WB miscellany, August 2005

John Cobb’s three LSRs at Utah

Recently I wrote of how British record breakers with ultra-fast cars took them to the Utah salt flats in America after Daytona beach had ceased to provide a safe course, not only for the LSR monsters but for long-distance record bidders like George Eyston’s ‘Speed of the Wind’ and diesel-engined ‘Flying Spray’ and John Cobb’s Napier-Railton.  Apart from all the technical problems with such cars, there was the difficulty of transporting them from England to Utah.

I obtained some idea of these difficulties when I was able to meet Jim Rands, who had worked at Thomson & Taylor’s at Brooklands and who had accompanied Cobb on his three successful LSR record attempts at Utah, in 1938 (350.20mph), ’39 (369.74mph) and ’47, when he hit 394.20mph. First of all the Railton Mobil Special, designed by the remarkable Reid Railton, BSc, had to be assembled at T&T. Its design was a surprise to the mechanics, who had no concept of a car with one engine in the back driving the back wheels, another in the front driving the front wheels, with only the throttle pedal controlling their speeds. Nor had they visualised a bodyshell detachable from the car’s backbone frame, with the cockpit out in front, from which Cobb was bravely to drive, with no bonnet to aim with and completely enclosed.

It soon became apparent what was afoot when the two eight-year-old Napier Lion aero-engines arrived, with the David Brown gearboxes. Meanwhile the oddly-shaped chassis was delivered from John Thompson and set up on two tables for marking out. The throttles were connected with Simmonds cables. It took two weeks to measure the runs, three days to fit them and a week for their adjustment. The bodyshell was made by George and Jack Grey, with careful sealing to prevent fumes entering the cockpit. This aluminium shell weighed 4cwt (165kg), was secured with eight pegs, and took six men to lift on and off. As delivered it was a perfect fit. Cobb could escape from his ‘prison’ at the end of a run by using two handles to open the cockpit cover and the surrounds of the cockpit were of aircraft fabric to enable rapid outside access in an emergency. Cobb refused to wear a gas mask but used goggles against possible ingress of salt particles, and a linen helmet.

The very unconventional Railton completed, then came the problem of getting it to the distant salt flats.

One of Campbell’s LSR cars had got loose in its crate and a steering arm was broken, so Railton used steel plates bolted to his car’s wheels, necessitating a claustrophobic crawl by Rands and John Morris inside the crate.

It took 20 men to close the travelling crate, after which it was moved onto the low-loader, watched with alarm by Ken Taylor, for the journey to the Port of London where it was winched onto the motor ship Georgic for the journey across the Atlantic. The car had never been driven in England, and thereafter only Cobb drove it. It was push-started by a Dodge truck with a nose-probe which fitted a tube in the Railton’s tail. Only one spare Napier engine was taken. The crew in 1937 consisted of Rands, Norris, ‘Dunlop Mac’ to look after the special thin-tread tyres, Syd West, Harry Fletcher, Readings and T&T draftsman Beauchamp, supervised by Ken Taylor and Reid Railton. Sponsorship came from Shell-BP, and Railton’s influence produced Hudson cars for the team transport.

The engines were ice-cooled, and it is said that Railton could calculate within a few cubes the amount needed. There was little trouble, apart from one engine overheating, easily cured by adjusting a thermostat. Cobb made test runs at around 300mph, one without the body. When a tyre tread flew off, the ever-unflappable John described it as like a terrier shaking a rat. A tail airbrake had been tested in England but was not used. The body was dented by the downforce of the airflow.

Rivals Cobb and Eyston dined together and Cobb, having asked Rands whether the mechanics had enough money for beer, handed out dollar bills. After Cobb had taken the record he left for England.

For his next record attempt in 1939 Railton stiffened the car’s frame and restricted the back axle to vertical movement only. On the eve of war the team returned to Utah, Syd Couper replacing ‘Dunlop Mac’. The 700×31 tyres gave no trouble, but slave wheels were used after test runs and the special tyres were protected from the sun with sleeves, even while the wheels were being changed. The turn-round time between the required two-way runs was quite a task, with 36-stud wheels, which were also changed for every quick practice run. The old Napier engines had not even been stripped down during the winter.

