Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin - Pre War Racer
Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin was born into a wealthy family of lace traders in 1896, he would become one of Britain’s ‘Bentley Boys’ the fearless racers whom chased excitement and glory. A sporting gentleman no doubt, Birkin lived life to the full and after contracting Malaria in Palestine serving in the Royal Flying Corps during WW1, his attitude was perhaps understandable. Nicknamed after a mischievous cartoon character from the early 1900s ‘Tiger Tim’ yearned the exhilaration that wartime aviation had supplied, this he found at Brooklands in 1921. Along with his brother Archie, our hero took to the banked Surrey circuit in a Dodge Brothers special and it’s suggested he met W O Bentley after one successful event. Young Tim was courting Audrey Latham and once married she ensured his racing adventures ceased. After six years without motorsport attending to the family business, Audrey left with their two daughters; Tim reverted to type and entered the Brooklands Six Hour with brother Archie in his 3 litre Bentley. Later in 1927 tragedy struck when Archie, a keen motorcycle racer, was killed during practice for the Isle of Man TT. At 31 years old and against the wishes of his family Birkin purchased a 4.5 litre Bentley and after some promising results cemented his name under the ‘Bentley Boys’ banner with their passion to take on La Sarthe. The inaugural Le Mans 24 hours ran in 1923 and the sole UK entrant was a 3 litre Bentley piloted by Canadian John Duff and Englishman Frank Clement. Privateers that just packed everything into their race car and drove to the event, W O reluctantly attended but quickly became bewitched by the challenge of Le Sarthe; a holed fuel tank snatched victory for the team finishing 4th. The same group returned in 1924 and gave Bentley its first Le Mans win. Two works entries failed to finish in 1925 both due to fuel issues. 1926 arrived with two works and one private Bentley entrant, all of three litres capacity and none would finish, the last one crashing with 20 minutes remaining; W O was so upset he closed the race works for months. Returning in 1927 with one 4.5 litre, Bentley looked to dominate until all three cars were involved in the same accident, finally the Davis/Benjafield three litre got going and went on to win.
Tim Birkin joined the team for the 1928 Le Mans effort, co-driving with Frenchman Jean Chassagne, a three car assault, all 4.5 litre cars. Birkin led for the first 20 laps before a puncture jammed a rear wheel and the Bentley philosophy of running light meant no ‘on board’ repair equipment. Three hours later the Birkin/Chassagne entry was back on track but miles behind; they passed the chequered flag in 5th overall and Birkin broke the lap record. The race was won by Bernard Rubin with Bentley’s Chairman Woolf Barnato who would partner Birkin in the ‘Speed Six’ 6.6 litre entry the following year; another victory for Bentley, the first Le Mans for Tim who also broke the lap record again. Although the marque was dominant in 1929 taking the first four places, the rise of ‘supercharged’ competition was noticeable. W O Bentley chose to increase cubic capacity whilst other manufactures were supercharging their motors; when questioned over the advantage of a ‘Blown Bentley’ he famously remarked, a supercharging would ‘pervert the design and corrupt the performance’ of his cars. Birkin had seen the mighty Mercedes SSK and the performance of its supercharged 7 litres in the hands of German aces Rudolf Caracciola and Christine Werner; he maintained Bentley would need a ‘blower’ in order to compete in future. Without any factory assistance Birkin set up an engineering workshop in Welwyn Garden City, assisted by supercharging specialists Amherst Villiers. With his finances exhausted Tim persuaded wealthy heiress Dorothy Paget to fund the development and overall five Roots-type supercharged Bentleys were produced in Welwyn. With Barnato’s help Birkin persuaded W O to build a further 50 Blower Bentley’s road models, required for entry into Le Mans. Bentley works entered two Speed-Six versions and two of Birkin’s ‘Blowers’ arrived under the team name of Hon Dorothy Paget in 1930 but behind the scenes a plan had been hatched for Birkin’s machines to chase down the sole Mercedes. Realising the best way to beat Caracciola and the mighty SSK was too force mechanical strain, Birkin hounded and overtook the German.
