Brooklands - the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, constructed at Weybridge, Surrey in 1907 - was more than a great sporting arena. Brooklands was the birthplace of British motorsport and aviation, home of Concorde and the site of many engineering and technological achievements throughout eight decades of the 20th century.
Explore the stories below to discover how Brooklands helped to shape Britain and the World.
1907 - 1914 Birth of Brooklands
Brooklands, the world's first purpose-built motor racing circuit, was built by local landowners Hugh and Ethel Locke King on 330 acres of farm and woodland on their estate at Weybridge in Surrey. Work commenced in late 1906.
As soon as the design of the track was entrusted to Colonel H.C.L. Holden of the Royal Artillery, the original plans began to grow beyond Locke King’s wildest expectations. Far from his initial idea of a simple road circuit, Locke King was persuaded that, in order for cars to achieve the highest possible speeds, with the greatest possible safety, the 2¾ mile circuit would need to be provided with two huge banked sections nearly 30 ft. high. The track would be 100 ft. wide, made of concrete and include two long straights, one running for half a mile beside the London to Southampton Railway, and an additional ‘Finishing Straight’ passing the Paddock and enclosures, bringing the total length of the track to 3¼ miles. This outstanding feat of engineering was built in only nine months and eventually cost Hugh Locke King his personal fortune, a price equal to nearly 16 million pounds today. Ethel took over the supervision of the development of the track after the stress of building it affected the health of her husband. Her family also came to the rescue, loaning funds to pay off debts caused by the construction. On 17th June 1907, she led the inaugural procession of cars on to the track in her open Itala car.
Opening of the Track
Before the first race was even run, Brooklands was the venue for a dramatic speed record attempt. A few days after the ceremonial opening of the Motor Course in June 1907, the motor-racing pioneer, Selwyn Francis Edge, used the Track for establishing a 24-hour record. With hundreds of roadside lanterns to mark the inner edge of the Track and bright flares to illuminate the rim, Edge drove his green six-cylinder Napier for the whole 24 hours covering 1,581 miles at an average speed of almost 66 miles an hour. Supported by two other Napiers on the run, Edge established a record that stood for 17 years.
The first official race was held on the 6th July 1907 and was greeted by the press as a ‘Motor Ascot’. Because Brooklands was the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, there were no established rules to follow. To begin with, many of the procedures were based on horse racing traditions, partly in an attempt to attract a ready-made audience to this new and curious sport. Cars assembled in the ‘paddock,’ were ‘shod’ with tyres, weighed by the ‘Clerk of the Scales’ for handicapping and drivers were even instructed to identify themselves by wearing coloured silks in the manner of jockeys.
In June 1908 A V Roe made significant taxying and towed flight trials in his Roe 1 Biplane at Brooklands and at Lea Valley in 1909 he became the first Englishman to fly in a powered aeroplane of his own design. In 1909 the BARC arranged for an area in the middle of the Track to be cleared to create one of Britain’s first aerodromes, enabling Louis Paulhan to give Britain’s first public flying demonstration that October. Soon other pioneers were attracted to Brooklands. The best known of these was Tommy Sopwith who learned to fly here in 1910 and subsequently formed and led first the Sopwith and later the Hawker aircraft companies which produced the majority of Britain’s fighter aircraft in the 20th century.
The Daily Mail Circuit of Britain Air Race
In 1911 the world’s first Flight Ticket Office was built in what soon became known as the Brooklands Flying Village. Here groups of simple wooden sheds housed many of the greatest pioneers of British aviation from 1910 to the outbreak of World War One. These were immortalised in the 1960s film ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ which was based around The Daily Mail Circuit of Britain Air Race held at Brooklands in 1911.
Motorcycle racing started at Brooklands in 1908 and the British Motorcycle Racing Club - known as 'Bemsee' from its initials - was founded in 1909. Sidecar outfits joined the solo machines for racing and record-breaking from 1912.
