I’m rather ashamed of not visiting Brooklands before. It’s a disgrace, surely, for a committed petrol-head, based in west London for most of his life, to have treated the world’s oldest purpose built race circuit, just a few miles from home, quite so casually. Would it live up to its history?
The first hints that it may well do so came as I snuck in behind an MG and a Bentley purring their way over the final mile or so to the well-hidden circuit entrance for this July’s Reunion meeting. On the cusp of entering, the topography begins to alert you to the fact that you’re about to enter the built environment of over 100 years ago. Brooklands is different – different not just from other theatres of racing, but from other banked circuits as well.
Nestling in glorious woodland, Brooklands was built in 1907 for one purpose: the pursuit of speed. It was Edwardian Britain’s marker in the sand: a super-confident concrete look ahead, built on the then unquestioned trinity of Empire, optimism and the coming internal combustion engine. Today’s roads, signage, planning… even the chicanes implanted on modern race circuits, all aim to limit speed, not raise it. Not at Brooklands: and so what was once so modern, now seems so old-fashioned.
The day promised runs up the ‘Test Hill’ which is still in semi-regular use. The famous banking, on which cars and bikes would tear around in search of a 100mph lap, and a Brooklands Gold Star, is now a worn, rather down-at-heel echo of the brave men and women (such as mechanical engineer and racer Beatrice Shilling) who raced and tested basic suspension to its limits on its steep inclines. But the Hill survives much as it was.
Banked racing circuits fascinate. Brooklands is the third one I’ve visited. Each one tells a story – of style, country, machinery, architecture, attitudes to safety, finance, moto-history.
France’s Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry is one of Europe’s most famous. Owned for a period by the French government, for most of its life it was run by the French car-makers’ body, and used for high-speed testing and world record attempts. It is mostly open to the elements of wind, sun, or rain. Dating from 1924, it hosted the Les Coupes Moto de Legende meetings in the 1990s until the event moved to a more conventional circuit near Dijon.
The heavily banked Michelin test track is even more of a bleak, modernist monster – isolated, sun-blazed, it lies deep in rural France, near the company’s Clermont Ferrand HQ. It still, unlike many such tracks, fulfills its original purpose of being used for high-speed motorcycle and car tyre testing. Riding a Honda CBR600 at a Michelin tyre launch in 1989, unprofessionally hungover and following the factory test riders at 100mph, the experience engendered in me both a deep respect for anyone who’s ever raced on a banked circuit, and a decision never to anything like that again.
As different as each one is, banked circuits court danger on every lap. Getting it wrong on an infield is one thing – doing the same at the edge of control, gravity, performance and suspension is another. A crash at the 1928 Grand Prix at Monza saw the loss of driver Emilio Materassi and 27 spectators. Montlhéry, in 1964, saw more drivers and marshals perish in an accident. The speeds obtainable, not just on the banking, but crucially on the straights following them, were often simply beyond either the cars’ safety features, or the circuits’.
Brooklands, by contrast, looks and feels from an earlier generation. From another age, in many ways – the 20 years between its birth, and the construction of Linas-Montlhéry for example, might not seem much now, but those years saw the massacre of the First World War, and massive changes in cars and bikes’ reliability and performance.
The Surrey circuit is from an age of relative innocence, then, when high speed driving could be conducted in the outer suburbs of London with just the aid of a flat cap, set of cotton overalls and the famous Brooklands silencer to keep the locals happy. It still has a friendly, shaded ethos and design; it is more redolent of art nouveau than the clean, art-deco later variations on the theme. Only Spain’s elegantly-wasting Sitges-Terramar Autodromo is of a similar hue and survives; urban, tree-lined, it too earned its keep with an in-circuit airfield facility for a while, just like Brooklands.
