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Spirit of Brooklands

Paul Dean

The Brooklands, the new high-performance coupe from Bentley, is mechanical eye candy. The vehicle’s namesake is a defunct and dilapidated racing circuit just southwest of London that is decaying at about the same rate that it is being restored. And yet, it is no surprise that the automaker would want to forge a connection between the car and the track.

When it opened more than a century ago, Brooklands was the world’s first purpose-built banked oval; it soon became a coliseum for gentlemen racers and amateur airplane pilots, whose dangerous pursuits were made even riskier by the primal nature of their machinery. Sir Malcolm Campbell built and tested his land-speed-record cars here in the 1920s and 1930s. John Cobb, at the wheel of a 24-liter Napier in 1935, set the track’s all-time lap-speed record of 143.4 mph. And this is where British aviation history began; in 1908, the nation’s first powered flight took off from the Finishing Straight, as did the Hurricane fighter’s maiden test flight, in 1935.

The formerly 2.75-mile circuit now is barely surviving as an underfunded and scruffy memorial to youthful courage, early speed records, and the fatal shunts of motorsports’ first giants; the track claimed 17 lives from 1907 through 1938, including those of three spectators. Among Brooklands’ victims was Percy Lambert, who was killed when a rear tire on his 4.5-liter Talbot disintegrated during an attempt to regain the world land-speed record.

Brooklands stands as a memorial to Lambert and others who perished here, and as a monument to the feats of daredevils such as Campbell and Cobb. But the name with which the track is most closely linked is Bentley, for in the 1920s and ’30s, Brooklands was the playpen for the white-coveralled Bentley Boys—Tim Birkin, Woolf Barnato, Sammy Davis, Jack Dunfee and his brother Clive (who was killed in a Brooklands crash in 1932), and others—the members of the marque’s racing team. Of the 672 contests they entered at Brooklands, the Bentley Boys, driving Speed Sixes or Blowers, won 73 and placed in 172. (In addition to the Boys, at least one member of the opposite sex also excelled in a Bentley at Brooklands. In 1908, many decades before Lyn St. James and Danica Patrick were in diapers, the track hosted ladies’ races, and Margaret Allen, driving a Bentley called Old Mother Gun, outran all challengers by reaching 134.9 mph.)

To cynics, Bentley’s use of the Brooklands designation might appear to be brazen pillaging of an era and its aura, a transparent marketing ploy to bring historic relevance to a $341,000 motorcar and add volume to its sales. The naming could be viewed as an attempt to bestow gilt by association. That seemed to be the case in the 1990s, when, under its previous ownership, Bentley produced a slower and far less expensive automobile called the Brooklands.

However, the less misanthropic will see the 2009 Bentley Brooklands—a heavy, hugely fast Clydesdale coupe—as a direct descendant of the brand’s large and ponderous but incredibly powerful racecars of yore. With its 523 hp and 774 ft lbs of torque—more mechanical push than any other Bentley—heaving three tons of leather, steel, rubber, wood, and glass to a top speed of 184 mph, the car is inarguably a commemorative. It also will be a rarity; Bentley plans to build only 550 Brooklands over the vehicle’s three-year production cycle, and it already has sold 500 of them.

 

Creating supercars that are built like semis always has been the Bentley way, said Bentley chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen in February in Tuscany, as the company invited media members to drive the Brooklands auto at a location far from the Brooklands track. "The bridge [between the old track and the new coupe] is here, and here," Paefgen said, pointing to his head and then his heart. "There is a very strong emotional link, and this soul has to do with low-end torque and high performance."

Added Bentley engineering director Ulrich Eichhorn, the Brooklands had to offer "exhilarating, effortless, accessible performance" if it were going to replicate the virtues of earlier Bentley coupes, from the 1930 Blue Train Special to the 1957 S1 Continental, "cars that were big and heavy but weren’t really cumbersome."

Although the Brooklands’ resemblance to the Arnage sedan and Azure convertible is obvious (its familial ties to the Continental side of the Bentley clan are less apparent), the new vehicle displays softer rounds and lower lines created by a sensual fastback that forms a continuous swoop from the A-pillar to the rear deck. Overall, the Brooklands is less lumpy than the Arnage, a car that is a holdover from the days before Volkswagen owned Bentley. The Brooklands’ front fender vents, dark steel mesh grille, and brushed aluminum trim—placed wherever appropriate—will inform the world that this is the quickest athlete on the Arnage team.

