Brooklands was a 2.75-mile (4.43 km) motor racing circuit and aerodrome built near Weybridge in Surrey, England, United Kingdom. It opened in 1907, and was the world’s first purpose-built motorsport venue, as well as one of Britain’s first airfields, which also became Britain’s largest aircraft manufacturing centre by 1918. The circuit hosted its last race in 1939, and today part of it forms the Brooklands Museum, a major aviation and motoring museum, as well as a venue for vintage car, motorcycle and other transport-related events.
Brooklands Motor Circuit
The Brooklands motor circuit (or race track) was the brainchild of Hugh F. Locke King, and was the first purpose-built banked motor race circuit in the world. Following the Motor Car Act 1903, Britain was subject to a blanket 20 mph (32 km/h) speed limit on public roads: at a time when nearly 50% of the world’s new cars were produced in France, there was concern that Britain’s infant auto-industry would be hampered by the inability to undertake sustained high speed testing.
Apparently drawing inspiration from the development at Brooklands, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built soon afterwards, and held its inaugural race in August 1909.
Requirements of speed and spectator visibility led to the Brooklands track being built as a 100 ft (30 m) wide, 2.75 miles (4.43 km) long, banked oval. The banking was nearly 30 feet (9 m) high in places. In addition to the oval, a bisecting “Finishing Straight” was built, increasing the track length to 3.25 miles (5.23 km), of which 1.25 miles (2.01 km) was banked. It could host up to 287,000 spectators in its heyday.
Owing to the complications of laying tarmacadam on banking, and the expense of laying asphalt, the track was built in uncoated concrete. This led in later years to a somewhat bumpy ride, as the surface suffered differential settlement over time.
Along the centre of the track ran a dotted black line, known as the Fifty Foot Line. By driving over the line, a driver could theoretically take the banked corners without having to use the steering wheel.
The track was opened on 17 June 1907 with a luncheon attended by most of Britain’s motor manufacturers, followed by an informal inauguration of the track by a procession of 43 cars, one driven by Charles Rolls.The first competitive event was held on 28-9 June, with three cars competing to break the world record for distance covered in 24 hours, and the first race meeting was held on 6 July, attracting over 10,000 spectators.
Brooklands Mountain Circuit
The Brooklands Mountain Circuit was a small section of the track giving a lap 1¼ miles long, running from the Fork to the rear of Members’ Hill and back. It was created in 1930 using moveable barriers.
24 hour event
On 28-9 June 1907, eleven days after the circuit opened, it played host to the world’s first 24 hour motor event, with Selwyn Edge leading three specially converted Napier cars around the circuit. A statement of intent had been made in 1906, and Selwyn Edge entered into a physical training program to prepare for the event. His car, “804” was extensively modified, having a special fuel tank, bodywork removed, and a special windscreen. Over 300 red railway lamps were used to light the track during the night. Flares were used to mark the upper boundary of the track. Edge drove his car for the full duration, with the drivers of the other two cars (Henry C. Tryon/A. F. Browning and F. Draper/Frank Newton) taking the more familiar shift approach. During the event Edge covered a distance of 1,581.74 mi (2,545.56 km) at an average speed of 65.91 mph (106.07 km/h), comfortably beating the existing record of 1,096.187 mi (1,764.142 km) set at Indianapolis in 1905.
Women were not allowed to compete for several years – Dorothy Levitt, S. F. Edge’s leading driver, was refused entry despite having been the ‘first English-woman to compete in a motor race’ in 1903, and holding the ‘Ladies World Land Speed Record’. Edge completed 2,545 km at an average 106.06 km/h, a record which stood for 17 years. The first standard race meeting would be held the next week, on 6 July.
George E. Stanley broke the one hour record at Brooklands race track on a Singer motorcycle in 1912, becoming the first ever rider of a 350 cc motorcycle to cover over 60 miles (97 km) in an hour.
The world record for the first person to cover 100 miles (160 km) in 1 hour was set by Percy E. Lambert at Brooklands, on 15 February 1913 when driving his 4.5 litre sidevalve Talbot. He actually covered 103 miles, 1470 yards (167.1 km) in 60 minutes. A contemporary film of his exploits on that day can be viewed at the Brooklands Museum.
In July and August 1929, Violette Cordery and her younger sister Evelyn drove her 4.5 litre four-seater Invicta for 30,000 miles in less than 30,000 minutes, averaging 61.57 mph and earning her second Dewar Trophy from the Royal Automobile Club.
Brooklands closed to motor racing during World War I, was requisitioned by the War Office and continued its pre-war role as a flying training centre although it was now under military control. Vickers Aviation Ltd set up a factory in the old Itala Works in 1915, and Brooklands soon became a major location for the construction, testing and supply of military aeroplanes.
