Brooklands Reunion – A Racing Anniversary

Brooklands hosted a celebration of pre-war motoring enjoyment to mark 75 years since its last race

The air around Weybridge was ripe with the scent of Castrol R this weekend as Brooklands marked the 75th anniversary of its last competitive race meeting (albeit a little early – the last meeting was held in August 1939). With the aid of some fabulous weather, a bumper crowd turned out and many of them brought some delightful vintage motor cars along to play.

With only pre-war cars permitted within the grounds of the Brooklands Museum – the occasional Jaguar XK120 and kit car notwithstanding! – and with visitors invited to wear period clothing if possible or practical, the aim was to bring to life the lost days of motor racing in front of the right crowd for which it was renowned in the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly the addition of a little light ukelele in the paddock helped with the ambience…

There was much to see aside from the regular attractions of the Brooklands Museum and its incredible collection of artefacts and cars housed in the original buildings of the world’s first purpose-built racetrack. Mostly it was the selection of pre-war cars that had been driven to the event, of which a small selection can be seen here:

There were Bentleys aplenty

If you’re not a Bentley person…

There were quite a few Rollers…

…of many shapes and sizes

MGs by the horde…

A rare beauty of a K3 among them

Baby Austins almost outnumbered the MSG

Every corner was crammed with pre-war beauties

Plenty of ACs at their spiritual home

Aerial view of the paddock

Of course the principal stars of the show were always going to be the gigantic aero-engined Outer Circuit cars – and the event produced a memorable collection. As always, the Museum’s own 24-litre Napier-Railton took everyone’s breath away. As the outright lap record holder in perpetuity, John Cobb’s silver machine deserves such awe but it was given a close run for its money by the Leyland Thomas Special and 350hp Sunbeam – better known as Bluebird.

Outer Circuit cars drew the biggest crowd – quite rightly so

The day really took off when the organisers set about staging the ‘race starts’ to bring at least a little of the original Brooklands spirit back to life. Although the wartime Wellington Hangar continues to block the museum’s section of the start/finish straight until its lottery-funded relocation to the infield, there is still a good few hundred yards available before the Members’ Banking.

A modern day ‘Ebby’ Ebblewhite was on hand with the Union Flag to usher the runners and riders away. For most part this was at a fairly sedate pace, with cautious owners of cars and motorbikes now well into their eighth decade at least, but made for many wonderful moments. For each ‘race’ the starters would bound away to the foot of the banking, turn sharp right as though heading onto the Mountain Circuit, and disappear from view… only to return shortly afterwards, lest they thunder into Gallaghers’ car park!

The track surface is incredibly rough, but then it was hardly much better 75 years ago. Brooklands was made out of concrete – a relatively new invention in 1907 and one of which there was precious little understanding at the time. The concrete was simply set upon earth with virtually no coursing beneath, and thus regularly needed to be patched up from weather damage and racing wear and tear. This resulted in the famous film and photos of cars with all four wheels off the ground at 120mph and upwards.

Speeds were much more modest for this celebration event, but certainly produced a crowd-pleasing spectacle.

Some starts were livelier than others!

And then finally the Big Bangers of the Outer Circuit came and had a go. Given that it has taken 12 years and many, many man hours to get the Sunbeam running again, it is hardly surprising that a cautious approach was taken to its run:

Nevertheless, the sight, sound and smell of these evocative racing machines – coupled with an enthusiastic crowd and still more enthusiastic drivers – meant that the runs began to resemble motor races before long. This was the second attempt at running the big cars, resulting in the big Napier-Railton smoking its tyres in fine style to settle the hash of an impudent Voiturette!

It was a remarkable day carried out with all the dedication, good humour and style that sets the Brooklands Museum apart. Hopefully it has sown the seeds of an annual event worthy of sitting alongside the Revival. A few more ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls in pre-war attire are required to achieve this – but one imagines that all who came away from Brooklands this weekend did so looking forward to the next such event. Well done to all involved and many thanks to the volunteers who, as always, bring the place to life for visitors, be they regular or new arrivals.