The pace would be too fast to sustain for 24 hours but the opposition took the bait and a mighty battle ensued; it would eliminate both Blower Bentleys and the SSK, leaving the works cars an easy 1-2. Birkin’s sacrifice didn’t go unnoticed, motoring press of the day immediately credited the glory to the cars from Welwyn. From there Birkin headed south to the Circuit de Morlaas (Pau) for a 51 car Formule Libre race featuring many of the era’s best French drivers and Grand Prix Bugatti’s. Birkin stripped lights and mudguards from his mount and finished second, noted on route for blasting his horn whilst passing Louis Chiron’s Type 35B. Surprisingly, the Birkin’s Blower never won a race in period, although a new Brooklands record of 138mph was set battling gale force cross winds in March 1932. The Great Depression was taking its toll and Bentley withdrew from racing in 1930 and Birkin’s finances were also desperate when Dorothy Paget withdrew her support. Refusing to quit racing Birkin joined Earl Howe in an Alfa 8C 2300 for the 1931 Le Mans race which they won in style beating the SSK Mercedes into second place; he was awarded his Knighthood the same year. May 1933, Birkin entered the Tripoli GP in a Maserati 8C and finished on the podium just behind the legendary drivers Nuvolari and Varzi. He burnt his arm on the hot exhaust of the 8C which caused blood poisoning, within three weeks at just 36 years old the penniless Birkin was dead. The phrase ‘Full Throttle’ is synonymous with Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin as the title of a book and the 1990s film (Rowan Atkinson stars) covering his adventures. A fiercely patriotic double Le Mans winning racing driver and as his gravestone declares ‘a superhero to a generation of British schoolboys’.
The Marston Legacy - Sunbeam
John Marston 1869-1918 created The Sunbeam brand and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to proclaim he influenced all forms of transport on a Global scale. Marston enjoyed early bicycles and constructed his own machine at his enamelling workshops in Wolverhampton. His first attempt came with solid tyres and was seen as basic if not a little crude but his workshop foreman William Neville became interested and produced a quality machine for the company chief. The frame was coated in deep black enamel with gold leaf to an extremely high standard and when Marston’s wife Ellen observed sunlight dancing across its finish she named it ‘Sunbeam’; the new ventures title from 1888. Villiers Engineering began life as an alternate supplier of quality pedals for Sunbeam cycles in 1898 and once taken over by Marston it would expand and prosper under the influence of his eldest son Charles. Villiers would produce its 2 millionth engine in 1956 and the name would be part of motorcycles heritage until 1978. Car production began in 1901 with the Sunbeam-Mabley, a very strange 2 ¾ hp four wheeled (in a diamond layout) single cylinder machine, capable of carrying two, for sale at £130.00. Marston then began importing Berliet chassis from Lyon, France and fitting Sunbeam bodies, their success at around 18 cars a month led to the Sunbeam Motor Car Company Ltd in 1905; produced at the Moorfield Works and a separate endeavour from Marston’s other interests. More cars followed, including a 3.6 litre, this would have been one of the very first six cylinder engines produced when it arrived in 1904. John Marston began making his own vehicle radiators in 1906, one part of the business that would be unaffected by economics or war time restrictions to come.
Prior to WW1 Louis Coatalen joined Sunbeam from Hillman, an engine designer from France he would pen the first aero engines for Sunbeam; his genius would later be utilised in Land Speed Record attempts and would launch the Wolverhampton factory into the Premiership of car producers. His influence also saw Sunbeam take on the racetracks of Europe with reasonable success, unfortunately halted when hostilities began in 1914. During the war Sunbeams Moorfield Works would supply 647 complete aircraft and Coatalen designed engines would power fighters, bombers, seaplanes and even airships. Up the road at the Sunbeamland factory bicycles shared floor space with a new 2 ¾ hp motorcycle launched in 1912 but the interest created ensured the factory could offer three versions for the following year. War intervened and whilst some limited private production continued a massive demand for the military applications to all transport meant that most bikes leaving Wolverhampton were painted khaki. Post war and immediately the works riders for Sunbeam were in action, whether it be trails or TT. Just prior to cessation of hostilities tragedy struck Marston with the unexpected death of his 3rd son, Roland Marston who was due to take over from his father at Sumbeamland. The shock was such that John Marston also passed away the day after his son’s funeral, his wife Ellen would survive him by just six months. Although no longer at the helm Marston’s influence together with his highly skilled labour force ensured all parts of Sunbeam progressed, at least for the next decade. 1922 and a Louis Coatalen designed 350hp V12 Manitou (aero engine) of 18,322cc was shoe-horned into a Sunbeam prepared racer, arriving at Brooklands on the 18th May with Kenelm Lee Guinness in the seat, it would set a land speed record at 133.75mph. Watching that day was Malcolm Campbell who would constantly pester Coatalen to sell him the car; the Frenchman finally agreed in April 1923 and Campbell broke the record again in the Sunbeam, renamed Bluebird in both 1924 and 1925. On two wheels Sunbeam visited the TT races as a works team every year during the twenties and started the decade with first and third places in the Senior Race of 1920. Success over the mountain course would return several times during the decade and cement the Sunbeam name into motorcycle history.
