1 2 3 4 5 6

® ®
Made with StudioLine Made with StudioLine
Made with StudioLine

Bad Säckingen, 26th - 30th of June

Every generation has its own racing heroes and being traditionally motorsports addicted, Great Britain has one every decade. Whereas today the youth might cheer for Lewis Hamilton, it was Nigel Mansell in the late 1980s, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart in the late 1960s and 1970s, or Sir Stirling Moss and Nike Hawthorn in the 1950s, who are well known today for their racing abilities.

... MediaCenter gallery >>>

That was the case even more so before the war, when the cars were still painted in the national colour scheme rather than team colours or sponsor liveries. National pride was very important in racing. Apart from the ideology of the late 1930s when Dick Seaman was driving the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows, victories of local drivers on domestic cars were front page news in the papers. In the mid-late 1920s one company in particular won laurels on the international long distance races: Bentley. Without the sponsorship of today´s racing the works-prepared entries were often financed by wealthy gentlemen drivers racing for fame and sportsmanship rather than fortune. Best known among them were without doubt the Bentley Boys. Led by Woolf Barnato, who was also chairman of Bentley Motors at that time, the gang including Dr. Benjafield, Glen Kidston and Bernard Rubin, lived a celebrity live in Central London and on the international race tracks. Although Woolf Barnato might have been the most successful of them with three successive Le Mans victories, unquestionable the most talented was Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin.

Birkin was born in 1896 to a wealthy aristocratic family in Nottingham. He took his first steps in racing in 1921 but because of his young family (he married 1921 for the first time and had two daughters) it was not until 1925 before he returned to the race circuit with his first own 3 Litre Bentley, a VdP bodied Speed Model. He raced under his own entry for the next year, and even the death of his older brother Archie did not prevent him from racing, very much to his family's dislike. After various successes he became part of the Bentley Boys, racing a fully works- prepared 4.5 Litre in the 1928 season in Brooklands, Le Mans and the Nürburgring. Unlike “Babe” Barnato, Birkin had a rather slender appearance and he was stammering, but behind the wheel of the heavy Bentley he showed impressive driving abilities. His philosophy in racing was certainly different to the one of W.O.Bentley, who wanted to win races in the slowest possible speed as to not overstress the car, whereas Birkin could be always found in the lists for lap records.

This different philosophy also led to what is today considered Birkin’s biggest achievement, the development of the famous Blower Bentley.

W.O. had the opinion that nothing but the increase in the displacement could bring the needed performance without impairing the reliability. As a result, the works team entered a race version of the 6.5 Litre straight six for the 1929 season after the 3 and 4.5 Litre 4-cylinder the years before. That was despite the fact that the Speed Six was never intended for racing, having been designed to carry heavy coachwork when introduced in 1926.

Birkin on the other hand was of the opinion that the future of racing was in the technique of supercharging the 4.5 Litre unit. As this was not done by the factory race department, Birkin had to raise outside money, finding a sponsor in Dorothy Paget. The work was eventually done in his own shop with the design of Amherst Villiers' Supercharger.

As the cars were not ready in time for the 1929 season, Birkin shared the drive in the new Speed Six with Barnato, giving him his first victory at La Sarthe.

As soon as the new cars were finished Birkin entered the Blower in various races but unfortunately not with the best results, as the car was not yet fully sorted. Several smaller problems left just few arrivals but nevertheless a duo of Blowers was intended to race at Le Mans in 1930, therefore Birkin had to convince Barnato to finance a production run of 50 Blowers for the homologation.

The 1930 race saw the first appearance of the Mercedes-Benz works team with a supercharged 710 SS raced by Rudolf Caracciola, a winning combination on many circuits at the time. As W.O. was still not convinced of the reliability of the Blower, he set out a team order that was very close to Birkin’s temper: the duo of Blower Bentley had to chase the Mercedes into racing and force him to retire to get a trouble free victory to the Speed Six. Birkin and Caracciola played the game and set several lap record in the early stage of the race. One of the most famous motives in automotive art of that era shows Birkin’s Blower partly off the track to pass the white elephant. As intended by Bentley the Mercedes retired after overstressing the engine by running the supercharger too often; but so did Birkin’s Blower Bentleys, later giving Barnato the second victory on the very same car as the year before, the famous “Old Number One”.

Birkin kept on racing the Blower achieving his best result in at the Grand Prix of Pau, when he defeated a bunch of favoured Bugattis to come home second in front of an astonished crowd. Apparently this led Ettore Bugatti to state “Mr. Bentley builds the fastest trucks”.

Although the intended success of the Blower was never achieved and Dorothy Paget lost interest in the project by the end of the year, selling all but one of the cars, the Blower Bentley today is one of the most iconic pre-war cars in existence. The production cars are very well valued in the millions and the most famous of the team cars, the No.1 single seater, just changed hands at last year's Bonhams Goodwood FoS sale for more than 5 Million GBP. Built as a track racer this car set the outer lap record in Brooklands when Birkin was pictured airborne on the bumpy track at full speed with flying scarf (his trademark). This might be one of the most important cars representing the era of the Cricklewood Bentley, only surpassed by the double Le Mans winning Speed Six.

