Sir Henry R.S. (Tim) Birkin

Henry R.S.

Henry R.S.

Of the five Bentleys entered in the 1930 race two had been made outside the factory by Tim Birkin. Sir Henry R.S. “Tim” Birkin was born in a wealthy Nottingham family in 1896. He joined the Royal Flying Corps during WW1, serving in Palestine where he contracted malaria, a disease that he would suffer from for the rest of his life. In 1921 he turned to motor racing, competing a few races at Brooklands. Business then forced him to retire from the tracks until 1927 when he entered a 3-litre Bentley for a 6 hour race.

For 1928 he changed to a 4.5 litre car and after some good results decided to become a professional racer against his family’s wishes. Soon the little Bentley driver, racing with a blue and white spotted silk scarf around his neck, would be a familiar sight on the race tracks. In 1928 Birkin entered the Le Mans race, leading the first 20 laps until a jammed wheel forced him to drop back, finishing 5th.

By 1933, Tim had personal and financial problems, which left him in an unhappy mood and he had lost his normal humour. On 7 May 1933 Tim raced a 8C 3000 Maserati, entered by Bernard Rubin, former Bentley Boys teammate, at the 393 km, 30 lap Grand Prix of Tripoli. This was the historic race rigged by Varzi, Nuvolari, Borzacchini and journalist Canestrini so they could split the $400,000 winning ticket with three other ticket holders. Starting from the first row of the grid Tim Birkin, not involved in this collusion, had been in the lead for the first four laps, ahead of Nuvolari, Campari, Varzi and Fagioli. But none of these drivers had to do refueling stops. At half time Birkin was in second place, only 10 seconds behind Nuvolari. Birkin’s scheduled refueling stop on lap 16 turned out to take a long time. Because his pit was poorly organized, this may have cost him the race and certainly was to cost him his life. He drove with a short-sleeved shirt and during his refueling stop he received a small burn from the Maserati’s hot exhaust pipe on his bare forearm. Birkin joined the race in third place and was unable to make up the lost time. Tim drove his private Maserati to third place, just over 1½ minutes behind Varzi and Nuvolari.

After he returned to England, he did not tell anybody about his injury, which he neglected. When Dr. J.D. Benjafield, his former Bentley Boys teammate, heard about Tim having a depression, he met with him and noticed an old bandage on Tim’s arm. When asked what it was, Tim said it was nothing. But Benjy found the burn to be septic with serious blood poisoning. For three weeks, Benjy fought with several other specialists for Tim Birkin’s life in London. There were no antibiotics yet in 1930! The efforts of the specialists did great help but in the end, Tim Birkin died of blood poisoning on 22 June 1933 in London. There exist modern statements to the effect that Tim died because he had become too weak to fight off an attack of malaria he had since WW1. Be that as it may, England had lost a superb driver and great sportsman.