How Brooklands became the birthplace of British motorsport

If you’ve taken a look through our vintage games and interior pieces here at the Games Room Company, you’ll already have noticed that quite a few of them evoke treasured bygone ages in motorsport. If pieces like our Good Gulf Enamel Sign or No Nox Sign didn’t give it away already, we have no small fondness for motoring ourselves. Indeed the prestigious Goodwood Revival remains one of the biggest annual events on our calendar, celebrating a defining era in British history and culture.

What’s more, if you’ve ever paid a visit to our expansive showroom here in Weybridge, you might have noticed that we’re right on the doorstep of one of the sport’s most historic venues - Brooklands. As the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, today it’s widely regarded as the cradle of British motorsport and aviation, and a cornerstone of modern racing culture. Its story starts all the way back in the early 1900s…

The road that changed the world

Car ownership was becoming incrementally more widespread by the turn of the 20th century, but it was still very much remained the preserve of the upper classes. Motoring law was still in its genesis too, but the most fundamental rules were established fairly quickly. Races of speed, for example, were forbidden on public highways (quite right too). So then, what space remained for a discerning gentleman to test the capabilities of his extraordinary machine?

That very question occurred to enterprising landowners Hugh and Ethel Locke-King, who happened to have 330 acres of land to spare on their Weybridge estate. So, they decided to build the world’s first permanent racing venue.

Plans, schedules and expenditures were drawn up, and work on the racetrack began promptly in 1906. The Locke-Kings were certainly under no illusions as to the sheer amount of capital that their creation would require, but if we’re honest, there was also a fair amount of ‘winging it’ involved. (Which in fairness, isn’t unusual for purpose-built structures based around rapidly evolving technologies.)

Initially, they planned to built a relatively simple flat circuit of just  2¾ miles. However, consultations with engineers revealed that if they wanted to eke out the maximum possible speed from the racing vehicles, that track would need two banked sections almost 30 feet high. It would also end up incorporating two long straights, one of which ran alongside half a mile of the London to Southampton Railway.

The final result was a concrete track that was 100 feet wide and 3¼ miles in length, completed in just nine months. It was expensive. How expensive, you ask? It very nearly bankrupted Hugh Locke-King himself, costing him the equivalent of 16 million pounds in today’s money. Now we don’t know about you, but we get a bit anxious when we lose a fiver somewhere in the hall, so it’s easy to understand why managing this level of investment started to take somewhat of a toll on Mr Locke-King’s mental health. His wife Ethel eventually took over management of the project, and her own (extremely wealthy) family came to the rescue by loaning her funds to help pay off the debts. But after nine long months, the track was finally ready for its racers.

Remarkable new races and daring world records

Brooklands was ‘on track’ to open promptly in June 1907, but apparently some eager drivers even struggled to wait that long. One such driver was Selwyn Francis Edge, a successful businessman who was already making quite the name for himself as a motor racing pioneer. Just before the track’s official opening, he was granted permission to use it to try and break the 24-hour distance world record. And break it he did - in quite some style, we should add - maintaining a impressive average speed of almost 66 miles an hour. (Dizzyingly quick at the time.) In case you’re interested, his new record remained untouched for at least seventeen years afterward.

And with that highly auspicious start, Brooklands finally held its first official race on the 6th of July, 1907. But it didn’t look quite how you might be picturing it. Since Brooklands was the first arena of its kind ever in the world, it was hosting a brand new form of racing, and one that didn’t yet have its own distinctive culture, traditions or style. So for a time, it simply borrowed them from the more established sport of horse racing.

It might sound a little eccentric, but it also wasn’t entirely accidental. In fact, the idea was calculated to appeal to traditional horse racing spectators, piquing the curiosity of one of the world’s most lucrative audiences. Cars were assembled in a ‘paddock’ and were ‘shod’ with tyres. Drivers were even encouraged to wear silks to identify themselves to the crowd, in much the same way as jockeys were known to do.

Brooklands hosted yet another world first in 1909, becoming the site of Britain’s first aerodrome. This historic facility quickly became the epicentre of another nascent industry - aviation. The aerodrome served as hub for aspiring pilots and daring pioneers, and the Vickers School of Flying helped turn it into the principal centre of British flying training all the way up to World War I. Today Brooklands is known not only as the birthplace of motorsport, but also as a major centre for British aircraft design and innovation.

Meanwhile, its racing world was still going at full tilt. In 1913, Brooklands became the site of yet another successful world record attempt, as one Mr Percy Lambert became the first person ever to reach 100 miles an hour in a motor vehicle. In fact, it was a little over that - he managed 103.83 miles an hour. This is pretty nimble by anyone’s standards, but let’s put it in a little more context. In 1910, the average speed on ‘improved highways’ in England was just 20 miles an hour. Our friend Mr Lambert achieved five times that speed, requiring essentially superhuman reflexes, even by the standards of racing drivers at the time.

Sadly, the end of his story is a tragic one. He promised his fiancee he would give up racing once they got married. Just two weeks before the wedding, he died attempting to break another world record on the track. A rear tyre disintegrated, and his car overturned. Percy died on the way to hospital, at just 32 years old. Since then, his ghost is said to still haunt Brooklands, walking the grounds in full racing attire.

