A velocipede for the Revival set

It happens very rarely that the S&G gets to review a product, so here is rather a special one: the MBM Honolulu bicycle.

Britain has gone somewhat dotty for velocipedes in recent years. There were the ‘Boris bikes’ introduced to get people around London in an environmentally-friendly fashion, of course, and also a vast surge in interest that followed Bradley Wiggins’s victory in the Tour de France. Throw in the heroics of Team GB in the Olympic Games of London 2012 and Rio 2016 for good measure and cycling has become big business for Britain.

To digress for a moment, this latter success has given rise to a rather troubling phenomenon: the Saturday cyclists. Round our way you will find many stockbrokers and similar who believe that no other road user’s weekend is complete without staring at an untidy peloton of their lycra-clad bottoms lined up three- or four-abreast. The Highway Code is a wonderful thing…

Be that as it may, there are many different schools of cycling these days. There are the road racers, the uphill mountain bikers (front suspension only), the downhill mountain bikers (suspension here, there and everywhere), the BMXers and the commuters on their hybrids. But retro cyclists? Really?

Why, yes! Welcome to the world of the Beach Cruiser. As you can see in the picture above, these things are to pedal cycles what café racers are to motorbikes.

The design of Beach Cruisers harks back to the designs of the Schwinn company in the early 1930s. After the onset of the Great Depression, the booming market for motorcycles and bicycles dried up and Schwinn decided to try and graft the sexiness of a motorbike onto its pedal-powered brethren – resulting in an affordable bicycle designed for the youth market – the Schwinn B-10E Motorbike.

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Today, Schwinn bikes are still available in America’s big discount stores like Wal-Mart. They have balloon tyres, single speed gears, an upright riding position and all-metal construction. Their style is their winning feature – and that style is now available on this side of the Atlantic, too.

The example above is from a relatively recent name in cycling: MBM Cicli of Italy. Across its range of bikes, MBM caters to retro tastes and various budgets – the Honolulu model tested here being in the sub-£200 bracket.

Bicycle magazines and websites tend to steer clear of this sort of bike, which is undeniably cheap and generally only available by mail order. Writing an MBM off as tat would be a mistake, however.

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The MBM Maxilux is a more modern Beach Cruiser in the range

Perhaps they are a bit basic, but the example tested was very comfortably sprung on the posterior. That counts for a lot. It’s been 30 years since the S&G covered any distance under pedal power, but the five miles in this test passed very easily – and with more than a few admiring glances.

“What a pretty bicycle!” said a lady walking past as the S&G was busily wrestling with a puncture at the roadside. One forgets just how often that delays of this sort can happen. Such delays are less fun now than I remembered from 30 years ago… although the admiring lady found it amusing.

“My friend’s got one like that,” said the helpful chap in Halfords who sold me a new inner tube. “He puts it in his VW Camper.” That made sense as a use for one of these things.

When it was vertical and had air in its tyres, the Italian origins of the MBM percolate through loud and clear. For one thing it has gears – Beach Cruisers generally don’t, but this one was intended to pedal around on the streets of Perugia rather than the seafront at Santa Monica.

The 6-speed gear set is operated, rather sweetly, from a twisting mechanism on the handlebars like an old Raleigh Grifter from the 1970s that will doubtless be familiar to many readers. For novices and amateurs, in which your scribe is included, this minimises the chance of throwing the chain off with inaccurate gear selection – very wise.

It is not by any means a racy bike by modern standards. It’s all metal and weighs a thumping 18kg – two hands and a bit of heaving are needed to lift both wheels off the ground. That weight can have its advantages, though. For one thing, if any motorist throws their door open without looking, it is probably the door and not the cyclist that will suffer more damage. Also, it’s too slow to encourage any peloton piracy!

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A vintage Indian board racer – an undoubted source of inspiration for the MBM bike

For pottering around at a period-flavoured event like the Brooklands Reunion or the Goodwood Revival it is just the ticket. After all, an XK120 or a Bugatti T35 tends to put a bit more of a dent in one’s budget than a mail-order bicycle – and a VW Camper does too – so this might get you into the paddock for a more reasonable outlay.

Away from the big retro ‘meets’ of the year, bikes like the MBM can still make a fine companion… provided, that is, not too many hills are involved,

For all its chic appeal there’s no obvious reason not to use a bike like this every day. The wheels were a bit out of shape (easily fixed by altering the tension on the spokes) and you’ll need to fit lights and a luggage rack to make it a regular ride.

