Story by Larry Watts
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published the March 2014 edition of the MSTA Ohio Chapter newsletter, The Ohio Rider. The story has been edited to match the MSTA website’s style.
My favorite part if traveling is planning a trip. Motor racing circuits and bike or car museums are among my favorite places to visit. If there’s one close to the area that I’ll be exploring, it’s a no brainer that I’ll want to see it. During the planning/research phase of my most recent journey to England in September 2013, I discovered that the Brooklands Motor Racing Circuit — located in the southwest corner of the London metro — is only 15 minutes away from the home of my buddy Guy Phelps. I decided that I was definitely going to see what remains of the old circuit.
Brooklands was constructed in 1906-1907 by a wealthy Edwardian English gentleman, Hugh Locke King, on his family’s rural estate 25 miles southwest of the center of London. Motor racing was well established in Europe by that time, but a number of fatal accidents in the continental town-to-town races such as Paris-Madrid had caused the British government to place a ban on any type of public road competition. The result of this ban was Locke King’s construction of the world’s first true motor racing circuit — Brooklands.
The circuit was about 3.75 miles long and was constructed in a sort of giant oval with its waist slightly pinched. The banking was 28 feet high and the racing surface was an astounding 100 feet wide. The world had never seen anything like it. Even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, built shortly thereafter, was only 2.5 miles long. But Indianapolis was only half Brookland’s width and it was paved with bricks.
The world of European motor racing came to Brooklands in a big way. Nearly all the archival photographs you’ll find of motor racing in Britain before World War II were taken at Brooklands.
Before World War I broke out, all the famous giant grand prix cars of the era had arrived, including the Blitzen Benz, the 15-liter Lorraine-Dietrich and the 9-liter V12 Sunbeam single seater. A 25-horsepower side-valve Talbot had been the first car to exceed 100 miles in 60 minutes — and it accomplished that feat at Brooklands.
In those days, the huge cars lapping at over 100 mph were a sensation as the everyday guy on the street seldom coaxed more than 40 mph out of his own car or motorcycle. Of course, motorcycles raced at Brooklands too. Everything raced at Brooklands. Two wheels, three wheels (cycle cars/Morgans) and four wheels. Circuit founder Locke King passed away in 1926
Why did Brooklands last only 32 years as the world’s leading motor racing circuit? The answer is simple: World War II. The British government — knowing that war was imminent — took possession of the circuit and built aircraft construction facilities on the pit lane and on one of the main straightaways. The facility was bombed in 1940, which effectively ended Brooklands’ existence as a motor racing circuit.
Today, nearly three-fourths of the old racing circuit pavement remains, albeit with mature trees growing out of the cracks in the concrete. Located in the infield next to the original clubhouse is a fascinating, diverse transport museum with racing motorcycles, racing cars, WWII fighter and bomber aircraft (in one of the hanger buildings), an SST Concord and a fascinating variety of trucks and utility vehicles that were used on-site during Brooklands days of aircraft construction. There’s even a London Bus museum there.
If you’re a “petrol head” you’ll want to spend at least an entire day at the Brooklands Museum when you visit.