Brooklands — The Lost Birthplace of Motorsports

November 21, 2022

Several of the great tracks have endured from the earliest days of automobile racing. Names like Indianapolis and Monza leap to mind, but they were opened in 1909 and 1922, respectively. No, the first purpose-built banked race track was the Brooklands Motor-Racing Circuit in Surrey, England, only 20 miles southwest of London. (The first dedicated track was actually the Aspendale Racecourse in Australia which appeared a few months earlier, but it was not banked and used a loose, crushed gravel surface.

Brooklands was the inspiration for all that came after it, including Indianapolis and Monza. Up to this point, motor races had been run on public roads that were closed (mostly) for the occasion. When this behemoth of a facility opened in October 1906, it instantly became the center of the burgeoning automotive world, not just in the U.K. but throughout the nations of Europe.

Brooklands' fame has faded since it was shuttered just as WWII was breaking out in 1939. One place had to be the first, and the Brits built Brooklands which spawned others like it, including Indianapolis.

A Place to Test

Automobiles were in their infancy before the turn of the Twentieth Century. While early competitions of self-powered vehicles pre-dated the invention of the first automobile in 1886, they were small-time affairs. The first organized contest was in 1887 in Paris, but it only had a single entrant so it doesn’t count in my book! 

The Paris-Rouen race is widely considered the first motoring contest and had 102 entrants. Ultimately, just 25 cars were proven worthy of competing. It was won by Jules Albert de Dion running a steam-powered car over a 79-mile course in 6 hours and 48 minutes. While he finished first, he carried a stoker so he was not eligible for the win which was won by Albert Lemaitre in a Peugeot. France continued to run many of the early races, 

In Great Britain, parliament passed the 1903 Motor Car Act which set a nationwide speed limit of 20 mph. The country’s automobile industry was lagging behind France. To keep up with their rivals across the channel, they needed a place to test at speed.

British entrepreneur Hugh Locke King had visited the Coppa Florio race in 1905, which had been held on public roads near Brescia. When he got back, he answered the call and set out to build the first purpose-built race track in Europe on the grounds of his own 330-acre estate.

Construction of banking, 1906.

Building the Banking

In October 1906, construction began in Surrey and was designed by Col. Capel Holden who was an engineer with the Royal Artillery, and later a chair of the Royal Automobile Club (RAC). In a surprising twist of the times, Locke King’s wife Ethel oversaw the project for eight months before its opening. (She also got behind the wheel and raced on the track!) 

It was a mammoth undertaking to build a track with enormous high-speed banking and the expectation was that automobile racing would attract huge crowds. The track was built in only nine months by 1,500 laborers.

The specs focused on speed and spectators. The bean-shaped track had turns of differing radii at each end as well as banking of different heights. Brooklands was 2.77 miles in length and was a generous 100 feet wide. The banking reached as high as 30 feet. 

Brooklands’ surface was the result of a compromise. While asphalt would have been ideal, it was expensive and it wasn’t yet understood how to lay it down on banking. The surface material utilized was basic, uncoated concrete. It was fine in the early days, but as the years passed it became progressively bumpier while simultaneously, vehicle speeds were going up and up. The track was famed for the Fifty Foot Line, a dotted black line that went right down the center of the track.

The 'Blitzen Benz,' 1914.

Center of Auto World

Opening Day at Brooklands was a grand occasion that took place on June 17, 1907. The whole of the British automotive industry turned out. After some ceremonies took place, 43 cars took to the track for a procession.

Less than two weeks later, the track was opened and driven in anger for the first time. Brooklands hosted the first 24-hour race. Remember, it was 1907 before there were headlights, so 300 railway lights illuminated the track and flares marked the track’s perimeter. Selwyn Edge covered 1,581 miles in a Napier, smashing the existing record of nearly 500 miles! 

On July 6, 1907, the first race meeting was held at Brooklands and drew a crowd of 10,000 spectators. Future race meetings were held for both automobiles and motorcycles in the years prior to World War I. 

Given its unique design, Brooklands was a popular place to set speed records. One of the last events at Brooklands was held in 1914. The “Blitzen Benz” took to the track with L.G. ‘Cupid’ Hornsted behind the wheel. He pushed the 200hp car to an outright land speed record of 128.16 mph one way, and an average of 124.10mph when run both ways.

When the continent of Europe fell into war, the War Office took over the property. It was used as training grounds for early military aircraft. Then manufacturers set up shop with Vickers and Sopwith, both using it as a place to construct planes. Meanwhile, the track surface was camouflaged under branches and debris to hide it from enemy aircraft.

Napier-Railton fully airborne, 1935.

Brooklands' Golden Era

The banked oval got back into action in 1920 after some extensive repairs, which were required due to the damage caused by the hard use of heavy military trucks and equipment. Race meets started coming back bigger than ever before as auto racing started capturing the public’s imagination. 

In 1921, the great Henry Segrave won the first long-distance race run in Britain on the Brooklands circuit. Segrave won the 200-mile event in a 1.5L Darracq-Talbot. He nearly single handedly popularized motor racing in the U.K. He won the 1923 French Grand Prix in a Sunbeam and followed it up the next year at the San Sebastian Grand Prix. 

On August 7, 1926, Brooklands hosted the first-ever British Grand Prix which was scheduled for 110 laps. Thirteen cars took the start and the race concluded after four hours and 288 miles when Louis Wagner brought his Delage 155B across the line first, having co-driven it with Robert Senechal. Segrave’s race was undone by multiple mechanical failures. 

The race was repeated in 1927 but never again returned to Brooklands. In the late 1920s, the Bentley Boys dominated the short, sports car races with their powerful, supercharged Bentley race cars. 

The Brooklands track, despite its bumpy surface, still offered the best opportunity for land speed records. In 1922, Kenelm Lee Guinness took a Sunbeam with a 350hp 18.3L V12 aero engine to Brooklands. Guinness was clocked at 133.75mph.  

Every year or so the speed record increased until the all-time record was set. On October 7, 1935, John Cobb lifted the land speed record to 143.44 mph in a Napier-Railton powered by a thunderous 24L W12 engine.  The last automobile race was held in August 1939. 

Nuvolari in a Bugatti T51, 1933.

Lost to Time

Brooklands was already in need of repair as it was getting unsafe as the cars got more powerful and sophisticated. Its future was sealed with the onset of WWII, and it immediately returned to its former role as an aviation production facility for Vickers and Hawker. The RAF planted trees in the track to provide cover, but the Germans found it and hit the factories. After the war, the property was sold to Vickers-Armstrongs in 1946 to house an aircraft factory, which finally closed up shop in 1989.

Today, the site is the home of the Brooklands Museum which houses both cars and airplanes. Sections of the track are still present, but nature is slowly retaking it. 

While its fame dimmed 90 years ago, the Brooklands Motor Circuit was a revolutionary site. The track became the forerunner of all banked tracks, including Indy, Monza, AVUS, and all others around the world.

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