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Brooklands Motor Racing Track
Byfleet, Weybridge, Surrey, UK
Brooklands Motor Racing Track
associated engineer
Colonel Henry Lofft Capel Holden
Louis Gustave Mouchel
date  October 1906 - 17th June 1907
era  Modern  |  category  Race Track  |  reference  TQ066623
ICE reference number  HEW 1428
photo  © Alan Hunt (cc-by-sa/2.0)
Brooklands circuit is the world's first banked concrete race and test track, was the venue for the first British Grand Prix and is associated with the early history of motor racing. It is also associated with the development of aviation in Britain. As a result of local development, only parts of the original complex survive, and the north east section of the site is now a museum.
In the early 20th century, the speed limit on British roads was 20mph (32.2kph) and UK racing drivers couldn't get hands-on experience. The track at Brooklands was devised to enable motor vehicle testing for driving safely at speed but it soon became a race venue as well. The circuit showcased British engineering and it pre-dates other well-known tracks such as the USA’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway (1909), Italy’s Autodromo Nazionale Monza (1922) and France’s Autodrome de Montlhéry (1924).
The original pear-shaped track loop enclosed an area of 121 hectares. Construction was financed by Hugh Fortescue Locke King (1848-1926), on an area of marshy ground within his private estate. The project’s engineer was Louis Gustave Mouchel (1852-1908) and contractor the Yorkshire Hennebique Contracting Company of Leeds.
The circuit was laid out by Col. Henry Lofft Capel Holden (1856-1937, knighted 1916, promoted to Brigadier General 1917), and designed for cars of up to 2 tonnes travelling at speeds of up to 161kph (100 mph) around banked corners. Holden also developed much of the equipment installed at the track, including an automatic timing mechanism, and he acted as a track steward into the 1920s.
The circuit was 4.45km long and set out on a north east/south west alignment, with the north west side running parallel with the London & South Western Railway's main line between Weybridge and Byfleet. Its bends had a minimum radius of 304.8m, though the southern bend had a larger radius than the northern, giving the circuit its pear shape.
The steepest section was Members' Banking on the north east side, which reached a height of 9.75m. The 804.7m long Railway Straight on the west side led into Byfleet Banking, the south bend, 1.1km long and 6.4m high. The track forked after Byfleet Banking, with a curved eastern branch completing the loop and the 1km Finishing Straight running north towards the centre of Members' Banking. The straight had a rising gradient to aid braking as the cars crossed the finish line.
As constructed, the track was an unreinforced concrete slab, generally 150mm thick, and 30.5m wide between concrete dwarf walls or turf banks. The banked cross-section was curved to a maximum gradient of 1 in 2 at the outer edges and a super-elevation of 7.9m.
The concrete paving covered a total of 167,220 sq m, poured over a sand formation layer in strips 3m wide. The sub base contained some 152,920 cu m of imported chalk and ballast, sufficient to raise the finishing straight and the servicing area about 1.5m above the original ground level.
At the north east end of Byfleet Banking, Mouchel designed a bridge (TQ069619) to carry the track over the River Wey and to allow floodwater through. The bridge was of reinforced concrete, or 'ferro-concrete' as it was called at the time, constructed under patent licence from François Hennebique (1842-1921) who had developed the technique. The ends of the reinforcing bars, whether curved or straight, were "slit open fish tail shape".
The 54.9m long five-span bridge was founded on piles, and formed an integral part of the banking. It was designed for a super load of 5.4kN per sq m and a rolling load of 2 tonnes. The river used about one and a half of the spans, unless in flood. The piers were 356mm square columns with 254mm x 356mm horizontal bracing, plus some diagonal bracing to the outer spans. The abutments were 4.9m high and 2.7m wide at the base, with cantilever walls tapering upwards from 152mm to 127mm thick, and triangular counterforts.