But Birkin’s racing career did not end with the end of the Bentley racing programme, Birkin moved on and bought an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300, the car to have in the early 1930s to compete at race tracks all over Europe. Birkin paired with another well-known gentlemen driver, Lord Howe to win Le Mans a second time. Birkin also drove a Maserati at the Tripoli GP in 1933, where despite being a privateer he demonstrated driving performance on par with the great works drivers Nuvolari, Varzi and Campari. Unfortunately this was also his last race as he burnt his arms on the exhaust pipe of the Maserati and died the 22nd of June 1933 either from an infection or Malaria (depending on the source).
Birkin is known to have lived his live at “Full Throttle”, which is also the name of his autobiography.

The Rally (June 21-30, 2013)

80 years after Tim Birkin passed away, a small but selected group decided that it would be a good idea to organize a rally to honour the race driver and mastermind behind the Blower Bentley.

The Birkin Celebration Rally was divided in two parts starting with a wreath-laying ceremony on his grave in Blakeney, Norfolk and a meeting at the heart of British Motor Racing in Brooklands. After the British part, the meeting was followed by a 4 day continental tour with base in Bad Säckingen at the German-Swiss border. This had been the location for the Blower Rally 2010 organized by the Weibel family, long-term Blower-owners and masterminds behind the Birkin Rally. Bad Säckingen is the ideal starting point as it leaves wonderful possibilities for touring the Black Forest, the Alps, the Jura and the Alsace, offering a large range of diverse driving experiences and cultural impressions.

On Tuesday evening 23 cars with owners coming from USA, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and even Australia were lined up in front of the hotel for the start at the next day. As the organizers are rooted in the Bentley scene it came at no surprise that most of the cars were from the Cricklewood era, including two of the production Blowers, 3 and 4.5 Litre, Speed Six and even a very rare 4 Litre model. When Bentley was struggling financially, due to slow sales after the depression of the very expensive 8 Litre, a new model was introduced with the 4 Litre engine in a shortened 8 Litre chassis to be sold at a lower price. Unfortunately this came too late and just 50 of them were built (the same amount as Blower Bentley). Today many think that the 4 Litre engine is not powerful enough for the heavy chassis, so several of these were rebuilt into 8 Litre VdP Tourer configurations, leaving this original Saloon a rare survivor.

But not only Bentleys were invited, as the intention was to bring together various ‘birkinesque’ cars, meaning cars Birkin raced with or against. A Mercedes-Benz SSK represented the opponent of the 1930 Le Mans race, a Bugatti T35 B - just as the cars Birkin raced against at Pau, and an original Fox and Nicholl Team Talbot 105, like one that had come in third at Birkin’s 1931 Le Mans victory. Fellow Lord Howe was president of the Bugatti owners club back in the time and raced a T43 in the Tourist Trophy just as present.

On Wednesday the first tour led through the Black Forest with a first stop in the morning at the Schluchsee. With different roads to choose from along the way, those who took the “shortcut” through the romantic “Alptal-Canyon” were rewarded with no less than 177 curves and 6 narrow rock-cut tunnels. Although described to be for the “light sporty cars” this “adventure route” was also taken by the 4 Litre Saloon showing that this would have been the better choice for all cars. Eventually the cars arrived from different directions at the first short coffee stop. For some reason, some participants always seemed in a hurry and the last cars barely arrived as the first ones already left for the drive through the forest, heading towards the lunch stop on top of a small pass overlooking the region. The journey in the afternoon led back to St. Blasien, where the cars had the privilege to be parked in the middle of the historic “Kurpark” next to the famous White Dome (the 3rd biggest in Europe!). Entrants could enjoy a guided tour though the dome while enjoying an outstanding and very touching organ concert by Eiko Maria Yoshimura. The cars were admired by numerous spectators in the meantime.

Thursday was supposed to be the highlight of the week with the tour through the Swiss Alps. During the Blower Rally of 2010, the destination was the Klausenpass which is also location for the famous hill climb that will be revived in 2013. This year the chosen passes were the Grimsel and the Furka. Just as in 2010 the weather forecast was not the best and the visibility was not as hoped for. The first leg to the impressive art-nouveau Paxmontana hotel in Flühli Ranft in central Switzerland was cloudy but dry. However, driving up the hill at the Grimsel Pass, the cars entered into the low clouds with limited visibility, cold temperatures around zero degrees and snowfall on top of the pass. For the organizers this was the worst scenario imaginable when they discussed the tour a few days earlier. Yet, once there the participants shunned the plan B which was to take a tour bus in case of bad weather. Clearly, Franco and Kathy Weibel underestimated the adventurous spirit of their friends. As a few of them had previously done tours along the likes of Peking-Paris, they could not be shocked by the weather conditions, some even considered it great fun! One has to keep in mind that most of the entrants have done countless rallies in their “classic car lives”, but those with extreme conditions are those forever burned into memory! Maybe a drive through “ordinary” rain would have spoiled the fun but driving through snow at the end of June is certainly a story to be told for ages - not just in Australia.

