Back in the late 1920s, long-distance motor races were becoming increasingly popular with both the Le Mans and Spa 24-Hours events well established in the motor racing calendar. There was however, no such endurance race in Britain, and this was down to the fact that on the Continent countries used their public roads as circuits, which was not permitted here in England. Brooklands was therefore the only racetrack that would potentially work and so the story began in 1927.
Although Brooklands was the first purpose-built motor racing circuit and wanted to mirror the pattern and success of Le Mans, there was a problem in that the circuit could never run a continuous 24-hour race because the local residents of Weybridge would complain about the noise. A way was however found around this in the 1920s and ‘30s by running 2 x 12-hour races or a “Double Twelve” to beat the 8pm curfew on racing.
This wonderful book, written by David Blumlein, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the launch event at the Brooklands Museum, takes the reader on a journey of long-distance racing at Brooklands for production sports cars as opposed to single seaters. This is in fact the first detailed history of the races which took part on the famous banked circuit which required artificial chicanes to render it more like a road circuit.
A schoolmaster for over fifty years, Blumlein founded and run his own private school for 29 of those years. He has however, had a passion for cars from a very early age, and as a motoring historian, has written numerous articles for specialist magazines over the last 25 years.
This latest book of Blumlein’s is full of period black and white photographs which not only help to convey the atmosphere of the time, but also gives the reader a real feel for what Brooklands looked like in its prime, a circuit full of character and history unlike anything you can see today. This is also helped with detailed diagrams and illustrations of the different circuit layouts that were used for the races.
Chapter 1 looks back at how motor racing first started, which was by and large a dangerous and poorly regulated sport that initially took place as open road inter-city races. This was however brought to an end in 1903 following the tragic Paris-Madrid race, which had to be stopped at Bordeaux. This brought about the concept of cars racing around a specified circuit made up of public roads, such as the famous Tourist Trophy events around the Isle of Man which began in 1905.
This was however a problem in Britain. Whilst public roads could be closed in European countries, it was not permitted to do so in England. This was also compounded by a blanket 20mph speed limit which was policed. The solution? To construct a race circuit. Which is precisely what Hugh F. Locke King did on his own land and at his own expense, creating the world’s first purpose-built motor course called Brooklands, named after his local mansion.
Work on the circuit got under way in the summer of 1906 and a year later in June 1907, the 2.14-mile pear-shaped track was completed.
Chapter 2 details the transition that took place at Brooklands when the circuit also became the birthplace for British aviation. In 1909 a Flying Ground was established on the land inside the Byfleet Banking.
When war broke out in 1914, Hugh Locke King offered the War Office the use of Brooklands. In October that year, Brooklands racetrack and aerodrome was closed to the public and the Royal Flying Corps set up their headquarters on the site.
The war played an important part in the development of the motor car due to the need to build lightweight and reliable aero engines. For example, aluminium pistons became more commonplace, allowing for higher piston speeds and increased power. So did the development of overhead valves with pushrods and overhead camshafts, which all found their way onto post-war cars, as many of the car makers were also building aero engines, such as Daimler, Humber, Rolls-Royce, Siddeley-Deary, Sunbeam and Wolseley, to name a few.
Chapter 3 takes us into the 1920s and production and sporting car races. Cars started to have all-wheel brakes and close ratio gearboxes and there was a move towards smaller engines.
Chapter 4 looks at the Six Hour Races, as by the late Twenties, sports car racing was well a truly established. In four short years, the Le Mans 24 Hour race has become the pinnacle of long-distance racing for sporting-type cars and had strict scrutineering regulations that set the standard for other races to follow.
In 1928 the Junior Car Club, who has been running 200-mile races for racing cars up to 1,500cc, found that its popularity has been slowing and so it was with great excitement that it was agreed that a new 24-hour sports car race would take place the following year, run over two days, 12 hours a day (known as the Double Twelve), as night racing was not permitted at Brooklands, with the cars impounded overnight. Chapter 5 looks in great detail at this new type of endurance race, a sort of British equivalent of the Le Mans races, so as to compete with endurance races on the Continent.
