Steve Cropley visits the world's oldest motor racing circuit to find out how it's continuing to bring classic motorsports to life
Steve Cropley Autocar
13 November 2013

Turning left through the ancient gap in the Members’ Banking then bumping your way downhill over the lumpy concrete of the old Campbell Circuit into Brooklands Museum’s estate, it’s difficult to know whether one should feel reassured or overawed. 

On one hand, Brooklands has always had a homely, welcoming quality, and that goes double nowadays. After an uncertain half century its existence is no longer under threat. It earns a handsome keep and is run by an ambitious management with many achievements to its credit and even bigger preservation plans to come. Still, there’s a comfortable lack of pretension about the old place.

Yet on the other hand Brooklands remains one of the true wonders of the world. Within its original 330-acre boundary, many of Britain’s earliest motoring, motor racing and aircraft businesses were born. Between the wars it was the undisputed cradle of British motorsport and car development, creating the culture that led to Britain’s modern-day pre-eminence in motorsport.

By the late 1930s, Brooklands was building the aircraft that would win the Battle of Britain and spearhead Europe’s liberation. And for 40 years after that it served as a manufacturing site for Britain’s airliners, ‘V’ bombers and Concorde, the world’s one and only successful supersonic airliner. This is sacred ground.

The genesis of everything was one individual’s extraordinary decision in 1906 to build an enormous banked circuit in semi-rural Surrey, like nothing that had ever existed. In just nine months, 1500 workmen created the world’s first purpose-built racetrack.

It was active between 1907 and 1939 but large parts of it still exist today, along with many of the most important buildings. Together, they create an aura so special that when we decided to begin a year-long series about Europe’s ‘living’ automobile museums, there was simply no case for starting anywhere else. 

Brooklands’ creator, Hugh Fortescue Locke King, was a patriot to the core. Visiting the 1905 Coppa Florio races, near Brescia, he was surprised at the lack of British-made entries, then concerned to hear from competitors that the development of cars in his homeland was stunted by a 20mph national speed limit and the lack of any place to develop their performance.

He proposed a flat track on a bowl of marshy land spanning the River Wey beside the London to Basingstoke line, but the project soon fell into the hands of an ambitious army engineer who embellished the plan to create a bean-shaped, 2.75-mile oval track, with banked walls nearly 30ft high at each end so cars could corner at 120mph. 

The project cost £150,000 – an amount so huge that Locke King was almost bankrupted. Brooklands was amazing but it wasn’t perfect: from the first day of racing its new-fangled reinforced concrete began to crack (it would always need much winter maintenance) and early crowds were disappointing. But it had an instant positive influence on the creators of the Indianapolis ‘Brickyard’.

When racing began, so little had been decided about the new sport’s rules that the organisers borrowed extensively from horse racing. Drivers raced in owners’ colours (car numbers came soon after, once it was noted that silks were invisible at speed), and it was Brooklands that enshrined the idea of a ‘paddock’ being a parking place for competing cars, and a ‘clerk of the course’ as the manager of a race meeting. 

Through the 1920s Brooklands grew to become a centre for automotive and aviation innovation, as well as a high-society hot spot. Imagine today’s Silverstone, MIRA, Prescott and Goodwood rolled into one and you only have part of the picture: Brooklands was peerless. The link with aviation was natural. In its very first year Brooklands provided reluctant shelter for pioneer airman A.V. Roe, and its infield became a regular venue for flying competitions.

By 1909 it had a landing field and a ‘flying village’; by 1912, Sopwith was using Brooklands for final assembly of its aircraft and other makers soon moved in. By the time it closed in the 1980s, more aircraft had been built at Brooklands than anywhere else in Europe.

Meanwhile the huge, bumpy oval had been breeding its own strain of usually aero-engined behemoths. A generation of speed kings such as Malcolm Campbell, John Cobb and John Parry-Thomas came to prominence with them, and their prowess became global via numerous land speed record attempts.

Arguably the greatest of these cars was Cobb’s 24-litre Napier-Railton, which eventually set an Outer Circuit record of 143.44mph in 1935 and remains in perfect health at the museum. Visit the old circuit on one of its important summer dates and you will surely hear its spine-tingling roar. 

This golden era ended with the outbreak of war and failed to restart in 1945, mostly because the ageing track simply wasn’t fit for heavy cars that kept getting faster. Within a decade, Brooklands was under threat from property developers whose tentacles were only slowed (but not stopped) by the formation of Bill Boddy’s Brooklands Society in 1967. 

There began a 36-year struggle, brought to an end by three vital events. First was the appointment in 2003 of aviation writer, historian and old-car enthusiast Allan Winn as museum director, who has brought order and modern management to the old place.

Then came the opening of the Mercedes-Benz World activity centre that stabilised the site,  drew (and shared) many more visitors, and now provides muscular backing for most of Brooklands Museum’s aspirations.

About the same time Brooklands acquired its prize exhibit, a full-sized Concorde, registered G-BBDG, along with a fully working simulator which, for a price, visitors can ‘fly’ under instruction from a former Concorde captain.

Brooklands Museum now comfortably occupies a 30-acre site bounded mostly by the Members’ Banking and M-B World. Under Winn, progress continues at pace. A collection of Brooklands-built aircraft, mainly airliners, is about to be reorganised and better displayed under a huge canopy. An outpost of the London Bus Museum opened recently in a fine new building just off the Finishing Straight.

AC Cars has just begun making all-aluminium Cobras in a lovingly restored factory (formerly the members’ cafeteria) at the top of Test Hill, itself a much-used Brooklands feature. A lottery-funded plan to move the entire Wellington Hangar – expediently placed during wartime on the Finishing Straight – girder by girder, is about to begin. Those who recall Brooklands as a ramshackle collection of buildings better think again.

Today’s Brooklands, though faithful to its history, is also busy in a contemporary sense. On New Year’s day this year, 1200 cars gathered for a classic rally, and similar events and ‘breakfast clubs’ are planned throughout the year.

Very few people alive remember Brooklands in its heyday – a teenager who witnessed John Cobb’s record would be 90-plus today. Yet even if you’re a first-time visitor I suspect you’ll experience feelings of déjà vu when you set foot in this most famous motor racing venue of all. The old place has found its purpose again.

Join the debate

Comments
4

13 November 2013
Fine piece, Steve. I look forward the rest of the series.

13 November 2013
But I'm not sure about Concorde being the only supersonic airliner! I can't remember its name but "Concordski" certainly flew the skies of Russia more or less contemporaneously. Maybe you meant only viable or indeed "safe" one? I'd also have a worry about the "more aircraft built" statistic which seems very unlikely to me. No matter - fantastic encouragement to all of us who have been glad to see WLB's determination rewarded to get off our backsides and make a contribution and actually visit the place.

TBC

13 November 2013
Living and working abroad, I occasionally get the opportunity to pop back to the UK. Last week on one such visit, out of the blue, a friend suggested we visit Brooklands. Although I knew a little of it's history, I had no great expectations regarding the visit, how wrong I was to be proven! We both greed, after visiting the museum and the adjacent Mercedes World, that we would return, this time to spend more than a brief afternoon, to enjoy all on display. An excellent experience and well worth the visit.

13 November 2013
I liked it too! I was well surprised by the visit too. And the atmospher...

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