Reid Railton was one of the most brilliant of all pre-War engineers, using the talents of men like John Cobb and Parry THomas to unlock the potential of his designs. Bill Boddy recalls a true genius
BSC, educated at Rugby and Manchester University, Reid A Railton was unquestionably one of the greatest and most forward thinking automobile engineers and racing car designers of the pre-World War II era.
He was, from 1917 onwards, associated with John Godfrey Parry Thomas when Thomas was the Experimental Engineer and then Chief Engineer at Leyland Motors Limited in Leyland, Lancashire. Thomas had left by 1923 to become the greatest Brooklands racer of the 1920s, driving his Leyland Thomas cars. Although Reid Railton did not join him, he remained a close friend, with whom he would sit up into the small hours in Parry Thomas’ bungalow, ‘The Hermitage’ (situated at the Track), discussing his friend’s racing plans.
Railton had been associated with the Arab which was built at Letchworth for a couple of years from 1926. Its 2-litre engine, with valve gear and leaf valve springs either contributed by Parry Thomas or borrowed from what Railton had learnt from him at Leyland, gave a claimed top speed of 90mph. Few were made, although two survive.
Railton was reassociated with his mentor and great engineering designer and racing driver in 1926/7, when a competition version of the Riley Nine was required. At Brooklands, Thomas and Railton worked on the equally successful Brooklands model of this famous marque. Before this, competition appearances in this post-war period had been the domain of the side-valve Riley Redwing, which Victor Gillow and AF Ashby had developed into capable outer circuit Brooklands participants.
The task of making the Riley Nine into a sporting car was done at Brooklands under the Thomas Inventions Company banner. I suspect that Parry Thomas did the engine and Reid Railton a modified chassis to put it in. Thomas had already built the two straight-eight Thomas Special ‘flatirons’ and thought of going for 750cc class records with the revised Riley, which was lower, or should one say flatter, than the previous Nine. He abandoned this and was building new 750cc Thomas Special chassis when he was so sadly killed at Pendine in March 1927, when trying to raise the LSR in the 27-litre Liberty aero-engined `Babs’. Anyway, between them, Thomas and Railton devised the new ‘Brooklands model’ Riley Nine. The wheelbase of the standard Mk1 chassis was cut down 16in to 7ft 7Hin and the channel section frame narrowed to only 12in at the back. The seats were set below the torque-tube, so low that a driver of normal height could place his or her right hand on the ground while sitting behind the steering wheel, yet the scuttle was only 26in high. The brilliant engine, conceived by Percy Riley with a high-set camshaft and short push rods on each side of the cylinder block to obtain inclined valves in hemispherical cylinder heads without the complication of twin overhead camshafts, was given two 30mm Solex horizontal carburettors which increased output to 50bhp, and close-ratio gears were used in the unit gearbox. A sports style two-seater body was matched to the low radiator. At first, these Rileys (six, perhaps) were made at Brooklands in Thomas’ workshops, as a brochure I have confirms. But the Riley company in Coventry soon took over.
The prototype had been prepared for the August 1927 BARC Meeting and, as Thomas had been killed that March, Railton, although not a racing driver, took it out for the 90mph Short Handicap. It won by a mile, having lapped at a remarkable 98.62mph. The chassis frame was altered later and the back-axle set above the side-members, before this fast and very sporting Railton-devised Riley made its debut at the 1927 Olympia Motor Show. With a fabric-covered body and named the Riley Nine ‘Speed Model’, it sold for £395. Modified in detail through the years, it was listed as the Riley Nine ‘Brooldands Speed Model’ and its racing and other successes, achieved in important events by so many famous drivers, are too long to list.
After Thomas’ death, Kenneth Thomson, as financier, joined forces with Ken Taylor Parry Thomas’ chief mechanic and a very expert machine tool operator to found Thomson & Taylor Ltd in the former Brooklands premises. Railton was on hand as engineer and consultant. One such task was to produce for Daimler of Coventry the chassis of the few special sporting Double-Six 50 cars they listed, built at Brooldands by T & Ts, where Railton was now Chief Engineer.
The Land Speed Record was at this time very prominent, prestigious and profitable. Malcolm Campbell had held it four times but by 1929 had lost it to Segrave and the Irving-Napier Golden Annw. So he commissioned Railton to redesign his 207mph Napier-Campbell Bluebini Railton realised that more power and less wind resistance were the requirements. He threw out the epicydic gearbox, replacing it with a three-speed KLG box so that Campbell could sit much lower, aided also by the propshaft being offset. Campbell hired from Napiers a Schneider Trophy supercharged Napier ‘Lion’ seaplane engine of 1450bhp. The radiator was isolated in the car’s nose and the chassis lowered. Gurney Nutting made a better streamlined body and the wheels, with Ace discs, were given fairings. Campbell went to Daytona, set the record of 246.09mph, and returned to a Knighthood.
In 1933, Railton was called upon to modify the ageing Bluebird again, when the 22.3-litre Napier engine was changed fora 36.5litre s/c Rolls-Royce power unit of 2300bhp. Railton had the task of installing this 1931 R-R engine, putting in a new clutch and a ram nose to feed air to the supercharger.