Motor racing resumed in 1920 after extensive track repairs and Grand Prix motor racing was established at Brooklands in 1926 by Henry Segrave, after his victories in the 1923 French Grand Prix and the San Sebastián Grand Prix the following year raised interest in the sport in Britain. This first British Grand Prix was won by Louis Wagner and Robert Sénéchal, sharing the drive in a Delage 155B. The second British Grand Prix was staged there in 1927 and these two events resulted in improved facilities at Brooklands.
In 1930, the Daily Herald offered a trophy for the fastest driver at an event at Brooklands. The first year, Birkin and Kaye Don competed in opposing Bentley Blower tourers, with Don winning with a speed of 137.58 miles per hour (221.41 km/h). In 1932, Birkin won driving his red “Monoposto” Bentley Blower No.1, clocking 137.96 miles per hour (222.03 km/h). The track record stood for two years, before being beaten by John Cobb driving the 24 litre Napier-Railton, which holds the all-time lap record at 143.44 mph (230.84 km/h).
During the late 1930s, Brooklands also hosted massed start cycle racing events organised by the National Cyclists’ Union (as the sport’s governing body, the NCU banned such events from public roads). In 1939, it was used as a location for the Will Hay film, Ask a Policeman.
When World War II broke out in 1939, motor racing ceased and the site was turned over to war-time production of military aircraft. Some of the track was damaged during this time by enemy bombing and a new access road to the Hawker factory was cut through from Oyster Lane. Other sections were also covered by temporary dispersal hangars.
Brooklands was also one of Britain’s first airfields. In 1908 Alliott Verdon-Roe was based at Brooklands and carried out the first taxiing and towed flight trials of a British full-size powered aircraft by a British pilot. On Friday 29 October 1909 the first official powered flight at Brooklands was made by Frenchman Louis Paulhan and his Farman biplane: this special event attracted 20,000 people and was the first public flying display at Brooklands. Operating from specially prepared land inside the Race Track and given his own aeroplane shed, Paulhan made a series of flights on the following days, flying to a height of some 720 ft (220 m) on the Saturday and setting a new British endurance record of 2 hr 49 min 20 s on the Monday.
During 1910 Brooklands rapidly became a major centre of flying in Britain and that summer, Hilda Hewlett and Gustave Blondeau opened Britain’s first flying school at Brooklands. Hewlett and Blondeau also started their aircraft manufacturing company, Hewlett & Blondeau Limited there before moving to larger premises in Clapham in London. Later in 1910 the Bristol Aeroplane Company also established a flying school, as did Roe. Vickers opened a flying school on 20 January 1912 and among its first instructors were R. Harold Barnwell and Archie Knight; 77 pupils including Hugh Dowding were taught to fly until the school closed in August 1914. In February 1912 Thomas Sopwith opened his flying school and in June, with several others, he set up the Sopwith Aviation Company there, although their manufacturing premises were at Kingston upon Thames. Other aviation pioneers came to Brooklands before World War One including Prince Serge de Bolotoff who tried to build a large tandem triplane in a shed there in 1913. Blériot, Martinsyde and Vickers also later produced military aeroplanes at Brooklands which became Britain’s largest aircraft manufacturing centre by 1918. Many flying schools operated here before 1914 and the aerodrome became a major flying training centre between the wars.
During World War I Brooklands closed to motor racing and was requisitioned by the War Office. Vickers Aviation Ltd set up a factory in 1915, and Brooklands soon became a major centre for the construction, testing and supply of military aeroplanes. Civilian flying schools closed down or were merged into one Military Training School and flying training continued until at least the end of 1915. Several Royal Flying Corps squadrons including numbers 1, 8, 9 and 10 (plus No. 2nd 23 Reserve Squadrons) were formed (or reformed) and based briefly at Brooklands during the war years. Continuing significant pioneering air-ground wireless trials pioneered by a Marconi team at Brooklands from 1912, the aerodrome also housed various RFC units testing and training with airborne wireless communications equipment and the World’s first voice to ground wireless message was successfully transmitted over Brooklands in 1915.
Major changes were made to the Flying Village with the construction in late 1917 of three large ‘Belfast-truss’ General Service Sheds for a new Aircraft Acceptance Park (later No. 10 AAP). This handled the assembly and testing of large numbers of new aeroplanes and finally closed in early 1920.
