Sir Henry Ralph Stanley Birkin: No Christmas Tiger

September 29, 2015 by Jeremy McMullen

Remembered as one of the most influential of the famous 'Bentley Boys', Henry 'Tim' Birkin was anything but a mere member of Britain's upper crust. Head-strong, courageous and unyielding, Birkin would often be challenged to mix it up with the 'aces' of the day. When it was all said and done, he would more than prove he was no honorary stooge.

Sir Henry Ralph Stanley Birkin would be born in Nottingham in 1896. He was not some common boy born to some unknown parents. Birkin's family was quite wealthy and this put Henry among the upper class of British society from the moment he had been born.

Though he would be born of affluent parents, Henry would suffer from some very common and embarrassing challenges. For one thing, he would develop a terrible stutter and he wouldn't grow up to be very tall. Combined together, Birkin was rather less than stately despite being born into position. But, very a very early age, he would not allow these realities to define him. If anything, he would let his short-comings drive him forward. He would know his mind and he would put one foot in front of the other in pursuit of what was passing through his cranium.

Earning the nickname 'Tim' from the comic book character Tiger Tim, Henry 'Tim' Birkin, at the age of 25, would begin taking part in a few motor races at Brooklands. Following his service in Palestine with the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, Birkin would look for continued excitement in his life, but would soon be discouraged by his family from taking part in a business that was both dangerous and beneath his station.

Birkin would obey his family's wishes for a number of years, but the lure of motor racing would be too strong, and, in 1927, he would return to racing driving his own 3-liter Bentley. His return would be successful straightaway with a 3rd place in the Brooklands 6 Hours. Then, in 1928, he would move up to a 4.5-liter Bentley. Entering the Brooklands 6 Hours once again, he would finish 3rd overall yet again, but this would also include a class victory.

The strong showing at Brooklands would earn Birkin a place within W.O. Bentley's brotherhood that would soon become immortalized as 'Bentley's Boys'. Birkin's first attempt at Le Mans with Bentley Motors Ltd. would come in 1928 when he finished 5th overall.

Though he suffered from malaria contracted in Palestine during the war, he would not suffer on the race track proving this fact with a class victory in the Tourist Trophy race in August of 1928.

One year later, Birkin would return with the rest of the Bentley Boys to Le Mans. partnered with Woolf Barnato, Birkin would race to an overall victory, the third in a row for Bentley at Le Mans.


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    While just one cog in Bentley's very successful wheel of racing drivers, Birkin would certainly be recognized as one of the most vocal, opinionated and determined. This would lead to Sir Henry doing his best to try and convince W.O. of the greater attributes of a blown Bentley. Having won three years in a row at Le Mans, one would have to forgive Bentley for not seeing the need for a blown Bentley. This was the same man that had once referred to the 24 hour event as 'stupid' and unnecessary. W.O. did, however, recognize the benefit of advertizing when it came to selling cars. Still, he just could not see the need, or the advantages to a blown Bentley.

    Nonetheless, being the head-strong gentleman that he was, Birkin would somehow convince Bentley to build the necessary number of cars with the Roots-supercharged engine. It was rather understandable, Birkin's belief. The Italian contingent was gaining strength and the Bentley's were not only huge, but they were also a little short on horsepower. Considered by Bugatti as the 'fastest lorries', Birkin, no doubt, believed the car needed a horsepower upgrade. Bentley believed this to take away from his intended design, but, he would still go along with the notion.

    The Blown Bentley would first appear in 1929 but would suffer from terrible unreliability. At Le Mans the following year, Birkin would be at the helm of one of two blown Bentleys. Funded by the wealthy Miss Dorothy Paget, Birkin's Blown Bentley would not be void of success, and this set up an intriguing battle at Le Mans between W.O.'s atmospheric Bentley, Birkin's blown model and Mercedes-Benz own supercharged SSK driven by Christian Werner and Rudolf Caracciola.

    Early in the race, Birkin would demonstrate the strengths of the blown Bentley taking over the lead of the race, leaving the Mercedes and Speed Six in its wake. Birkin had a reputation though, and that reputation was that he was hard on his cars and equipment. Unfortunately, he would prove this point blowing the engine very early on leaving the battle of Le Mans to be battled out between the SSK of Caracciola and the Speed Six driven by Woold Barnato and Glen Kidston.

    Though he would be convinced of the advantages of the blown Bentley, the car would never win a race. In fact, the best result Birkin would earn with the car would be a 4th place earned in the Irish GP Eireann Cup in July of 1930.

    In spite of the fact the Blown Bentley would never win a race, Birkin would still use the car to set some impressive lap times. He would use the car to earn the fastest lap at Brooklands with an average speed of greater than 137mph. Unfortunately, fastest laps don't really pay any prize money and Miss Paget would soon withdraw her support of the Blown Bentley program. The last race Birkin would compete in with the Paget-sponsored Blown Bentley would be the Tourist Trophy race at the end of August in 1930. He would suffer an accident and would not finish.

    Losing his place with Bentley following the company's sale to Rolls Royce, Birkin would spend his fortune on his motor racing career and would make his way into grand prix racing driving in Pau for his first race in 1930. Driving his own Bentley around the fast, 9.8mile Pau circuit situated among the rolling countryside just to the east of the French city, Birkin would make an impressive debut finishing in 2nd place behind Philippe Etancelin and his much smaller Bugatti T35C.