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Get Ready for the Brooklands Reunion

This Sunday (July 13) sees Brooklands commemorating the 75th anniversary of its last race meeting with an event aimed at attracting the Goodwood Revival crowd as well as Museum regulars. Period feel is to be expected and period dress is preferred as the world’s oldest motor racing circuit marks its place in history.

Period cars line up on the old Brooklands start/finish straight

Period cars line up on the old Brooklands start/finish straight

The final meeting at Brooklands was actually held on the August Bank Holiday of 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War – but given that the summer is a particularly crowded time in the vintage transport calendar, it was deemed necessary to bring the commemoration forward a touch.

The aim of the Reunion is to conjure up the atmosphere of Club meetings in the 1930s for both members and visitors. The site will be filled with visiting cars, motorcycles and bicycles that raced at the world’s first purpose-built track from 1907-1939. Other pre-War vehicles will also be parked up in their own enclosures, just as spectators’ vehicles would have been on race days.

Many and varied were the races staged at Brooklands in period

Many and varied were the races staged at Brooklands in period

 

There will be Test Hill demonstrations, with sessions for cars, motorcycles and cycles. Over on the Finishing Straight, the pre-War racing cars will form up in ‘grids’, which will be sent off up the Finishing Straight towards the Members’ Banking.

For many visitors, the awesome power and thunderous bravery inspired by Brooklands in period will be the highlight. Look forward to demonstrations from the star of the Brooklands Museum, the mighty 24-litre Napier-Railton with which John Cobb set the all-time Outer Circuit record of 143.44mph in 1935. The big Napier-Railton will be joined for a special guest appearance by the 350hp Sunbeam – itself a former record-holder at Brooklands, clocking 123.30 mph in 1922 before being made famous by Sir Malcolm Campbell as his Blue Bird record breaker.

At lunchtime there will also be a cavalcade on the Mercedes-Benz World track. The timetable for the day is as follows:

10.00   Museum open to the public
10.30   Race Grids briefing (Education Centre)
11.00   Race Grids on the Finishing Straight behind the Wellington Hangar
12.00   Cavalcade briefing (Education Centre)
13.00   Cavalcade at Mercedes-Benz World
14.15   Aero engine runs
14.30   Test Hill briefing (Education Centre)
15.15   Test Hill
16.00   Napier/Sunbeam demonstration
17.00   Museum closers

The S&G will, of course, be there to cover the action – and hopes that this is the start of big things to come for a long-overdue event…

The view from Howe’s Corner

Almost all of the various Brooklands circuits remain, despite the passing of years. Motor sport gave way to the aerospace industry in 1939, and since BAe left it has been absorbed into the urban sprawl with light haulage, out-of-town shopping and the gigantic Mercedes-Benz showroom now crowding the space that lies within Brooklands’ concrete-banked perimeter.

A recent aerial view of Brooklands looking back from the Byfleet banking

A recent aerial view of Brooklands looking back from the Byfleet banking

As such one can always dig out a little something to take home – a snapshot beyond the fabulous Brooklands Museum tour. One such is Howe’s Corner and the smaller crossing of the River Wey made by the Campbell Circuit – see map below.

The Campbell Circuit today - Howe's Corner ringed in red

The Campbell Circuit today – Howe’s Corner ringed in red

The Campbell Circuit was built as an answer to demand for more of the European-style ‘road racing’ with circuits which were formed of closed roads, such as Spa-Francorchamps or Brno. All motor sport on the British mainland had to take place within private land and, by the mid-1930s, the circuit around Crystal Palace was enthralling Londoners while nationally the picturesque Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire was attracting racers and crowds with its twisty parkland layout – and even had its own Grand Prix.

Brooklands was under threat and as a result this new layout was debuted in 1937, which saw runners thunder round the steep Members’ Banking and down the Railway Straight as usual, but then brake sharply for a hairpin left, Railway Turn, back into the infield just before they reached the main part of the aerodrome.

