The British motorsport heritage is a proud and storied one. Today, the majority of the sport’s top constructors are based around the Silverstone Circuit in Northamptonshire, and the region now holds an enviable depth of talent, constructors, and suppliers; it is a veritably booming industry.There is only one circuit that can call itself the first though, and that is Brooklands. To visit Brooklands is to not just visit the birthplace of British motorsport, but to also gain an understanding of how that pioneering spirit came to be.
Brooklands holds the distinction of being the first purpose-built circuit in the world. Completed and opened in 1907 on entrepreneur Hugh F. Locke King’s estate in Weybridge, many of the original buildings still stand and are wonderfully preserved—a remarkable feat given the industrial purposes the site later served. As they once were, the Clubhouse and Motoring Village are central to the site today. The former accommodated officials and stewards and were the exclusive facilities for the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club, while the long, low cluster of sheds were home to the paddock workshops and garages.
Fabled tenants included such names and firms as Malcolm Campbell, Thomson and Taylor, L.B.B. Motors and English Racing Automobiles. Record-holders, engineers and innovators; it was under these shingles where that creativity thrived. Strolling through the grounds there remains a sense of that reflective purpose in the air. Members’ cars sit under tarps waiting for the spring, and meanwhile curators can be found tending to the machines under their care.
THE TRACK AND TEST HILL
The full Brooklands track was a 2 and 3/4-mile-long banked oval, running counter-clockwise and with a finishing straight running into the infield to the paddock. Steeply banked at either end, the northwest straight was bounded by a railway line that’s still in use today. Hosting its first motor race on July 6th, 1907, the track was home to a variety of events until 1939. Many firsts were set at Brooklands: 24-hour endurance records, land speed records, hour records, the very first British Grand Prix in 1926, to list a few from its motoring history alone. The shorter Mountain and Campbell Circuits were incorporated alongside the main track to add to the variety and excitement of racing at Brooklands.
Roughly parallel to the finishing straight lay Test Hill—a short, unassuming hill that pitches to 1:4 at the top. It was yet another opportunity to test components and time the ascents of cars and motorcycles. Visitors are welcome to walk on the track and explore Test Hill; up close, the banked track resembles a castle wall, scored, undulating, rough, and enduring. Test Hill lures walkers with a gentle slope at the approach, but by the top you are fighting for traction on the path. While the intact portion of the track is limited to the Members Banking on the northeast end, traces of the track can be found throughout the modern office parks and roads of Weybridge today. The front straight is currently being restored and the hangar that was previously built on it is being relocated. When complete, the straight will welcome neat rows of motorcars and motorcycles to be staged, ready for the flag to drop once again.
A COMMUNITY OF SPEED
Across the Clubhouse lay the long, low rows of sheds, original structures dating from the 1920s-1930s. Interconnected today, the cluster consists of the Campbell Shed, the ERA shed, and the racing garages. The plain, muted exteriors give way to chambers filled axle-to-axle with racers of all marques from the period. Cases line the walls showcasing various memorabilia, and recreations of offices give insight into the working life once bustling within the walls. Exploring the cars you’ll notice some familiar names—Aston Martin, MG, Bentley, Morgan—yet there is also an innumerable procession of special one-offs designed for racing or record-setting attempts on the track just outside. While roughly similar in form, the diversity of machinery is astounding. From slim, slender single-seaters, to massive dreadnaughts powered by airplane engines, they are all a part of the Brooklands evolutionary tree, and are once again under the shade of the very garages where they were first built.
If there is one vehicle that can be singled out as the pride of the collection, it is the 24-liter Napier-Railton. This special car was built in 1932 by Thomson and Taylor only a few steps away, 85 years ago. It holds the Brooklands circuit record (143.44 mph, in 1935), and set 24-hour speed records as far away as the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. I am inclined to think that if unleashed, there are still a few records this car can set…
The exhibition of speed continues in the Robin Jackson Shed, which originally functioned as a service and tuning garage for the drivers. This pavilion focuses on Grand Prix racing at Brooklands and elsewhere in the post-war years. The Aston Martin Halford Special that competed in the first British Grand Prix is on display here, and its motor spec-sheet reads like a modern high-performance car: a 1.5L supercharged 6-cylinder engine with twin overhead cams and two spark plugs per cylinder—but recall that this was in 1926! In addition to the cars, names like Juan Miguel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss adorn the walls, and other unique vehicles with equally unique histories abound—the 1951 OSCA-Maserati V12 of Prince Bira of Siam is but one example. The collection is rounded out with modern F1 machines, and a McLaren F1 simulator programmed with the original Brooklands layout.