Restarting was now less easy because free-wheels had replaced the former clutches, locked for the push starts, the ‘clutch’ pedal then being kicked down to free them for gear-changing. Then after engaging top Cobb would release a catch on the pedal to re-lock the freewheels, regaining engine braking to aid the water-cooled brakes in stopping from 400mph. Cobb would glance at a tachometer if he could to check engine revs and he had to cope with a difficult gear gate. The whole crew lifted the body off at the turn-rounds, Cobb would stand, calmly waiting, and Railton would look anxiously at his wristwatch.

After the war Gilmore Oil backed the attempt, so the car was renamed the Railton Special. “The ice tank was now at the back,” recalled Rands, “and power was increased by using ‘fancy’ instead of aviation fuel”. Refurbishing of the gearbox gears was now necessary, and ribbed brake drums were fitted. The engines ran at up to 4000rpm, although Napiers “threw up their hands at anything over 3600”. Testing was done on Thornycroft’s Caversham test-bed.

On arrival at Utah the American Air Force now had a useful unloading ramp. A camshaft seized and destroyed its drivetrain on a test run, and this time no spare engine had been thought necessary, but T&T’s flew out spares. A leak in the ice tank took two days and nights to repair. After which, in spite of patchy salt, the record was put to nearly 400mph, with an official speed of over 403 in one direction. There was so much confidence in the team that the only change was the absence of Readings.

Cobb, the quiet ex-Etonian furbroker, had achieved his goal. It was the Water Speed Record that killed him, as it did Sir Henry Segrave and Donald Campbell.


If at first you don’t succeed…

It is not completely uncommon to see someone compete in race or trial and never appear again, presumably because they found the experience less attractive than they expected or because their car blew up and needed an expensive rebuild they could ill afford. It happened from time to time at Brooklands. In contrast were those who persevered for a long time with little or no reward. One of these unfortunates who never gave up for five years was Mr A Boorer.

He commenced racing at the Track in 1921 with a car called the Bora. It appeared first at the August BARC meeting and had a six-cylinder 65x90mm (1792cc) Sage engine.

Frederick Sage of Peterborough was a shop-fitting company which made fighter aeroplanes during WWI, with Eric Gordon England, the post-war A7 racing exponent, as manager. Afterwards it made engines intended for the motor industry but which were used for only two makes, one Scottish, one Australian.

These Sage engines had separate cylinders and overhead camshaft and rockers, with the valve gear exposed. The perhaps optimistically misguided company made units of various capacities: in 1925 a car raced as a Sage (one of the ‘only oncers’) had a 73×82 (1373cc) engine, as did the HNT Special of 1927, and Felix Scriven’s ‘Mother Goose’ was stuffed with a six-cylinder 66×95 (1590cc) Sage engine, before he changed it for a Parry Thomas power unit.

Boorer’s son drove in the August 75mph Short Handicap but was the slowest by far of the 13 runners, with a lap at an embarrassing 54.17mph. Father Boorer then had a go that autumn in the Indian red car with its plated oval radiator shell. A fair handicap and a 73.78mph flying lap got no result and he stopped early in the next race. He appeared at the 1922 August races with another engine, a six of 73x101mm (2511cc), the car now painted royal blue, but he retired on the first lap.

For 1923 another Sage engine, a six of 65x100mm (1990cc) was used. At Whitsun the Bora lapped at almost 72mph, the slowest of 12 runners, and in June at 83.00mph, the slowest but one in its race. On the assumption that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again, Boorer appeared late in 1924 and was third in the Autumn 75 Short Handicap with a lap at 82.31mph, following home Campbell’s Star and Dingle’s A7. Boorer entered for the 1925 Easter meeting but did not appear until Whitsun, when a lap at 71.87mph was the slowest in his race, but later he did a 78.79mph lap without being placed.

Sir Ronald Gunter now decided to take up racing. He entered Boorer in the Bora for the 1925 Autumn meeting, the 2-litre engine gaining 1cc with no change in bore or stroke according to the race card (like the 747/749cc A7s). A stud came out and the engine ran dry, so the car was a non-starter for the next race.