The deck of the bridge followed a curve of 609.6m radius falling at 1 in 200 for two spans and a curve of 304.8m radius at 1 in 90 for three spans. Span length was about 10.1m on the inside of the bend and 21m on the outside. Each span had seven ribs consisting of segmental arch beams 229mm thick, with a 1.1m rise. The arches supported concrete cross beams, 254mm by 152mm in section, placed at 1.6m centres. The 114mm thick deck was a reinforced concrete slab.
The Brooklands circuit was accessed from the north, via two subways beneath it and a footbridge (TQ071630) over Members' Banking. The western subway (TQ070630) was used by competitors. The main entrance was through the eastern subway (demolished), which had two lanes for vehicular traffic and one for pedestrians, and led to Members' Hill.
A red brick building (TQ070628) adjacent to the west side of Finishing Straight housed equipment for weighing competitors' vehicles, staff accommodation and offices for the clerk of the course and others, changing rooms and a press stand. The paddock area south of the building was filled with workshops, garages, fuel pagodas, tyre stations, a grandstand and a press hut.
Brooklands Motor Racing Track cost £150,000 to construct and opened on 17th June 1907. It was a remarkable technological achievement, often described at the time as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. It was said that by driving along the track’s centre line (theoretically) a driver could negotiate the banked corners without having to use the steering wheel.
Only 11 days after the opening, Australian racing driver Selwyn Francis Edge (1868-1940) drove a 60 horsepower modified Napier car continuously for 24 hours around the circuit, covering 2,544km at an average speed of 106kph (65.9mph). His record stood for 17 years.
The kerb-less unreinforced concrete construction of most of the track surface, though innovative, did not prove durable and was to require regular maintenance and repair. But Brooklands is associated not only with the early history of motor racing but also with the history of aviation in Britain. The two activities carried on in tandem for more than three decades.
In 1907, Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe (1877-1958, knighted 1929) and John Theodore Cuthbert 'Claude' Moore-Brabazon (1884-1964, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara from 1942) attempted to fly aircraft of their own design at Brooklands, but without success. On 8th June 1908, Roe succeeded and became the first Briton to fly a British-designed aeroplane.
Around 1909, an airfield was constructed inside the circuit, between Railway Straight and Finishing Straight. The work included tree removal, farm building demolition and the straightening of the River Wey in the north of the site. The new facility became an aviation hub for aircraft production, flying training and passenger flights.
On 29th October 1909, French aviator Louis Paulhan (1883-1963) made the first official powered flight at Brooklands, in a Farman biplane. It was the first public flying display here and attracted some 20,000 spectators. Several flying schools opened at the aerodrome over the next couple of years, including Sopwith and Vickers in 1912.
Also in 1909, the first of many world land speed records was broken at the Brooklands race track. Test Hill, a narrow concrete roadway, was constructed on the west side of Members' Hill. It was 107.3m long with an average gradient of 1 in 5, intended for testing engine, gearbox and braking capabilities, and came to be used by both motor cars and motorcycles.
In 1910, Malcolm Campbell (1885-1948, knighted 1931) began racing at Brooklands and had premises in the race paddock. Away from Brooklands, he was the first person to drive an automobile at more than 483kph (300mph) and held nine land speed records between 1924 and 1935, and the water speed record in 1939.
In March 1911, Keith Prowse & Co Ltd opened the world’s first flight booking office (TQ069628), in a small brick hut with a tiled roof. The first passenger ticket sold was for a sightseeing flight around the aerodrome.
In 1912, a 'macadam' access route, Aerodrome Road, was built. Heading south from the motor racing paddock, it crossed the Wey on a timber bridge (TQ069619) north west of Byfleet Banking Bridge, skirted the inner perimeter of Byfleet Banking and led to the airstrip paddock.
On 15th February 1913, Percy Edgar Lambert (1881-1913) became the first person to cover more than 161km (100 miles) in a single hour, driving a 4.5 litre Talbot around the outer circuit. Eight months later, on 21st October, he was killed at the track while trying to regain the land speed record.
During World War I (1914-8), motor racing ceased and the site was used solely for aircraft manufacture. Australian aviator and Sopwith pilot Harry George Hawker (1889-1921) apparently flew his plane under the footbridge over Byfleet Banking during testing. After extensive repairs in 1919-20, the race circuit re-opened in April 1920.