On water, Sunbeam/John Marston Ltd developed an outboard motor that would become known as the Marston Seagull in 1931; this engine would dominate its market for years. Sunbeam also produced hundreds of commercials, mainly buses and trolley buses, a part of the business that enjoyed success up until WW2. By 1926 Sunbeam began to dominate the land speed record contest with Henry Seagrave driving ‘Ladybird’, a 4 litre V12 supercharged race car that later became known as the Tiger. With the record being challenged almost weekly Coatalen with Sunbeam’s finest, built the 1000hp twin engine monster, they expected to achieve 200mph. Seagrave powered ‘the slug’ as it was known to 203.79mph at Daytona Beach on 29th March 1927, the first time a non US vehicle had driven the beach and given the chance Sunbeam took the record. The 20s and early 30s were golden years for the manufacturer with a golden name but the depression slowed all areas of Sunbeam’s business and although the name continued the only work left in Sunbeamland was radiator production. Depression affected, car and aero engine production began to stall in the early 1930s so Louis Coatalen returned to France and mid-decade the group now called Sunbeam -Talbot- Darracq (STD) ran into financial problems. The name John Marston will be remembered for many great engineering achievements but his influence over mass mobility with his creation Sunbeam is certainly prominent in the history of transport.
Donald Malcolm Campbell CBE – Pray at the Altar of Speed
Donald Campbell was born into the fastest of motoring environments; one week after his birth at Canbury House in Surrey in March 1921 the Easter meeting at Brooklands saw Kenelm Lee Guinness achieve 140mph in the 350hp Sunbeam. Two years later his father Malcolm purchased that very car, repainted it blue and attempt his first Land Speed Record; a decision that would influence both their lives. Referring to David de Lara’s book 300+ A Speed Odyssey, Donald recollected a childhood where he grew up in ‘an electric atmosphere of the unceasing striving for higher speeds and greater speed records’. Many opinions have been expressed over the relationship between father and son, no doubt Sir Malcolm was strict and of a selfish character; history shows, to achieve great things ‘especially behind the wheel’ requires a single minded attitude. In many ways they were peas from the same pod. In his father, Donald certainly saw ‘greatness’ and his determination to not only match but exceed Sir Malcolm’s record would result in a similar personality and conclude in tragedy. One person who influenced both their lives was Chief Engineer Leo Villa, a calm and brilliant technician who was at the forefront of Sir Malcolm’s speed records and offered a workshop of sanctuary for young Donald; a place where he wouldn’t annoy his father and could stay out of trouble. Even so, Donald would normally be found accompanying his father at record attempts, even at the age of six he remembered Pendine Sands in 1927 when ‘The Skipper’ (as he was known) broke the Land Speed record for a third time at 174mph.