It wasn’t to cost too much and Railton did a splendid job to this end, though the engine proved difficult to enclose in the existing body. Bluebird gave its owner the first LSR of over 250mph, at 272.46mph. The next target was 300mph.
Thomson & Taylor were now engaged on modification, preparation and repair, as well as sales of many racing cars often for top clients, and I have no doubt that Railton was involved with these affairs. But when Sir Malcolm Campbell bought the two 4-litre V12 Sunbeams Tiger and Tigress the cars with which Kaye Don had achieved such notable results after the Sunbeam Company had abandoned racing, he got T & Ts and Railton to rebuild one of them, with a view to curing weaknesses in both the chassis frame and transmission. In fact both cars were rebuilt to identical specifications, the second one entrusted to Robin Jackson, who had his Robinery’ workshops at Brooldands, with Railton as supervisor. Railton was responsible for the new stronger, lower chassis, pre-selector gearboxes to replace the old Sunbeam three-speeders, hydraulic brakes with bigger brake drums, wider front axles with radius locating arms, and other minor changes. Gurney Nutting provided new bodies and overall, the recreated Sunbeams served Campbell well. Reid Railton, who never sought publicity although his projects worked properly every time, had also been approached by big, equally modest ex-Etonian John Cobb, to build him a car able to win the fastest Brooklands races with the ultimate lap-record in mind and to break very long distance records. 24
By 1935, the former intention had been accomplished, and Cobb described his 143.44mph lap record as “like trying to lean as far out of a top floor window as possible without falling out”.
By 1933, the Napier-Railton, a big car with a big engine was ready for Cobb. Having had Kaye Don and Birkin go quicker than he could in his old 132mph 10H-litre V12 Delage, he now felt that a new racing car was needed. Railton decided a 500hp Napier ‘Lion’ engine would suffice. For it, he designed a chassis typical of his experienced skills, with very still side-members but two 1 / 4 elliptic springs on each side at the back to partially reduce unsprung weight. The back axle had its own oil sump and a ratio of 1.66 to I. The three-speed gearbox was very compact, as the lower gears would be seldom engaged for long, and the front axle and its details were a fine example of expert matching. Gurney Nutting made the body and the complex problem of Brooldands exhaust systems with three separate cylinder banks was cleverly solved.
The outcome fully justified Railton’s work, the big car winning races, establishing Brooldands’ fastest ever speed (151.57mph) and setting long distance records, some at over 168mph. It is now a worthy exhibit in the Brooldands Museum.
In spite of all this work, Railton found time to produce for Raymond Mays the chassis for the first ERAs. Cost and time precluded a lower seating position but the roadholding was enhanced when Railton specified the new extra low pressure Dunlop tyres. The first ERA demo was staged at the track.
By 1935, Campbell’s Bluebird had been given a new wide nose, twin rear wheels, a new front axle with radius arm location and the chassis (unchanged) was lead-weighted to five tons, and air brakes were incorporated. Railton again accompanied Sir Malcolm to Daytona where, on an unsuitable beach, the LSR was raised to 276.82mph with the same Rolls-Royce engine. Then, later in 1935 at Utah, Campbell was rewarded with 301.129mph, before he left LSR bids for the water speed record. Fred Cooper and Railton were responsible for the 2500hp R-type Rolls-Royce engined Bluebird K3 that took Donald Campbell to a WSR of 126.32mph in 1937. Later, Railton had taken Campbell out in a Ventnor hydroplane, having been to the USA to buy it. R.A.R. was at Coniston Water to help with engine problems on the K4, which took the WSR to 141.74mph in 1939.
After his enormous success with his Napier-Railton, John Cobb wanted to try for the LSR. Only Railton could have devised the unique S-shaped chassis to accommodate the two ice-cooled, s/c 1250bhp Napier ‘Lion’ engines of this revolutionary car, or put the hero in a seat in the very nose, ahead of the front wheels. Pure Railton, too, was the four-wheel-drive — with no connection between front and back drive — the coil spring suspension, and the drop-on detachable body shell.
In 1947, this car took Cobb to his second LSR of 394.20mph, before he too went for the WSR. Again Railton, with Comdr du Cane, was responsible for the tricycle float, De Havilland Ghost turbojet-powered boat Gusader. Major Frank Halford had enticed the MoS to lend the engine but in 1952, the Gusader killed its owner at 210mph on Loch Ness.
Another project which was the product of Railton’s genius was the MG ‘Magic Midget’ in Jaguar-powered form, with which Lt-Col. `Goldie’ Gardner took Class-E records in Belgium in 1938, the flying start kilometre, at 173.6mph, the car rebuilt in T & T’s Brooldands workshops. Railton was not tied to his drawing board at the workshops but, on the contrary usually made the effort to be present when the cars and boats for which he was so largely responsible, were performing in America and elsewhere. Eventually he went to live in California with his wife and daughter, but contributed to the war effort with design work. It was a great loss, especially to the world of speed, when he died in 1977, aged 82.