Historic Brooklands has been annexed by Mercedes-Benz, as Andrew
Whatever you think of the name (Mercedes-Benz World), or the fact that
it took the Germans to recognise the importance of the world's first
purpose-built motor racing circuit, the alternative was unthinkable.
Ancient and modern: the site of the world's first purpose-built motor
racing circuit ...
"What really worried us," says Brooklands Museum director, Allan Winn,
"was that [John] Prescott would have allowed 5,000 new houses on the
site. That would have been a tragedy."
Indeed it would. Completed on June 17, 1907, Brooklands predates the
world's other famous banked venues by years and even decades.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway (The Brickyard) in America was
completed in 1909; the German Automobil-Verkehrs und Übungs-StraBe
(Avus) circuit was started before the First World War but wasn't
completed until 1921; Italy's Autodromo di Monza was finished in 1922
and the Linas-Montlhéry circuit in France opened in 1924.
Brooklands was the first of the super-fast circuits where huge
aero-engined monsters could lap at really high speeds - the
Brooklands outer circuit lap record forever belongs to John Cobb and
his bellowing Napier Railton, at 143.44mph.
The 2¾-mile racetrack in the North Surrey hills cost its originator,
Hugh Locke King, more than £150,000, a fortune in those days. It was
highly significant, not only in the development of modern motor racing
but the motor car itself, while the sprawling business areas in the
centre of the track became an important centre for the aviation
industry, home to Vickers, Sopwith and Hawker.
The circuit closed in 1939 and only isolated fragments of the original
track remain, but the museum is still a fantastic place to visit,
redolent with the spirit of Barnes Wallis, Selwyn Edge and Freddie
Dixon, complete with its own Wellington Bomber, a Concorde and the
unique Concorde flight simulator that is currently being lovingly
Mercedes-Benz became interested in the 155-acre site adjacent to the
museum six years ago. It had ambitious plans to build a facility in
which to entertain clients and show off the marque and its cars.
n Germany, Mercedes opened its new museum this year, a statement
building inspired by the double helix of the DNA structure, designed by
Dutch architects Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos. It houses the
company's valuable collection of cars and is linked to an extensive
visitor centre, as well as providing a gateway to the city of
...now houses excellent displays on the history of Mercedes-Benz, as
well as its latest cars
Although the Stuttgart and Brooklands sites share similar floor areas,
I didn't think Mercedes would be able to pull off a similar trick in
Surrey. But I was wrong.
The Brooklands building is not on quite the same scale as Stuttgart and
comparisons would be odious. It is, however, a similarly simple
structure using a range of closed theatres, low walls and a central
three-storey escalator well to give a sense of scale.
The outside is inspired by a radiator grille and it stands next to a
circular skid pan affording views down the old runway, across 1.5 miles
of handling courses, a 10-acre off-road course and on to the North
Surrey hills. It's a superb setting.
It's also an enormously smart place to put such a facility. Even
without the three-pointed star stuff, M-B World can hardly fail to wipe
its face financially, as a chi-chi business centre less than half an
hour from Gatwick or Heathrow, a driving venue next to a successful
museum of motoring and aviation, and as an arena for festivals and
events less than 20 miles from London. This is the property deal that
must have had other property dealers slapping their foreheads
Running it is Peter O'Halloran, MD of M-B World and a master of
marketing neologism. It was as though the flim-flam had been unloaded
from a freighter, the crates prised open with crowbars and each new
word unwrapped from grease-proof paper like an oiled rifle before being
loaded with care.
In one sentence Peter managed to fit in "autotainment" - a
portmanteau word combining auto (and motor?) with something jolly
entertaining, and "Streetmosphere", which sounds like the result of
treading in something smelly and walking it through the house.
Cut through the jargon and Peter is quite an old-fashioned and shrewd
businessman. "We are fully booked for conferences until February," he
says. "The phone's been pretty busy." His 240-strong team seems happy
and the way the space has been set up is innovative and, yes,
Visual treat: Andrew English enjoys the 3-D film of a Merc CLK being
Most of it is car showroom, true, but the historic exhibits are
beautifully displayed, there's a charming interactive three-dimensional
film of the creation of a Merc CLK and a private cinema that shows a
short but brilliant history film created specially for M-B World using
the Stuttgart museum exhibits (the years 1939 to 1945 are tactfully
telescoped into a fleeting blur).
The static displays can be changed quickly in response to events (such
as the unlikely one of Mercedes winning an F1 championship) and there's
a terrific learning display on transport and the development of the car
for children up to Key-Stage Three.
Of course, you can also buy a Mercedes there and take delivery of your
new car after a quiet lunch in the third-floor restaurant, and there's
a shop where you can purchase anything from a Mercedes bear to a
Mercedes leather jacket.
Corporate branding is always with you, but it is mercifully discreet
and, as Peter says, "rival manufacturers are welcome to use the
tracks". He also seems genuinely to want to give people a memorable,
even a magical day out. "We seem to live in such a disposable society
and at such a pace," he says. "How many children have been on a double
decker bus, or in a Bentley on the banking at Brooklands?"
The Brooklands Museum has the whole site for 20 days each year to stage
its own events, and M-B World will play an important part in the
Brooklands centenary celebrations next July. As Allan Winn says, "This
development hasn't been without its drawbacks, but there are some great
One drawback is the loss of the old runway, which means Brooklands'
Vickers Vimy replica will forever be housed elsewhere.
There are good parts, however, not least M-B's commitment to rebridge
the river Wey so that Brooklands monsters can once more roar off the
Members' Banking and on to the Railway Straight.