Brooklands turns back the clock.
The world’s oldest motor racing circuit is about to be restored to some of its former glory. David Burgess-Wise unravels just how significant that will be. Photographs & Images courtesy of #Brooklands
NO MORE HANGAR STRAIGHT!
No, not a redevelopment at #Silverstone
but a major re-engineering of the #Brooklands-Museum
, where a confirmed grant of £4.681 million from the #Heritage
Lottery Fund will see the last survivor of four #1940
Bellman hangars (erected on the requisitioned Brooklands racetrack - the world's oldest purpose-built motor racing circuit - to meet wartime aircraft production needs) shifted sideways from its present location in the middle of the Finishing Straight to a new location alongside the track. That will at last leave the iconic vista up the straight to the steep rise of the Members' Banking uninterrupted for the first time in 75 years.
The relocated hangar will be restored as part of the new 'Aircraft Factory and Flight Shed Exhibition' that will not only house many of the museum's collection of pre- and post-1945 aircraft but also create an authentic aircraft factory environment. This will showcase manufacturing techniques from the 'stick-and-string' pioneering era to the modern age, encouraging visitors to apply their own inventiveness and give them hands- on experience of working with materials. 'It will be a kind of "mini apprenticeship",' museum director Allan Winn told me. 'Visitors will don work coats and clock on in the factory and try their skills in building aeroplanes.
We want to get people inspired by what has been done here and make them want to get involved in engineering.'
The museum has already raised more than £1.6 million in match funding for the project and is now fundraising for the remaining £370,000. The overall cost of the project will be around £7 million, making this the largest endeavour the museum has ever undertaken.
Comments Allan Winn: 'This is a project that particularly attracted the Lottery Fund, because it's not - only dynamic, involving moving vehicles and aircraft, but it engages the public in a way that a stately home, which is static, cannot. The chief executive of the fund hadn't seen Brooklands before she came here for the announcement of the grant, so I took her for a tour of the site in the #Birkin/Holder #1929
Double-Twelve 4 1/2-litre #Bentley
. She was captivated.'
Explaining the fund's rationale for the grant, Stuart McLeod, who heads Heritage Lottery Fund South-East, commented: 'The Brooklands site has played such an important role in the country's history - today's glitzy Grands Prix and state-of-the-art airliners can all be traced back to innovation that took place here - and the Heritage Lottery Fund's investment in this remarkable site will help the museum create a unique experience for visitors by helping them understand the pivotal role the UK has played in the field of engineering.'
A key part of the project is the restoration of the track's Finishing Straight to its pre-1939 appearance, allowing it to be brought fully back into use for motoring and aviation activities. Not only will cars be seen in action on the restored straight, but the Museum's active aircraft, such as its Sopwith Camel and Hawker Hurricane, will be taxied in front of the new 'Aircraft Factory and Flight Shed' complex. Vanished features such as the giant lap scoring board in front of the Edwardian Clubhouse will be recreated: 'We're planning to visit Taunton Racecourse, where a similar lap scorer survives, to study its complex mechanism,' says Allan Winn. 'There'll also be a viewscope machine alongside the track so that when the visitors click the button they will be able to see racing cars speeding past.'
'Key to the project is to restore the track’s Finishing Straight to its pre-1939 appearance’
As well as witnessing pre-war cars in action, visitors will be able to learn how to drive them; soapbox racing - another feature of the pre-1940 Brooklands scene - will return to the Finishing Straight. Its surface, badly deteriorated after so many years of idleness, will be repaired to an authentic appearance. This will be ensured by employing a special concrete mix, approved by English Heritage, which matches the old surface.
Authenticity of appearance is particularly important at Brooklands, because the track - laid amazingly quickly by hand and barrow by an army of 2000 navvies between September #1906
and June #1907
- represented the first significant use of concrete as a road surface in Britain. Some 200,000 tons of concrete were used to make the track but it was only six inches thick, laid direct onto the earth, which meant that the track surface not only settled and became notoriously bumpy over time but also needed almost constant repair during its racing lifetime.
Brooklands was the brainchild of wealthy landowner Hugh Locke King, who - in an age when British motorists were hamstrung by a nationwide blanket speed limit of 20mph - realised that the country was being left behind in the new world of international motor sport. Believing that 'England should no longer lie behind the rest of the world, but take her place in the very forefront and reassert herself as the Arbiter of Sport', he decided to finance the building of a closed speed circuit where, able to go as fast as they liked, British racing drivers could practise their skills and the country's motor industry develop new models to compete against their Continental rivals. It would be the world's first track of its kind, and was built on his Brooklands estate in Weybridge, a site that 'nature seemed to have formed for the purpose'.
Locke King had planned to build a conventional tarmac track round the edge of the property at an estimated cost of £22,000, but his consulting engineer, Colonel HCL Holden of the #Royal-Engineers
, persuaded him that 'for the safety of cars travelling at highest speed' it was essential to have a banked oval track with 30ft-high curves to allow cars to run at 100mph without steering effort. He claimed that this would be 'naturally safe' at 120mph and 'reasonably safe at higher speeds with the driver counteracting centrifugal force with his steering'.