But a bike like this means parking one’s bottom on smoothing that comes with more than a whiff of heroic racers from the past. It might even become this season’s must-have accessory – and deservedly so too.

Michael Burn: Birkin’s ghostwriter

The story told in the BBC film Full Throttle, that of the writing of Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin’s autobiography, was just one landmark in the life of another extraordinary character – the author, poet and warrior, Michael Burn. His is a tale well worth the telling.

Burn was born in December 1912, the eldest son of a solicitor who was soon appointed secretary to the Duchy of Cornwall. The family moved to a grace-and-favour house diagonally opposite Buckingham Palace. As a child, Burn used to fire his air rifle towards the palace, trying to hit the first Belisha beacon to be installed in London.

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‘Tim’ Birkin and Michael Burn as portrayed in Full Throttle

While at school in Winchester, Burn suggested to his father that he was attracted to the other boys.  Sir Clive arranged an appointment with King George V’s personal doctor, who prescribed benzedrine. That didn’t work, unsurprisingly, so his father went to a different doctor, who pronounced the youth ‘normal’ and, with that little matter thus cleared up, his son went up to Oxford.

University life was not a success. It ushered in a year of utter debauchery, from which Burn retired to a villa in Le Touquet in the summer of 1931, where his maternal grandfather had built the first casino. Here he met with the celebrated racing driver ‘Tim’ Birkin, twice a winner at Le Mans and a genuine Boys’ Own hero. Burn decided not to return to Oxford and instead agreed to act as ghostwriter for Birkin’s autobiography, entitled Full Throttle.

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Birkin also invented electric rail racing – precursor to slot cars

The book did brilliantly and led to Burn being commissioned to write a history of Brooklands, which appeared as Wheels Take Wings (1933). During his research, Burn met a student from Trinity College, Cambridge, by the name of Guy Burgess. Burgess was openly homosexual, a Marxist, and he utterly bewitched the younger man – introducing him to his circle of friends among whom was the novelist EM Forster.

In the early 1930s, fiery political rhetoric intoxicated many young men and Burn was among them. He decided to witness Hitler’s Germany for himself: renting a flat in Munich and allowing himself to be seduced by Nazism. Here he lived among a number of other expats including Donald Maclean, who would soon join forces with Guy Burgess as members of the ‘Cambridge Spy Ring’.

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Burn’s first encounter with the Cambridge spy ring came through Guy Burgess

Burn drank his fill of Hitler’s economic miracle and marvelled at the levels of national pride he encountered. He then went on to witness Mussolini in Italy, where he lived as a guest of Alice Keppel, Edward VII’s mistress, and her daughter, Violet Trefusis, in Florence. Fascist Italy provided pyrotechnic politics of the kind he so desired – and also brought about more contact with the opposite sex.

Returning to London, Burn took up residence with the celebrated stage and film actress, Viola Tree. He helped her to edit the memoirs of her late husband while he perfected vocational training in typing and shorthand. A relatively sedate life then beckoned on the staff of the Gloucester Citizen until Burn decided to spend hid summer holiday back in Munich during 1935.

Among the British crowd in Bavaria this time around was Unity Mitford, the most fervent of the celebrated Mitford sisters in her admiration of fascism. Unity was completely besotted with Adolf Hitler, and her peers were sure that she was hell-bent on marrying him. Burn took tea with Unity in Munich’s Carlton tea rooms when the Führer popped in to say hello, and Burn recorded that Unity was positively vibrating with glee as she was ushered off to sit with him.

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Burn (centre) pictured alongside Unity Mitford (left) at Nuremberg

Eventually, Burn would also be granted an audience with Hitler – who invited the young Englishman to witness the Nüremberg Rally from one of the more privileged seats alongside Unity. He was utterly spellbound by “great lights in the sky, moving music, the rhetoric, the presentation, timing, performance, soundtrack, exultation, and climax. It was almost aimed at the sexual parts of one’s consciousness.”

Hitler also handed him a personally-signed copy of Mein Kampf – although he lost it soon afterwards. He was also treated to a tour of the Dachau concentration camp, which apparently didn’t phase him. Nevertheless, something sparked an almighty row with Unity Mitford in the days afterwards and, with that, Burn turned his back on Germany.

He returned to Britain after informing his editor that he wanted to leave the Gloucester Citizen for less tranquil waters. A glowing reference was presented to The Times, which stuck the newcomer on fairly light domestic duties until Burn’s unprecedented access to the royal family led to his covering the affair between King Edward VIII and the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.

