Tim Birkin

26/7/1896 - 22/6/1933

Record updated 26-Jul-20

Tim Birkin was a British racing driver and one of the "Bentley Boys" of the 1920s.

Tim Birkin
Sir Henry Ralph Stanley Birkin was born into a wealthy Nottingham family in 1896. He was the son of Sir Thomas Stanley Birkin, 2nd Bt. and Hon. Margaret Diana Hopetoun Chetwynd. Sir Henry Birkin Bt and ultimately inherited his father’s lace manufacturing business. In the early days of his motor racing, money was never an issue for Birkin but later on the cost of developing his blower Bentleys consumed most of his family fortune and he sought sponsorship which arrived in the form of Dorothy Paget who was known as a wealthy horse racing enthusiast.

He was a ruthless driver who drove his cars very hard in a "press on" manner and became the ultimate racing icon of his time, silk scarf flying in the wind, a model of bravery and excitement. He was not a large man and he spoke with a strong and persistent stutter which belied his popular image but did nothing to damage his reputation as a lady killer on a very wide scale. Tim Birkin, alongside such names as Sir Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell was probably the most famous driver of his time - the Stirling Moss of the nineteen thirties.

He married Audrey Clara Lilian Latham, daughter of Sir Thomas Paul Latham, 1st Bt. and Florence Clara Walley, on 12 July 1921. They were divorced in 1928.

He and Audrey had two daughters, Pamela and Sara, of whom Pamela became the first wife of the Life Peer Baron Buxton of Alsa, KCVO, MC.

He joined the Royal Flying Corps during World War I and gained the rank of Lieutenant in the service of the 108th (Norfolk and Suffolk Yeoman) Field Brigade, serving in Palestine where he contracted malaria, a disease that he would suffer from for the rest of his life.

In 1921 he turned to motor racing, competing a few races at Brooklands. Business 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 changed to a 4½ litre car and after some good results decided to become a professional racer 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. In 1928 Birkin entered the Le Mans race, leading the first twenty laps until a jammed wheel forced him to drop back, finishing fifth.

The next year he was back as winner, racing the "Speed-Six" as co-driver to Woolf Barnato. But Birkin had now come to the conclusion that a supercharger was necessary for the car. The Bentleys were huge cars. Bugatti called them "the world's fastest lorries". The wheelbase was 3.3 meters and the weight almost two tons. The ordinary Bentley engine (100x140mm = 4.398 cc) produced some 130bhp. With technical help from Clive Gallop and supercharger specialist Amherst Villers and with Dorothy Paget financing the project, Birkin rebuilt the car and added a huge Roots-type supercharger in front of the radiator, driven straight from the crankshaft and giving the car a unique appearance. The 242bhp "Blower Bentley" was born.

The Blower Bentley first appeared at the Essex six hour race at Brooklands on 29 June 1929. However the car proved to be very unreliable. W.O. Bentley himself had never accepted the Blower Bentley. He said that supercharging a Bentley was "to pervert the design and corrupt the performance". However Birkin somehow managed to persuade "W.O." to produce the fifty supercharged cars necessary for the model to be accepted for the 1930 Le Mans twenty four hour race. At the end a total of fifty four Blower Bentleys were built. After a duel between Dudley Benjafield's and Birkin's Blower Bentleys and Caracciola's Mercedes SSK at the 1930 Le Mans, all three retired, leaving the victory to the "Speed Six" car of Barnato and Kidston.

