Refusing to follow his father into Nottingham’s lace industry, Sir Tim Birkin’s eclectic life was full of exhilaration and tragedy, from flying planes in World War One to becoming one of the most famous names of the Vintage Racing era...
“You are all a lost generation,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in the epigraph for The Sun Also Rises, his novel about post WWI expats. This generation had their innocence shattered by the unimaginable horrors of the global conflict that changed everything. The 1920s has since been recontextualised as a wildly extravagant time of drinking, partying and a general laissez-faire approach to living, but for those who lived and served through Flanders Fields, Gallipoli or Palestine, those who had seen their loved ones butchered in their prime, they were truly lost. Disoriented, directionless and wandering, they struggled to find meaning in an unrecognisable world, and the ambitions and comforts of their parents’ generation just weren’t enough.
The Birkins were well known in Nottingham long before Tim made his name in motor racing. Sir Thomas Stanley Birkin had inherited the successful lace business his father had built, headquartered at Broadway, Nottingham, before expanding internationally with large factories in Saxony and Pennsylvania. Marrying Margaret Diana Hopetoun Chetwyndm they had two sons, Archie and Henry, the latter gaining the nickname ‘Tim’ from the popular children’s comic book character Tiger Tim, owing to his boundless energy and enthusiasm for adventure. The moniker would stick for the rest of his life.
A private education set Tim, the eldest of the two Birkin boys, on the path to take over the lace empire his father had continued to grow before the outbreak of war in Europe put their plans on hold. Aged just eighteen, Birkin was commissioned into the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps, serving in Palestine as a young Lieutenant. But it wasn’t the enemy planes that posed the most risk to his wellbeing, but rather the malaria he contracted there, which would plague Birkin for the rest of his life.
Like many of his generation, the prospect of a normal life post-WWI held little appeal and, despite the outpouring of scorn from his family who begrudged his self-indulgence, Tim made the decision to enter the world of racing. Purchasing a Bentley in 1928, he discovered an affinity with the model and eventually found himself graduating to the car manufacturer’s official racing team.
During the twenties, Bentley found itself floundering as a marque racing car manufacturer. Having been bought out by wealthy diamond magnate Woolf “Babe” Barnato, their fortunes were to turn, and their new-look team soon boasted a host of wealthy British motorists who came to be known as the Bentley Boys. They were the heirs to some of Europe’s biggest fortunes, and many had seen action during World War One. They’d witnessed the fragility of life throughout those four years of hell, and had both the time and the means to ensure they lived life to the absolute extreme as a result.
He was regarded as the embodiment of the spirit of the Vintage Racing era: fearless, extravagant and, most importantly, fast
That fragility was to be exposed on a more personal level to Tim in 1927. His younger brother Archie had followed him into the racing world, and counted himself among the elite Bentley Boys, though became more known for his love of motorcycles. During an early morning practice session for the 1927 Isle of Man TT races, Archie was killed while swerving to avoid a collision with a fish van. Inexplicably, practice sessions were still held on open roads then, and the incident became a catalyst for change, ensuring that all sessions would be held on closed roads from 1928 onwards. Birkin’s Bend exists on the TT course to this day.
Undeterred, Tim Birkin continued his pursuit for racing perfection, coming to the conclusion that results were to be found in getting more speed from a lighter model by fitting a supercharger to 4.5 litre Bentley. When the manufacturer refused his wishes, he decided to develop it privately. Having spent his entire personal fortune on the project, he was forced to seek financial backing from Dorothy Paget and, despite setbacks, the 242 bhp Blower Bentley was born.
As the world’s oldest active sports car race, Le Mans has long been seen as the most prestigious automobile event on the calendar. Having won the 24-hour event in 1929, Birkin was determined to do it in a car of his own design, and by 1930, the Blower was ready to race. It was here that Birkin solidified his reputation, not because he won (he was forced to retire) but because of the relentless, pulsating and utterly ruthless hounding he gave Rudolf Caracciola’s Mercedes-Benz SSK. The clash elevated Tim from would-be racer to legitimate star, and he was soon regarded as the embodiment of the spirit of the Vintage Racing era: fearless, extravagant and, most importantly, fast.
If his Le Mans performance made him a star, his subsequent performance at the French Automobile Club du Midi’s race made him a legend. Driving what was ostensibly an ultra-fast, stripped-down road car not built for racing, his Blower Bentley lined up against the cream of the motor racing world, all driving cars built for optimum performance, including legendary driver Louis Alexandre Chiron. Bullying the pack with his much larger car – which had become known as the Brooklands Battleship – Birkin chalked up a first for professional racing when he forced Chiron out of his way by furiously blowing his horn. His 2.5-ton, flame-spewing Bentley screamed past a furious Chiron, allowing Birkin to secure a seemingly impossible second place.
They’d witnessed the fragility of life throughout those four years of hell, and had both the time and the means to ensure they lived life to the absolute extreme as a result
But 1930 saw a monumental change for Birkin. First, Bentley withdrew from racing and owner Barnato sold the company to Rolls Royce a year later. Then, long-time sponsor Dorothy Paget withdrew her financial support, leaving his racing future hanging in the balance. He persevered with a new partner, still refusing to succumb to a life lace-making back in Nottingham, winning the 1931 Le Mans while driving an Alfa Romeo, causing fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to send him a congratulatory telegraph, who claimed the win as a victory for Italy.
After setting a new speed record of 137.96 mph with his trusted Blower Bentley in March 1932, Birkin found himself competing at the Tripoli Grand Prix in 1933, where he raced Bernard Rubin’s Maserati 8C. During a routine pit stop, Birkin burned his arm on the car’s searing hot exhaust pipe, and the wound turned septic. The result of that accident, combined with the lingering effects of the malaria that continued to trouble him from his war days in Palestine, led to his death on 22 June 1933, aged just 36. His gravestone reads simply, “A Racing Motorist of International Fame.”
In a time when the British public much preferred the innocent simplicity of comic book heroes like Biggles and Dick Barton Special Agent over the shell-shocked husks of men who had returned from the war, Sir Tim Birkin represented something in-between. He was a real-life hero who had filled his short time with exploits that fizzed and bubbled with giddy delight in the minds of young boys all over Britain. He was the handsome heir to a wealthy family, drove glamorous racing cars with absolute fearlessness and was part of one of the most famous racing dynasties of all time in the Bentley Boys.
His fans were legion, and fame followed him wherever he went. At least that’s how he’s remembered in legend. In truth, his life was plagued by the malaria he’d contracted in Palestine, the memory of the brother who had been killed racing at just 22, and an inability to settle into the relatively tranquil routine of lace-making that had seen his father and grandfather prove so successful. We’ll never know whether his racing exploits were simply thrill-seeking adventures or, as one of the countless number of lost young men, a quest to find purpose in a seemingly meaningless post World War One world.