The attendance at Brooklands motorcycle events was initially quite small, being mostly knowledgeable enthusiasts, and lacked the ‘Society’ element of the car racing crowd. However, an established pattern of race meetings emerged, speeds rose, the reliability of machines improved and a growing audience became attracted to motorcycle races.
In September 1907, a 100 mile massed start cycle race was held at the Brooklands Track. At this time, even cycle racing was not approved of on the open roads and the Track proved to be a safe haven for cyclists as it had for the motor car. This race was a precursor to the mass start cycle races that were frequently held at the race track during the 1930s.
Because Brooklands was the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, there were no established rules to follow. To begin with, many of the procedures were based on horse racing traditions, partly in an attempt to attract a ready-made audience to this new and curious sport. Cars assembled in the ‘paddock’, were ‘shod’ with tyres, weighed by the ‘Clerk of the Scales’ for handicapping and drivers were even instructed to identify themselves by wearing coloured silks in the manner of jockeys.
On the morning of 15th February 1913, in front of a large crowd of press and public, the small but courageous Brooklands racing driver, Percy Lambert, achieved 103.84 mph. Tragically, while trying to improve his own record a few months later, after promising his fiancée that he would attempt no more, he crashed and was killed on the Track. Many still say his ghost regularly walks at Brooklands in full racing attire.
Motor racing stopped at Brooklands in 1914 with the outbreak of World War One.
1914 - 1918: World War One
In 1915 Vickers started manufacturing aircraft at Brooklands and progressively extended their premises with the growing demand from military contracts. Women increasingly replaced the men in the factory who had been called away for war. The first true Vickers fighter to go into production at Brooklands was the Gunbus, the world’s first aircraft specifically designed to mount a machine gun. This was followed by the twin-engined Vimy, a long range bomber.
Alongside Vickers’ production, the output of the Sopwith Aviation Company was even more prolific. Besides a large number of prototypes, numerous Camels, Snipes, Pups and Triplanes came off the production lines in nearby Kingston and were all test flown and delivered from Brooklands. Vickers and Sopwith, together with the Martinsyde and Bleriot companies who also had factories close to Brooklands, supplied the British air forces with most of the aircraft which won air superiority over the Western Front.
Interwar years 1918 - 1939
Motor Racing 1920-1929
During the First World War the solid tyres of military lorries had played havoc with the track, and it was not until 1920 that Locke King had cleaned up sufficiently to enable the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club (BARC) to take over once again.
Throughout the 1920s the BARC continued to organise big popular race meetings, including the Junior Car Club’s famous 200 Miles Race, which first began in 1921. It was at this time that pre-war driver, Malcolm Campbell, returned to the scene from Army service as a Captain.
Count Louis Zborowski was another great personality of Brooklands and raced a series of monstrous cars on the Outer Circuit, including the legendary Chitty Bang Bangs, in the early 1920s.
In August 1926 the RAC organised the first-ever British Grand Prix, constructing sand chicanes along the Finishing Straight. The Junior Car Club 200 Miles Race was run again later that year and the race was won by Major Henry Segrave in a Talbot. A second British Grand Prix was held at Brooklands in 1927.
Another Club that staged ambitious races at Brooklands was the elite British Racing Drivers Club, BRDC, which was founded in 1927. Their first event was the 500 Miles Race of 1929 which was destined to become the fastest long distance race in the world. The other coveted BRDC trophy was the British Empire Trophy. Races of this calibre presented a challenge to great names such as John Cobb, S.C.H.’Sammy’ Davis, Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin and the Dunfee Brothers.
Motorcycle Racing in the 1920s
When the track reopened after the First World War, Brooklands was to witness the golden age of motorcycling when British racing motorcycle was the best and fastest in the world.
The showcase long distance races such as the Hutchinson 100 and the Brooklands 500 Miles Race were the highlights of the racing calendar, whilst the growth of clubman racing saw many more people being able to take up the sport, including the first ladies race in 1928.