That was the Bora’s last Track appearance. Could Boorer have been Sage’s works racing driver? Gunter entered a T37 Bugatti in 1928 which never ran, but he shared with SCH Davis the winning 4-1/2-litre Bentley in the 1929 Double-12, and drove Hotchkiss, Wolseley and blown Mercedes-Benz cars in 1930s Monte and RAC Rallies. He also raced a Maserati at Donington in 1934.


The race Bugatti missed

The Race Bugatti Missed, by Michael Ulrich, has caused a stir among historians and the Bugatti fraternity, as the race Ettore did not drive in was the 1903 Paris-Madrid, the event which was stopped at Bordeaux because of the terrible accidents which had occurred on the open-road route. Very little has been known until now of this horrendous but historic event which, with 219 starters and the death toll it caused, was hard to report. Now Ulrich has unfolded it in a huge 414-page tome, describing the race and why Bugatti failed to make it. All starters are listed, with the finishers, class by class.

The race report is a reprint from Charles Jarrott’s equally wonderful book Ten Years of Motors and Motor Racing, published first in 1906 and again by Motor Sport  in 1928. To this Ulrich has added many interesting newspaper and other items, with some very revealing information on how well the race was actually organised, with safety in mind, the regulations, timing, the prizes and so on. All embellished with truly wonderful race pictures, and those of some of the calamities. Indeed, it is the 470 period illustrations which make this work almost essential for historians. There are so many I have shirked counting them; some are double-page, some even in colour, a quite unique record of the racing cars of the true pioneer period. The author even includes and depicts races which preceded Paris-Madrid.

The same praise should be accorded to the Bugatti section, which has been approved by our Bugatti Trust and covers the Type 5 car Ettore intended for the race, of which the late Uwe Hucke was making a replica and 1/8th-scale model, work which Ulrich is continuing. All in all, unmissable! But you need a desk with strong legs, because with the French or German supplement the book weighs over half a stone, the heaviest book I have reviewed.

The illustrations really are stupendous and much pre-1903 de Dietrich/Bugatti material is included. This remarkable volume, English edition, is obtainable from Michael Ulrich, Sigismundkorso 44, 13465 Berlin and published by Verlagshaus Monsonstein & Vannerdat, Munster (ISBN 3 86582 085 9), price €97, plus p&p €20.


Ex-Brooklands special returns

Another ex-Brooklands car, the Cuthbert Special, is being restored by Geoff Uren, who hopes to drive it in suitable races and hillclimbs later this year. Based on a Riley Nine, the car was built by Alex Cuthbert helped by Arthur Kingston, and it was driven by Cuthbert in the long-distance races at Brooklands in the 1930s, Kingston riding as mechanic in the 1931 JCC Double-Twelve race. It crawled to the finish with a broken chassis. After that Cuthbert won a short handicap in 1932 with a lap at 100.61mph.

The car was supercharged for the 1934 BRDC 500-Mile race, but retired when the blower casing cracked. By then it was entered as the Cuthbert Special.

Its later history is obscure, except that Paul Richfield had it at one time and that more recently Julian Majzub has done much work on it. Mr Uren, who owns a CGS Amilcar, is now putting in more work, restoring the body to its 1934 form, with radiator cowl and head fairing on the tail. More information, especially what shade of blue the car was, would be very welcome.


Nothing new under the sun…

In the pathetic fiasco of the Indianapolis Grand Prix one tiny item stood out for me — that an ITV commentator had a knowledge of history, recalling that French GP when only three Bugattis started. But that was no comparison with what happened this year.

In 1926 the hoped-for entries simply dwindled to just that trio of Bugs. It was at the dull Miramas circuit, so it is safe to assume that not many spectators would have gone anyway.

Those who did must have been bored out of their seats, even though Jules Goux, poor chap, did his best by driving decently fast for over 4hr 38min, with a fastest lap of 127.39mph. Of the other two Bugattis (all supercharged Type 39As), that of Pierre de Viscaya retired after 43 of the 100 laps and Bartolomeo Costantini’s was flagged off after 85 laps.