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Burn and his father playing golf, 1931

When viewed from our age of phone tapping and litigation, this would appear to have been a staggering breach in court security. Burn’s father was firmly ensconced in the Duchy of Cornwall, and from this position granted his son access to court and everyone up to Walter Monckton, the King’s go-between with the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, during the abdication crisis. Whatever else, it can certainly be said that coverage of the whole sorry spectacle in The Times did not lack authority.

Nevertheless, the growing threat posed by Germany loomed large over proceedings and soon the threat posed by Hitler trumped even the ongoing fallout of royal scandal. Burn enlisted as a reservist in the Queen’s Westminsters territorial battalion of the King’s Rifle Corps during 1938 but remained a journalist and travelled to Croydon Airport to see off the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, when he went to Munich to meet Hitler.

When war finally came, Burn volunteered for service in one of the ten independent companies that were formed to conduct guerilla operations in the battle to save Norway from invasion. After the fall of Norway, Burn joined the British Commandos, ending up in No.2 Commando and honing his skills in readiness for the assault on the world’s largest dry dock in Ste. Nazaire in March 1942.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown"

Ste. Nazaire: HMS Campbelltown resting on the wall it would soon destroy

The dock was believed to be the only location large enough to accommodate the battleship Tirpitz, and if it was put out of acton the German Kriegsmarine would be less likely to send its flagship out into the Atlantic. Burn’s 2 Commando landed in advance to destroy onshore facilities and minimize the firepower that could be brought to bear on the attacking force. They were to clear the way for the destroyer HMS Campbelltown, which would be crashed into the wall of the dry dock, laden with concealed explosives.

The plan was for the Campbelltown sit astride the dry dock wall, the fuses on her explosive cargo delayed to allow the Commandos to escape. Then she would be blown to smithereens, taking the wall with her and ushering in a wave that would demolish the entire facility.

Burn’s commanding officer described the audacious plan as “the sauciest job since Drake”. Militarily, the operation was an unprecedented success in terms of destroying the base, but the Commandos paid a heavy price, made worse because the small boats that they were supposed to escape in were sunk, forcing them to fight their way out and attempt to escape over land.

Burn was among the wounded. His capture was filmed for use in the propaganda reels and, noticing the camera crew as he passed, Burn discreetly positioned his fingers in a ‘V-sign’ as he was marched off. When the newsreel was shown in occupied Holland, Burn’s defiance so moved the mother of future Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn that she sent a food parcel to his prison camp.

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Caught on camera: Burn gives his defiant V-sign

Burn’s internment was to last to the end of the war, primarily in Oflag IV-C, better known as Colditz Castle, where he languished alongside such men as future Le Mans winner Tony Rolt. Burn recorded as much detail of life in the camp as he could and, when he was released, turned his recollections into another best-selling book. During his incarceration, Burn also became a confirmed Communist sympathizer.

In the hoary early morning of the Cold War, Burn was to be found in Vienna as correspondent for The Times. He remained in the city – a place of secrets and shadows on the fringes of the enlarged Soviet empire – for almost a year. He then went to Budapest, much closer to the Soviets, and took with him a new wife.

Mary Booker had been the subject of one of the most tragic and celebrated romances of the war, as the great love of Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary, who badly burned in the Battle of Britain and later killed in a flying accident during 1943. Mary had been significantly older than Hillary and was well into middle age by the time she married Burn. They lived contentedly enough together in Budapest while Burn was The Times’ Balkan correspondent.

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Burn and his wife, Mary

The couple returned to Britain in the early 1950s, whereupon Burn forsook journalism for more creative writing. He put out a play, The Night of the Ball, which opened in 1954. It was at this time that he was arrested during a sexual encounter with a young man in Bayswater. The policemen concerned attempted to blackmail Burn, who called their bluff and prosecuted the men. They were found guilty of blackmail and sentenced to prison.

Burn continued a fairly prodigious output of poetry and novels throughout the Fifties and the marriage continued until Mary’s death in 1974. He lived for a time in some bohemian splendour amid the eccentric village of Portmeirion, later to become famous as the location for Patrick McGoohan’s surreal spy drama The Prisoner. North Wales was his home and from here he attempted to run a Communist-style co-operative mussel farming business without conspicuous success.

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Portmeirion – the Welsh village has had a profound effect on popular culture

In 1988, Burn produced the book Mary and Richard, based the love letters that passed between his late wife and Richard Hillary up until his death. He wrote it as a means to end rumours that Hilary had chosen to kill himself because of unhappiness in the affair. As a defence of his late wife’s reputation it was a masterpiece: through their intimate words, Burn conclusively proved how profound their affection had been to the end.

