As we have said here before that while many people believe that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the first purpose-built race track in the world, that distinction actually goes to Brooklands in Surrey, England. Construction began on Brooklands in 1907 whereas Indy was not started until two years later in 1909. However, Brooklands was finished as a racetrack by 1939, whereas Indy marches on enjoying continuous use, except, of course for the war years, since the track first opened. Incidentally, the first Indy 500 took place in 1911.
Brooklands was the brainchild of Hugh F. Locke King and was built of concrete unlike Indy where the original surface was oil-soaked gravel before it was paved with brick—hence the term ‘Brickyard’. At the time, Brooklands’ 2.75-mile track was described as resembling a ‘crushed egg’. Nevertheless, it could accommodate almost 300,000 spectators and housed one of the world’s first airfields. While it remains the spiritual home of British motorsports it did, in fact, become a real home to British aviation.
Back in the early 1900s, there was no easy way to asphalt the surface and as it ceased operations 80 years ago, time and vermin have taken their toll. The last race was held in August 1939, just as Europe was going to war, and the facility was turned over to the production of aircraft.
At the time, Brooklands’ 2.75-mile track was described as resembling a ‘crushed egg’.
Unfortunately, the ‘crushed egg’ was rather obvious from the air so it was camouflaged to help prevent enemy bombing. Nevertheless, it was bombed and access roads to the factories were cut into the banking.
As a young journalist I used to visit the derelict site and though crumbling, the steeply banked surface stirred up emotions whereby you could almost feel those big aircraft-engined cars thundering around the course at incredible speeds. In fact, three land speed records were set at Brooklands between 1909 and 1922 when Kenelm L. Guinness (of the Guinness beer family) took his 18.3-liter Sunbeam to a speed of 133.75 MPH.
Thankfully, due to a number of investors, including Mercedes-Benz, Brooklands survives and one of the cool places to visit is the Brooklands Museum that has been undergoing what they call ‘Re-Engineering’. Last fall, they opened two new exhibits: The Brooklands Aircraft Factory and the Flight Shed—telling the story of aviation design and manufacture at the site. They also opened The Finishing Straight of the original track so that it can be used for events and demonstrations.
Unlike most museums that are going for the modernist look exemplified by Gehry and Piano, Brooklands appears as a collection of quintessential English sheds—and I mean that in the most positive way—as it reminds me of how Brooklands used to be and I hope it retains that charm as it steps into the modern world.
The car collection, as you would expect, leans toward the pre-WWII era and the glory days of Brooklands, however, there are some late-models including an MP4 21 F1 simulator that is good fun to experience. The other must-see is an original supersonic BAC Aérospatiale Concorde and there’s even a Concorde flight crew simulator.
…you could almost feel those big aircraft-engined cars thundering around the course at incredible speeds.
That said my favorite part of the visit was the unexpected appearance of the 1933 Napier Railton in which John Cobb set an unbeaten record of 143.44 MPH in 1935. Contemporary images show the car completely off the ground. It certainly lifted my spirits and was the fitting end to a great visit.
Typically, Brooklands is open every day except Christmas, but Christmas can be longer in the U.K. than in the U.S. so we strongly suggest you check their website before you make plans to visit. For more information, hours and a list of events, visit: www.brooklandsmuseum.com