In January 1921, Walter Owen Bentley (1888-1971), known as ‘WO’, demonstrated his prototype Bentley EXP3 (registration BM9771) on Test Hill.
Brooklands hosted the first and second British Grand Prix, on 7th August 1926 and 1st October 1927 respectively. By 1929, cars were lapping the track at (120mph). It was dubbed 'the Ascot of Motor Racing' owing to the society events held by the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club (BARC), which enlarged the weighing and accommodation building into a clubhouse in 1930. Until 1933, the circuit was Britain's only permanent motor race track.
In 1931, the timber bridge carrying Aerodrome Road over the river was rebuilt in ferro-concrete, and the whole road repaired and resurfaced. In about 1933, Byfleet Banking Bridge was reconstructed in ferro-concrete to allow Vickers aircraft to be towed from their factory to the east of the circuit onto the aerodrome inside the track.
In 1932, a building (TQ063619) housing the aerodrome’s clubhouse and control tower was constructed at the south west of the airstrip. Designed by Graham Dawbarn (1893-1976) in Art Deco or International Modern style, it is of rendered brick with metal casement windows and a flat concrete roof. The three storey control tower with tall stair turret is flanked by symmetrical two storey wings at the front and single storey wings on the airfield side.
Many record road speeds were achieved at Brooklands, notably in October 1935, by John Rhodes Cobb (1899-1952) driving a 24 litre aero-engined Napier-Railton car. His average speed of 230.8kph (143.44mph) remains the circuit’s all-time lap record. Cobb also recorded the track’s fastest ever speed, reaching 244.5kph (151.97mph) on Railway Straight.
To compete with new tracks at Donnington Park (1933) and Crystal Palace (1937), Malcolm Campbell designed a road-racing circuit for Brooklands, which opened on 20th April 1937. It combined stretches of the existing circuit with new track sections, including a new finishing straight running parallel to the original one and a series of concrete garages, known as the Campbell Pits.
On 7th August 1939, Brooklands hosted its last motor race — World War II began less than one month later and the track was abandoned. The site was requisitioned for use by Vickers and Hawker, producing Wellington, Warwick and Hurricane aircraft among others. Hawker relocated soon afterwards. The Vickers factory expanded, with new buildings in the east of the area enclosed by the outer circuit and hangars south of Members' Banking. The BARC clubhouse became a design office.
During the war, from around 1938 until about 1943, seven prefabricated Bellman hangars were erected on site, four with a clear internal height of 7.6m and the others with 5m. Each rose from a rectangular footprint, 54.9m by 29m, and consisted of a steel frame of rolled sections clad in corrugated iron, with sliding doors in the end gables.
Though camouflaged from the air, Brooklands did not escape wartime bombing raids. On 4th September 1940, bombs falling on the Vickers workshops resulted in almost 90 fatalities and injuries to more than 400 people. Defences at Brooklands included anti-aircraft guns, a tower-mounted 40mm Bofors gun and air raid shelters, lined with brick and concrete, beneath Members' Hill.
From November 1945, Barnes Neville Wallis (1887-1979, knighted 1968) and Norman 'Spud' Boorer (1916-2004) were working on variable wing sweep and an aircraft testing chamber. The geodotic fuselage for the Wellington bomber was developed here by Wallis. His so-called Stratosphere Chamber (TQ070629), which reproduced various climatic conditions such as wind, rain, snow and ice was completed in 1948 and first used in 1950.
On 7th January 1946, the shareholders of Brooklands (Weybridge) Ltd decided to sell the track and aerodrome to Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd for £330,000.
In 1951, a new hard runway was constructed in the south of the site for Vickers, necessitating the removal of a central length of Byfleet Banking. Two new access roads were cut through the banking — Sopwith Drive and Barnes Wallis Drive.
On 6th July 1957, a memorial (TQ070628) was erected on the north east side of the airfield by Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the site, and unveiled by Lord Brabazon of Tara. The cast stone structure is 9.4m long, 1.5m wide and 4.3m high, designed by architect Ley Colbeck & Partners.
