In the early 20th century, motoring in Britain was exciting and exotic. It was also considered reckless and dangerous. So laws were passed to keep the country’s Mr Toads in check by limiting their speeds. For 31 years from 1865, speeds were restricted to a sub-pedestrian 2mph in town, and 4mph out of it. It was raised in 1896 to 14mph.
One effect was that Britain’s car industry began to lose ground to competitors in Germany, and, more irritatingly, France. And in France in particular, they liked to go fast – in June 1906, they staged the first Grand Prix.
That annoyed some people. And it really annoyed Hugh Fortescue Locke King. So he spent £150,000 (some £15m in today’s money) building a motor racing circuit in the grounds of his estate in Weybridge, Surrey. He was strongly encouraged by his friend Selwyn Edge, a racing driver and car dealer.
The result was Brooklands – a 2.7 mile-long concrete circuit, 100 feet wide, with steeply banked curves. It opened to the public in June 1907, and on 6 July, it held its first race meeting.
Some 13,000 spectators turned up to watch the six races held that day. The first, the Marcel Renault Memorial Plate, with a first prize of 100 sovereigns, was won, rather fortuitously, by a Mr SF Edge in his Napier, beating Mr Huntly-Walker’s Darraq, and Mr Kerr Smiley in his Renault.
It’s fair to say that first meeting wasn’t a resounding success. Complaints ranged from the fact you couldn’t watch the action from your car, to the speed of the contestants (“With racing at speeds above forty miles an hour, it is almost impossible to recognise the drivers or the cars”, complained one correspondent) and the uncompetitive nature of the finishes.
Nevertheless, Brooklands became the home of British motorsport until WWII. But the arrival of war forced the circuit to close, with the site being used to manufacture aircraft. It never recovered.