It may seem a long time ago for the car enthusiast of the 21st Century, but if you were to wind the clock back almost 100 years you would find a generation of motor-racing enthusiasts who found Sir Henry R. S. (Tim) Birkin the epitome of the glamour of motor racing, a fearless driver at the wheel of a great green Bentley, blue-and-white spotted silk scarf a-flutter at his throat.
Yet he was small of stature, stuttered badly and his driving could mechanically wreck a car faster and more completely than any other top racing motorist of the late 1920s. Birkin was born into a wealthy Nottingham family in 1896, and turned to motor racing in 1921 as a relief from the boredom of post-war office work.
His first competition car was a DFP, which he raced at Brooklands, achieving no better than a second place in a minor event. After his first few races, business reasons compelled him to give up racing for several years and he did not appear in serious competition again until 1927, when he and his brother Archie - killed a month later practising for the motorcycle TT - drove a 3-Iitre Bentley to third place in the Essex MC Six-Hour race at Brooklands.
The next year, Tim Birkin's 4½-liter Bentley again came third in the Six-Hour race and this made him decide, despite opposition from his father, to make motor racing his profession. In the 1928 Le Mans, Birkin was partnered by the veteran Jean Chassagne. Their Bentley led for the first 20 laps until a rear tire burst at 100 mph and the tire canvas jammed itself steadfastly in the brake mechanism. As the Bentleys, to reduce weight, were not carrying jacks, Birkin had to try and free the wheel with 'a jack-knife, a file, a hammer and some pliers'.
After 90 minutes he had the remains of the tire off the wheel, and began to drive back to the pits on the rim at 60 mph. At Arnage, three miles from the pits, the wheel disintegrated and the Bentley slid into the ditch. Birkin ran for help and when he arrived at the pits the 47-year-old Chassagne murmured, 'Maintenant, c'est a moi' (now its my turn), picked up a jack in each arm, ran back to the car, jacked it up and put the Bentley back in the running.
On the last lap of all Birkin beat the lap record to run the car into fifth place - 'A pleasant little triumph,' he commented. By then Birkin had become fascinated by supercharging, seeing it as the easiest way of increasing the power and speed of the 4½-liter Bentley: he had obtained backing from the Hon. Dorothy Paget and set up a factory at Welwyn, where the first supercharged conversion of the 4½-liter was built in sometime during 1928 to 1929. However, it was with an unblown 6½-liter Bentley that Birkin achieved his most notable victory of the season - first place at Le Mans, partnered by Woolf Barnato.
The first appearance of the 'Blower Bentley' was at the Essex Six-Hours Race at Brooklands on 29 June 1929. The car retired, but the supercharger was shown to have given 'an increase of 100 hp - 35 of which it required for itself-and a far swifter acceleration'. The top speed was also raised from 108 to 125 mph - 'more than worth the trouble', opined Birkin. W. O. Bentley, however, wasn't so sure: 'To supercharge a Bentley engine is to pervert its design and corrupt its performance'.
In the Irish Grand Prix in July, Birkin, in 'No. 1 Blower Bentley', hounded 'Scrap' Thistlethwayte's supercharged 6.8-liter Mercedes to such good effect that the German car retired with a blown gasket. Boris Ivanowsky's Alfa had too great a lead on handicap, however, and won, with Glen Kidston's Speed Six Bentley second and Birkin third.
Blower was adapted, in 1929, for Brooklands work (even though Birkin hated the track, it being 'out-of-date, inadequate and dangerous') with a narrow fabric covered two-seater body, which caught fire when the flexible exhaust pipe broke in the 1929 500 Miles Race. This body was therefore replaced with a single-seat shell designed by Reid Railton. The engine had now been tuned to give more than twice the power of the standard 4½-liter unit.
Birkin had persuaded Bentley to produce a series of 50 blown cars to qualify the model for entry in the 1930 Le Mans 24 hours. During the 1930 season, Birkin began a series of assaults on the Brooklands lap record, then held by Kaye Den's V12 Sunbeam Tiger. On his first attempt, Birkin lapped at 135.3 mph, beating the record, and then flew back to Le Touquet to claim the dinner Barnato had promised him if he exceeded Don's speed. At Le Mans in June, Birkin led the harrying of Caracciola's Mercedes, a Bentley tactic which led to the German's withdrawal, although Birkin threw a tire tread as he was overhauling Caracciola, running for several miles on the canvas at 125 mph.
Birkin's car, having eventually fallen back to seventh place, retired after 20 hours when a con-rod broke and punched a hole in the crankcase. The end of the Bentley company was now becoming increasingly apparent, and Dorothy Paget withdrew her support from the Blower team in October 1930, although she continued to back the single-seat No. 1 car. Birkin saw the season out in appropriate style by bringing a Blower 4½ into second place in the French Grand Prix at Pau against the far lighter and more manoeuvrable Bugattis.
In 1931 he eventually settled on an Alfa-Romeo for sports car events and a Maserati for Grands Prix. Partnered by Lord Howe, he won Le Mans in the Alfa, came fourth in the Belgian GP, with the Hon Brian Lewis as co-driver, and crashed in the Ulster TT. The 1932 season saw the single-seat Blower Bentley out at Easter, when Birkin at last managed to crack the Outer Circuit record again, with a speed that was to stand for two years, a remarkable 137.96 mph, only beaten by John Cobb's 24-liter Napier-Railton. In June, Birkin drove a new 2.3 Alfa and won the second day of the Dublin, Phoenix Park, races. He retired at Le Mans, however, with a blown head gasket.
At the end of July, Birkin's Bentley and John Cobb's Delage had a famous challenge match at Brooklands, which Birkin won by 25 yards after a 137 mph lap. It was one of the most enjoyable races of Birkin's career. In 1933, he took delivery of a new 8C 3000 Maserati, with which he came third in the Tripoli Grand Prix, behind Nuvolari and Varzi. During practice he burned his arm against the exhaust-pipe while picking up his cigarette lighter. The wound turned septic, hastened by the effects of malaria which he had contracted in wartime while serving with the Royal Flying Corps in Palestine. Early in June 1933 Birkin, his arm still bandaged after treatment, threw one of his customary parties at Ciro's Club, but the septicaemia spread and, on the end of the same month, he died in the Countess Caernarvon Nursing Home in London.