Brooklands became the home of many motorcycle riders as workshops sprang up around the paddock with names of men and machines painted on the doors. Eric Fernihough, who went on to take the Motorcycle Land Speed Record, had a garage by the perimeter of the track on the Byfleet Road.
Motor Racing in the 1930s
The popularity of Brooklands grew throughout the 1930s. In 1930 the Clubhouse was extended to accommodate the social appeal of race meetings and the BARC adopted the slogan ‘The Right Crowd and No Crowding’. Brooklands, which was still the preserve of the wealthy amateur, became a fashionable venue on the sporting calendar along with Henley, Wimbledon and Ascot. Members of the BARC were often members of the Brooklands Flying Club as well and the airfield was a lively part of the track. The Paddock was a busy place as popular heroes mingled with Club Members or those spectators who could afford a paddock transfer pass into the 'inner sanctuary’.
The Junior Car Club continued to hold races at Brooklands and organise club days for trials and driving tests, but was most famous for its big international race meetings. The Double Twelve Hour Race came about because night time noise restrictions meant 24-hour racing was not permitted at Brooklands. The event was divided into two daylight sessions with the cars being locked up overnight. The International Trophy was held every year from 1933 until 1939, for the first time large and small cars started together and raced for 250 miles - the faster the car the more severe the course as it negotiated its 100 circuits. This race attracted great names like Captain Malcolm Campbell, Kaye Don, Earl Howe and Elsie Wisdom.
Motorcycle Racing in the 1930s
In 1933 ‘The Motorcycle’ magazine instituted a Clubman’s Day Meeting which proved an enormous success, continuing the growth of clubman racing. This was aided by the opening of the Campbell Circuit in 1937 which added a more exciting alternative to the Outer Circuit.
Whilst international record breaking had largely moved to the smoother Montlhéry circuit, the Brooklands Motorcycle Outer Circuit Lap Record was still keenly contested throughout the 1930s. Eric Fernihough raised the Brooklands lap record to 123.58mph in 1935 with his Brough Superior, only to be topped by Noel Pope at 124.51mph in 1939.
Cycling in the 1930s
In 1933, a 100-kilometre Championship Trial Road Race was held at Brooklands, promoted by the Charlotteville Cycling Club. The event was used to select a team for the World Championships at Montlhéry. The track continued as a regular venue for cycle races throughout the 1930s. In 1939 alone, 19 races were held between April and August.
Brooklands has a unique history of flying training – not only were some of the very first flying schools in Britain formed here from 1910 onwards, but this was also the principal centre for British flying training up to the start of World War One.
In the 1920s and '30s hundreds more men and women learned to fly here too – notably with the Brooklands School of Flying and the Brooklands Flying Club. The latter’s fleet of de Havilland Gipsy and Tiger Moth biplanes, all in a distinctive red, black and silver colour scheme, are well remembered from this era.
The aerodrome also became a regular venue for air races, flying displays, dawn patrols, fly-ins and open days. A splendid art deco Brooklands Aero Clubhouse was designed by the young British airport architect Graham Dawbarn and opened in May 1932 as a lively new social centre for Brooklands aviators. The parent company, Brooklands Aviation Ltd, was led by the legendary Captain Duncan Davis and also operated flying clubs at Lympne, Shoreham and Sywell Aerodromes in the 1930s.
The End of Motor Racing at Brooklands
The BARC held its last ever meeting at Brooklands on 7th August 1939.
With the outbreak of World War Two, the aerodrome was requisitioned by the Government and devoted to the production of Vickers and Hawker aircraft, including Hurricane fighters and Wellington bombers.
When peace returned, everyone lived in high hopes of the Track’s eventual recovery but the anticipated costs were too high. Temporary hangars had been erected on the Track, German bombs had exploded on various parts of the Track in 1940 and camouflage was used heavily in the form of tree planting and canvas houses to obscure Brooklands’ distinctive shape which made it an easy target for the Luftwaffe. The government could not see its way to releasing Brooklands until 1949 and consequently, the shareholders of Brooklands (Weybridge) Ltd voted in favour of selling the track to Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd in 1946 and motor racing at Brooklands gradually became no more than a memory.
