Brooklands' Lionheart

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Legendary record breaker John Cobb didn’t say much – but his cars spoke volumes. Andrew Frankel gets a rare insight into the big man by driving the most famous of them all, at its spiritual home

There are only two framed photographs on my desk and, shamefully, neither is of my children. One is a fuzzy snap of a silver Honda NSX being driven around a rather wet Silverstone, which earns its place on account of its occupants being Ayrton Senna and me. The other is of a vast silver bullet hurtling around the Members’ Banking at Brooklands, its proportionally vast driver holding the steering wheel tight as he’s launched by the Track’s most infamous bump. I had it framed because I didn’t think I’d see a greater evocation of speed, power and raw courage more convincingly captured in a single image. If ever a Martian landed, knocked on my window and asked the meaning of the word ‘intrepid’, I’d just show him the picture of John Rhodes Cobb and his mighty Napier-Railton at Brooklands and all would become clear.

When the news came through that, after a decade of asking, I was going to drive the Railton, the choice of venue came down to a featureless former army test track where I’d be able to complete some laps on smooth tarmac, or the Brooklands banking itself. I’d not be able to drive the car as fast as I would have at the test track but, to me, the Railton simply is Brooklands, and passing up the chance to drive it there would be like opting to drive Fangio’s Maserati 250F on the new Nürburgring rather than the Nordschleife because it has a better surface. Besides, while the Members’ Banking is in very poor condition these days and extremely abbreviated, the less well-known Byfleet Banking at the far end of the course is quite well preserved and long enough to give a 24-litre aero-engined giant some gentle exercise.

Brooklands is so much more than simply the venue for the Railton’s best-remembered achievements. It was made here too, by Thomson & Taylor, the same company that built three of Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebirds, not to mention the Railton Mobil Special with which Cobb set a Land Speed Record that was to stand for longer than any other, before or since.

The Napier-Railton was conceived in 1932, completed in 1933 and built with two purposes in mind: long-distance record breaking and capturing the Brooklands Outer Circuit lap record. As the world’s first and Britain’s only purpose-built racing facility, such a record would have meant a lot to any Briton with enough backbone to have a go at it, but to Cobb, who had been brought up near Brooklands, it was doubly important. He’d scored his first Brooklands win in 1925, driving a 10-litre 1911 Fiat, and raced a variety of other, usually massively powerful, cars there, including the ex-Count Louis Zborowski Higham Special which would later be renamed ‘Babs’ and gain fame by capturing the Land Speed Record for JG Parry-Thomas – and notoriety for killing its owner in an attempt to regain the record in 1927.

By the early 1930s Cobb was campaigning a 10.5-litre Delage which by 1932 had circulated Brooklands at 133.9mph, faster than any other car of over 8 litres, but, somewhat irksomely, not as fast as the 4.4-litre supercharged Bentley of Tim Birkin which had claimed the outright lap record at nearly 138mph. So Cobb, a wealthy fur broker, approached Reid Railton with a plan to design a unique car.

Power for it came from a Napier Lion engine, as used in everything from Vickers Virginia heavy bombers to the Schneider Trophy-winning Supermarine S5 monoplane. (Cobb would later use two in his Railton Mobil Special.) In many regards, the Lion’s specification could be that of a 21st century supercar: twin overhead camshafts, W12 formation, four valves per cylinder and twin-spark ignition all go to show that there is precious little under the sun that is truly new. It even has oversquare internal dimensions. Where it does divert somewhat from current thinking is that those dimensions offer a 140mm bore and a 130mm stroke to give a swept volume of 23,970cc. Put another way, that’s almost exactly three times the capacity of a Bugatti Veyron. Twin magnetos provided the sparks, and because the car had no lights or wipers and was always be push-started, there was no need for any electrical equipment, nor even a battery.

