Fans of Formula One motor racing may be surprised to learn that an international motoring legend has links to Blakeney.
One of the celebrated ‘Bentley Boys’ - racing drivers of the 1920s and 30s who had a passion for driving fast cars, drinking champagne and loving a challenge - is buried in Blakeney churchyard with his grave lined with model Bentley cars.
And now the newly-rebuilt Blakeney Garage is set on highlighting the Bentley Boys links to the village and North Norfolk.
The Bentley Boys inspired a generation of Bentley drivers and gained followers who admired their high-life antics. They were a close-knit group of extraordinary playboys, racers and adventurers who achieved global fame by winning the Le Mans 24-hour race five times in seven years - 1924 and every year from 1927 to 1930.
This dashing group of about 20, with their flowing silk scarves, leather flying helmets, goggles and oil-smeared faces, are revered as the epitome of 1920s excess and sophistication. Their achievements really put the Bentley car on the world map.
W.O. Bentley, founder of the famous car maker said: “I don’t think many companies can have built up during such a short period a comparable font of legend and myth, story and anecdote. The company’s activities attracted the public’s fancy and added a touch of colour, of vicarious glamour and excitement to drab lives.”
The glamorous world of racing fast cars is linked forever with Blakeney through Sir Henry Birkin, nicknamed ‘Tim’ after the children’s comic book character Tiger Tim. He won the gruelling 24-hour Le Mans trophy in 1929 and 1931 and competed in grand prix around the world. He was buried in the churchyard of his beloved Blakeney in 1933 when he was just 36. His grave still attracts a following of motor racing enthusiasts from around the world each year.
Stories abound of ‘Tim’ roaring up to Blakeney from ‘Bentley Corner’ in London in eye-watering times so he could catch the tide to sail out on his boat or to relax in his cottage.
In contrast, his death was mundane compared with the high-living lifestyle he led. There was no spectacular crash in his Bentley Blower while doing 137mph round Brooklands.
Tim Birkin, a legend for being quick but reckless, burned his arm on the exhaust of his Maserati racing car while having a cigarette during a pit stop competing in the Tripoli Grand Prix. He finished third but the wound is believed to have turned septic and he died from that injury in a London nursing home on June 22, 1933.
Tributes continue to be paid to this extraordinary larger-than-life character, a flamboyant, debonair baronet who was a crack shot, a Royal Flying Corps pilot in World War I, a racing driver and yachtsman who sailed a 30ft racing launch moored in Blakeney.
Actor and motoring enthusiast Rowan Atkinson starred as Tim Birkin in Full Throttle a 1995 TV drama of the racing driver’s life. The film is still talked of as perhaps the best motor racing drama ever made for UK TV.
Now there are hopes that the newly-rebuilt Blakeney Garage will reignite the Bentley connection to the village.
Motoring enthusiast Mark Davenport, who bought the garage and has spent a year remodelling and rebuilding it, is the owner two Bentleys one from 1923 and the other one year younger built in 1924.
His 1924 three litre Bentley XW 1176, was a ‘barn find’ complete with mouse nests, seized engine and brakes. It has been restored to its previous glory and competed successfully in the Flying Scotsman rally.
Mark plans to use Blakeney Garage and his Bentleys as a springboard to raise interest in vintage cars and uncover the Bentley links in North Norfolk.
Among his plans are to stage motoring events for old car enthusiasts with filmshows about old cars and races to stimulate interest generally in veteran and vintage motoring.
Among the 20 or so Bentley Boys who raced for WO, there was the heir of the Kimberley diamond mines, the fastest driver, Captain Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato, Harley Street physician J Dudley Benjafield, ex-naval officer and adventurer Glen Kidston, journalist Sammy Davis, international playboy and banker Baron d’Erlanger, Bentley employee Frank Clement and the silk-scarved, Sir Tim Birkin.
W.O. Bentley, the head of the firm, said: “When they were not yachting in the Mediterranean, skiing in Switzerland, or just playing in Cannes, Le Touquet or Paris, parties were often held in Grosvenor Square, the south-east side of which was known to every London bobby and taxi driver as ‘Bentley Corner’ because so many Bentley Boys had flats nearby."
The public imagined them living with several mistresses and several fast Bentleys, drinking champagne in nightclubs, playing the horses and Stock Exchange, and driving furiously around race circuits at weekends. For some of them this was not an entirely inaccurate picture.
But Bentley was happy his team of drivers were often on the front page of national newspapers as it meant he did not have to pay for advertising.