

 

A world class reputation

Tiff Needell, the former Top Gear presenter, grew up in the nearby town of Weybridge. He remembers breaking into the Vickers-owned section of Brooklands as a teenager and mucking around with his mates on the banking “until the security guards chased us off!” His youthful interest and subsequent career as a racing driver has come full circle, as Tiff is now a trustee of the museum. Tiff thinks the rich history of Brooklands as an aviation and motor-racing centre needs wider recognition: “It’s unique. That’s a word which gets over-used nowadays, but that’s what Brooklands is. Unique. And it’s a lovely reminder of where Britain was and how we got to where we are today, and the sort of people that did it.”

As for the future, the museum has put together an ambitious development plan, aimed at furthering the site’s growing reputation as a world-class heritage centre. The entrance to the museum will be shifted so it doesn’t feel like you’re approaching it on a service road, the great Barnes Wallis Stratosphere Chamber (designed for high-altitude aircraft research) will be revived, Concorde will be put under a roof and the Finishing Straight of the original track will be restored to its former glory. If an application for lottery funding is successful, work will begin in 2015.

In the meantime, dig out your racing goggles and tweed, and we’ll see you there. Poop poop!

***

Trackside trivia

From its opening in 1907 to the advent of Donnington in 1933, Brooklands was the only permanent motor-racing circuit in the UK.

Surviving sections of the track, along with Test Hill and the four pre-1945 bridges over the Wey, are classified ancient monuments.

Percy Lambert was the first person in the world to travel at 100mph in a modified Talbot at Brooklands. His record was superseded by a Frenchman, and Lambert died trying to retake it, hours after promising his fiancée it would be his last attempt.

The Double Twelve is named after a race conceived to get round noise objections to night racing. Cars spent 12 hours on the track, were locked in garages overnight and raced again for 12 hours the following day.

Socialite and writer Barbara Cartland was a Brooklands regular. In the 1930s she obtained permission to set up the ladies reading room, as she was concerned that there was nowhere for ladies to relax during the racing.

Her room still pays homage to Brooklands heroines, with photos featuring “Flying Fay” Taylor; Jill Scott, in a red racing suit with matching hat, scarf and lipstick; and Kay Petre, the most successful of them all

The world land speed record was set and broken many times at Brooklands. The last was in 1939 by John Cobb who took the record to 143.44mph in his Napier Railton.

The last lap record to be set at Brooklands was by the Top Gear presenter James May, using an electric (Scalextric) car, in 2009.

Over half of the two and three quarter mile banking survives, along with a quarter of a mile of the Finishing Straight and over a quarter of a mile of the Campbell Circuit. Mercedes-Benz owns more than half of that surviving track.

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