The motor was installed in a conventional but bespoke ladder-frame chassis, supported by massive leaf springs, doubled at the back, to provide the strength and control to weather the Brooklands bumps with sufficient compliance not to bounce the driver clean out of his seat. The steering box is thought to come from a Bentley Speed Six, making it one of precious few proprietary components on the car, but the gearbox is a one-off made by Moss, with three speeds, and no reverse or synchromesh.

Braking used to be provided by 16in Dunlop drums on the rear wheels only (for Outer Circuit and record-breaking work there was no need for ultimate stopping ability) but, for reasons that will become clear, now comes courtesy of six-caliper Dunlop discs.

Cobb won the Railton’s first race at Brooklands in August 1933, setting a tone that would establish it as perhaps the single most successful British competition car of the pre-war era. The following year it took part in its first 24-hour record attempt at Montlhéry outside Paris, claiming the 12-hour record at over 121mph. Sadly, the run was not completed. The car, with Freddie Dixon at its wheel, went over the lip of the banking and was damaged sufficiently to end the attempt there and then.

Undeterred, Cobb, the Railton and his team headed for Utah and its Bonneville Salt Flats in 1935 and, driving on a 12-mile circular course, set a new 24-hour record of 134.85mph. That year the Railton also won the Brooklands BRDC 500 race and raised the Outer Circuit lap record to 143.44mph. When war closed Brooklands for the last time in 1939, the record still stood, and will for all time. 

In 1936 Cobb returned to Bonneville to try to reclaim the 24-hour record that had been broken first by Ab Jenkins and then smashed by George Eyston, and now stood at a fraction over 149mph. Pushing the Railton to the limit, Cobb and his team drove in circles for a day and a night, and when they were done the Railton had become the first car to average over 150mph for 24 hours, inclusive of all stops.

In 1937 it won the BRDC 500 again, though this time it was kilometres rather than miles. This was its last major victory.

The car resurfaced in 1949 wearing strange bodywork in the apparently risible Pandora and the Flying Dutchman starring James Mason and Ava Gardner, before being sold by Cobb in 1951 to the GQ Parachute company as a test bed for aircraft braking systems, which is when those discs were fitted. It then changed hands several times, owners including Patrick Lindsay and Victor Gauntlett, before being brought back to the UK in 1997 by Lukas Huni and being bought by the Brooklands Museum, partly via private donors but, in the main, by lottery funding.

And despite its many and varied careers – record breaker, race winner, film star, parachute tester and museum piece – it survives in remarkably unadulterated condition. The body is believed to be original from the cockpit forward, including that unforgettable cowling, and the engine, transmission and chassis are still those that pounded around this track 70 and more years ago.

“How many other engines have done 12,000 racing miles?” asks Allan Winn, director of the Brooklands Museum, as the beast sits warming the Lion. It’s surprisingly quiet, particularly compared to something like Babs with its 27-litre Liberty aero-engine and stub exhausts; in fact, the Napier is and always was silenced, as noise regulations existed at Brooklands even before the war. The exhaust gases of the three banks of four cylinders are each marshalled into an individual pipe to exit via fish-tails at the back.

At the helm is its curator and usual driver, Geoff Dovey, who kills the W12 once its water has reached 70deg C and takes me through the procedure. The fuel is turned on via a tap on the floor, you flick down twin mag switches and, as long as you have three strong men who don’t mind pushing and a receiving lungful of hydrocarbons when the Lion fires, that’s all you need to get under way. There’s a manual Ki-gass pump for squirting raw fuel into the engine when it’s cold and needs priming, but once it’s been running and there’s fuel in its triple Claudel-Hobson carburettors, the engine-driven mechanical fuel pump needs no further help. It’s quite happy shovelling fuel into the Lion at the rate of half a gallon per mile when travelling at full speed.

We won’t be doing that today. Dovey shows me around and it all seems rather simple: the gear lever and fly-off handbrake are on your left, the pedals offering the typical centre-throttle layout of its time. Directly ahead is a vast
rev-counter, flanked by minor gauges relating oil and water temperature, oil and fuel pressure.