The 1,000 Mile Race is the subject of chapter 6, when the Junior Car Club came up with the idea in 1932 for a slightly watered-down endurance race of 1,000 miles which was split into two days with a fixed 500 mile distance of 200 laps on each, once again, with the cars impounded overnight.
The race was to run clockwise around the circuit and was a handicap event with cars setting off in their respective classes at intervals. This style of racing though was of less interest to spectators with the loss of the mass start and hectic opening laps which were always full of incidents. The decision to run the race clockwise also meant that the spectators were unable to watch the cars arriving at the end of the finishing straight at high speed before turning into the sharp corner at the end.
The 1,000 mile race was not successful and with only two foreign cars and no foreign drivers competing, it reinforced the unsuitability of Brooklands as a long distance road racing circuit. And so chapter 7 looks at The 3 Hour Production Car Race and the introduction of three new racing circuits new to Britain. The first was Donington Park in Leicestershire, which progressed quickly as an international circuit and held the 1935 international Grand Prix. It also attracted the 1937 RAC Tourist Trophy race.
And so it was the 1939 August Bank Holiday meeting that sadly turned out to be the last ever car race that took place at Brooklands. The Outer Circuit was pretty worn out and outdated and it was the Second World War that finally put an end to the racing, with both the Vickers and Hawker factories becoming extremely busy and the whole site taken over for military purposes.
A total of 6,376 aircraft were constructed at Brooklands during the Second World War. Hawker built 3,012 Hurricanes and Vickers built 2,515 Wellington Bombers.
The site was also targeted by the Luftwaffe in 1940 and so by the end of the war the damage to the original Brooklands track was such that to carry out repairs would have been simply uneconomical. And so, Brooklands and its motor racing came to an end. With the Ministry of Defence not prepared to release Brooklands for three years, the shareholders voted to sell the whole site to Vickers in 1946 for £330,000.
Chapter 8 contains additional interesting information on endurance racing in Britain. For example, the first continuous 24-hour race was finally held in 1980. It was the Willhire 24 Hours, run at Snetterton in Norfolk which took place every year until 1994.
The word “Brooklands” has become synonymous with motor racing and many a production car has adopted the name over time as well as it being used in place names, such as The Brooklands Room restaurant at The Royal Automobile Club. And so in chapter 9, Blumlein wraps up the book by looking at the magical reputation of Brooklands and car manufacturers that named certain models “Brooklands”, such as Austin Motor Company which offered a special two-seater version of their 25/30 model designed “for the Track and very fast touring”. The Gwynne Eight was developed into a Brooklands model in 1925, with a tuned engine that featured larger valves, stronger valve springs a larger bore carburettor and high lift cam and a guaranteed top speed of 65mph.
Fast forward to 1992, and a Bentley Brooklands replaced the Mulsanne and Eight Models, then in 1998, Bentley introduced the Brookland R. Ace Cars introduced the Ace Brooklands at the Birmingham Motor Show in 1993 and Panther introduced a Brooklands version of their Kallista.
Brooklands was very much the pioneer of British race circuits. It was by no means ideal though and was known as a car breaker thanks to its poor surface which was very bumpy. This did however add a degree if excitement for spectators, as lights, car wings and bumpers tended to fall off the cars as they went by. You were lucky if half the field even made it to the end of the race.
Spectator safety was also another issue, as the track only had the most basic of railings and cars did occasionally go off the track and kill spectators.
But after 20 years of racing, it was the Second World War that doomed Brooklands. Bentley, Sunbeam, the Austin 7, MG and countless other cars raced at the circuit. Brooklands will also be remembered for the way in which it handicapped cars to try to level out the playing field as much as possible.
This is clearly a book that David Blumlein by all accounts thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing, and to order your very own copy, please visit: www.chaters.co.uk
Publication date: March 2020
UK Price: £30.00
Author: David Blumlein
Published by Chaters Booksellers Limited
Simon Burrell is Editor of Our Man Behind The Wheel, a member of The Guild of Motoring Writers, professional photographer and former saloon car racing driver.
Illustrations courtesy of Chaters Booksellers and photographs by Gary Harman