On June the 17th, 1907, the famous race circuit at Brooklands opened with a luncheon. It was to have tremendous effect on British car development, that oval of concrete, highly banked on the turns. Because of the speed limit of 20 m.p.h. on all open roads in England at the time there was nowhere else that could be used for sustained high speed over long distances, and this had handicapped British designers as against those of other countries.
The circuit was the brainchild of Hugh Locke-King, being the second ever oval style race track built for cars, the first being the 2-mile (3 km) oval Lakeside Auto Speedway near San Diego, California, which was opened on April 20, 1907. The designers wanted to ensure the best possible spectacle for the spectators, which led to the track being built as a 100 ft / 30 metre wide, 2.75 miles (4.4 km) long, banked oval. The banking was nearly 30 feet (9 m) high in places. In addition to the oval, a bisecting "finishing straight" was built, increasing the track length to 3.25 miles (5.2 km), of which 1.25 miles (2.0 km) was banked. It could host up to 287,000 spectators in its heyday.
Due to the complications of laying tarmac on banking, and the expense of laying asphalt, the circuit was built using gravel and cement. This led in later years to a somewhat bumpy ride, as the surface settled over time. Along the centre of the track ran a dotted black line, known as the Fifty Foot Line
. By driving over the line, a driver could theoretically take the banked corners without having to use the steering wheel.
The first Brooklands committee consisted of Prince Francis of Teck, Lord Essex, Sir Redvers Buller, the Duke of Westminster, and Lord Lonsdale, along with other titled and well-known people who demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt the attitude of the "owners".
Obviously horse-racing was to be the example on which Brooklands was to be based. The only person with authority who really understood the racing car was Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, and he was in some respects a voice crying in the wilderness.
Eleven days after the circuit opened, it played host to the world's first 24 hour motor event, with Selwyn Edge leading three specially converted Napier cars around the circuit.
Over three hundred red railway lamps were used to light the track during the night. Flares were used to mark the upper boundary of the track. Edge drove his car for the full duration, with the drivers of the other two cars taking the more familiar shift approach.
The set pattern did not make for friendliness. Drivers were regarded as "jockeys" for the car entrants, who were all important. Prize money was in "Sovs"; starting money, bonuses from the "trade", and so on would have been regarded as the worst example of professionalism. Drivers were even required to wear their owner's colors on their overalls - with, in some cases, cloth caps to match; and those colors were registered.
Fantastic as it might seem to-day there was even a "starting gate" - that is, an infernally homicidal affair of steel wire rope, lowered in front of the line of waiting cars then made to shoot up when the starter used a lever. Time-keeping as such was distinctly unpopular though there was a time-keeper in attendance. All races were long by modern standards, while several were divided into heats and a final, a practice that became more popular again in the 1960's.
All this proved confusing for spectators even though the winner could be recognised because his was the first car to turn from the outer circuit into the finishing straight.
Passes were not issued to the Press, who were almost ignored, and this did not help.
Traffic control was feeble so that spectators and competitors private cars were kept waiting in one of the first traffic jams ever documented; food was short and badly served.
And then the residents of almost-stately houses nearby took umbrage in a big way about the noise and bustle and the "low type" people connected with the track. So they did their very best to have the whole thing stopped - with only partial success.
The world record for the first person to cover a hundred miles in an hour was set by Percy E. Lambert at Brooklands, on 15 February 1913 (see Lost Marques: Talbot and Lost Marques: Talbot Lago
) when driving his 4.5 liter sidevalve Talbot. He actually covered 103 miles and 1470 yards (167.340 km) in sixty minutes.
There is a film of his exploits at the Brooklands museum which was made on that day. Grand Prix motor racing was established at Brooklands in 1926 by Henry Segrave after his winning of the French Grand Prix in 1923 and the following year at the Spanish Grand Prix which raised interest in the sport in Britain. This first British Grand Prix was won by Louis Wagner and Robert Senechal driving a Delage
During the late 1930s, Brooklands also hosted massed start cycle racing events organised by the National Cyclists' Union (as the sport's governing body, the NCU banned such events from public roads). When World War II broke out in 1939, racing was stopped due to fuel rationing.
It did not take long before all this apparent grandeur faded. The original track had to go because it was not well enough built for modern speeds, and not sufficiently attractive to be a financial success. After the war completed in 1945, it was deemed that racing cars were too fast for the banking, and no further racing took place.
A Memorable 24 Hours - The Mile-A-Minute Record
S. F. Edge's 24-hour "Mile-A-Minute" record set over a century ago at Brooklands Racetrack set the scene for many long distance rallies and motoring events that were to follow. Edge's win at the wheel of a comparaatively low-powered Napier car in the Gordon-Bennett International Trophy race of 1902 - a car designed and made in a dingy little workshop in Lambeth - helped to break down the prejudice then existing against British built cars; five years later, his single-handed, 24-hour record brought the British car into the world spotlight!
When the motor course at Brooklands was first discussed, Edge surprised everyone with the announcement that, as soon as the track was available, he wished to engage it to establish a 24-hoour record, driving the whole time himself, at an average speed of not less than a mile a minute.
The track had to be illuminated during the night by huge flares, and the course marked out by 352 lanterns.
Windscreens, quickly detachable wheels and such refinements were then in their extreme infancy, so Edge designed a curious contraption to keep some of the wind off him. John Pugh, of the Rudge-Whitworth company, supplied detachable wheels, and Dunlop tires arranged for a small mountain of tires to be already assembled on the spare wheels.
All appeared to be in readiness on the track - 2 miles, 1,350 yards round on the 50-feet line - when Edge found that after a few laps at high speed, serious pre-ignition took place. Fortunately, this was a day or two before the record attempt; Momague Napier diagnosed the trouble as being due to the valve caps overheating; the car was returned to the works, and when water-cooled caps were made and fitted the trouble ceased.
At 6 p.m. on Friday, 28 June 1907, three six-cylinder Napier cars lined up for the start - the two others were to relieve the monotony somewhat, and they were driven for three-hour spells by F. Draper and Frank Newton, and H. C. Tryon and A. F. Browning.
The first 50 miles were covered in 42min 46sec, and in the first hour, Edge covered 70 miles, 130 yards. The hundred mile mark was reached in 1hr 25min 13 sec. Shortly after the first stop for water at 8.10 p.m., the lanterns were lighted. The first change of tires came at 350 miles. The greatest distance covered in any one hour was 72 miles, 150 yards in the 14th. The total average distance per hour throughout the long run worked out at 65 miles, 1,594 yards; total distance covered 1,581 miles, 1,310 yards.
'There was but one anxious moment.
On the last lap but one, on a section of the track which had cut up very badly, the glass screen shattered and the flying glass hit Edge in the face; fortunately, he was unhurt.
The record caused a sensation in two continents; it is hardly possible to over-estimate the good it did to the British motor industry. It was beaten 18 years later when Thomas Gillett, driving one of Edge's A.C. cars, covered over 2,000 miles in 24 hours at an average of 82.58 m.p.h.