In the late 20’s, and early 30’s, motor racing was huge in Great Britain. Aristocrats would campaign their Bentleys, and Bugattis around English tracks, for the glory and fun of it. One notable British playboy-turned-racer was Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin. A small framed man, with a thin moustache, and bad stammer, Tim was known to be a fearless driver with a penchant for speed. In a newspaper interview, he described himself as being “…quite small, and I do stammer…in business that does not interest me, I am hopelessly vague and inefficient but on a subject in which I am absorbed, just as hopelessly talkative and meticulous”.
One of the things that absorbed Sir Tim was auto racing, and he was very, very good at it. In fact he was so good, he got the Hon. Dorothy Paget (a wealthy heiress to Standard Oil) to fund his racing team. Ms Paget had a penchant for race horses, she bet millions at a time, and she hated men. Known as the Queen of the Turf, Paget and Birkin were two of the biggest personalities in their era.
In his quest for speed, Sir Tim, and his racing partner Mike Couper, developed a prototype 4 ½ liter Blower Bentley in 1929. W.O. Bentley however, didn’t like the idea of supercharging, and in the summer of 1929, he told a reporter; “They [Birkin’s Team] would lack in their preparation all the experience we had built up in (our own) racing department over 10 years. I feared the worst and looked forward to their first appearance with anxiety…”.
The tourer-bodied prototype Blower Bentley lost its first race at Brooklands in 1929. But Birkin, with his ride-on mechanic W.O. Bentley (yep, the big man himself), placed second overall, and first in class at the RAC Tourist Trophy. W.O. however, remained unimpressed. He said “Tim managed to persuade Barnato to allow him to enter a team in the 1930 Le Mans (in which none survived) and we were obliged, in order to meet the regulations, to construct no less than fifty of these machines for sale to the public.”. And that’s how the famous Blower Bentley came to be.
Sir Tim wanted to try his new Blown Bentley idea in a single-seat track car. So his long-time financier Dorothy Paget put up the money for Birkin to build a single seat Blower Bentley at his shop in Welwyn England, just north of London. Birkin bought chassis no; HB 3402, which was 10 ft 10 in long, and came fitted with a Bentley 4 ½ 4-cyl engine. He then commissioned Amherst Villiers to design a supercharger for his car. Villiers suggested further engine modifications, and Birkin managed to enlist the help of some of W.O. Bentley’s senior staff to perform the modifications.
The body of Birkin’s new 1 seat track car was initially made of a blue-colored fabric, stretched across a metal frame (similar to aircraft of the period). This body proved to be a fire hazard (go figure), and was replaced with its current aluminum body around 1930.
The Blower Bentleys first outing was the 1929 Brooklands 500-mile race. Birkin quickly set the pace by lapping the track at 121 mph, with his trademark polka dot silk scarf blowing in the wind. The new car suffered from several mechanical issues, and the exhaust system finally ignited the fabric body, forcing Birkin to retire from the race sometime after lap 108.
After replacing the body, the Villiers supercharger was also modified, giving the car an astounding 240-hp running on an alcohol-fuel mix. Armed with his new, more powerful track car, Birkin returned to Brooklands in 1930, where he promptly won the Kent Long Handicap, setting a fastest lap speed of 126.73 mph.
Shortly after the car’s first victory, Birkin returned to Brooklands for an Easter event, where he garnered another win, in front of 20,000 spectators. In his book ‘History of Brooklands Motor Course 1906-1940’, the late automotive journalist Bill Boddy recalled; “The Bentley was in grand trim, roaring very high round the Byfleet banking, dropping to the Fork in a puff of dust, clipping the verge by the Vickers’ sheds and going onto the Members’ banking each time with that characteristic and disturbing little snake that those who saw the car in action are not likely to forget. From the notorious bump” ? where the Hennebique Bridge near the end of the Member’s Banking had subsided slightly into the River Wey ? “… it leapt some 70 feet, clear of the Track, onto the Railway Straight. It was a grand sight, Birkin’s scarf flirting with the fairing behind his head as he held the car to its course. The ‘Blower’ Bentley certainly provided as great a thrill for the onlookers of the 1930s as had the V12 Sunbeam and the ‘Chittys’ for the 1920s…”.
That day would wind up in the history books, as Berkin lapped the Brooklands track in 1 minute 13.4 seconds, at 135.33mph. Remember, in 1930, that was obscenely fast.
Shortly after setting the speed record at Brooklands, the Blower Bentley was eclipsed by a V12 powered Sunbeam, piloted by Kaye Don. His speed of 137.58 would taunt Birkin, as his Bentley experienced numerous problems over the next two years.
Birkin returned to Brooklands in April of 1932, determined to reclaim the fastest lap time for his Blown Bentley. Four days before the start of the 1932 racing season, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin lapped the Brooklands Outer Circuit at a speed of 137.96 mph, narrowly besting Don’s record. In August of the same year, he returned to Brooklands and matched that speed as he drove to victory in the Gala Long Handicap.
Later that year, Birkin wrote of the Brooklands track; “I think that it is, without exception, the most out-of-date, inadequate and dangerous track in the world…Brooklands was built for speeds of no greater than 120mph, and for anyone to go over 130, without knowing the track better than his own self, is to court disaster… The surface is abominable. There are bumps which jolt the driver up and down in his seat and make the car leave the road and travel through the air”.
‘Tiger Tim’ Birkin went on to win the prestigious 24-hours at Le Mans in 1933, at the helm of an Alfa Romeo 8C-2300s (Bentley had all but collapsed by then). Several months later, the Baronet of Ruddington Grange died from complications of a serious burn that he’d received while racing a Maserati in Tripoli three weeks earlier, and malaria, which he’d contracted in Palestine, while serving in the Royal Flying Corps. He was 36 years old.
After Birkin’s death, Dorothy Paget kept the car in storage, and finally sold it to Peter Robertson-Rodger in 1939. The prominent collector also owned Birkin’s Blower Bentley that he’d driven in the French Grand Prix. Rob-Rodger has blown the engine in the French GP car, and pulled the 4 ½ liter from the single-seat Bentley to replace it.
The motor was eventually returned to the car, and Rob-Rodger fitted a 2-seat body to the frame. When Rob-Rodger died in 1958, the car was willed to Bentley specialist John Morley, who then sold it, and the original 1-seat track body to collector Russ Turner in 1964. Mr. Turner suffered a heart attack while driving the car at Silverstone, and his wife Audrey gave the car to noted watchmaker George Daniels (who also owned Birkin’s Maserati 8C-2300s).
At this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, Bonhams auction house sold the record-setting Bentley for $7 Million dollars. Setting a new record for the highest price ever paid for a Bentley at auction. Kind of fitting, don’t you think.