Sunday 26th July 1896
Born on this day, Lieutenant Sir Henry R. S. “Tim” Birkin, British racing driver, one of the “Bentley Boys” of the 1920s.
In 1921 he turned to motor racing, competing a few races at Brooklands. Business and family pressure then forced him to retire from the tracks until 1927 when he entered a three litre Bentley for a six-hour race. For 1928 he acquired a 4½ litre car and after some good results decided to return to motor racing, very much against his family’s wishes. Soon the little Bentley driver, racing with a blue and white spotted silk scarf around his neck, would be a familiar sight on the race tracks driving with the works team (the “Bentley Boys”). In 1928 Birkin entered the Le Mans race again, leading the first twenty laps until a jammed wheel forced him to drop back, finishing fifth with co-driver Jean Chassagne who heroically rescued the abandoned, damaged car, winning the hearts of the crowds; Chassagne received a trophy from W O Bentley in recognition of this extraordinary feat.
The next year he was back as winner, racing the “Speed Six” as co-driver to Woolf Barnato. If Bentley wanted a more powerful car he developed a bigger model and the Speed Six was a huge car. Ettore Bugatti once referred to the Bentley as “the world’s fastest lorry” (“Le camion plus vite du monde”). Back in 1928 however, Birkin had come to the conclusion that the future lay in getting more power from a lighter model by fitting a supercharger to the 4½ litre Bentley. When Bentley Motors refused to create the supercharged model Birkin sought he determined to develop it himself. With technical help from Clive Gallop and supercharger specialist Amherst Villiers, and with Dorothy Paget financing the project after his own money had run out, Birkin rebuilt the car at the engineering works he had set up for the purpose at Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. Adding a huge Roots-type supercharger (“blower”) in front of the radiator driven straight from the crankshaft gave the car a unique appearance. The 242 bhp “blower Bentley” was born.
The first car, a stripped down Brooklands racer known as Bentley Blower No.1, first appeared at the Essex six hour race at Brooklands on 29 June 1929. However, the car initially proved to be very unreliable. W.O. Bentley himself had never accepted the blower Bentley. Nevertheless, with Wolf Barnato’s support, Birkin persuaded “W.O.” to produce the fifty supercharged cars necessary for the model to be accepted for the Le Mans twenty-four-hour race. In addition to these production cars built by Bentley Motors, Birkin put together a racing team of four remodelled “prototypes” (three road cars for Le Mans and Blower No.1) and assembled a fifth car from spare parts. Birkin’s blower Bentleys were too late for Le Mans in 1929 and only two of the cars reached the start line in 1930. After an epic duel between Dudley Benjafield and Birkin’s privately entered blower Bentleys and Rudolf Caracciola’s Mercedes SSK all three retired, leaving the victory to the Bentley works team Speed Six of Barnato and Glen Kidston. Birkin’s courage and fearless driving, in particular his selflessly harrying Caracciola into submission, are regarded as embodying the true spirit of the Vintage Racing era.
Back in 1925 the energetic motor sports enthusiast Eugène Azemar, who was involved with the Tourist Board in Saint-Gaudens in southern France, succeeded in persuading the Automobile Club du Midi to arrange a Grand Prix race in the region. A great success, the Saint-Gaudens track later got the honor of hosting the 1928 French Grand Prix. If they can, so can we, thought the city council in the nearby town of Pau and decided to try to take the French Grand Prix to their own town. Pau had some Grand Prix traditions, as the town held the honour of arranging the first race ever to be called a Grand Prix back in 1901. For the 1930 Grand Prix a triangular, Le Mans-type track outside the city was selected. Known as the Circuit de Morlaas it should not be confused with the well-known street track in the Parque Beaumont. The French had hoped to run the race to the International Formula, but when the response was poor the event was postponed and changed to a Formula Libre event instead. The new date meant that the Italian teams were unable to attend, leaving it to be mostly an internal French affair with sixteen Bugattis, two Peugeots and a Delage among the twenty five starters. Among the top Bugatti drivers were Louis Chiron, Marcel Lehoux, Count Stanislas Czaikowski, Jean-Pierre Wimille, Philippe Étancelin and William Grover-Williams.
A curiosity in the largely single-seat entry list was Tim Birkin’s blower Bentley touring car, stripped down to racing trim, with headlights and mudguards removed. The race distance was twenty five laps of the 15.8 km track, making a total of 396 km. Guy Bouriat took an early lead, followed by Williams, Zanelli, Czaikowski and Étancelin, with Birkin as first non-Bugatti driver, in sixth place. Williams in a works Bugatti then became the next leader. Czaikowski fell back through the field and Bouriat in the other works Bugatti made a pitstop giving over the car to Chiron. Then Williams also had to make a stop for a new wheel. That all made way for Étancelin to advance and he was followed by Birkin, the track with its long straights suiting the supercharged Bentley perfectly.
At one-third distance Chiron led, followed by Étancelin, Williams and Birkin. Birkin’s fourth place became a third as Williams got engine troubles but then Zanelli, who had made an early stop, came rushing through the field pushing Birkin back to fourth. At lap ten “Sabipa” crashed and was thrown out of his Bugatti, Birkin only avoiding the injured driver by the slightest of margins. After eleven laps Chiron encountered problems with oil pressure and Étancelin took over the lead. Soon Chiron was also passed by Zanelli and Birkin. The Bentley driver used his horn to warn the Bugatti to move over, surely a unique occurrence in Grand Prix racing! With seven laps to go Zanelli made another pitstop and Birkin was up into second place. While Étancelin, with a 2.5 minute lead, nursed his Bugatti home to take victory, Zanelli had not given up and was catching Birkin fast. At the flag the margin was down to fourteen seconds but it was enough for the British Bentley driver to make Grand Prix history.
Birkin’s life changed dramatically at the end of 1930. Bentley Motors withdrew from racing and closed down the following year. (Although purchased by Rolls Royce the marque did not reappear for several years.) Dorothy Paget withdrew her support for Birkin’s road team in October 1930. She continued however to support Birkin’s red single seater track car, the original Blower No.1. The car (nicknamed the Brooklands Battleship) had been re-bodied with a single shell by Reid Railton after its lightweight fabric two seater body had caught fire in the 1929 500 mile race due to a cracked exhaust. Birkin kept his motor workshop going by entering into a partnership with Mike Couper and developing a business specialising in tuning high performance cars. In addition, an “electric model Brooklands” — an elaborate miniature racetrack game with motorized cars running on single rails — was manufactured at the works. Birkin’s partnership with Couper came to an end in 1932 however and the works closed.
Birkin continued racing despite these setbacks. In 1931 he won Le Mans with Earl Howe in an Alfa Romeo, even receiving a telegram from Mussolini congratulating him on his “win for Italy”. On 24 March 1932 he raised the Brooklands Outer Circuit lap record to 137.96 mph in the Brooklands Battleship, a record which stood for another two years before being beaten by John Cobb driving the 24 litre Napier Railton. On 7 May 1933 he started the Tripoli Grand Prix in a new 3 L Maserati 8C owned by fellow driver Bernard Rubin, finishing third. During his pit stop Birkin burnt his arm badly against the hot exhaust pipe while picking up a cigarette lighter. There are different opinions of what then happened. The traditional view is that the wound turned septic, whilst others say Birkin suffered from a malaria attack. It was probably a combination of both that proved fatal, as Birkin died at Countess Carnavon Nursing Home in London 22 June 1933, aged thirty-six.