Brooklands race course was an institution in interwar England. Opened in 1907 in Weybridge, just south of London, it was the world’s first purpose-built, permanent racing circuit. Coinciding with the rise of car manufacturing in England, Brooklands was used to test out and perfect new car models. Like greyhound racing and horse racing, Brooklands races became a popular entertainment. Each race held the potential for injury and death, which piqued the audiences’ interest.
The Brooklands track could be shaped into different configurations, but was mostly used as a long oval lap, made of concrete, and concave, so that the outer edges of the track were higher than the middle (like a modern indoor speed cycling circuit). Footage shot in 1928 shows how cars started on a flat section, and how drivers were positioned outside their vehicle at the start of a race. Pit stop booths were available for technical check-ups during the race. Although the cars in this particular footage look fairly similar to normal road cars, there were plenty of racing cars being developed also.
Examples of these racing cars are on display in the 1935 film Death Drives Through, directed by Edward L. Cahn. Most of the action of this film is set in and around Brooklands, as the main characters of the film are two rival race car drivers. Kit Woods (Robert Douglas) is an up-and-coming driver who built his own race car and used to drive on local tracks before being talent-spotted and contracted to appear at Brooklands. Once he arrives there, established racer Garry Ames (Miles Mander) does everything within his power to destroy Kit’s reputation, including causing accidents on the race track. Death Drives Through features a staged crash at Brooklands which ends in the death of a driver, highlighting the potential for danger which was contained in each race.
A 1938 Gaumont newsreel features footage of a real Brooklands crash. Because the driver in that instance survived the accident, the newsreel commentator can play the incident up as thrilling entertainment, which was ‘filmed exclusively by Gaumont British News’.
‘Mr Clayton was flung out into the trees….miraculously he escaped death although he was seriously injured…his car was reduced to wreckage…below the banking outside the track it was a crumpled mess…hardly to be recognised as a car.’
The newsreel as a whole is titled ‘120 M.P.H CRASH AT BROOKLANDS’, making no bones about the fact that the crash, rather than the overall race, was what was expected to be of interest to audiences.
Racing drivers became celebrities, to the point that by the mid-1930s, their endorsements were featured in Castrol car oil adverts. Drivers not only competed in England, but also participated in European competitions which potentially increased their profile even more. The British Government gratefully used the fame and prestige of some drivers in its own ‘Safety First’ campaign, launched in 1934. The purpose of this campaign was to increase road safety. In the absence of any formal driving test, racing driver the 5th Earl of Howe patiently explains to viewers how to indicate and overtake, and advises against canoodling with a lover whilst driving a car. Although none of the regular traffic rules would apply on a race track, the audience is still asked to presume the Earl to be an expert adviser, both due to his title and his status as a racing driver.
There were plenty of women racing at Brooklands too – like aviation, car racing was a sport in which technical skill, rather than physical strength, were paramount. Despite initial opposition, from 1932 onwards women were allowed to compete in the same races as men. One of the most famous female drivers, Kay Petre, appears in the 1938 video showing a crash, referred to above. There are plenty of stories about other female drivers available on the Brooklands Museum website.
A final note on the audiences to these races. The 1928 footage referred to at the top of this blog shows an audience apparently exclusively made up of middle-aged men in three-piece suits and top hats. By 1938, the audience is much more mixed both in terms of gender and (judging by the clothes) social status. There are plenty of men visible in flat caps, or even, no hats at all. There also appears to be a much larger crowd than ten years’ prior.
This change reflects the overall change to car ownership which happened in parallel, away from the race track. Whereas car ownership had started off as something exclusive and only available to the very wealthy, by the end of the 1930s cars were affordable to most middle-class families. This greater exposure to car driving likely also increased interest in car racing. Although most racing drivers came from privileged backgrounds (if not from the actual aristocracy, then at least from wealthy families), there was always the possibility for a ‘regular’ person with technical knowledge and talent to establish him- or herself. Death Drives Through pandered to this fantasy, as Kit is exactly the kind of enterprising and plucky hero whom audience members could relate to. The tracks of Brooklands become not just a space for thrills and entertainment, but also a site of dreams of social mobility.
 Bart H. Vanderveen (ed), British Cars of the Late Thirties, 1935-1939, (London: Frederick Warne & Co, 1973)
 Bernhard Rieger, ‘Fast couples’: technology, gender and modernity in Britain and Germany during the nineteen-thirties”, Historical Research, vol. 76, no. 193 (August 2003), 370