In 1995 Burn added his voice to the BBC’s film Full Throttle, a dramatization of his three week stay with Sir Henry Birkin, where his young self was portrayed by Crispin Bonham-Carter, cousin of the celebrated actress Helena. Burn’s own autobiography appeared in 2003, entitled Turned Towards the Sun. He died in his sleep at home in North Wales in 2010, aged 97.

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Michael Burn in his final days in North Wales

 

‘Carradale’ is lost

The destruction of Sir Sydney Camm’s former home ‘Carradale’ is near completion despite a last minute surge in attempts to preserve the house at 29 Embercourt Road in Thames Ditton.

Sir Sydney Camm's home was demolished during the VE Day commemorations

The home of the ‘The man who saved Britain’ could not, apparently, be saved from developers

The demolition has been carried out by Leatherhead-based property firm Shanly Homes even though its proposed new development for four new homes was rejected by the local council on the grounds of size and scale. Shanly Homes later assured campaigners that the house would not be demolished without planning permission – although the results of that assurance are clear to see.

The campaign to save the property included lobbying English Heritage, the MoD, British Aerospace and other associated bodies. A letter appealing to save the house, published in both the Surrey Advertiser and The Times, drew signatories from the Brooklands Museum, the School of Aerospace and Aircraft Engineering at Kingston University, WW2 veterans such as Captain Eric M ‘Winkle’ Brown and his fellow presidents of the Royal Aeronautical Society as well as widespread support from local residents and councillors.

A final shot

A final shot

Thames Ditton councillor Ruth Lyon, who called the demolition ‘unnecessary’, said: “We are sickened with the unnecessary demolition of a historic house when they haven’t got a planning permission. They know how important Sir Sydney Camm was as a world class aeroplane designer. They are really cynical.”

A Shanly Homes spokesman said: “We do respect the work of Sir Sydney Camm and agree that his work should be remembered. We would therefore like to work with local residents to find a suitable way to honour his memory within the new residence or its grounds.”

The developer insisted it has not broken any promises.

Camm's legacy must now be carried by the surviving aircraft that he created

Camm’s legacy must now be carried by the surviving aircraft that he created

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.

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 Builders of Suburbia

In this garage the homespun Cooper team changed Formula One engineering forever

Each morning and evening traffic sits on the Ewell Road in Surbiton with cars caught like flies in a web strung between the Tolworth Roundabout and the dreaded Kingston one way system. It’s a stretch of road where Radio 2 comes into its own and one can use a hand-held mobile phone at the wheel with impunity.

Even the pushiest Audi driver abandons hope of nudging his way a car or two further up into the gridlock and rejoins the human race (albeit temporarily). How strange it is, therefore, that this is also the home of one of the pivotal addresses in the history of British motor racing – and of the advancement of Formula One in particular.

For although it is now empty, there is still a recognisable charisma about the Riviera blue building which nestles behind a humble fishmongers on the corner of Hollyfield Road. This was the home of the Cooper Car Company.

The Cooper Car Company on parade

The Cooper Car Company on parade

Charles Cooper was born in 1893 to a cosmopolitan showbiz family with an English father and Franco-Spanish mother. It had been hoped that Charles the younger might take on the family business in later life but it became increasingly clear that the newfangled technology of internal combustion was what fired the boy’s imagination.

At the age of 15, Charles was apprenticed to Napier and spent six contented years working in every department of the firm including Selwyn Edge’s record car. At the outbreak of World War 1 he volunteered for the army and survived the carnage through to the bitter end – albeit recovering from being gassed at the time when the guns fell silent.

A return to civilian life saw Cooper refurbishing motorcycle engines and then setting up his own garage on Ewell Road in Surbiton, from where he very swiftly headed for Brooklands. Here was an outlet for his engineering passion which began to attract attention to his talents, and soon an old acquaintance, Kaye Don, had almost exclusive call on his services to tend a fleet of MGs, Bugattis and the Sunbeam Silver Bullet land speed record car.

Charles Cooper helped engineer the fearsome Silver Bullet

Charles Cooper helped engineer the fearsome Silver Bullet

In 1934, Cooper invested still further in his business – now with his 11-year-old son, John, regularly in tow. He built a large workshop on the corner of Hollyfield Road and not only prepared cars but also his own aeroplanes – an Austin 7-powered Flying Flea followed by a Miles Hawk tourer. This building was extended soon after completion and then rebuilt from scratch in 1942 to include a showroom for Vauxhall and Ford – this being the building still seen today.

