Brooklands was the birthplace of British motor racing and played a key role in the development of supersonic air travel. Chief executive Allan Winn tells Mike Hughes what’s next for the iconic circuit.
Cast your mind back to when you were a kid and your mum and dad took you to a museum one damp Saturday afternoon.
Not an exciting prospect, perhaps, but remember when you got inside and looked at the really big stuff? The planes hanging from the ceiling and those wonderful old racing cars setting world records were a wide-mouthed wonder to a young lad or lass.
That’s the feeling Allan Winn gets every day as he wanders around Brooklands in Weybridge, Surrey, the birthplace of British motorsport and aviation and the home of G-BBDG, the first Concorde to carry 100 passengers at Mach 2.
As chief executive with a board of trustees, he is leading a huge development of its remarkable site. The £8m “Brooklands Aircraft Factory and Race Track Revival Project” is restoring aspects of the original layout, moving the 77-year-old Bellman hangar off the racetrack’s finishing straight and turning it into the “Brooklands Aircraft Factory”.
That will change 70 years of history because, back in 1940, due to the need to increase aircraft production in the Second World War, the Bellman hangar was constructed across the finishing straight, obscuring the iconic view where racing history was made.
Brooklands was the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit when it opened in the early 1900s and took on its unique role as an historic home for both racing and aviation at almost the same time, with the site becoming a major centre for aircraft design, construction and flight testing, with more than 18,000 aircraft being first flown, manufactured or assembled there.
For Winn, protecting that legacy is his top priority as he seeks to shine a spotlight on the global impact this 30-acre site has had on sport and engineering. “We must make sure we use that legacy for our future generations because, while we want to look after what we have got and try to keep it in the best possible condition, we have a real aversion to the traditional museum thing of ‘dead things in sheds’,” he says.
“Rather, we want to bring them to life and live up to our philosophy of using and running anything that is in a safe enough condition, like our motorcars and motorbikes and letting people on board our planes. The restoration project for the racetrack is so that it can be used rather than just sitting there as a piece of concrete – it is all about letting the people who come here get a feeling for the amazing things that have happened here over 110 years.”
It has become clear in recent years that interactivity will save many museums from themselves being put under dustsheets, labelled and filed away. The attachment to a place or a collection starts to really grow when a person can touch history and place their hands where the pioneers placed theirs and sit in their seats and feel the same emotions. It’s evocative and potentially lucrative for the sector.
“It has not been a brilliant year for museums, but organisations like ours that have a very active philosophy are doing quite well while some of the Central London museums have had a drop-off for all sorts of reasons. We are very proud of the fact that, while we have been in the middle of a massive development on large parts of our site, we are sitting only about 1% below last year’s numbers, which means that people will still come out to experience something different in the place where it actually happened.
“But we are aware of the huge number of challenges, with some of the buildings we have here being well beyond their projected lifespan and I don’t imagine Hugh Locke King [the local landowner who spent his personal fortune building the track] in his wildest dreams would have thought we might still be using his original concrete.
“If we were using buildings that had been constructed for use as a museum, it would be an enormously easier task to run it. But we don’t benefit from any local, national or European funding so are forever looking at the pressing priorities of things like the infrastructure and how we can pay for them through revenues from admissions, fundraising and our trading operations like retail and catering, as well as some case-by-case submissions for grants.
“We are lucky enough to have 10,000 card-carrying members who have been absolutely marvellous, both through straightforward fundraising and other activities, which are putting money straight back into the museum,” he says proudly. “Ignoring one-off donations, their subscriptions and gift aid and the activities they organise are worth more than £400,000 to us, and we must not forget the remarkable skills we have available to keep our exhibits in such good condition.
“We are using the experience of the people who still know how to do these things to train our volunteers because the skills are disappearing very fast and we need to keep them alive and find out how they can be translated into modern machining. This is important, because the aerospace industry is worth about £24bn a year to the UK economy and there is nowhere where an ordinary member of the public without any security clearance can go and watch airplanes being built.
“Equally, the motorsport industry is worth about £6bn a year and again it is quite difficult to get into the secret halls of the McLarens of this world to see what they are doing for next year’s Formula One car. We have to work with modern industries and try to make sure that what we are doing is relevant to the modern world because we have more accessible stuff here that can help young people get involved so they can work for these companies.”
For Winn personally, his time at Brooklands has been a huge part of what he is and will continue to be well after he leaves his post next year and hands over to Tamalie Newbery, currently the executive director of the Association of Independent Museums. He will still walk among the exhibits and look at them with the same reverence and awe.
“I have been terribly lucky,” he says. “I come from an engineering background with my school holidays being spent behind a workbench with my father who was a bicycle importer.
“I spent the first part of my career as a technical journalist, wandering round other peoples’ factories and being exposed to the engineering and commercial aspects of a business. I got involved at Brooklands on the voluntary side and was then extraordinarily lucky that when I needed a change in career the trustees needed a new director and I got this most amazing job that has kept me enthralled – but has cost me quite a lot of my hair.
“I get enormous satisfaction from helping hold the place together at the same time as driving it forwards and as I travel into work down the hill each morning I see the finishing straight, the reconstructed 12-metre scoreboard and Concorde’s tail over the top of the buildings and I sometimes have to pinch myself and think how did I get to all this from a little town in New Zealand.”
Brooklands’ also has a key economic role to play in the wider region and it is no coincidence that the Formula One community has been so deeply embedded in the area ever since the 1940s and 1950s, since so much of the expertise was based here for the likes of McLaren, Brabham and Tyrrell to build on.
This is a very British place, packed with heritage and heroism and tales of what we were capable of when the challenges of time, physics and engineering seemed insurmountable. Perhaps we have lost some of that now as technology does so much for us and solutions are found so much more quickly.
The biggest debt we owe Brooklands – and a driving force for Winn and his team – may be that it is a reminder of the raw skills, energy and bravado that were once the backbone of so many sectors and which now lie dormant in so many potential desk-bound entrepreneurs who would be well advised to touch the past to be able to see the future.