Lost Worlds

Looking back at Brooklands and Opel’s Rennbahn.

Napier Railton on a flying lap. Image: Race Department

Almost as swiftly as the automobile had become established, thoughts moved to racing, pitting not only drivers’ skill but also that of the engineers, fabricators and supporting teams. Races were conducted on dusty or muddy European public highways (weather dependant), but as speeds and risks increased, the building of a dedicated course for such pastimes entered the minds of a number of British motorsport aficionados. Hill climbs and trials had of course existed from early on, but the onus upon developing the world’s first proper motor racing track lay with one Hugh Locke King – creator of Brooklands.

In the summer of 1906, keen early adopter of the newly fangled motor car, wealthy landowner Locke King was cajoled into building what journalist Bill Boddy would reverentially call The Track. With little opportunity for the British racing enthusiast taking the fight to those on the continent, Locke King agreed to the significant alteration of his substantial Surrey estate into a vaguely egg shaped track to attain the highest possible speeds. 

The Track. Image: Brooklands Museum

Colonel Holden of the Royal Artillery was chief architect. Locke King brought in over 2,000 labourers and craftsmen from his other estates to build the concrete track, with its hundred foot wide, 30 foot high banking and a track length of two and three quarter miles – three and a quarter with pit lane. The legendary green roofed club house started small but soon grew in stature alongside size as the track became a Mecca for the socialites of the day.

Image: Brooklands Museum

Thirty acres of woodland required felling and levelling, the river Wey was diverted in 24 hour shifts, six days a week. The concrete was laid directly onto the earth apart from the wooden-framed bankings. This would lead to frequent repairs as not only the racing took its toll. Weather conditions would be just as effective in breaking up the surface.

The newly founded Brooklands Auto Racing Club soon held their first race, after Locke King’s wife, Ethel inaugurated The Track on 16th June 1907, just nine months since first mooted. The cost however was as steep as those bankings. Informed that the initial estimate would be for £22,000, Locke King’s health faltered, his hair now white and his bank balance depleted by £150,000. Brooklands first scheduled race was on July 1st, known as the Motor Ascot in keeping with the established horse racing fraternity; drivers even wore coloured silk smocks, akin to jockeys. 

These pioneering days would also witness Brooklands become home to British aviation, which would come to be the cuckoo amid the car racing world. Wide, flat grass along with a pool of engineering talent would see both forms of transport progress rapidly.

Image: National Motor Museum

From speed trials to club racing and high speed testing by latterday heroes, but all such delights soon went west with the Great War curtailing motor racing, in-turn accelerating aircraft development. Car races and industry testing continued right up to the outbreak of the Second World War – a Ford gymkhana held on 7th August 1939 to show over 30,000 spectators Dagenham’s finest being the last publicly held meeting. The government requested Vickers to take over Brooklands for aviation research and manufacture, the aroma of kerosene replacing that of Castrol R.

Meanwhile over in Germany, Adam Opel had a similar idea to that of Locke King by building his own, more egg shaped track – the Opel Renn–und Versuchbahn situated just a mile from Rüsselsheim am Main, in October 1920. Initially the factory test track, a strong thirst for racing activities soon emitted the blue haze of exhaust fumes amid its concrete surface, built mirroring its British counterpart. 1.5 kilometres in length and but 12 metres in width,  the banked angles of 32° were the same.

Opel Rennbahn. Image: walter-magazin.de

In contrast to Brooklands’ class-ridden “The Right Crowd and No Crowding” subtext, bus and rail loads of Germans packed grandstands and devoured sausages while watching local clubs race their latest machines.[1] Spectators thronged the inner circle as the Opel Rennbahn grew in popularity and off-track activities became just as popular. Luminaries such as Rudolf Caracciola and August Momberger would happily show off to the huge crowds. Kurt C. Volkhart and Fritz von Opel drove their first attempts with the RAK 1 rocket car whilst other continental manufacturers could try out their products on this mini version of both Brooklands and Indianapolis tracks, the latter opening in 1909.