Brooklands Aviation Ltd was formed in 1931 to operate the aerodrome, and commissioned British airport architect Graham Dawbarn to design the Art Deco Brooklands Aero Clubhouse, which opened in May 1932, where Dame Barbara Cartland used to hang out with her Bright Young Thing Friends. The company also operated the resident Brooklands School of Flying, as well as those at Lympne, Shoreham and Sywell Aerodromes in the later 1930s. The original pre-WW1 Brooklands Aero Club was re-formed by the BARC in May 1930 with Percy Bradley as Manager and the Brooklands Flying Club was established by Brooklands Aviation in early 1933. Brooklands Aviation won a War Department contract for pilot training for the Royal Air Force. and opened No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School at Sywell on 10 June 1935, training pilots with a fleet of 20 de Havilland Tiger Moths, and in 1937 the RAF Volunteer Reserve School was set up at Sywell with a further 16 training aircraft. During WW2, Brooklands Aviation became a contractor to the Civilian Repair Organisation, repairing various types of damaged aircraft, particularly Vickers Wellingtons. After ending its RAF flying training in 1946, the company diversified and built plywood and GRP cabin cruiser boats designed by Alan Eckford, until 1974.
In World War II, the site was again used for military aircraft production, in particular the Vickers Wellington, Vickers Warwick and Hawker Hurricane and was extensively camouflaged. Trees were also planted in some sections of the concrete Track to help conceal the Hawker and Vickers aircraft factories there. Despite these efforts, the Vickers factory was successfully bombed by the Luftwaffe and extensively damaged on 4 September 1940 with nearly 90 aircraft workers killed and at least 419 injured. The Hawker factory premises were also bombed and damaged two days later, but with no loss of life or serious disruption to Hurricane production. On 21 September 1940, Lt John MacMillan Stevenson Patton of the Royal Canadian Engineers risked his life when he and five others manhandled an unexploded German bomb away from the Hawker aircraft factory at Brooklands and rolled it into an existing bomb crater where it later exploded harmlessly – his bravery was subsequently recognised by the award of the George Cross. The crucial role of Brooklands in the Battle of Britain of 1940 is now explained in an exhibition at Brooklands Museum.
After the bombing of Brooklands in September 1940, the Vickers-Armstrongs Design Department with Rex Pierson, Barnes Wallis and several hundred other staff was dispersed to a secret location at the nearby Burhill Golf Course, just East of St George’s Hill in Hersham and the Experimental Department led by George Edwards was relocated to temporary premises at Foxwarren in Redhill Road, Cobham. These two facilities played a crucial part in the successful development of the ‘Upkeep’ mine – better known today as the ‘bouncing bomb’ conceived by Barnes Wallis and deployed to such devastating effect by the ‘Dambuster’ Avro Lancasters of 617 Squadron, RAF, led by Guy Gibson against Germany’s Ruhr Valley reservoirs on the night of 16-17 May 1943.
After the war, the circuit was in poor condition and it was sold to Vickers-Armstrongs in 1946 for continued use as an aircraft factory. New aircraft types including the Viking, Valetta, Varsity, Viscount, Vanguard and VC10 were subsequently, designed, manufactured and delivered from there.
In 1951, construction of a new hard runway required a section of the motor circuit’s famous Byfleet Banking to be removed to allow Vickers Valiant V bombers to be flown out to nearby Wisley aerodrome which offered a longer runway and less built-up surroundings than Brooklands. This airfield opened as a flight test centre for Vickers in 1944 and used until 1972 (latterly by the BAC).
After considerable expansion with increasing commercial success in the 1950s, the Vickers factory expanded to its peak size in the early 1960s in preparation for the VC10 manufacturing programme and became a major part of the new British Aircraft Corporation in 1960. Substantial investment in the site at this time saw many new buildings constructed and also existing premises modified. First, in the mid-1950s, came a new assembly hall for the Vickers Viscount known as ‘B.1’ (presumably as it consisted of a number of standard war-time B.1 type hangars re-used (together with some T.2 hangars too) and rebuilt as one long double bay structure parallel to the runway. A large new 60,378 sq ft VC10 flight shed hangar was ready to house the prototype VC10 airliner by 1962 and a second even larger (98,989 sq ft) flight shed was added alongside this by 1964. The latter was probably the largest aircraft hangar in Europe at the time and became known locally as ‘The Cathedral’ hangar while the smaller shed was called ‘The Abbey’. The huge factory at Brooklands went on to design and build the BAC TSR.2, One-Eleven and major assemblies for Concorde. Unfortunately, the Labour government’s cancellation of TSR-2 in 1965 and the disappointing lack of significant orders for VC10s and Concorde saw the factory contract from the early 1970s; it became part of the newly formed British Aerospace in 1977 and finally closed in 1988-89, although BAE Systems still retain a logistics centre there today.
In 1987, Brooklands Museum Trust was formed with Sir Peter G Masefield as Chairman, and began to record, research, preserving and interpret all aspects the site’s heritage. The Museum project began after a highly successful temporary exhibition about Brooklands was staged in 1977 by Elmbridge Museum in Weybridge and, with support from British Aerospace, Elmbridge Borough Council, Gallaher Ltd and many dedicated individuals, this led to the selection of a 30 acre heritage site in the NE corner of Brooklands. As well as organising numerous aviation, motoring and other events since the mid-1980s, the Museum also staged regular fly-ins for visiting light aircraft from 1991 to 2003 using the Northern half of the original tarmac runway and staffed these events with an all-volunteer team.