Railway Turn effectively doubled back on the Outer Circuit along Solomon Straight before entering a long, looping right-hander called Aerodrome Curve. The bulk of this bend still exists; the frayed old concrete now ringing the Mercedes-Benz skid pan and display area before setting off down Sahara Straight, which is now used by Mercedes as part of its young driver training course.

Howe’s Corner was a left-hander towards the river (taken looking back towards Sahara Straight)

Sahara Straight led into a ninety-degree left-hander: Howe’s Corner. It was then a quick squirt on a narrow straight, incorporating a second crossing of the River Wey, on a service bridge before crossing the Finishing Straight of the main track and joining the parallel Campbell Straight. The straight turned sharp right at the Test Hill Hairpin and swept away uphill into the left-hand Banking Bend – this now acting the members’ entrance to the Museum, rejoining the Members’ Banking in what is now the Gallagher HQ car park.

In the picture above the white B-Class of the Mercedes-Benz driver tuition fleet is just driving around the outside of Howe’s Corner in the wrong direction, about to join the Sahara Straight. Nevertheless it is easy to imagine Prince Bira hammering towards this vantage point in one of his sky blue ERAs, elbows working away against the kick in the steering as he powered onto the short straight that included the river crossing, shown below.

The bridge over the Wey is currently blocked off and broken but remains in 1939 trim

The bridge itself was hugely important as it allowed aircraft built at the Vickers works to cross over the Wey to reach the aerodrome for onward flight. Now it is, like much of the rest of the Brooklands site beyond the Museum, a little careworn and lying in the shadow of The Heights business park, which now covers the Vickers/BAE works as well as the returning Campbell Straight from this road course.

The bridge over the Wey as it looks today

To reach Howe’s Corner and the bridge, one simply needs to take a stroll down to the bottom of the Museum car park to the end of the gravel path. It’s a fairly restful spot now, as the traffic heading to and from the A3 is carried on an overpass at this point. Well worth a visit and to conjure up a little spot of the sport’s rich heritage.

Howe’s Corner and the bridge in their heyday

The mystery of Seaman’s grave

Last month I paid a visit to Dick Seaman’s grave for the first time in a few years. I had almost forgotten that February 2013 marked what would have been his 100th birthday, but this pre-war hero has been a constant companion over the years so it seemed an appropriate moment to catch up.

Dick Seaman’s grave, February 2013

In fact it was thanks in no small part to the late Richard John Beattie-Seaman that I became a member of the accredited Formula One media. I wrote a little story about this young man who looked like the one character that Ralph Fiennes was born to play in what could be the most astonishing movie ever made. A few people liked it and soon enough I was on a plane to cover the inaugural US Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

Of course, we used to think that we knew everything about Grand Prix racing in the 1930s. We had contemporary newsreels and race reports but more than this we had the testimonies of the survivors, credulously recorded by the most esteemed scribes in motor sport.

The trouble was, of course, that many of the survivors didn’t half tell some whoppers. If you read their autobiographies, interviews and the great works of automotive literature that they inspired, the only insights on offer from the greatest sporting stars of the Third Reich were that Adolf Hitler was a curious little chap with an amusing moustache.

Dick Seaman's Mercedes at the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Dick Seaman’s Mercedes at the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Then, in the late 1990s, came a change. For the first time a German writer, Eberhard Reuss, took an interest in the Silver Arrows. Here was someone with time to dig deep in archives written in his mother tongue, and who dedicated time and talent to follow evidence that was never going to be accessible to the mainly British chroniclers who preceded him.

Suddenly there was much less to laugh about… although that’s another story in itself.

Poor old Seaman never had the opportunity to tell tall tales of how he cocked a snook at the jumped-up little Austrian corporal and his cronies. He died from the severe burns that he suffered in a crash while leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa.

Today, his tombstone may be fading fast but the grave itself is conspicuously well kept – just as it always has been.

