When the sat nav announced that we had reached our destination something told me it was not true. We were down a broad private road that went around a bend to somewhere. From out of a shed in the middle of the road emerged a lady to explain, in a well-rehearsed manner, not only to myself but I think to the other six cars behind me, that this was not the entrance to the Brooklands Museum. Her redirection instructions worked because in a few minutes we drove around the rear of Mercedes World to the car park outside of Brooklands.
Chris Perkins, our Probus Club of Basingstoke outings organiser had carried out a recce and had prepaid our entrance tickets, so we gained admittance speedily. There were supposed to be fourteen of us consisting of members and spouses in our party, but winter colds had taken out a couple but the rest of us headed off eager to explore this famous site.
Each building told a different story about the evolution of Brooklands as the base for a range of competitive speed trials of both cars and motorcycles all supported by uniformed volunteers happy to provide information about the charges under their watchful gaze. Some readers will have seen the regular broadcasts on the Yesterday television channel about the work of the volunteers who bring some of the vehicles back to life. What was surprising to learn going into one of the first buildings was that the racetrack was also used for cycle racing for many years with many early bicycles on display.
The range of British made motorcycles exhibited brought back memories of my youth, but many were from decades well before my involvement with motorised two wheels. A couple of Brough Superiors, one with a sidecar, with the rig in immaculate condition, that made me wonder what its value today would be. They were known as the Rolls Royce of motorcycles with each one personally built to the owner’s specification and was the first super bike in the world guaranteed to exceed 100 mph.
In the 1970s I lived in a house built in the grounds of the home that had been owned by George Brough, in Nottingham. I remember seeing photographs of Lawrence of Arabia on a Brough Superior outside the front door. The house was known as Pendine after a Brough Superior won the world speed record in 1936 at over 163 mph on Pendine Sands in south Wales.
Other motorcycles were from long past manufacturers that had developed into car production and then failed in the latter part of the 20th century. Humber being a classic example, with the company starting as bicycle manufacturers, moving into motorcycles – a beautifully restored Humber 1904 motorcycle was displayed – and then into car production.
Brooklands being the home of the first British Grand Prix motor race in 1926 there was an extensive display of GP Formula 1 cars from British teams over recent years including an electric McLaren race car. A GP car was set up for visitors to experience a simulator drive around the original Brooklands circuit.
In a separate building McLaren showed two of their Senna GTR road cars as well as a life-sized model made from 280,000 Lego bricks.
The early cars were a sight to behold from London to Brighton veteran run models, Austin Sevens and MGs up to a 24 litre Napier-Railton. Many had been holders of world speed records driven by famous names that resonated from down the years. But it was the condition that these cars exhibited that drew the admiration of visitors. Volunteers were seen going about in a dusting party to keep them looking bright and shiny.
Most of us had an image in our minds that Brooklands was known for early motor racing with its famous banked racing track but what was set out before our gaze was a myriad of buildings of various shapes and sizes from those early years as well as aircraft hangers. While it was common knowledge that there was a Concorde on site, considered in my mind, mistakenly as it turned out, that it was just an attraction, what became clear was that Brooklands had been the centre for the serious manufacturer of aeroplanes for many decades.
At its height over 14,000 people were employed on site. During wartime aircraft production this was the main manufacturing site for Hawker Hurricanes, whose claim to fame was that they shot down more enemy aircraft than Spitfires. Vickers Wellington bombers were manufactured here using a skeleton construction for the airframe covered in fabric that aided speedy production. There was even a small exhibit that demonstrated how a range of bombs could be selected for specific raids and a practical demonstration how the bomb aimer released his load.
Naturally such a site became a target during war time hostilities and the Luftwaffe tragically killed 90 people in one bombing raid. A memorial listing their names can be seen at the edge of the racetrack.
The range of aircraft on display extended from pioneers of the earliest flights including a replica of the first to traverse the Atlantic taking 16 hours through First World War Sopwith Camels and early twin engined bombers to Tornado modern fighter jets. A Wellington bomber that crashed into Loch Ness during the 1940s had been rebuilt following its recovery.
Outside a Vickers Viscount and BAC One-Eleven were on site testament to the range of civil aircraft that continued to be designed and produced here until 1986.
Being a winter weekday, the London Transport Museum was not open, very disappointing to bus enthusiasts, but the Concorde was available to visit for an additional cost of £6. Programmed visits ensured that everyone had sufficient time on board to gain some sense of what it was like to travel in such exclusivity. One member recalled his trip from New York to Heathrow, when at Mach 2 he was allowed to visit the cockpit whilst drinking Grand Marnier. Something never permitted in any aircraft these days.
A dry, clear, cold day, interspersed with visits to the Sunbeam café situated in the original Clubhouse, for coffee and a late lunch was considered by all in our party, including the ladies, to be a visit that we shall all remember fondly. One member stating very positively that he will take his grandchildren when they visit from abroad.
As many will remember from the Nick Park Aardman Animations television films about characters made from Plasticine, the main man, Wallace, voiced by the late Peter Sallis, always said to his dog at the end of each adventure “A grand day out Gromit” And so it was.