Pre-War Racer – Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin

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Birkin's Blower Bentley no2 team car from 1930Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin was born into a wealthy family of lace traders in 1896, he would become one of Britain’s ‘Bentley Boys’ the fearless racers whom chased excitement and glory. A sporting gentleman no doubt, Birkin lived life to the full and after contracting Malaria in Palestine serving in the Royal Flying Corps during WW1, his attitude was perhaps understandable. Nicknamed after a mischievous cartoon character from the early 1900s ‘Tiger Tim’ yearned the exhilaration that wartime aviation had supplied, this he found at Brooklands in 1921. Along with his brother Archie, our hero took to the banked Surrey circuit in a Dodge Brothers special and it’s suggested he met W O Bentley after one successful event. Young Tim was courting Audrey Latham and once married she ensured his racing adventures ceased. After six years without motorsport attending to the family business, Audrey left with their two daughters; Tim reverted to type and entered the Brooklands Six Hour with brother Archie in his 3 litre Bentley.   Maserati 8C-3000 Painted BRG Birking drove to third place Tripoli GP 1933 (2)Later in 1927 tragedy struck when Archie, a keen motorcycle racer, was killed during practice for the Isle of Man TT. At 31 years old and against the wishes of his family Birkin purchased a 4.5 litre Bentley and after some promising results cemented his name under the ‘Bentley Boys’ banner with their passion to take on La Sarthe. The inaugural Le Mans 24 hours ran in 1923 and the sole UK entrant was a 3 litre Bentley piloted by Canadian John Duff and Englishman Frank Clement. Privateers that just packed everything into their race car and drove to the event, W O reluctantly attended but quickly became bewitched by the challenge of Le Sarthe; a holed fuel tank snatched victory for the team finishing 4th. The same group returned in 1924 and gave Bentley its first Le Mans win. Two works entries failed to finish in 1925 both due to fuel issues. 1926 arrived with two works and one private Bentley entrant, all of three litres capacity and none would finish, the last one crashing with 20 minutes remaining; W O was so upset he closed the race works for months.   Old no1 Le Mans winner for Birkin and Barnato 1929Returning in 1927 with one 4.5 litre, Bentley looked to dominate until all three cars were involved in the same accident, finally the Davis/Benjafield three litre got going and went on to win. Tim Birkin joined the team for the 1928 Le Mans effort, co-driving with Frenchman Jean Chassagne, a three car assault, all 4.5 litre cars. Birkin led for the first 20 laps before a puncture jammed a rear wheel and the Bentley philosophy of running light meant no ‘on board’ repair equipment. Three hours later the Birkin/Chassagne entry was back on track but miles behind; they passed the chequered flag in 5th overall and Birkin broke the lap record. The race was won by Bernard Rubin with Bentley’s Chairman Woolf Barnato who would partner Birkin in the ‘Speed Six’ 6.6 litre entry the following year; another victory for Bentley, the first Le Mans for Tim who also broke the lap record again. Although the marque was dominant in 1929 taking the first four places, the rise of ‘supercharged’ competition was noticeable. W O Bentley chose to increase cubic capacity whilst other manufactures were supercharging their motors; when questioned over the advantage of a ‘Blown Bentley’ he famously remarked, a supercharging would ‘pervert the design and corrupt the performance’ of his cars. Birkin had seen the mighty Mercedes SSK and the performance of its supercharged 7 litres in the hands of German aces Rudolf Caracciola and Christine Werner; he maintained Bentley would need a ‘blower’ in order to compete in future. Without any factory assistance Birkin set up an engineering workshop in Welwyn Garden City, assisted by supercharging specialists Amherst Villiers.   Tim Birkin's 3 litre Bentley he raced with brother ArchieWith his finances exhausted Tim persuaded wealthy heiress Dorothy Paget to fund the development and overall five Roots-type supercharged Bentleys were produced in Welwyn. With Barnato’s help Birkin persuaded W O to build a further 50 Blower Bentley’s road models, required for entry into Le Mans. Bentley works entered two Speed-Six versions and two of Birkin’s ‘Blowers’ arrived under the team name of Hon Dorothy Paget in 1930 but behind the scenes a plan had been hatched for Birkin’s machines to chase down the sole Mercedes. Realising the best way to beat Caracciola and the mighty SSK was too force mechanical strain, Birkin hounded and overtook the German. The pace would be too fast to sustain for 24 hours but the opposition took the bait and a mighty battle ensued; it would eliminate both Blower Bentleys and the SSK, leaving the works cars an easy 1-2. Birkin’s sacrifice didn’t go unnoticed, motoring press of the day immediately credited the glory to the cars from Welwyn. From there Birkin headed south to the Circuit de Morlaas (Pau) for a 51 car Formule Libre race featuring many of the era’s best French drivers and Grand Prix Bugatti’s. Birkin stripped lights and mudguards from his mount and finished second, noted on route for blasting his horn whilst passing Louis Chiron’s Type 35B.   Sir Henry 'Tim' BirkinSurprisingly, the Birkin’s Blower never won a race in period, although a new Brooklands record of 138mph was set battling gale force cross winds in March 1932. The Great Depression was taking its toll and Bentley withdrew from racing in 1930 and Birkin’s finances were also desperate when Dorothy Paget withdrew her support. Refusing to quit racing Birkin joined Earl Howe in an Alfa 8C 2300 for the 1931 Le Mans race which they won in style beating the SSK Mercedes into second place; he was awarded his Knighthood the same year. May 1933, Birkin entered the Tripoli GP in a Maserati 8C and finished on the podium just behind the legendary drivers Nuvolari and Varzi. He burnt his arm on the hot exhaust of the 8C which caused blood poisoning, within three weeks at just 36 years old the penniless Birkin was dead. The phrase ‘Full Throttle’ is synonymous with Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin as the title of a book and the 1990s film (Rowan Atkinson stars) covering his adventures. A fiercely patriotic double Le Mans winning racing driver and as his gravestone declares ‘a superhero to a generation of British schoolboys’.   By Grant Ford /   Woolf Barnato alongside Birkin celebrating Le Mans victory in 1929