Happily, and unlike almost any other world famous racing driver, Cobb was tall and bulky, which means I fit into the Railton just fine. Interestingly it has an adjustable seat, because during record and race attempts it would be driven by a range of drivers including Oliver Bertram, Cyril Paul, Charles Brackenbury, Tim Rose-Richards and the diminutive aforementioned Dixon.

“Drop the clutch when I shout ‘Now!’ and be prepared,” advises Dovey. “She does tend to run away.” I slot the ball-topped thin steel lever back into first, take a deep breath and wait as three-man power tries to move two tonnes of Railton fast enough for its aeroplane engine to start. It seems improbable in the extreme, but when the shout comes and the clutch engages, the Lion fires first time. 

And at once we are away. With only three gears and its peak power of 550bhp coming at 2350rpm, the Railton is necessarily exceptionally high geared. Right now, running temporarily on smaller wheels than it should, it is geared at 58mph per 1000rpm in top. With the taller rubber it will soon enjoy, that will be raised further. In its day, Cobb would rev the Lion past 2700rpm to reach the required speeds, but today we’re sticking to 1800rpm – little more than idle in most cars, but right in the thick of the Railton’s torque curve.

There is no time to soak up the occasion, no time to reflect that I am the first journalist since SCH Davis to drive this car on this banking. That is all for later. For now I am simply trying to keep the revs down, avoid the potholes and remember I’m driving a priceless car that has only two small discs, each over half a century old, to slow it.

All the time I am watching the gauges. The car has proven its reliability time and again but I know that aero-engines like this were designed to run with cold air being pushed into their radiators at high speed. This engine is so compact in its broad-arrow formation that the heat build-up must be phenomenal; but as I drive to and fro along the banking, trying different heights and dodging the bumps, the needles never waver from their operating zones.

There are surprises, even here. The steering is heavy at parking speeds but no heavier than, say, that of a six-cylinder vintage Bentley, and once you’re on the move it becomes extremely light. The lock is not great but better than I expected and the brakes are surprisingly good. There’s not even any need to be particularly frightened of the Moss ’box: I was only using first and second (the latter undoubtedly good enough for three-figure speeds) but slotting the lever across the dog-leg in either direction is not something anyone with reasonable experience of crash gearboxes should fear. And the change itself is extremely light.

Only the throttle causes problems. It’s incredibly sensitive and, with my right foot bouncing about on the bumps, it requires total concentration not to go bunny-hopping down the road, an indignity a car as noble as this really should be spared. In the end, and as is so often the case with racing machinery, a more bold approach pays off. Being positive instead of timid with the throttle brings the desired results, along with a mighty roar of approval from the Lion. Just once, and only for an instant, I open it right up in second gear. And, for that brief moment, I feel the shove, the same majestic thrust Cobb would have felt as he set off on one of his epic record-breaking runs.

When it’s all over I park as instructed at the far end of the banking and wait for Dovey, Winn and the rest of the Brooklands team to arrive. So, for about five minutes, I’m alone, in silence, in the cockpit of the Railton. And, to my surprise, my thoughts turn not to the car but its creator, the incomparable Cobb. He was a quiet, socially awkward man who just wanted to get on and do his thing with the minimum of fuss. He’d probably have hated a day like today. In this respect, he was the antithesis of Malcolm Campbell, who rarely lost an opportunity to alert the media to his activities. It is perhaps because of this that the fact that Cobb was the first person to travel at 400mph on land and 200mph on water is so little known. The latter milestone, achieved on Loch Ness on September 29, 1952, was to cost him his life.

But none of this diminishes his achievements in the Napier-Railton. How good it is that, while Cobb has been gone these last 55 years, his car is still going strong, a massive, mobile monument to one of the true giants of our sport. If you have never seen it run, there will never be a better opportunity than on June 16-17 at the Brooklands Centenary Festival. Go. And be amazed.

Our thanks to Allan Winn, Geoff Dovey and all the staff at the Brooklands Museum for the use of their car and to Mercedes-Benz World for the use of its facilities.