‘The Hill’ at Brooklands was built in 1909 as ‘a facility to encourage use of the track for development and test work,’ according the Brooklands Museum guide. Some 352 feet long with three sections, the starting gradient is ‘1 in 8, then 1 in 5 and the top third has a gradient of 1 in 4.’ First used by manufacturers to test the ability of cars to ascend gradients, soon it was reversed as well, to test brakes coming down.
Soon enough I was joining a patient line of pre-war motorcycles, queuing to take their run. There was a good range of makes lining up – Sunbeams, whose cars and bikes were a theme of the day; Nortons, of course, A Brough and a Vincent HRD series A Comet. The briefing had warned us to throttle down near the top in order to make the sharp right. Watching the cars for tips earlier, I noted some held first gear, others sneaked in a change.
I opted to reach for second gear, and discovered the flat-ish section half way up, offering a slight pause in which to shift. It soon emerged that the ‘one run’ rule outlined in the briefing was a fittingly louche Edwardian one, so we were blessed with four or five further chances to gun our bikes skywards. Each run was neater, a little faster, and more fun. Like a sprint, it is a moment of exhilaration – booked-ended either side by less exciting activity. But just how often do you get to grab the first two gears on a piece of concrete of this vintage and provenance? And then potter back for the next run, via the rough, un-kept banking?
Like most bikes of the pre-war period, Vincent HRDs were raced at Brooklands. The top of the range, 1000cc V-twin Rapide gained several 100mph laps for riders – and its success was used promote the bikes in the firm’s ongoing battle with the other British high-end, large V-twin manufacturer of the time, Brough Superior. ‘Last Saturday,’ a Vincent HRD advert from 1938 records proudly, ‘Mr P M Aitchison won the first long handicap at the Campbell Circuit at Brooklands…’ Much of this is, of course, recorded in the numerous books about Vincent HRDs and their exploits.
So it was a fine and unexpected discovery later in the day, on looking through a photo album in the care of the Brooklands Society, to find unseen pictorial evidence of the marque’s activities there. And puzzling, too. For there, nestling in this recently unearthed album chronicling ace tuner Francis Beart’s tuning and racing work, was a shot of the marque’s ill-fated 500cc foray into supercharging, captioned simply: ‘BLOWN H.R.D.’
Yet, it was believed neither of the two Works blown pre-war Vincent HRDs known of made it to anywhere near Brooklands. Phil Irving, Vincent HRD’s co-designer, states in his Autobiography that the two blown Comets he built were tested at Donnington (being ‘reasonably free from observation’) before being dispatched in June to the Isle of Man for the 1936 TT. And that was the end of them as due to poor, hot, unpredictable running, the blowers were removed before the Senior race, never again – so it was thought – to be fitted to a single cylinder Vincent HRD.
Yet here, in black and white, was a blown bike, at Brooklands, circa 1936-37. Did Beart have anything to do with the bike? Was the work of it a rogue privateer? Peart turned his hand to all sorts of projects - the album features a pre-war BMW with a blower fitted by him. And after the war, he had great success with Norton powered Formula 3 cars. Did he work on this bike? Research since then has found no further clues as to the blown bike.
A page or so later lay a further gem: a shot of factory-backed rider Pat McIver, cornering at speed at Brooklands on his Comet Special. McIver (without a blower) won a Gold Star on the bike, with a lap at 101.6mph in 1935. Not bad for a 500cc road-based bike with just mild tuning from standard; this, an engine designed and built in six months, and the first engine of the factory’s own manufacture.
Pat McIver on the Comet, The so-called ‘Brooklands can’ was introduced, for cars and bikes, in 1924, providing a solution - of sorts - to local protests at the noise from testing, racing and sprinting. Today, a Brooklands can fitted will see a bike or car emit a still loud, but rather bass note report from its exhaust.
And so moto-culture still throws up the unknown, the unexpected. Brooklands with over 100 years of history, has exhumed yet another ghost of speed – and the mystery of ‘BLOWN HRD’ for now, endures.
Pictures David Lancaster & Rick Parkington
All © David Lancaster, 2012