The interior, save most notably for the novel leather headliner, is nearly identical to the Azure’s. The cabin, which is equipped with power adjustable rear seats, is vast, larger, in fact, than that of any other coupe on the planet.

The Brooklands is built on the same chassis as the Arnage is, and thus the two have identical wheelbases and tracks. The Brooklands’ power comes from an antique but still mighty engine, a 6.75-liter variant of the V-8 that has been propelling Bentleys for almost a half century. This particular powerplant has a pair of turbochargers and less exhaust back pressure than its predecessors, hence its 523 hp, which makes it the most brutish Bentley V-8 yet. (The Continental GT Speed’s W-12 engine has four more cylinders and 72 more horsepower.) Endowed with all that muscle, the Brooklands is capable of accelerating from zero to 60 mph in just five seconds, faster than many two-seat two-doors.

 

Before the debut in Tuscany, Bentley brought a Brooklands car to the Brooklands track. There, the vehicle was photographed, though not on the Finishing Straight, which now is buried beneath parking lots for the U.K. offices of Sony and Procter & Gamble. And all that is left of the 30-foot-tall Members’ Banking, once every photographer’s backdrop for shooting Panhards and Bugattis lurching airborne, is a quarter mile of mossy concrete that has not been repaired since it was first cast.

A redbrick clubhouse, some work sheds, and a couple refueling islands, once known as petrol pagodas, survive. They have been mended and are well tended (one of the pagodas is now a ticket office), but Brooklands’ remnants otherwise have been left untouched, likely more because of budgetary constraints than out of a desire to retain the facility’s originality. A little museum, club memberships, a café and gift shop, private donations, and public admissions—Brooklands has fewer visitors in a year than London’s pro soccer stadiums have spectators on any given Saturday—earn about $2 million a year for Brooklands. That sum roughly equals the cost of keeping the facilities functioning.

Still, as a visit to the track revealed, many fascinations remain. A small, brick-and-shingle hut—the world’s first air terminal—stands where the daring once queued to spend five shillings on biplane rides. Nearby is the Edwardian Clubhouse, which contains a billiard salon and a ladies’ reading room, because in its early days, Brooklands was as much a country club as it was a racing facility. The grounds’ sheds and shops still reek of grease. Rusty tools, old coveralls, a leather helmet, and even a bank of the drivers’ original urinals are on display. And Brooklands has its ghosts.

Percy Lambert was killed on Halloween, two weeks before his wedding and only days after he had promised his fiancée that he would quit racing. They say his spirit walks the Members’ Banking, near a spectators’ tunnel that is now collapsed. He did not appear on this dark, damp, wind-chilled winter’s afternoon, but a black cat was playing with leaves and occasionally jumping high and sideways, right at the spot where Lambert crashed.

 

Its power and torque notwithstanding, Brooklands the automobile poses little danger to its drivers. Bentley has equipped the vehicle with a Bosch stability system that will mitigate the sloppiest handling, 20-inch wheels wearing Pirelli P Zeros, and optional carbon ceramic brakes with eight-piston calipers and 15-inch rotors. Under normal driving conditions, brags Bentley, the discs will outlast the car.

The transmission, a hearty 6-speed with automatic and sequential sport modes, has a unique system of dispensing torque. It takes the box into sixth gear as quickly as possible, and then it locks the torque converter to guarantee instant response and 85 percent of power, even when the car is loafing in the tallest gear.

Despite the Brooklands’ athletic appearance and Bentley’s hyperbole concerning its sportiness, the vehicle does not handle as well as, say, the smaller, more contemporary, less expensive Continental GT. In fact, on the meandering rural roads of Tuscany, every turn on a two-laner, every arrival of oncoming traffic, allowed scant time for memory lapses. The Brooklands might be more nimble than any other car of such mass, but its width and weight ultimately do limit its adhesion, steering, braking, and balance.

However, driving the vehicle on a straight line, where you are able to put all of its power to use, can be an exhilarating experience. No doubt Birkin, Barnato, Davis, and the Dunfee brothers used to feel the same kind of rush in their Bentleys, on the straights at Brooklands.

Bentley Motors, www.bentleymotors.com;
Brooklands Museum, www.brooklandsmuseum.com

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