Less than a year after his death… well, you know what was coming for everyone else. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the government requisitioned the aerodrome. Vickers closed the doors of its flying school, and shifted its focus to the assembly of wartime aircraft. For a time, just like the rest of the world, Brooklands was on a full war footing.

The Roaring 20s and 30s of Brooklands

Brooklands suffered slightly for its role as a military facility, as the size and weight of the military vehicles it hosted eventually left their mark on the track. So, it wasn’t until 1920 that Brooklands finally reopened to the public, and a spectacular new era of its history began.

Make no mistake, the Roaring 20s and 30s were the undisputed heyday of Brooklands. Over the first few years, the cars and the crowd had had some more time to come into their own, becoming rapidly more distinct from what some now saw as the more pedestrian sport of horse racing. And after the fear, misery and tragedy of the war, people were eager for something that would give them some pure excitement and jubilation. In short, they were ready to feel alive again.

Brooklands quickly became the go-to place for all manner of prestigious motoring clubs and personalities, and played host to ever-more hotly anticipated spectacles and great events. Some of the earliest included the Junior Car Club’s famous 200 Miles Race, which was first held in 1921.

Then there was the Royal Automobile Club. No, not the roadside assistance firm, but a highly exclusive private social and athletic club of drivers, and organisers of the first ever British Grand Prix, which was held in Brooklands in 1926. The event was so successful that another one was held immediately the following year.

1927 not only saw the second British Grand Prix, but was also notable for the foundation of the elite British Racing Drivers Club. (You’ve probably heard of them - today, they’re owners of Silverstone Circuit, where the modern British Grand Prix is now based.) The BRDC 500-Mile Race at Brooklands was held in October 1929, and made history as the fastest long-distance race in the world.

The popularity of motorsports grew still further into the 1930s, and by this time Brooklands had earned itself a reputation as being a highly fashionable venue on the annual sporting calendar. You have to understand that at this time, racing was still very much an upper class pursuit, and along with horse racing many regarded it a highly refined gentleman’s sport, the pinnacle of high society. The entrance fee was a week’s wages for the average worker, which ensured that only the ‘right’ sort of audience attended. In fact, that was literally the slogan adopted by the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club, which owned Brooklands: “the right crowd and no crowding.” One imagines that it would raise more than a few eyebrows today!

The Junior Car Club was one of the many racing clubs still holding events at Brooklands well into the 1930s, packing the stands with every international race meeting. Its International Trophy was a particularly notable event, held every year from 1933 to 1939. It was the first event of its kind to pit large and small cars together, starting from the same mark and racing together for 250 miles. Speed wasn’t automatically the key to winning here - it required a bit of planning and strategic thinking, as the faster the car, the more unforgiving the track could be.

A lasting monument to a bygone era

Ultimately, the glory years of Brooklands were ended in the same manner as many other things were at the time - by the outbreak of the Second World War. Once again, the famous aerodrome at Brooklands was requisitioned by the government, who contracted aviation giants Hawker and Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd (formerly Vickers, who you may remember from earlier), to transform it back into a manufacturing facility for wartime aircraft. The sheer scale of wartime production made Brooklands an undeniable factor in British aerial might during the way.

As you might expect though, that made it a prime target for German bombers, and it took a heavy toll in the war. Aviation and weaponry had taken a huge leap forward since the last conflict, and Luftwaffe bombers were now capable of unleashing untold amounts of devastation. The government did their best to shield Brooklands from the worst of it with tree planting and canvas houses, but still once the war ended in 1945, Brooklands had been turned into a shadow of its former self.

The track may have sufficiently recovered from one world war, but the second proved too much for it. The government indicated that it was unlikely to release Brooklands until 1949, and so in 1946, the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club made the difficult decision to sell off their treasured track. It’s now been more than 80 years since the last race at Brooklands, marking the close of its chapter in motorsport.

However, it wasn’t quite the end of its history in aviation. The new owners of Brooklands were none other than Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd, who continued to use it as their base for assembling British aircraft. Brooklands wasn’t done making history just yet, and long after the end of its last race meeting, it became notable for something else entirely - manufacturing supersonic Concorde airliners.

You can still see one of those very airliners preserved in all its glory there today, at the site of the Brooklands Museum, which explores every last detail of Brooklands’ fascinating history. Visitors can lose themselves in its vast collection of displays, and the memorials immortalising its greatest pioneers and heroes. Today, the site stands as a testament to British sportsmanship, innovation and ingenuity, and its legacy will still be felt for many years to come. Brooklands has more than earned its place in history.

If you’re ever in Weybridge when the museum’s doors are open, we heartily recommend you take a trip inside - it’s really something special! And of course, don’t forget to pay us a visit while you’re in town - we’ve got plenty of interior pieces for the discerning motorsports fan. From Steve McQueen racing pictures to classic Bentley hub caps, you’ll find all sorts of whimsical and unique treasures behind our doors. Why not pay us a visit, and see what you can find?

Share

Similar Articles