As one-make car groups go, few are as exclusive as the Bentley Drivers’ Club. And few locations are more associated with the Bentley marque than the Brooklands race circuit. The two came together on Mothers’ Day when the club held its centenary drive on the breathtaking banked circuit.
Not that there’s much banking left these days. The stretch which is preserved as part of the Brooklands Museum site is hardly long enough to get the Museum’s resident 4½-litre Le Mans into second gear. But the backdrop, limited as it is, was a fitting canvas on Sunday to paint a picture of the marque over the past 100 years.
Brooklands and Bentley go together like Leicas and Wetzlar. Soon after the first Bentley rolled out W.O.Bentley’s workshop in New Street Mews in London in 1919, the big, expensive sports cars became a fixture on the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit. Brooklands itself had opened for business in 1907 and was the inspiration for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909. Brooklands closed during the First World War and reopened in 1920. From then on the two Bs were constantly in the news. Bentley and Brooklands are now synonymous.
Record speed, record price
In 1932 Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin reached a top speed of just under 138 mph on the legendary banked circuit in his red “Monoposto” Bentley Blower No.1, nicknamed the Brooklands Battleship. The record stood for two years until John Cobb achieved just over 143mph in the incredible 24-litre Napier-Railton which is now a permanent exhibit at the circuit museum. The Birkin Bentley sold for £5m ($6.55m) at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2012.
The Bentley Boys
Birkin was one of the so-called Bentley Boys, a group of wealthy motorists who drove Bentley sports cars to victory in the twenties and early thirties, keeping alive the marque’s reputation for high performance. In 1925, at a difficult time for the company, Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato bought the company. It was his inspiration which led to the creation of the supercharged Bentley Blower, despite some opposition from W.O.Bentley himself.
BB Reunion in 1973
Another Bentley Boy was S. C. H. “Sammy” Davis, the renowned automotive journalist and sports editor of The Autocar magazine. Our photo of Sammy was taken at a 1973 Bentley Boys’ reunion (at Brooklands, where else?) by my old friend Don Morley, a keen fellow Leica enthusiast who has used Leicas from the days of the screw-mount cameras in the early 1950s. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the great W.O. had died two years before, in 1971, at the age of 82.
Here at Macfilos, we have another association with Bentley through our contributor David Bailey who has written several articles on Fuji cameras. David’s grandfather, Herbert Frood, was the founder of the Ferodo brake-lining company and was a friend of W.O.Bentley in the early 1920s. Ferodo sponsored Bentley cars at major events such as the Le Mans 24-hour and developed special brake linings to cope with the rigours of the endurance race.
The Brooklands Bentleys
The Bentley company itself acknowledges the strong association with Brooklands in the name of two distinct cars. The first Bentley Brooklands was a full-size luxury saloon, launched in 1992 to replace the Bentley Mulsanne. It was succeeded by the Bentley Arnage in 1998. Bentley resurrected the name in 2007 with the Brooklands Coupé, a two-door four-seater hardtop version of the Azure. It was made between 2008 and 2011 in limited numbers.
Whenever I experience nostalgia on this scale my thoughts turn to what Brooklands might have been if it had survived the Second World War — the circuit closed in September 1939 for the last time. Sadly, banked circuits are no longer in fashion.
But there’s nothing like a banked circuit to get the juices flowing and I well remember my own days of motorcycles testing on the banked circuit at MIRA, the Motor Industry Research Association, near Hinckley. It could be a hairy experience at times and there was always the chance of going over the top, a fate which befell several motor and motorcycle racing entrants at Brooklands over the years.
With this depth of history behind the marque, there could be no better place to celebrate a centenary than at the Brooklands Museum. Yet for Brooklands, the Bentley Drivers’ Day was a very exclusive and low-key affair compared with some other one-make car days. Example…
One-make clubs are a perennial feature of the Brooklands Scene. Rolls Royce and Bentley must be near the top of the tree in exclusivity — it costs a small fortune to own and maintain a late-20s Bentley, for instance — but there is something for everyone and every pocket in the automotive world.
A couple of weekends ago I visited the Mini day at the circuit. In contrast to yesterday, there were thousands of Minis, a herd of visitors and a much wider cross-section of society
Some say the Allegro, with its revolutionary “Quartic” square steering wheel, was the worst car ever made. Unfair, probably, but it isn’t far from the bottom. And that square steering wheel idea never caught on. Bentleys have round steering wheels. QED.
Roland and Helen Frey are enthusiasts who don’t just polish their vintage Bentley and bring it out on special occasions. They drive it hard. They drove it right across the United States, unheralded, and generated major interest wherever they paused. Just imagine the logistics, never mind the cost (I’d be surprised if it manages 8 miles per gallon). And I wonder what the AAA would have said if called to a breakdown? But I bet they felt the adventure was worth every penny. It’s something most of us can only dream about.
Far from this madding crowd, well insulated from hoi
All photographs (except Don Morley’s Sammy Davies shot) taken by Mike Evans with the new Leica Q2.