From 1906 until then the most important grand prix of them all had been run over the proper road circuits of Le Mans, Dieppe, Amiens, Lyons, Strasbourg and Tours. But for ’25 the Montlhéry track-cum-road course sufficed, and in ’26 the President of the AC de Marseille pleaded for the GP to be held over the new but featureless Miramas track, which would otherwise have to close.

The ACF had carelessly omitted the rule that unless a certain number of cars entered the race would be cancelled, so it had to concede that even if only one car were entered it would have to stage the race. Thus the fall from grace of this great event — but at least the public knew what to expect. Not like in 2005! 

As for the proposed GP rule changes, in my humble opinion to eradicate mechanical driver aids is an excellent idea, but why put teams to the expense of new engines? A move to less power has never reduced speeds for long, and the supercharged 2-1/2-litre versus 4-1/2-litre unsupercharged formula of 1947-53 worked well. I would like to see designers allowed an entirely free hand to produce cars to win races, which is what motor racing should be about. Don’t say this would produce speeds drivers couldn’t cope with: before WWII they raced the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions which were nearly as fast as today’s F1 cars, without downforce, modern wonder-brakes or sophisticated suspension.


Historians versus the media

Among recent books from Haynes of Yeovil I have been reading The Amazing Summer of ’55  (ISBN 1 84425 1144, £17.99) by Eoin Young. Eoin believes that summer starts in January and ends in the autumn, perhaps influenced by the British weather. His two dozen look-backs at all manner of motor racing happenings of 1955 begin with Prince Bira’s winter win in New Zealand and continue on to Tony Brooks’s Syracuse victory in October. Brooks’s foreword is very readable and interesting. This is just the thing for holiday browsing or bedside perusal.

Young includes the horrific Le Mans accident with much gory detail. Unless we ever see an official report (there surely must have been one) what really happened can only be based on eye-witnesses’ memories, and surmise. Was poor Levegh too old at 49 to drive such a fast Mercedes? He did accomplish two and a half hours without incident and was alert enough to raise an arm to warn Fangio of impending disaster. After his Mercedes had hit Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey, shunting it to the bank and back, did this give Fangio a better gap than that available to Levegh to negotiate, which he said he just managed to do? Or did Lance’s car remain where it was, proving Fangio’s skill in avoiding it? There seems to be absolutely no truth in the assertion made on BBC Radio 4 recently that Mercedes was using illegal fuel which resulted in a massive explosion and contributed to the massacre of so many spectators. The cars’ fuel was supplied by the race organisers and in any case the inquests on spectators killed showed no traces of burns.

A BBC interviewee suggested that an explosion was why the Mercedes team left Le Mans quickly after retiring its cars as a mark of respect. More likely that they went before the roads were busy at the end of the race, or just possibly fearing repercussions? But this was more nonsense; the M-B team did not leave for a considerable time after being retired. So much for media information!

The book also recounts the morbid episode of former prostitute Ruth Ellis, who shot dead racing driver David Blakeley. She was the last person to be hanged for murder in Britain. A gripping read nonetheless, including Ferrari’s two-cylinder engine, and the possible reason for Alberto Ascari’s fatal accident. But Alex Issigonis! — Eoin, you should have read my little verse in a recent Motor Sport  explaining who was Alex, who Alec!


An ‘octagonal delight’ on MGs

I cannot imagine that any MG follower would miss the Triple-M Yearbook. Edited by John Reid and Roger Thomas, the current edition is a wealth of historical, technical and eventing data. There is a study of Hans Herkuleyns the ‘Flying Dutchman’ and his racing MG QA, about the Le Mans P-types with all their non-standard mods(!) described, and the Turner MG. There is an account of trials with a J2, Len Goff’s diary of a K2 Magnette, Peter Green’s story of his NE Magnette, statistics of MG performances in MCC and MGCC events from 1929-39 and a list of surviving trials MGs by type.

There is more in what a journalist might call an “octagonal delight”. Details from the Register Librarian, 49 Breach Avenue, Southbourne, Emsworth PO10 8NB. £10 post-free.