    The following season would see more success for Birkin in grand prix racing. A 4th place in the French Grand Prix at Linas-Montlhery would be followed by another 4th place in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. By now, Birkin was racing a Maserati 26M, and, it would put the car to great use earning victory in the 1st Mountain Championship held at Brooklands on the 17th of October, 1931.

    1931 had been something of a resurgent year for Birkin. Given his knighthood the same year, the man from Nottingham would not only go on to win the grand prix race at Brooklands at the end of the year, but he would also add his name to Le Mans' history books one more time taking victory alongside Earl Howe in an Alfa Romeo 8C. It would mark the fifth year in a row in which a Bentley Boy had taken victory in the 24 hour race.

    By 1933, Europe and good portion of the world would be deeply feeling the effects of the fallout on Wall Street. Birkin would be one of those that would feel the terrible crunch. Funding his years of racing, and such projects as the blown Bentley, had drained his considerable income. Wall Street's troubles only made the situation worse when Miss Paget had to withdraw much of her financial support. The once jovial man, like so many others, had found very little to be joyful about.

    Still, Birkin was more than capable behind the wheel despite his troubles. There was no financial malady that could ever deny that. Tim needed others to recognize this fact. Thankfully, Birkin's old Bentley teammate, Bernard Rubin, would recognize the talent that still resided within the man from Nottingham and would enter for him a Maserati 8C 3000 for the Grand Prix of Tripoli on the 7th of May, 1933.

    Given one more great ride, Birkin would take full advantage. He would give the race his all, and that would end up including his life.

    It would become famous for the confidence scheme contrived by the great drivers Varzi, Nuvolari, Borzacchini and a journalist by the name of Canestrini. Birkin would have no knowledge of the agreement. What he did know was that the Grand Prix of Tripoli dangled a $400,000 carrot out in front of the drivers daring them to risk everything to race to win. Tim, never known to be gentle or sedate when behind the wheel of a car, who desperately needed the money, saw more than a purse out there to be grabbed. It was a means of survival.

    He would treat it as such and would lead a large portion of the race, despite the presence of the great Varzi and Nuvolari. Sadly, upon making a routine pitstop, his crew would not be prepared. The stop would take longer than was really necessary. As a result, he would lose the lead and the victory. The stop would prove even more costly than just the huge purse.

    It would seem silly really. Birkin reached for either a cigarette lighter or a cigarette he had dropped. In the process of picking up whatever it was he would burn his arm on the hot exhaust pipe of the Maserati. It would seem as though it was no big deal. People have touched scolding hot things before and suffered a burn as a result of it. It was really no big deal, and Birkin would treat it as such. This would be his undoing.

    Birkin would end up finishing what was to be his last race in third place behind Varzi and Nuvolari. He had led and came very close to winning. Certainly the result would had to have been bittersweet. Unfortunately, no one would really get the opportunity to talk to him about it.

    Birkin would be seen a couple of weeks after his surprising third place in Tripoli with a bandage around the very arm he had burned during the pitstop. When asked by anyone, Tim would pass the burn off as no big deal, but that would be far from the truth.

    The truth was, Birkin had suffered from malaria ever since his time in military service. The burn he had suffered would only fester and fester until it would become clear he was suffering from blood poisoning. The doctors would rush to help the two-time Le Mans winner. Nearly a month would pass with doctors doing everything humanly possible at the time to help Birkin to overcome the poisoning. Tragically, on the 22nd of June, 1933, the battle would come to an end. Birkin would pass away.

    One of the 'Bentley Boys' was lost. He had come from wealth, but he was willing to risk it all for what he believed in. Perhaps then it is only fitting the memory of Birkin that remains strongest is what he believed in so deeply—his blown Bentleys.

    Sources:
    'Drivers-B: Sir Henry Ralph Stanley 'Tim' Birkin 3rd Baronet', (http://www.kolumbus.fi/leif.snellman/db.htm#BIRK). The Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing. http://www.kolumbus.fi/leif.snellman/db.htm#BIRK. Retrieved 21 July. 2015.

    Moody, Steve. 'Bentley Boys Legend at the Le Mans 24 Hours', (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/classiccars/10903173/Bentley-Boys-legand-at-the-Le-Mans-24-Hours.html). The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/classiccars/10903173/Bentley-Boys-legand-at-the-Le-Mans-24-Hours.html. Retrieved 21 July, 2015.

    Snellman, Leif. 'Not Just One of the Boys', (http://8w.forix.com/birkin.html). 8W: The Stories Behind Motor Racing Facts and Fiction. http://8w.forix.com/birkin.html. Retrieved 21 July, 2015.

    'Complete Archive of Henry Birkin', (http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/archive/Henry-Birkin-GB.html). Racing Sports Cars. http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/archive/Henry-Birkin-GB.html. Retrieved 21 July, 2015.

    Wikipedia contributors, 'Tim Birkin', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 July 2015, 18:50 UTC, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tim_Birkin&oldid=670867003 accessed 22 July 2015
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