Trips to South Africa and Utah followed as Malcolm pushed the boundaries on land to over 300mph in 1935. Records on water would now fall in Switzerland in 1937 and 38 and again at Coniston Lake just prior to WW2 breaking out; Blue Bird K4 would reach 141.74mph and as always Donald was by his father’s side. Post-war, the aging and poorly Malcolm took one last attempt on water with a modified K4. A jet engine had been installed but the craft was dangerously unstable over 90mph and combined with the ill health and failing eyesight of its pilot the attempt was doomed to failure. Young Donald had joined Kline Engineering Company at Horley and received a call just before Christmas 1948 to say his father had endured a stroke. Sir Malcolm Campbell passed away just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. His father’s estate would be sold for auction, although the family were permitted to purchase anything of sentimental value prior to the sale. Donald acquired the 1935 (Utah) 301mph Bluebird car and the K4 hydroplane that had failed just 2 years before, one wonders why they weren’t willed to him automatically? It was just after the funeral that Donald learnt American money would sponsor band leader Guy Lombardo to attempt the water speed record in an all-aluminium craft. He immediately found Leo Villa in the workshops and exclaimed ‘they are going to take dads record back to America and I am going to do something about it! Are you with me? After explaining why this was not a good idea, Leo confirmed he was on board. At the time Donald recollects this would be a short term ‘bash at it’ never considering it would become a threat to his marriage or a life changing decision. It’s fair to comment Donald ‘rode his luck’ with his K4 attempts (converted back to propeller thrust) initially, just shy of his father’s speed by 2 mph, he persevered and saw 170mph on the speedo before colliding with debris on the water; K4 was holed and sunk 20 yards from shore at Coniston in 1951.
His marriage had failed, mainly due to Donald’s addiction to speed attempts but after the loss of K4 he purchased an old cottage and remarried, just prior to the death of another record chaser John Cobb at 220mph on Loch Ness in September 1952. This re ignited the desire that culminated in Bluebird K7 finally bringing success in July 1955 at 202.3mph at Ullswater in the Lake District. Incredibly, K7 broke the record again in November and then every year until 1959, achieving 260.35mph on Coniston in May of that year; the cost, a re-mortgaged house, debts and his second marriage. He would however tie the knot again with Belgium cabaret star Tonia Bern on Christmas Eve 1958 after a whirlwind romance of just three weeks. Work had begun on Campbell Norris Bluebird project 7 (CN7) car whilst Donald was chasing water speed records and was completed in 1960. It went straight into runs on the Bonneville Salt Flats where a crash at 370mph caused a fractured skull and broken ribs following a 6G terror ride for Donald. Rebuilt and redesigned CN7 was ready to attempt Lake Eyre in South Australia in March 1963 but was the pilot? Campbell did hit 403mph proving he still retained his nerve but on a reduced track over 5 miles as the elements had conspired against the team. Three months ‘down-under’ and over £1 million in the red the team knew CN7 could go faster but that would wait until their return the following year. On 17th July 1964 Donald Campbell set a new Land Speed Record 403.10 mph then on New Year’s Eve at Lake Dumbleyung the dependable K7 would claim a new water record at 276.30 mph; Campbell now had both records taken in the same year, a feat unlikely to be repeated again and achieved on the anniversary of Sir Malcolm’s death 16 years prior. Surely now there was nothing left to prove? To quote from David de Lara’s book Donald himself had sacrificed everything at the ‘altar of speed’, his final offering was made 4th January 1967 when K7 attacked one attempt too many on Coniston Lake. A British motoring hero taken in just a few violent seconds, gone in a massive plume of spray, is remembered 50 years to this very day. Donald Campbell like his father certainly lived life ‘flat out in the fastest lane’.
Special thanks to author David de Lara for allowing us to include a few images from his superb book Donald Campbell 300+ A Speed Odyssey. The ultimate portrait of the man, his team and family, with contributions from many involved with his life; when the fastest machines in the world carried a Union Jack on blue bodywork.
Ivan Hirst – Beetle’s Saviour
Whilst Hitler claimed credit for the VW Beetle, the idea certainly came via Ferdinand Porsche in the early 1930s; he may have been enlightened by the Czech Tatra 97 of the time, historians will long argue over its origins. There is no doubt who gave the Beetle a second chance. In a bombed out post-war Germany with little hope and no infrastructure Major Ivan Hirst saw a future what would become a legend. Hitler had viewed car ownership in other nations and considered the German population should also enjoy widespread mobility in the form of his ‘people’s car’. He laid the foundation stone for the factory building at Wolfsburg near Hanover in 1938 after Mercedes had produced 33 pre-production examples. The KDF-Wagon or ‘strength through joy car’ failed to see mass production as war interrupted and the new factory supplied Beetle based military vehicles (Kubelwagon) and weapons until over run by the US Army. Using forced labour, mainly Jews from Poland or Russia, the factory was however able to produce 660 Beetles in the war years at a cost of less than 1000 Reichsmark’s (£85), the price-point was an original aim of Hitler; these were distributed to the privileged few. Allied bombing raids put a halt to production in 1944 and post-war Germany was divided up into four sections. Hanover fell under British control and young Major Hirst was given the job of getting the 1-mile facility up and running again.