When the fleet of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union heritage cars gathered for their over-blown ‘reunion’ at last year’s Goodwood Revival I was chatting with another historian and the subject of Seaman duly cropped up. ‘As far as I can tell,’ said he, ‘maintaining Seaman’s grave is probably the last of Hitler’s direct orders that is still being carried out.’

Hitler took a hands-on approach to Grand Prix racing

Hitler took a hands-on approach to Grand Prix racing

It’s one of those little comments that will always raise an eyebrow. It tantalises when, after all, the fact is now long established that appointing a British driver to the propaganda machine that was the ‘Silver Arrows’ required sign-off by Hitler himself.

That was in 1937, and for two-and-a-half seasons Seaman drove well while making himself at home in the Third Reich. Indeed, he even married the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of BMW’s founder Franz Josef Popp. This was exactly why he was approved: to underline Hitler’s good intentions toward Britain and display the virtues of the Reich to the British public.

Unfortunately for the Führer, nobody listened.

When Seaman took his first and only Grand Prix victory it should have been manna from heaven to the media. This dashing young Englishman beat a phalanx of all-conquering German drivers in their home race at the Nürburgring – with a spectacular fire in the pits to boot. But of the 14 daily newspapers in Britain only the Daily Mail gave it even a cursory mention.

Afterwards, in 1941, while the Luftwaffe’s bombs were raining down on British cities, the racing team owner Prince Chula of Siam wrote his biography Dick Seaman Racing Motorist. Even in those dark days he felt it important to emphasise that after Seaman’s death ‘…orders came from Berlin that he was to be given full honours.’

Indeed he was. The German ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen, stage-managed proceedings including liaison with Seaman’s widowed mother over the funeral arrangements. He also ensured that Mercedes-Benz’s British importers, headquartered in London’s Camberwell Road, ensured that portraits of the fallen star were prominent in all dealerships across the country.

At the service itself in Putney Vale, the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams were present along with Ambassador von Dirksen and other dignitaries. It was said that the German contingent kept a low profile but many accounts remarked upon the gigantic wreath of white lilies with a red sash and a swastika, bearing the inscription ‘Adolf Hitler’.

The Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams at Seaman's funeral

The Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams at Seaman’s funeral

When leaving Putney Vale this year, I suddenly remembered my colleague’s allegation that Seaman’s grave was being tended at Hitler’s bidding. Thus a little detour was made to the cemetery offices and, after a bit of digging through files by the extremely accommodating staff, the answer came back: Mercedes-Benz has always tended the grave, they said.

Out of courtesy I called up Mercedes-Benz UK’s press office the next morning to find out more. “Oh! We had the cemetery on the phone yesterday,” said the helpful girl who answered. “Can we call you back?”

A short while later Angus Fitton from the Mercedes-Benz PR team rang to say that, in fact, they had no knowledge of who tends Seaman’s plot and indeed never had. “Since the question came up I’ve checked this with Stuttgart and can say categorically that Mercedes-Benz would not impinge upon the family’s private arrangements on such a personal matter,” he said.

Dick Seaman and his mother enjoying the Bavarian sunshine

Dick Seaman and his mother enjoying the Bavarian sunshine

I did remind Angus that the Beattie-Seaman family was effectively extinct. Dick left behind only an ageing mother and elder half-sister with whom he had no known contact throughout his life. His young German widow emigrated to the USA during the war and died in 1990 after two further marriages. Was he sure that they were somehow footing the bill?

“Richard played a very big part in Mercedes’ competition history of course, and we honour that memory at events like the Goodwood Revival last year,” Angus said. “But we would never directly involve ourselves in the private memorial of an individual driver.”

Golly! I thought. This was getting interesting.

Angus’s statement also came as news to the Official Mercedes-Benz Club, to whom I put in a call to check if they had anything about it in the archives. After all, Mercedes-Benz UK has only existed since 1990, so perhaps there might be a prior arrangement that the friendly young folk of Milton Keynes might not be aware of?

“Mercedes pays a small fee to the cemetery every year to keep it tidy,” was the response. “They always have done.”