While dad was growing the business, John Cooper spent World War 2 as an engineer. He had wanted to train as a pilot but was deemed to be too valuable in making top secret concepts become metal realities – engineering a one man submarine among other projects. Among those with whom the younger Cooper worked was Cameron Earl, another precocious young engineer with a passion for motor racing.

With the arrival of peace, John Cooper came home looking for excitement and in 1946 the father-and-son squad of the Cooper Car Co. revealed their first home-made racer: the Cooper 500. This creation used Fiat Topolino subframes, various Ford parts and a JAP motorcycle engine located behind the driver.

The Coopers' first racing car laid bare

The Coopers’ first racing car laid bare

Being minimalist-minded engineers, the Coopers were greatly drawn to the idea of using light weight and simplicity of the kind that Ferdinand Porsche used to design the pre-war Auto Union. Small wonder, therefore, that this car was clothed in a gleaming silver body styled closely on the German titans.

While the Coopers set about proving that a lightweight, low-power car could out-perform virtually any cumbersome but powerful machinery, Cameron Earl was still a government-funded engineer. By wangling permission from the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee, he travelled to Germany in order to meet the race team engineers from Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union – meetings from which he produced an in-depth report on their methods.

Like a baby AVUS Stromliniewagen, Cooper's 1950 Mk.III

Like a baby AVUS Stromliniewagen, Cooper’s 1950 Mk.III

This report was published in 1947 under the title Quick Silver. It laid bare every element of design and operation of the mightiest Grand Prix cars of all time and thus informed the racing desires of two of Britain’s pioneering post-war constructors: BRM, which attempted to match the grandeur of Mercedes-Benz engineering, and the Coopers in their quest to create Auto Union-style minimalist racing machines.

Through their work and backed up by Earl’s invaluable research, the father-and-son team was soon on its way to world domination from its suburban Surbiton base…

Jack Brabham on the way to his and Cooper's second successive Formula One title, 1960

Jack Brabham on the way to his and Cooper’s second successive Formula One title, 1960

Home of the Camel, Heart of the Hurricane

In a sleepy corner of Kingston lies an aviation icon…

If one ventures to Canbury Park Road in Kingston these days it is hard to find anything to write home about. Just a slightly grimy offshoot of Richmond Road, opposite the railway station and nestling on the edge of Kingston’s dreaded one-way system.

Yet by wandering up past the tattoo shop and continuing into suburbia for just a few hundred yards, one is actually in the presence of greatness. The buildings become a little outsized – and they echo of some of the greatest British engineering of all time.

In December 1912, the 24-year-old aviator Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith purchased the Victorian roller skating rink which sat on Canbury Park Road. The fad for skating had passed and his needs were pressing – a smooth, clear floor was needed upon which to chalk out the lines of Sopwith’s home-made flying machines.

Even then Kingston was a busy town and very much part of London’s south-western sprawl. Ordinarily it would be an inconvenient place for building aircraft but as Sopwith specialised in fitting floats to his machines to take off and land on water he could – together with his mechanic, Fred Sigrist – easily hump his creations down to the River Thames and take off where it straightened out just north of Kingston Bridge.

Although it was an age far removed from modern ‘elf and safety’ concerns, the influential River Thames Conservancy group took umbrage at such use of the river – and so too did the local constabulary. As a result, Sopwith tended to fly off at the first light of dawn – but later invested in a Daimler lorry for transporting new aircraft down to Brooklands, equipped with wheels rather than floats for undercarriage.

Nevertheless, Sopwith’s seafaring aircraft were a hit. In 1913 the company’s most ambitious project to date was undertaken in partnership with the S. E. Saunders boatyard of East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, building the wood-hulled ‘Bat Boat’ which brought truly amphibious aviation to life.

Sopwith's 'Bat Boat' became a roaring success

Sopwith’s ‘Bat Boat’ became a roaring success

The success of these early models – the ‘Bat Boat’ was sold not only to the Royal Navy but also its Greek and German counterparts – saw the building of a factory in Woolston, Hampshire.  Yet Sopwith retained Kingston as his centre of operations and soon there would be far more to the premises than the old ice rink.

The First World War brought about a massive expansion to Sopwith’s factory. His delicate little Tabloid seaplane made the early running, but in 1916 he employed Yorkshireman, Herbert Smith, as chief designer – and Sopwith became a fabled name almost immediately.