Though Holden had designed the world's first four- cylinder motorbike in #1897
, his experience in building racetracks was nil. His well-intentioned advice would cause a near sevenfold increase in the building cost to a crippling £150,000 (equivalent to around £8.7 million today) and almost break Locke King.
The new track took its lead from horse racing: drivers wore racing silks like jockeys, cars were assembled in the paddock, and the oval circuit was transected by a finishing straight in front of the clubhouse. This had a major disadvantage, for spectators who had been watching the racing on the outer circuit from the members' enclosure had to run down the hill to see the finish...
The convention of a finishing straight also cost crack racing driver (and champion rollerskater) Dario Resta the Montagu Cup race and a purse of 1400 gold sovereigns at the opening meeting in 1907, for the man who operated the red disc signal to tell him to turn into the finishing straight at the end of the race left it too late. Resta - overtaking another car in his 135hp Mercedes - missed seeing it, and did one lap too many.
Brakes were uncertain in those early days, so the straight incorporated a noticeable upgrade at its top end to help cars pull up before they reached the banking and crossed the path of cars still racing on the Outer Circuit. This didn't always work, as Keith Davies, veteran of the 1907 Opening Meeting, told me when I interviewed him at his Grosvenor Square fiat in #1966
'I remember that somebody put his foot by mistake on the accelerator instead of the brake at the finish of a race, went straight forward onto the periphery of the track, and went over the trees and somersaulted to his death. He didn't stop at the finishing line; he just continued on, hit the track, and it was rather like how Diavolo the Great used to do his loop-the-loop - the man shot into the air and finished up where you could expect.'
and 1939 the banked and bumpy Brooklands circuit was the focus of British motor racing; it was only in the 1930s that it faced rivalry from new tracks at Donington and the Crystal Palace. But there was a cuckoo in the Brooklands nest in the shape of the aircraft industry, which had found a home in the centre of the track almost as soon as it had opened, for the towering bankings shielded primitive aircraft from the force of the wind. Indeed, in 1908 AV Roe had managed to leave the ground on the Brooklands Finishing Straight in a biplane of his own design, the first powered - if not particularly controlled - heavier-than-air flight in Britain.
Vickers built an aircraft factory alongside the track, and Sop with - which later became Hawker - assembled and test-flew its aircraft at Brooklands, so it was natural that, when war was declared in #1939
, Brooklands was requisitioned for all-out military production of aeroplanes. Hangars were erected on the racetrack to augment the production of aircraft for the RAF, with the Bellman hangar on the Finishing Straight carrying out final assembly work on Wellington bombers.
Though the requisition of both the racetrack and the Bellman hangar was meant to last only until the end of hostilities, the post-war Labour Government reneged on the arrangement. Racing was never resumed and the entire estate remained a closed aircraft production facility, developing many significant aircraft right up to its pivotal role in the development and production of Concorde. Those who wanted to 'Bring Back Brooklands' were only allowed limited access to the site at the annual Reunion meetings until the museum was opened in #1991
on the 30 acres surrounding the clubhouse.
The track - largely intact, but with holes punched though the bankings at either end of its central runway to allow heavy aircraft to take off in safety - became a dumping ground for discarded jigs and pallets with shrubs growing though its cracks, which is how I saw it when I first trespassed on the Members' Banking as a teenager around #1960
, having scrambled up the back of the bank with a friend after we'd parked his Bullnose Morris at its foot.
There was even a hangar on the banking, snuggled under the bridge that afforded a privileged route into the trackside enclosure for the private cars of members of the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club. That, happily is long gone, the Members' Bridge has been recreated, and the surviving hangar on the Finishing Straight was Grade 2 Listed in #1999
as a rare surviving example of the taller type of Bellman; it notably retains its original corrugated-iron sheet cladding.
However, the Bellman hangar was designed for quick assembly during wartime; a stable internal environment wasn't a pressing need in its specification. Unrestored, that flaw leaves the often fragile structures of the historic aircraft inside it vulnerable to the elements. Its relocation and refurbishment will enable that problem to be addressed. The adjoining 'Flight Shed' will not only house the museum's active aircraft, but will incorporate new workshops where museum volunteers will learn and practise aircraft restoration skills, enabling these vital techniques to be handed down to a new generation. Importantly, there will also be a purpose-built storage area where Brooklands' internationally significant archives will be maintained in a controlled environment.
Building on the work done years ago by the track clearers of the Brooklands Society, who first undertook the task of removing the undergrowth from the banking, the Brooklands Museum has done sterling work in maintaining the section of the historic track that lies within its site, which regularly plays host to the activities of car clubs. This latest project, which will at last reveal the Finishing Straight in its pre-1939 state, opens what Allan Winn terms 'the most significant chapter in Brooklands' rich and varied history since the museum was founded'.
FOR MORE DETAILS visit brooklandsmuseum. Com