Back in 1925 the energetic motor sports enthusiast Eugène Azemar, who was involved with the Tourist Board in St Gaudens in southern France, succeeded in persuading the Automobile Club du Midi to arrange a Grand Prix race in the region. A great success, the St Gaudens track later got the honor of hosting the 1928 French Grand Prix. If they can, so can we, thought the city council in the nearby town of Pau and decided to try to get the French Grand Prix to their own town. Pau actually had some Grand Prix traditions, as the town held the honour of arranging the first race ever to be called a Grand Prix back in 1901. For the 1930 Grand Prix a triangular Le Mans type track outside the city was selected. Known as the Circuit de Morlaas it should not be confused with the well-known street track in the Parque Beaumont. The French had hoped to run the race to the International Formula but when the response was poor the event was postponed and changed to a Formula Libre event instead. The new date meant that the Italian teams were unable to attend, leaving it to be mostly an internal French affair with sixteen Bugattis, two Peugeots and a Delage among the twenty five starters. Among the top Bugatti drivers can be mentioned Lehoux, Count Czaikowski, Wimille, Étancelin and William Grover-Williams.

A curiosity in the entry list was Tim Birkin's "Blower Bentley" sports car stripped down to a racing car with headlights and mudguards removed. The race distance was twenty five laps on a 15.8 km track making a total of 396 km. Bouriat took an early lead in the race followed by "Williams", Zanelli, Czaikowski and Étancelin with Birkin as first non Bugatti driver in sixth place. "Williams" in a works Bugatti then became the next leader. Czaikowski fell back through the field and Bouriat in the other works Bugatti made a pitstop giving over the car to Chiron. Then "Williams" also had to make a stop for a new wheel. That all made way for Étancelin to advance and he was followed by Birkin, the track with its long straights suiting the supercharged Bentley perfectly.

At one third's distance Chiron led followed by Étancelin, "Williams" and Birkin. Birkin's fourth place became a third as "Williams" got engine troubles but then Zanelli, who had made an early stop, came rushing through the field pushing Birkin back to fourth. At lap ten "Sabipa" crashed and was thrown out of his Bugatti, Birkin only avoiding the injured driver by the slightest of margins. After eleven laps Chiron got problems with the oil pressure and Étancelin could take over the lead and soon Chiron was also passed by Zanelli and Birkin. The Bentley driver used the horn to warn the Bugatti to move over, surely an unique occurrence in Grand Prix racing! With seven laps to go Zanelli made another pitstop and Birkin was sensationally up in second place. While Étancelin with a 2.5 minute lead nursed his Bugatti home to take victory by a huge margin, Zanelli had not given up and was catching Birkin fast. At the flag the margin was down to fourteen seconds but it was enough for the British Bentley driver to make Grand Prix history.

Dorothy Paget withdrew her support for the team in October 1930 but continued to support one car for Birkin. Bentley lost its independent identity when the factory was taken over by Rolls-Royce in 1931.

He bought the red "Blower" and for 1931 he also purchased a Maserati for Grand Prix events and an Alfa Romeo for sports car racing. He won the Irish Grand Prix in the Alfa and Le Mans in partnership with Earl Howe. In partnership with George Eyston he used the Maserati to take fourth place in the French Grand Prix.

He continued to race the red "Blower" in which on the 24th March 1932 he raised the Brooklands Outer Circuit lap record to 137.96 m.p.h., beating Kaye Don’s Sunbeam record by 3.8 seconds. This record stood for another two years before being beaten by John Cobb’s Napier Railton and the Blower Bentley remains the fourth fastest car around Brooklands, having also ultimately been beaten by Whitney Straight’s Duesenberg and Chris Staniland’s Multi-Union in latter years.

On 7 May 1933 he started the Tripoli Grand Prix in a new 3 L Maserati finishing third. During practice Birkin burnt his arm on the hot exhaust pipe while reaching into the cockpit for his cigarette lighter. He returned to London with his arm bandaged and was admitted to the Countess Carnarvon Nursing Home with septicaemia, generally assumed from the burn.

Dudley Benjafield fought hard to save Birkin’s life and he was recovering until a relapse, dying on June 22nd 1933. Walter Bentley maintained in his autobiography that Brkin’s death was not due to the burn but to a mosquito bite that he had picked up in Tripoli which sparked off septicemia which related back to malaria which he had picked up in Palestine during the First World War. Either way he was killed by blood poisoning prematurely ending the career of one of the best known and most accomplished of British drivers.

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