1939 - 1945: World War Two
When the war began again in September 1939, the Vickers-Armstrongs and Hawker aircraft companies had exclusive use of the Brooklands site for military aircraft production. The Wellington was one of the world’s most advanced bomber aircraft at the start of World War Two and bore the brunt of the Allied bomber offensive in the early 1940s.
Of 11,461 Wellingtons built by Vickers by 1943, 2,515 were built at Brooklands – one-fifth of the total number. All 18 variants were developed and test flown here too. Throughout the war, Wellingtons performed an extraordinary variety of roles and the type was Britain’s most numerous and successful twin-engined bomber of that conflict serving throughout the RAF.
Britain’s most successful fighter aircraft of this era was the Hawker Hurricane, designed by Sydney Camm at nearby Kingston. It was assembled and first flown in prototype form at Brooklands in November 1935. Altogether, 3,012 Hurricanes were produced at Brooklands – one-fifth of the total built. When the Battle of Britain was fought in the summer of 1940, it was due to the tremendous production and test flying effort at Brooklands and other factories, and to the skills of the RAF pilots, that the Hurricane became the chief victor of this decisive engagement. At the time, Hurricanes equipped no less than two-thirds of RAF single fighter squadrons.
Viking to VC10
By the end of the war Brooklands had produced and flown a total of 5,748 military aircraft through the Hawker and Vickers companies, but the Track had been damaged by German bombing and war-time camouflage, defences and the construction of temporary buildings. In 1946 Vickers purchased the entire site for £330,000 and proceeded to design and build a new range of civil and military aircraft at Brooklands, including Britain’s first post-war airliner, the Vickers Viking.
The Viscount was the most successful British civil airliner and the prototype was first flown from nearby Wisley in 1948. In total 444 Viscounts were built at Brooklands and Bournemouth before production ended in 1964.
Following the success of the Viscount, the Vanguard was first flown from Brooklands in 1959 and in 1962 Brooklands entered the jet age with the first flight of the prototype VC10 airliner. Most of the factory workforce turned out to witness this event and all 53 production VC10s were flown out of Brooklands for completion and test flying at Wisely.
TSR2 to Concorde
In 1960 Vickers-Armstrongs became part of the newly formed British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) with its headquarters at Brooklands. Work continued on such aircraft as the TSR2, designed in the climate of the Cold War but cancelled in 1965, and the One-Eleven which coincided with the rise in package holidays in the 1960s and '70s.
In 1969 the world’s first supersonic passenger aircraft made its inaugural test flight at Toulouse but it was at Brooklands that the first preliminary design meeting was held in Chairman Sir George Edwards’ office and more of Concorde was built at Brooklands than at any other manufacturing site.
In 1977, British Aerospace was formed by the merger of BAC with Hawker Siddeley Aviation but the factory at Brooklands was already contracting in size and no longer built complete aircraft. In July 1986, the factory’s closure was announced and demolition took place in 1989-90. The Heights business park and a new housing estate occupy the site of the British Aerospace East Works today.
Building Brooklands Museum
In 1977 Weybridge Museum staged an exhibition 'Wings over Brooklands' curated by Morag Barton with help from British Aerospace Weybridge, the Vintage Aircraft Flying Association (formed in 1965) and the Brooklands Society. The exhibition highlighted the uniquely important role that Brooklands had played in the history of international aviation and motoring and, following its success, Morag led a move to establish a museum dedicated to the history of Brooklands.
Following British Aerospace’s announcement that they were going to sell off the most historic 40 acres of the original Brooklands Motor Racing Circuit, a 99-year Lease was entered into by Elmbridge Borough Council and Gallaher Ltd in 1984 for 30 of the 40 acres of the site, for the purpose of founding a museum at Brooklands.