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What is Brooklands? TG’s guide to the world’s first purpose-built racetrack

The location for our 30th birthday megashoot is steeped – literally – in history

Published: 12 Sep 2023

For Top Gear magazine’s 30th birthday, we needed somewhere to line up all 30 cars to have won Top Gear’s Car of the Year Award since 1993. Where better, then, than the very spot the original Top Gear magazine team photographed every single new car model you could buy in Britain for the first mag cover three decades ago?

What is Brooklands? topgear

That’ll be Brooklands: the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit. Course, people had been racing cars for as long as there had been cars, but this usually took place on beaches, airfields, or public roads. As cars got faster – and wealthy folk wanted to show off their prowess in driving – somewhere was needed that cars could go flat-out, legally. 

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And that place was the estate of the fabulously named Hugh F. Locke King, in Surrey, England. He commissioned the equally superbly-titled Brigadier-General Sir Henry Capel Lofft Holden to design him a track that would allow cars of the period to lap at consistently high speeds. 

See, back in the infant days of the new-fangled motor car, the British government viewed it with suspicion and slapped down a nationwide speed limit of 20 miles per hour. It wasn’t so many years earlier that you could only legally drive a car if there was a man walking in front of it waving a flag, warning people it was on its way and mildly defeating the object of owning a contraption which could move faster than a human being. 

In the early 20th Century, car technology was closer to Adam & Eve than Adrian Newey. So, ingenious banked corners were employed to allow the primitive slender-tyred machines to barrel around the curves without slowing to a snail’s pace. The banking towers over 9m (30 feet) high and sits at an angle of 30 degrees at its steepest. Walking up it is not recommended.

The track was built out of sections of concrete, because it was cheaper and faster to do so than use asphalt. That made Brooklands a wild ride – photos of cars competing there in period show them fully airborne while at top speed. The problem got worse into the 1930s as the concrete sections settled and shifted at different rates, basically creating a giant jigsaw assault course for racing cars with no ‘halo’, no safety cell, and no seatbelts.

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Construction began in October 1906, and amazingly, was completed less than a year later, with a ceremonial procession of fundraisers and petrolheaded hoi polloi invited to form a 43-car strong parade on 17 June 1907. And a lovely luncheon. 

Immediately Brooklands started making history. Later in June, it hosted the world’s first 24-hour motorsport event, as drivers competed to see how they could make a car travel the furthest in 24 hours. That idea would later catch on in a little town in France. The spectacle made headline news and 10,000 spectators poured in, though this was small potatoes compared to the 280,000 spectators Brooklands hosted in its heyday. It was the Taylor Swift stadium tour of its day.

After being requestioned by the military and used as an airfield during the First World War, Brooklands bounced back in the Twenties. After all, though the Indianapolis Speedway had opened in 1909 this was still one of the premier places to go fast in a car anywhere on the planet. And the speeds were only going one way.

Bentley Blowers pushed the speed record around the 2.7-mile circuit past 130mph. In 1935, John Cobb’s 24-litre Napier-Railton special hit an unprecedented 143mph around the track, setting a lap record which still stands to this day. The Napier-Railton lives at Brooklands Museum, and still runs when they can dig out someone brave enough to drive it.

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So, why did the records not continue to tumble? Why – despite hosting the first British Grand Prix in 1926 – did Brooklands not vie with Silverstone to become a modern-day place of racing folklore, where Verstappen would streak to victory after victory?

Predictably, it was the intervention of the Second World War. In 1939 the racing stopped, and Brooklands became a hotbed of aircraft production, with thousands of Hurricane fighters and Wellington bombers built on the site. The area was bombed several times by the Luftwaffe aiming to hurt the British war effort, with a devastating attack in September 1940 claiming almost 90 lives. 

After the war, the circuit was heavily damaged, and there was a heck of a lot more British infrastructure that needed repair and renewal before a racetrack took priority. Meanwhile, car technology had advanced to the point where banked corners weren’t vital for high-speed laps. And thanks to the abundance of ex-Bomber Command aerodromes with plenty of runway going spare (like Dunsfold Aerodrome, the home of Top Gear’s Test Track), motorsport never came back to Brooklands. 

Sections of the track were demolished to allow local road building. What was left was gradually covered with weeds, and the sound of a Bentley Blower or Napier-Railton no longer echoed around the Weybridge landscape.

What is Brooklands? topgear

Happily, what remains is now protected and preserved by volunteers, while the garages and clubhouse at Brooklands have become a thriving aircraft and motorsport museum. And while Top Gear’s 2023 cover shoot was for static cars only, it’s just possible that we’ve taken a Bugatti higher up that iconic banking than anyone since the 1930s…

Want more? Check out the 30th birthday issue of Top Gear magazine here!

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