Brooklands made a notable TV appearance when it featured in the 1990 ‘The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim’ episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, when Hercule Poirot investigates a crime committed involving a racing driver. The banking of Brooklands was also used as a ‘road location’ in an episode of The Bill where the CID foiled an armed robbery and resulted in a ‘shoot out’. American car enthusiast Barry Meguiar (President and CEO of Meguiar’s) has featured the Brooklands on his Speed Channel show Car Crazy.
Following significant earlier work by The Brooklands Society (not part of Brooklands Museum), certain buildings (including the 1907 BARC Clubhouse, the 1911 Flight Ticket Office and the 1932 Brooklands Aero Clubhouse), structures and remaining sections of the Track first became the subject of preservation orders from 1975 and this legal protection was reviewed by English Heritage and increased by the DCMS in 2002). A draft Brooklands Conservation Plan was instigated by English Heritage and prepared in 2003 for DaimlerChrysler by DCUK consultants Terence O’Rourke. In 2014, this important reference documents will be completed and updated by consultants working for the Brooklands Heritage Partnership.
On 25 September 2013, the last flying VC10 – an RAF K.3 tanker, serial number ZA147 (originally built as a Super VC10 airliner) – made its final flight from RAF Brize Norton to Bruntingthorpe Airfield, this being the end of the type’s remarkable 51 year career. Although this aeroplane is due to be scrapped, on the previous day its sister, ZA150, was acquired by Brooklands Museum for preservation at nearby Dunsfold Aerodrome and was delivered there by an RAF 101 Squadron crew. This was the last VC10 built – first flown from Brooklands on 16 February 1970 – and also one of the very last complete aircraft manufactured at Brooklands. The retirement of these two VC10s also ended a 100-year period of Brooklands-built aeroplanes operated by the British armed forces.
Brooklands motor course celebrated its centenary on 16/17 June 2007. Throughout 2007, various special events were organised by Brooklands Museum in order to celebrate its 100th birthday. Events included use of the Byfleet Banking for the first time in nearly 70 years, a Formula One car demonstration by McLaren-Mercedes, driven by Gary Paffett in conjunction with Mercedes-Benz World and a 24-hour slot car race to commemorate S.F. Edge’s achievement of driving for 24 hours averaging over 60 mph (100 km/h).
Brooklands Museum houses many historic aircraft including the Vickers Wellington bomber recovered from Loch Ness in 1985, a British Airways Concorde, G-BBDG, the UK’s first production Concorde, and now also owns the 40% scale Concorde model “G-CONC” displayed for many years as a gate guardian at Heathrow Airport. After restoration and repainting, the model was relocated for similar duty at Brooklands Museum’s public entrance off Brooklands Drive on 29 September 2012. There are also many other civil and military aircraft on display including a Vickers Vanguard, Viscount, VC10. The majority of these exhibits were built at Brooklands or have close associations with the site. The VC10 was built and first flown at Brooklands in 1964 and after airline service with British United and later British Caledonian Airways, in 1974 it became the official VIP transport for the Sultan of Oman until retired and flown back to Brooklands on 6 July 1987 and donated to Brooklands Museum by the Sultan of Oman’s Royal Flight.
Although the Circuit is no longer driveable, it can still be simulated in the Spirit of Speed 1937 game for the PC and Sega Dreamcast, in which it was re-created in detail. Several other video games also feature Brooklands and Brooklands Museum’s Formula 1 simulator also features a detailed computer simulation of the pre-war race track.
In 2009, BBC Top Gear presenter James May announced plans to recreate the full length Brooklands using Scalextric track and cars This was undertaken with a team of 350 volunteers building the track from an uncounted number of pieces of Scalextric track, navigating ponds and roads, closely following the route of the old Brooklands track. This event broke the Guinness World Record for the longest ever Scalextric track in the world, intended to measure the original 2.75 miles (4.43 km) of the original Brooklands circuit but in reality recording 2.95 miles (4.75 km) in length (due to the need to navigate modern features that block the original course). The episode was shown on BBC2 on 17 November 2009 as part of James May’s Toy Stories.
BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow filmed at Brooklands Museum in July 2009 and subsequently produced two programmes for its next series – these being first broadcast on 10 and 17 January 2010.
In 1993, HRH Prince Michael,of Kent officially opened a new Garden of Memories at Brooklands Museum which features a growing number of commemorative plaques in memory of many people who have been associated with Brooklands for more than 100 years.