This ‘gentle giant’ was famous for driving giant cars, and was killed in a 250mph jet boat. But he also squeezed into smaller racing cars…
John Cobb is remembered for his many successes at Brooklands with a 10-litre Fiat, the 10.5-litre V12 Delage and the enormous 24-litre Napier RaiIton, his cluster of important records with the last-named car at Montlhéry and Utah, and for thrice holding the Land Speed Record, at 393.82mph in 1947, the first driver to exceed 400mph on the one-way run. From which it is obvious that this bulky bear of a man loved the fast giant motor-cars.
It is not surprising that John Rhodes Cobb made motor racing his main sport, for he was born, in 1899, at ‘The Grove’, just outside Esher. In 1927 this straggling town was reached from London via the newly-built Kingston Bypass, along which Brooklands visitors would go before reaching the magic entrance beneath the Members’ banking of the World’s first motor course, by then almost an ancient monument to speed…
It was from the family home that Cobb was sent off to Eton, having already bicycled from Esher to have a look at the Track. Long before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge, Cobb had been introduced to motoring in his father’s 1908 Panhard and two-stroke Valveless, succeeded by a series of faster Vauxhalls. Thus was the seed sown; and Sammy Davis has recalled how, with his elder brother, John acquired the wreck of a Minerva which conveyed the boys, aged 11 and 15, as far as Leatherhead before it expired. John already knew how to drive, having experimented illicitly with the family doctor’s 1904 De Dion along the house drive.
In the post-war years John made a point of meeting as many of the new breed of Brooklands drivers as he could, and he watched them at the Track, preferring those who drove the really big cars. His own racing baptism came at the 1925 BARC Summer Meeting, when Warde lent him the aforesaid venerable 1910 Fiat, with four cylinders of 2.5 litres each and chain-drive, a difficult car, with which the novice Cobb got a third place. At a subsequent small West Kent MC meeting he improved, with a win and another third. He then purchased the old monster, and let his friend Parry Thomas look after it, which probably explains its eventual Thomas-type radiator cowl. The aged monster gave Cobb, in all, six wins, two second and three third places from 1925 to 1928, after gaining many successes for its former owners John Duff, Philip Rampon the wine-merchant and Richard Warde the petrol rep.
But the urge for greater speed has to be obeyed and in 1929 Cobb bought the V12 10.5-litre Delage which had briefly held the Land Speed Record in 1924, at 143.31mph, until beaten by Ernest Eldridge’s enormous Fiat ‘Mephistopheles’ a car I suspect Cobb would have liked to own. But the Delage, serviced by T&Ts at the Track, gave John nine wins (including that dramatic 100mile British Empire Trophy race duel with George Eyston’s 8-litre sleevevalve Panhard-Levassor) eleven seconds, four thirds, 10 Class-A records and a lap at 133.88mph, from 1929 to 1933. The bit now between his teeth, Cobb had Reid Railton of T&Ts build him the 24-litre Napier-Railton. This was a tremendously good move; it gave john important records at Montlhéry and Utah and the Brooklands lap record four times, to the ultimate 143.44mph, as well as the fastest timed speed of 151.97mph over the kilometre. You can see this wonderful car at the Brooklands Museum in Weybridge.
However, these giant cars have been well covered by myself and other writers. What is not so well remembered is that Cobb also raced in much smaller motor cars. For instance, in 1927 he drove Jack Barclay’s 1922 3-litre TT Vauxhall with track body, to win a most exciting 100-mile handicap at Brooklands against Purdy in the little Thomas Special, myself an enthralled onlooker. This was repeated in a subsequent 50-mile handicap, Cobb driving the Vauxhall again, finishing second, the ‘flat-iron’ Thomas third. Before this Cobb had won a 100mph Short Handicap and taken a second in a ‘100 Long’ and was second again in the prestigious Gold Star race.
With the Vauxhall, Cobb also won the Barnato Cup for fastest lap at a charity meeting and took records with it in 1927, at over 111mph. He also took Mrs WB Scott round in her Leyland Thomas when winning a Lightning Short Handicap at 116.3mph, to beat Campbell’s Bugatti. In the ‘Lightning Long’ Campbell turned the tables on Cobb, from an easier handicap, but the lady saw her Leyland lap now at 127.05 mph. But we are verging on the giants again, the Leyland’s engine only 2827cc smaller than that of the Fiat john was still racing.