Born in Saddleworth near Manchester, Hirst trained as an optical engineer. He received a commission to second lieutenant in the Territorial Army in 1934 and quickly rose through the ranks. After D Day he took charge of tank repair operations in Belgium and come VE day in 1945 achieved the rank of Major. His post-war function was to assist his superior Colonel Charles Radclyffe at Wolfsburg; the original intentions were to scrap the facility and remove the tooling back to England as war reparations. Immediately after hostilities the plant was used to repair war ravaged British Military transport but when Hirst discovered one of the pre-war prototypes hidden in an outbuilding he conjured a plan to supply the occupying British Army with much needed transport. Further searching led too much of the original tooling being discovered intact, stored away from the main structure. Having admired a Beetle pre-war, Colonel Radclyffe ensured Hirst enjoyed the support of his superiors and the first machines constructed resulted in a 10,000 unit order, mainly for the Military Police.
By using old stock panels from the ‘people’s car’ and mechanical remains from the Kubelwagen plus parts he was able to beg, steal or borrow, Hirst was able to get the war torn Wolfsburg factory building 1000 cars a month from March 1946. The first Beetles were crude and noisy and when tested its pre-war designed 1131cc engine offered a lack lustre top speed of just 56mph. Shortages of materials meant the bomb damaged roof allowed snow to fall inside the factory during winter months; repairs with branches and tarpaulins sufficed enough to keep production running. It is worth pointing out that Major Hirst’s endeavours resulted in one of the very few worthy moments for post-war Germans; the remains of the country were being dismantled and the population faced starvation and misery. Having succeeded in obtaining one large order for the Beetle, the UK government and manufacturers were approached. Henry Ford declined the offer to produce the Beetle, reportedly saying the design was ‘a piece of junk’ and advising the car was ‘very backward in the commercial field. British designers have nothing to learn in this brand of design.' Unfortunately, the UK Government listened and when Humber offered their report; ‘A study of the engine indicated that the unit was, in certain details, most inefficient . . . it is very doubtful whether it was even capable of giving reliable service had it produced a performance commensurate with its size. Looking at the general picture, we do not consider that the design represents any special brilliance . . . and it is suggested that it is not to be regarded as an example of first-class modern design to be copied by British Industry’; the Beetle was rejected, much to the consternation of those who realised its potential. Hirst was intrigued by the wartime four-wheel drive system developed by the Nazi’s and also produced a number of specials utilising the skills of specialist coachbuilders such as Karman. His ingenuity knew no boundaries; realising small carburettor parts would be difficult to produce at Wolfsburg he enlisted a nearby idle camera factory to supply. Total production for 1946 was 7677 vehicles and this figure was improved on the following year to 8987. The same UK motor industry that rejected the VW lobbied for the plant to be dismantled and for the restriction of German car exports but by 1947 British policy was to release the country from occupation and to rebuild itself. Hirst then installed civilian management from 1948, appointing ex Opel Director Heinz Nordhoff as General Manager, his knowledge of General Motors mass production would be invaluable as 19,244 cars would be completed that year.
On arriving in Wolfsburg in 1945 Major Hirst was advised that the town had been popular with the Nazi’s and to always carry his revolver however on leaving in 1949 he had built up such a rapport with his workers they built him a Beetle as a present; this he declined. He and Colonel Radclyffe both accepted a special 1/10 scale model which reportedly cost more to make than an actual car. When the pair left the plant for the last time some 50,000 Beetles had been constructed, VW had a plant that would become the largest in the world as the company grew to dominate. This vehicle saved from obscurity would continue production for over half a century with 21.5 million units, making an indelible mark not just on motoring but world culture; thanks to one hero, Major Ivan Hirst who died aged 84 just one month after being photographed behind the wheel of the new Beetle.
March 1946 the factory was building 1000 cars a month