Despite its early popularity, Opel’s Rennbahn quickly lost out, initially from the opening of the ultra high speed Avus track the following year. The deciding hammer blow however came from the ever-popular Nurburgring, somewhat sealing its fate in 1927. The Eifel mountain’s sinuous ribbon of tarmac, Der Grünholle[2] proving a greater challenge than simply going round in circles. Rennbahn continued until 1930, but like its UK equivalent, the concrete surface crumbled and the track was soon abandoned. War again would prevent any form of sporting action, the occupying American forces using the area as a base.

By 1949, both tracks had completely disappeared from view. Brooklands had aircraft hangers and factories placed on what used to be the racing line. Opel’s fate saw torn down grandstands left to nature; the forest and its creatures gradually taking over, the concrete burst apart by weather and roots.

What’s left of the Rennbahn today. Image: Ruesselsheim.de

But a glimmer of hope for both pantheons of speed remains. Whereas Surrey’s track now has many homes and businesses residing where oil sponsored meetings took place (Colgate-Palmolive lies in the way of John Cobb, S.F. Edge, et al), the fine Brooklands museum now houses not only racing cars but buses and aircraft from days past. Mercedes-Benz World resides next door. Both are worthy of your time.

Sadly beyond saving, the Rennbahn is all but gone. However, a visitor platform with information on those screaming days of yore does exist along with some technical wizardry. Thomas Lächele and Carsten Ritter between them have recreated a virtual Rennbahn in the time it took to build the actual tracks. Using archive material from Opel along with recently discovered photographs, the duo have painstakingly recreated the oval track for sim-races – popular online versions of racing.

Thankfully, the chequered flag has yet to fall decisively on these lost worlds. 

[1] Opel went for large capacity crowds – up to 50,000 race goers could witness bolides approaching 150Kh/h.

[2] The Green Hell, later coined by (Sir) Jackie Stewart.

Data sources: http://www.roehauto.de/ https://www.opelpost.com/05/2021/opel-rennbahn-2/

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

11 thoughts on “Lost Worlds”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. A fascinating read for a Saturday morning. Even though I have never visited Brooklands, I was aware of the new road cutting right through the existing track.

    It’s an interesting juxtaposition of two different time periods and between cars used for racing and cars used for transportation (I hope there are no street races going on there)

    1. It is a shame how contemptuous and apathetic today’s society lets such a national (and international) monument deteriorate.
      This destruction can only be explained by wantonness. It is depressing.

  2. Good morning Andrew. An excellent read as always, thank you, but I’m even more intrigued by the photo of the Napier Railton. Does it really have all four wheels in the air, or is it an optical illusion? If the former, then your caption is quite literally correct!

    Speaking of photos, I haven’t seen the one posted by Freerk before. It’s a very striking image.

    1. The track was quite bumpy – I’ve always believed that photo to be authentic.

    1. There’s a road following the old Opel racetrack. It’s called ‘um die Rennbahn’ (around the race track) and you can use this for searching in Google maps to see what’s left over.
      A couple of years ago they drilled holes into the track and planted trees to destroy it.

  3. A wonderful article that shows the impact of new technology – seeing the concrete tracks plonked down in the countryside is quite startling, as is the picture of the modern road cutting through the Brooklands track. As a species, we’ve really not stopped disrupting things since the industrial revolution got going.

    Here’s a film of the Ford gymkhana at Brooklands, from June 1939.

  4. I enjoyed this – part industrial archaeology, part social history as the circuits arrived at the high point of mass leisure in industrialised Europe. These concrete standings are hard to obliterate, so they could become the equivalent of Nazca lines hundreds of generations from now.

    I also have a fascination for test tracks – with the benefit of Google Earth it’s easy to pick out Nardo, Ehra-Lessien, Lommel, Nuneaton, Millbrook etc, but the new accessibility detracts from their aura of mystery.

  5. Another really interesting piece Andrew. A you know I spent an amount of time working in the Brooklands Airfield terminal building whilst part of the Mercedes Benz Club archive team.
    An Art Deco creation which is not far from the original Brooklands Circuit pit lane, which has been incorporated into an area of the adjacent Office Park. Indeed I have an image of my Mercedes CLK convertible parked alongside the pit wall somewhere.
    The Mercedes Benz Club got permission to take publicity photographs on the remains of the banked track some time ago. They were able to arrange a group of their most iconic cars there.

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