It would be unfair to say that their sheer speed of the giants contributed to Cobb’s accolades, because the big cars were handicapped by A V Ebblewhite along with all the others, in most Brooklands events; but there is no denying that the higher the pace, the greater the skill and bravery involved, and that Cobb found this an irresistible attraction in track work.
In the 1929 Ulster TT John appeared however in a road race and the Ards circuit was all of that! – driving a Brooklands-model Riley 9 for Victor Riley. Alas, although he practised avidly, he got only into the sixth lap before hitting the bank at Comber so hard that he had to retire – the impact was enough for his mechanic to lose his false teeth. Lost dentures apart, this was a sad end to John’s first road race, although the fact that at the Le Mans-type run-and-jump-in start he got so quickly into the low Riley was rather a miracle…
Back to the Track. In the first (1929) BRDC 500-mile Race, Cobb drove Jack Dunfee’s exciting 4-litre V12 Sunbeam, Cyril Paul his codriver; they had a good chance, until the chassis broke up. Cobb’s long spell of track accomplishments decided the meticulous Arthur Fox to offer him one of the sports-racing Talbot 90s for the August Gold Star 25-mile handicap. After a race of muddled disqualifications it was third. Later that afternoon Cobb averaged 14.7mph for 2.5 miles of the Mountain course on Dame Ethel Locke King’s 1902 Siddeley, in the Daily Sketch ‘Old Crocks’ race, having survived a stern lecture from the veteran’s owner for having over-revved it on a test run.
Much as he enjoyed track racing, when the 1930 ‘500’ was announced John thought it unsuitable for the now ageing big Delage, but was persuaded by W B Scott to share his little 1.5-litre GP Delage. They were doing well until Cobb had an anxious moment: the front axle bolts broke, but he managed to pull up.
When he was available Cobb ‘Big John’ or `The Gentle Giant’ to his friends continued to be part of Fox’s activities, sharing a Talbot with stockbroker Tim Rose-Richards in the 1931 Double-12′, in which they were ninth, a broken valve having delayed their car. In that year’s ‘500’ Cobb and Woolfe brought one of the renowned sports-racing Talbots home sixth.
The following year he was partnered by his-friend the Hon Brian Lewis in the JCC 1000-mile race at Brooklands and although the Talbot 105 went off tune on the second day, it was placed fourth, the laurels going to Elsie Wisdom and Joan Richmond in the Riley, in this strenuous race. Then, with the single-seater 105 for the ‘500’ over the outer-circuit, victory seemed certain, until, almost at the end of the race while in the lead, cracked plug insulators and two pitstops let Horton’s MG and Paul’s Riley snatch it from them. So Lewis and Cobb had to be content with a good third, at 111.6mph.
Although in 1933 the splendid Napier-Railton occupied most of Cobb’s time, he bought the ex-Noel Rees/Brian Lewis 2.3 Monza Alfa Romeo, with which to engage in some non-outer-circuit racing. In the JCC’s novel ‘handicap-by-chicanes’ International Trophy Race, John was seventh, and the Alfa was fourth in the BRDC British Empire Trophy race, involving 300 miles of a Brooklands’ course with straw bale corners. Only his brother’s illness prevented this versatile driver from trying a real road race, the loM Mannin Moar. So it was not all multilitres! Indeed, in the 1934 TT Cobb again drove for Arthur Fox in his 4½-litre Lagonda team, and was fourth in class, these cars beaten only by Eddie Hall’s 3½-litre Bentley.
But in the end the monsters did prevail. His Land Speed Record successes were achieved with the 2500hp twin Napier-engined Railton Special, and in 1951, at the age of 51, never having previously driven a racing boat, John Cobb tried for the Water Speed Record on Loch Ness in the powerful jet-powered ‘Crusader’ in which he lost his life.
Cobb had married his second wife late in life, so this was a double tragedy. The local people erected a stone cairn on the bank of the loch, which was unveiled by Mrs Eileen Holloway, Cobb’s now-married sister who had shared his motorcycling adventures all those long years ago. I hope that the simple stone remains intact, a memorial to this brave and dedicated driver.