Even motorcycles and bicycles could not resist the opportunity of racing on the dedicated circuit in the period. Motorcycles began racing as early as 1908, and, not immune to tinkering and modification, motorcycles began sprouting uniquely shaped fishtail silencers. Known as the “Brooklands Can,” they were developed in an attempt to quiet down raucous exhaust notes to appease the residents nearby. Their effectiveness as an actual silencing device is debatable, but the angry complaints subsided all the same.
The 1930s saw the addition of bicycle racing to the program with a mass-start race in 1933. Bicycles notched their own records at Brooklands too: the most recent being in August 1995 when Bruce Bursford reached 207.9 mph on the carbon fiber-framed Ultimate Bike on a rolling road.
Keen eyes will also note a rare factory error in one of these photos—it is certainly not typical to misspell your own marque on the tank! “Grindlay” is correct, not “Grindley,” but in an era where everything was handmade, mistakes tend to happen every once in a while.
EPHEMERA IN ABUNDANCE
The story of Brooklands and British motorsport is also told through the thousands of artifacts on display. Ranging the gamut from pins to badges, race flyers and tickets, tools, equipment, models, and, naturally, medals and trophies. Each helps to trace the stories and the love affair that is racing at Brooklands. Many items such as tickets were disposable articles in-period; now they survive as markers for historic dates and times. Acronyms spanning the past to present adorn the emblems here: BARC, RAC, and BRDC members raced at Brooklands. Photographs add a human element to those event; some showing the elation of success, others crushing disappointment.
REACHING FOR THE SKIES: 1907-1989
The story of Brooklands is not complete without the interwoven thread of aviation and two world wars. From its very early days, Brooklands was also an aerodrome; flight trials and flying schools were held at the location, and when motor racing was interrupted by the First World War, Vickers settled in and Brooklands subsequently became a major aircraft production center. The return to peace meant the return of racing, but the Second World War eventually put an end to that as the war effort took priority.
Hawker Hurricane fighters numbering in the thousands were manufactured at the site, and it was here that the Vickers Wellington bomber was designed and produced. They would roll off the line at a rate of one per day, and more than two per day during the wartime peak. In addition, key munitions were developed by Sir Barnes Wallis at Brooklands, and his research continued into the post-war period with “swing-wing” and supersonic aircraft—all right from offices in the Clubhouse.
With production eventually retooled for civilian aircraft, the site became home to the British Aircraft Corporation then later British Aerospace until the factories closed in 1989. The history of Brooklands really is also the history of British aviation: from the very first glider and rudimentary biplanes of wood and fabric, to the supersonic Concorde, these machines were all imparted with Brooklands DNA. The key aircraft in the contemporary collection are reflective of this impressive evolutionary arc.
A Vickers Vimy replica which from 1994 retraced several record long-distance flights of the original; a Vickers Wellington Mk 1A, ditched in Loch Ness in 1940 and later recovered in 1985 and restored, propellers still visibly bent back from the impact; and the second production Concorde which one can board and experience a simulated flight on, complete with boarding pass and flight certificate. With much to explore, this side of Brooklands will delight every level of aviation enthusiast.
THE SPIRIT OF BROOKLANDS
“Never underestimate what an Englishman can do in his shed.” Mentioned to me in conversation, I recalled this at the end on my visit. Well beyond what was imagined when the track was first laid out, what was achieved at Brooklands was done through vision, determination, curiosity, bravery, and the desire to be the first. To develop something new, then maybe go back, try something else, and do even better the next day.
“And Brooklands has many, many sheds. Some are very large.” Whether in the most spirited times or during Britain’s Darkest Hour, this site drew the right mix of visionaries within its walls. They never ceased to innovate and rise beyond the challenges of their times, and in the end their embodied ideas were world-changers with impact felt far beyond the gentle fields of Weybridge. This is the Spirit of Brooklands.