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Birkett Relay Race Special - Holly Birkett

Thu 10 Oct 2013

Holly Birkett – who was he?

Reflections by Virginia Birkett

The ‘Birkett’ 6 Hour Relay race is an established 750 MC event to conclude the season’s racing, and was created in the late 40s by Holly Birkett. But who was he?

He was me and my sister’s father, and, as a child in the 40s and 50s, I was very aware of the ‘Six Hours’. An extended family of grown-ups would regularly gather, over a cuppa or stronger, at our house in Pondtail Rd, Fleet (known as ‘Pondtail’), which became the centre of enthusiastic and experimental motor sport during the post-war era of great austerity and petrol shortage. Regular club level motoring events were created and friends made. Many became well known in their own right as they developed into specialist careers around motor sport. On the local army ranges they held hill climbs, speed & night trials with exotically dressed hidden marshals. The rules & regulations suffered today had not been invented then!

The desire for an affordable endurance race resulted in the ‘Six Hours’, which Holly brought to life. The handicapping system offered a fair chance for slower cars to win, or at least participate in racing at Silverstone. The work of handicapping, scrutineering and medical cover was shared amongst the group, and the concept was obviously sound, because it was as well supported then as it is these days.

He was born Holland Birkett in 1916, the son of a school headmaster in North London and according to his mother’s diaries, had a secure sheltered childhood, with his older sister. When he was about 5 years old, the family had a holiday in rural Hampshire, in a horse-drawn caravan with minimal facilities, but they all enjoyed themselves. His mother records in her diary that, on the return journey to Hertfordshire, the contracted man and horse abandoned them, as the hill ahead was too much for his animal. Another sturdier steed was found and they finally got home.
In a Motor Sport article he wrote in July 1943 titled “Cars I have Owned”, he says “From the age of twelve, I have been conditioning my parents to my proposed motoring career”. Whilst still at school he was the proud owner of a “1922 chain-cum-belt, 2¾ h.p. Douglas”, which, he wrote, often seized up, “When this happened, I would take the engine to pieces, clean everything up, and reassemble it”. Rebuilding engines was a common theme in his life for many years to come.

While he studied to become a veterinary surgeon, at the age of 22, he married fellow student Barbara in 1939. Once qualified, they set up a practice in Pondtail Road Fleet, a disused & largely unconverted laundry. He was devastated by the untimely death of his wife in 1942. His interest in motor sport was evident at this time, though, with a photo of them both in an open topped Austin 7.

During the war years he and Bill Boddy (original editor of Motor Sport) would travel the country, on Holly’s generous veterinary fuel allowance, in search of parts for their Austin 7s and Bugattis. It was such on such a visit to the Phoenix garage near to Hartley Witney (the birth place of the VSCC), where he met my mother Joan Passini in 1944. She later moved to Pondtail, where she and Holly became the hub of a vibrant community of motor enthusiasts, which lasted until the late 50s. Holly had a large workshop at one end of the building, where he and others tweaked and tuned cars into sporting life. My grandmother described Pondtail as ‘primitive’. May be, with only cobwebbed rafters to look up at, and the concrete floors were a bit chilly. But it was home for us, and none of this mattered with motor sport to enjoy.

The 750 club became a large part of Holly’s life in the 40s and 50s, and I have the watch presented to him by the club, as retiring Chairman in 1962, which he was wearing at the time of his accident. In the late 50s Holly became involved in the Mobil Gas Economy run, and was one of the key organisers for a few years. I still have some linen OS maps with his markings, relating to this event. Holly also participated in rallying, doing the Monte Carlo Rally four times in the early 50s, with Tom Lush and others. One wonders how he found time to be the local vet, but he was lucky to have my mother ‘holding the fort’ at home while he was absent.
They divorced in 1957 and, a couple of years later, he married Margaret, opening a surgery in Cove, Farnborough Hants. Around this time, at the age of 42, he learned to fly, obtaining his PPL and had a half share in an Auster. In the early 60s, he was the Chairman of the Blackbushe Aero club, and was an actively involved in the successful campaign to save this airfield from closure.

In July 1963, he and Margaret flew the Auster to France for a few days holiday, but he made an “imprudent” decision, which resulted in the plane crashing and them both being killed. He was 47 years old. On the 50th anniversary this year, I returned to the crash site on Stella Plage, near to Le Touquet, and reflected on the consequences of his unwise decision to fly into the sea mist rather than inland, as advised by air traffic control. I understand there was a dinner date to keep, but he and his wife never made it.

Pondtail was sold and demolished, and my box Brownie snap shot of it, I believe, is the only image of this iconic place. I moved away, got married and had my own family. Then in 1991 I bumped into Bill Boddy at a VSCC meeting at Brooklands, and he asked me “Did you know there is a race named after your father?” No, I didn’t know, but in 1992, my son & I discovered it at Snetterton, where we were gobsmacked to see my family name emblazoned on so many T-shirts. I was kindly invited to attend many of the more recent ‘Birkett’s, now back at Silverstone where, all those years ago, it was first created.

My father’s motto was “It’s not the winning, but the taking part that is important”, a philosophy that I have seen at the modern ‘Birkett’s. Long may it continue and enjoy yourselves.