Despite being given the choice to return directly back to the hotel after lunch, no one took the way back but all drove to the next pass, the Furka. First the visibility was limited to a few meters but soon the drivers and their passengers were rewarded with a most enjoyable view of the Central Alpine mountains including Furka Pass in front. On the way up the Furka Pass, a few cars from this year's Peking-Paris just came the opposite way – what a wonderful encounter! The weather was great to the top of the pass with clouds again on the other side.

Finally all the cars arrived at for a lovely arranged British "tea time" at Hotel Waldstätterhof at the Lake Lucerne, most drivers smiling – but also a little tired from the challenging drive. Although there was an option to take the motorway back to the hotel, many preferred the longer way around the lakes. With that, the last cars arrived at sunset, just in time for beer on their free evening. Some of the cars had stayed in the parking lot that day and didn’t drive the Alp day, presumable because of the weather forecast. Certainly they missed the best part of the rally.

A surprise guest in the evening was the Bugatti T57 Ventoux which arrived to replace the T35B that did not finish the day due to technical problems.

Friday led participants to the Swiss-French border in the beautifully wild Jura Mountains, an area mostly unknown to outsiders. Unlike the Alps with harsh rock above the tree line, the Jura offers some nice chain of green hills and the drive was in perfect sunshine. The first stop was in the historic town centre of Laufen for coffee break and aperitif, followed by the exquisite lunch stop at the Chateau Pleujouse on the Swiss side of the border. Some of the cars were parked in the inner yard of the ancient building, accessible through a narrow gate, giving a good photo opportunity.

On the way back to the hotel the convoy stopped for a scheduled visit of the Louis Chevrolet Watch factory. Many hadn’t realized that the famous U.S. car empire Chevrolet was founded by a poor but mechanically highly talented emigrant from the poor Swiss Jura Mountains. Experience shows many classic car lovers to also be keen watch collectors, with a foible for mechanic watches as this reflects the same spirit as the workmanship of a pre-war car.

In the evening, the owners had the chance to present their cars to the public in the nearby castle park during a get-together with other vintage car enthusiasts dressed in period fashion thus finalizing the day in style. Tim Houlding, the Bentley Historian from the Birmingham region and Klaus Morhammer a car historian from Munich, where presenting the cars in a most competent but also humorous and entertaining way. All guests coming to the castle park were very pleased and grateful for the opportunity to not only see the cars, but also to learn so much about them, the era when they were built, and the individuals.This event within the event turned out to be a great success.

Saturday was the last day of the rally and led into the Alsace for about 100 km to Eguisheim, the destination for the day. Eguisheim is a unbelievable picturesque medieval wine-village attracting tourists and wine connoisseurs from afar. After a warm welcome the entrants had the possibility of a wine tasting in this wine region and guided tour through the historic village. The cars stayed in the city for most of the day, so the drivers didn't have to worry much about alcohol.

After returning to the hotel, the final dinner with a subsequent party concluded the rally. Between the courses of the very fine meal, traditional regional music entertained the participants. First came a very loud and wild intoxicating “Guggemusig”, a 22 member strong carnival band with all sorts of wind instruments and drums. This was followed by a classic Swiss jodel trio from the Jura region who gave examples of much more discrete sounds.

The organisers, Franco, Kathy and Werny Weibel for the Continental Tour, and Adam Singer, Penny Miller, Philip Strickland and Tim Houlding for the UK leg, had prepared the event for two and a half years with all enthusiasm for every possible detail. The effort lead to a great success which will stay in best memory to all who participated. After all the big events during the summer 2013, it was refreshing to visit smaller tours and meetings organized by enthusiasts for like-minded, that don't suffer the financial pressure of have to earn a profit and without obligations to sponsoring companies that often are associated with these sorts of events. Certainly minor glitches can happen with non-professional organizers (as they usually happen with professionals, as well) but these are part of the charm. It was easy to see that the entrants are less spoiled than one might have thought and that need not always be a special star-awarded dining establishment, as the social aspect is the most important aspect for this size and style of rally. The organizers succeeded to gather a homogeneous group who enjoyed the tour through the surrounding landscape. Maybe some of them were not as deeply interested in the life of Tim Birkin, but even without this background it was a most enjoyable meeting.

We have put together a gallery with the continental part of the rally featuring all the cars over the various days.

Report: Peter Singhof
Images: Peter & Wolfgang Singhof www.ClassicCarPhotography.de