In 1957-8, a high speed wind tunnel and Balloon Hangar was constructed adjacent to the Stratosphere Chamber. In the 1960s, the footbridge over Byfleet Banking was demolished.
Parts of the racing circuit survive — most of Railway Straight, most of Members' Banking and its subway, three sections of Byfleet Banking, Byfleet Banking Bridge and the north end of Finishing Straight — as do sections of the airstrip and two lengths of Aerodrome Road. Many of the key buildings also survive. All these elements were given a group designation as a Scheduled Ancient Monument in January 1975, augmented in January 2002.
In 1977, Elmbridge Museum in Weybridge held a temporary exhibition about Brooklands, which generated renewed interest in the site. In January 1979, the former aero control tower was Grade II listed. In November 1984, the former flight booking office was also Grade II listed.
A 12 hectare plot in the north east corner of the circuit, centring on the motor paddock and Finishing Straight, was selected for the establishment of a museum. Work began in 1985, and in 1987, Brooklands Museum Trust was formed with support from British Aerospace, Elmbridge Borough Council, Gallaher Ltd and many dedicated individuals.
In 1989, most of the Campbell Pits were demolished. Immediately afterwards, Surrey County Council designated the site as Brooklands Conservation Area. On 25th December the same year, the Vickers factory closed.
On 14th April 1991, Brooklands Museum opened. Its many transport and aircraft exhibits include John Cobb’s 24 litre Napier-Railton car (1933) and the first British production Concorde (G-BBDG, 1974). It also has the Delage 1.5 litre supercharged grand prix car (1926), the 40 percent scale model ‘Mini Concorde’ (G-CONC) that previously stood outside Heathrow Airport in London and a VC-10 from the Sultan of Oman's Royal Flight, built at Brooklands in 1964 and flown back here on 6th July 1987. The neighbouring London Bus Museum, operated by London Bus Preservation Trust, is part of the complex.
In November 1999, the surviving Bellman hangar (TQ071629) was Grade II listed. This one was built in 1940, and is 7.6m high inside to accommodate the assembly of Wellington aeroplanes.
In November 2002, the BARC clubhouse was Grade II* listed and the single storey red brick Members’ Hill restaurant building (TQ071629) Grade II listed.
In early 2004, the central area of the Brooklands site including the hard runway and some parts of the race track were sold to Daimler-Chrysler UK Retail. As part of the redevelopment, a bridge over the Wey (TQ069628) was strengthened in July 2004 to allow two aircraft, a Vanguard and VC-10 built here around 1959-60, to be moved to the Brooklands Museum forecourt. The work included raising the bridge deck and installing load spreaders. Mercedes-Benz World (TQ067628), built on the vacated site, opened on 29th October 2006. Its test track uses part of the original Campbell circuit and other features include an off-road course, a conference centre and vehicle showrooms.
In February 2015, Brooklands received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for its £8m aircraft factory and racetrack revival scheme. The project transformed the Bellman hangar into the Brooklands Aircraft Factory exhibit, restored the Finishing Straight to its 1939 appearance and constructed a new building — the Flight Shed — to the north of the hangar to house more historic aircraft. Foundations for the Flight Shed commenced in April 2016, and the project was completed in November 2017.
Contractor: Yorkshire Hennebique Contracting Co of Leeds
Structural engineer (2004 bridge strengthening): Gifford
Bellman hangars (c.1938-40): Head Wrightson & Co. Ltd of Gateshead
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Brooklands Aerodrome & Motor Racing Circuit: timeline of heritage assets" by Radley House Partnership for Brooklands Heritage Partnership, consultation copy, July 2017
https://historicengland.org.uk
www.brooklandsmuseum.com
www.elmbridge.gov.uk
www.gracesguide.co.uk
www.heritageconcorde.com
www.ice.org
www.newcivilengineer.com
reference sources   CEH LondDNB
Location

Brooklands Motor Racing Track