Other graves around the Seaman family plot are long forgotten

Much as I would like to believe that there is a stack of post-dated cheques written in 1939 that gets passed, as some sacred rite, from each Superintendent at Putney Vale Cemetery to the next, I’m inclined to believe that payment is made annually. And that, despite protestations to the contrary, it is made by Mercedes-Benz.

I’m also inclined to believe that, despite such a ludicrous response, this is not in itself  evidence that Hitler’s last unbroken order is carried out in a Surrey suburb each year. It is simply yet another example of the cack-handed airbrushing of history that has been going on throughout the German automobile industry for almost 70 years.

This story should have been a positive one for those involved. One unseen little act of kindness each year does not atone for the Third Reich, but it does reflect an enormous credit on those responsible.  If only they had wished to accept it.

The way Audi and Mercedes prefer to remember the 1930s: no swastikas in sight

Audi and Mercedes prefer to remember their past with swastikas omitted

The Real ‘Piece of Cake’: Part 1

When I was five or six, my Dad built me a model Spitfire – as most Dads did and many still do. Over the course of several days I would race downstairs each morning to see what he had added to it, whether the wings were on yet and whether it could stand on its own undercarriage. Finally it was beautifully painted in dark green, dark brown and duck-egg blue – I can still smell the paint now.

A long time ago, Dad brought one of these home...

A long time ago, Dad brought one of these home…

For years I wasn’t allowed to touch ‘our’ Spitfire, just admire it from a safe distance. Instead I’d read books about Spitfires and often see photos of ‘our’ aircraft with its signature markings of DW-K, which I learnt were those of a 610 Squadron aircraft from the Battle of Britain.

Eventually I was able to get my mitts on the model and tinker with the moveable rudder, ailerons, elevators and undercarriage. Sadly I tinkered with it too much and over the years Dad’s handiwork was reduced, slowly but surely, to its component pieces.

In the late 1990s I went to Ellesmere Port while working on the Rally of Wales, which had its main Service Area in the massive Vauxhall plant that was built on what was once RAF Hooton Park airfield.

Going in search of a cup of tea on a blustery November morning, I came across a World War 2 T1 hangar which is now home to the 610 Squadron Association, crammed with artefacts, pictures and good company. These dedicated volunteers are incredibly passionate about 610 and, if you happen to be in the area, look them up and support their cause.

Unbeknownst to me when he was building our model Spitfire, my Dad was born on the Wirral Peninsular in the ‘Thirties, and nearby, at RAF Hooton Park, was based none other than 610 (County of Chester) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force. It was formed first as a bomber unit in 1936 flying biplane Hawker Harts and Hinds, then receiving new all-metal Fairey Battles in May 1939 before reforming as a fighter unit in September 1939.

The Auxiliary Air Force was formed as a volunteer organisation, with part-time pilots who were mainly the well-heeled sons of prominent local gentry, landowners and – in the North-West – captains of industry. They were weekend warriors who had great cars, pots of money, saucy girls and got to fly fighters into the bargain!

When war broke out, the pilots of 610 Squadron reported for duty at a squadron which was, temporarily, equipped with both Spitfires and Hurricanes due to an administrative error. The Hurricanes were subsequently sent away to 605 (County of Warwick) Squadron, while 610 went off to Scotland to get familiar with their new machinery before returning to Hooton Park in early 1940.

610 Squadron receives its new Spitfires (Pic. courtesy of 610 Sqn Assoc)

This was the time of the ‘Sitzkrieg’ or ‘Phoney War’. Then in May 1940 the Nazi steamroller launched itself westwards through Belgium, Holland and France – and before long 610 Squadron was drawn fully into the war.

They flew south to Biggin Hill, where they would provide cover for the evacuation of Dunkirk. As the Battle of France ended, 610 Squadron dug in for the long summer of the Battle of Britain, flying not only from Biggin Hill but also Hawkinge, Gravesend and Croydon. In total they claimed 40 victories over the Luftwaffe during the Battle, but I wanted to know more… and that is where the story really takes off in Part 2.