A history of gentleman racers

A triptych of colourful characters from decades past shine a light on the glorious phenomenon of the gentleman racer.
Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin in his Bentley Blower doing a lap of Brooklands in Surrey in 1932.

The reasons why range from the prosaic to the romantic — the money needed to participate; the thrill and adrenaline that victory delivers to the man who, otherwise, has it all — but the elite have always gravitated towards racing machines. It’s a phenomenon that stretches back to Alfred Dunhill, who dubbed the pecunious Edwardian aristos upon whom Kenneth Grahame based Mr. Toad his “Dunhill’s Motorities”. And it endures today, as mingling with the motorheads at Goodwood will demonstrate, not to mention Netflix’s The Gentleman Driver movie, which charts the exploits of contemporary high-net-worth drivers Ed Brown, Ricardo Gonzalez, Michael Guasch and Paul Dalla Lana.

Along the way we’ve had Count Louis Zborowski, a Kent-raised American and heir to a whopping (in the early 20th century) £11m, a man who unwittingly made a huge mark on pop-culture history by speeding past a schoolboy called Ian Fleming in a 23-litre, Maybach-engined beast named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the name was apposite — it was so loud it was banned from passing through Canterbury). We’ve had the exploits of the Scotch whisky heir Rob Walker, a man who, having learned to fly at Cambridge, was turfed out of the university air squadron for clearing the fences at the Cottenham racecourse in his Tiger Moth, and who, while competing at Le Mans in 1939 in a Delahaye previously raced by Thailand’s Prince Bira, wore a blue pinstripe suit for his evening stretch before opting for Prince of Wales check for the 12-hour-long marathon the following day. And we’ve had Ferrari’s earliest customers — men such as Count Gianni Marzotto, the owner of the fourth customer car built by the Italian marque (a 2L grand touring coupé), who followed Walker’s sartorial example by winning the 1950 Mille Miglia wearing a double-breasted brown suit. (“I wanted to show that a race could be run as recreation — a nice long drive along the Italian roads in a powerful car, but just for fun,” he said later of his dashing heroics.)

Despite vehicle racing being largely a solo sport, it’s a pursuit soaked in camaraderie, and participants in the past have formed troupes, the prime example being the Bentley Boys, a band of wealthy pals who honed the British marque’s reputation for blistering performance throughout the 1920s. The Bentley Boys were led by Joel Woolf Barnato, the heir to a fortune from South African diamond mines who, a few years after purchasing Bentley, won a £100 bet while partying on a yacht near Cannes that he could drive his 6½-litre Bentley Speed Six to England before Le Train Bleu reached Calais.

But a Bentley Boy equally deserving of a toast in an issue of The Rake devoted to the gentleman driver — indeed, a man widely considered to be the most gifted of the troupe behind the wheel — is Sir Henry Ralph Stanley ‘Tim’ Birkin, third Baronet. Birkin’s place in the 1920s’ European racing scene needs to be viewed against the backdrop of a broader post-WW1 spirit that, while correctly portrayed as one of laissez-faire hedonism, also had a tinge of trauma to it, felt most keenly by what Ernest Hemingway, in his epigraph for The Sun Also Rises, described as “a lost generation” — the disoriented and emotionally scarred who’d been in the thick of the action, mingling with revellers who were incapable of empathising with their pain.

Commissioned into the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps, Birkin served as a young lieutenant in Palestine, where he contracted malaria, a condition from which he never fully recovered. A young man who’d carried the nickname ‘Tim’ into adulthood — as in, the children’s comic book character Tiger Tim, with whom he shared restless dynamism and a hankering for adventure — came back to England a diffident, unassuming man with a persistent stammer. None of which, incidentally, stopped him being a hit with the opposite sex.


November 2020


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