The Sopwith 1½ Strutter by Herbert Smith launched a famous line of fighting aircraft

Smith’s first design was the two-seat 1½ Strutter, which finally gave reconnaissance crews flying over the Western Front sufficient performance to survive against Germany’s new breed of single-seat fighters. Then came his brilliant line of single-seat fighting scouts the Pup, Triplane, Camel, Dolphin and Snipe… all of which were born in the heart of Kingston.

The original ice rink was supplemented by a saw mill and carpenters’ shop on Elm Road in 1914-15, doubling the size of the property, which doubled once again in 1916-17 with the addition of woodworking, paint and tinsmith’s shops.

In 1917 the government also built a new ‘national’ factory at Ham, between Kingston and Richmond, which was also leased to Sopwith for the duration of the war. In total, Sopwith employed 5,000 staff and 16,000 aircraft were built – although many were sub-contracted to firms such as the Lincolnshire farm equipment manufacturers Clayton & Shuttleworth and Ruston Procter.

The Sopwith Camel was called the ‘king of air fighters’

If the armistice of 1918 declared time on ‘the war to end all wars’ then clearly, society had no need of fighter aircraft – and Sopwith was immediately in trouble. The Ham plant was reclaimed by the government and sold to Leyland to convert ex-military trucks to civilian use.

By now Sopwith was a crippled firm which was also being pursued for Excess War Profits Duty. After a final, flailing effort to turn its wartime products into civilian aircraft and a doomed partnership with ABC Motorcycles, Sopwith went bust in 1920.

From the ashes of one fighter firm came another, however, fronted by Sopwith’s chief test pilot Harry Hawker together with Thomas Sopwith, Fred Sigrist and Bill Eyre. The new firm, H.G. Hawker Engineering, started afresh – albeit from the Canbury Park Road premises – to build a string of world-class biplane fighters such as the Fury, Demon, Hart and Hind designed by Sydney Camm.

Hawker aircraft like the Demon filled RAF squadrons between the wars

Hawker aircraft like the Demon filled RAF squadrons between the wars

In 1934 the renamed Hawker Aircraft Limited bought out Gloster aircraft and a year later merged with Armstrong-Siddeley to create an aviation conglomerate comprising Hawker, Gloster, Armstrong-Whitworth and Avro under the banner of the Hawker-Siddeley Group.

Meanwhile life in Kingston carried on as normal. By January 1935, Sydney Camm had completed his initial design work on a new single-seat monoplane fighter with an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage and eight machine guns: the Hurricane. When it flew from Hawker’s shed at Brooklands that November, the Hurricane laid the foundations of British air defence for World War 2.

In readiness for the Hurricane – and doubtless with a weather eye on the increasing belligerence of Nazi Germany and the other fascist states – the site in Kingston was effectively levelled and a new factory complex erected in its place. The original administration building was retained – albeit in extended form – a while a nest of red brick sheds with slate roofs standing 2 or 3 storeys above Canbury Park Road.

All focus was fixed on the Hurricane as WW2 approached

It was from here that the war work was carried out, with the various iterations of the Hurricane and Sea Hurricane being followed by the Typhoon and, by the end of the war, the Tempest and Sea Tempest.

With peace and the arrival of the jet age it was clear that the Kingston plant could no longer cope with the demands being made upon it. So it was that Hawker left its home in 1948, moving back to the factory up the road at Ham which it had vacated 30 years earlier.

The story of Hawker and the Hawker-Siddeley Group in Britain’s golden era of jet production can be told another day. For the Canbury Park site there was little sentiment – even if it was unique as the birthplace of more war-winning weaponry than any other factory in the world.

The only overt sign of the Sopwith building’s true purpose…

Today the most obvious link between the past and present is in the form of a wrought iron fence which features four-bladed propellers as a motif. This fence rings the original nerve centre of the factory, the design office and administration building, which dates back to 1914 and updated in 1935.

From here the great Sopwith and Hawker designs of two world wars first emerged and it is an impressive edifice, blending a little bit of all styles from Georgian to Art Deco – which doubtless made it a mouth-watering prospect for the developers. Today this is one of the Ritzier residential plots in Kingston and a highly desirable address.

Gateway to the heavens: the main entrance to Sopwith and Hawker’s HQ

Around it one or two of the 1935-era industrial buildings remain, red bricked and metal trussed, such as the Experimental Shop. Some are a little careworn, but they do at least remain, and will continue to do so under Grade II listed status – the surviving parts of the oldest purpose-built aeroplane factory in England.

A little piece of history – the Experimental Shop today