Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin

Henry_Birkin_at_the_1929_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans_(cropped)

Legendary British driver, one of the original Bentley Boys, Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin went on to taking Bentley to the forefront of motor racing in the 1920’s.

In 1921 he turned to motor racing, competing a few races at Brooklands. Business and family pressure then forced him to retire from the tracks until 1927 when he entered a three litre Bentley for a six-hour race. For 1928 he acquired a 4½ litre car and after some good results decided to return to motor racing, very much against his family’s wishes. Soon the little Bentley driver, racing with a blue and white spotted silk scarf around his neck, would be a familiar sight on the race tracks driving with the works team (the “Bentley Boys”). In 1928 Birkin entered the Le Mans race again, leading the first twenty laps until a jammed wheel forced him to drop back, finishing fifth with co-driver Jean Chassagne who heroically rescued the abandoned, damaged car, winning the hearts of the crowds; Chassagne received a trophy from W O Bentley in recognition of this extraordinary feat.

The next year he was back as winner, racing the ‘Speed Six’ as co-driver to Woolf Barnato. If Bentley wanted a more powerful car he developed a bigger model and the Speed Six was a huge car. Ettore Bugatti once referred to the Bentley as “the world’s fastest lorry“.Back in 1928 however, Birkin had come to the conclusion that the future lay in getting more power from a lighter model by fitting a supercharger to the 4½ litre Bentley. When Bentley Motors refused to create the supercharged model Birkin sought he determined to develop it himself. With technical help from Clive Gallop and supercharger specialist Amherst Villiers, and with Dorothy Paget financing the project after his own money had run out, Birkin rebuilt the car at the engineering works he had set up for the purpose at Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. Adding a huge Roots-type supercharger (“blower”) in front of the radiator driven straight from the crankshaft gave the car a unique appearance. The 242 bhp ‘Blower Bentley’ was born.

The first car, a stripped down Brooklands racer known as Bentley Blower No.1, first appeared at the Essex six hour race at Brooklands on 29 June 1929. However, the car initially proved to be very unreliable. W.O. Bentley himself had never accepted the blower Bentley. Nevertheless, with Wolf Barnato’s support, Birkin persuaded “W.O.” to produce the fifty supercharged cars necessary for the model to be accepted for the Le Mans 24 Hours race. In addition to these production cars built by Bentley Motors, Birkin put together a racing team of four remodelled “prototypes” (three road cars for Le Mans and Blower No.1) and assembled a fifth car from spare parts. Birkin’s blower Bentleys were too late for Le Mans in 1929 and only two of the cars reached the start line in 1930. After an epic duel between Dudley Benjafield and Birkin’s privately entered blower Bentleys and Rudolf Caracciola’s Mercedes SSK all three retired, leaving the victory to the Bentley works team Speed Six of Barnato and Glen Kidston. Birkin’s courage and fearless driving, in particular his selflessly harrying Caracciola into submission, are regarded as embodying the true spirit of the Vintage Racing era.

 

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