A Further Look at the Napier Railton

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A Further Look at the Napier Railton

THE NAPIER Railton, which will forever hold the Brooklands lap-record at 143.44 mph., is an impressive car, which I took a further look at, last month. I recall how it was built by T & T’s of Brooklands Track specially for big-car fancier John Cobb, as an advancement on the ancient 10-litre Fiat and 10½-litre V12 Delage which were his former Track cars, and how it made its impressive debut at the 1933 August BARC Meeting, winning the very first race in which it ran, after setting a new s.s. lap-record of 120.59 m.p.h., and in its next race breaking the class A lap-record at 137.20 m.p.h.

That was the beginning of a long and successful career, during which this brilliant design of Reid A. Railton broke records innumerable, including World’s records of from one kilometre (151.97 m.p.h.) to 24-hours (150.6 m.p.h.), as well as winning four Brooklands races, embracing the BRDC 500 Mile Race (at 121.28 m.p.h.), the BRDC 500 kilometre Race (at 127.05 m.p.h.) and the Championship Scratch Race in 1933 (at 131.53 m.p.h.). In all, the great car broke 47 records. It was driven before the war not only by John Cobb but by the Hon. Brian Lewis, Tim Rose-Richards, Cyril Paul, Charles Brackenbury, Charlie Dodson, Oliver Bertram and Freddie Dixon, the last-named crashing the car at Montlhery.

I was as excited as anyone at the time of the car’s debut and wrote of its chances of taking the Brooklands’ lap record in the long-defunct paper Brooklands — Track & Air, saying: “. . Can Cobb capture it? Yes, I think so. . . Given a cool track — for Brooldands severely stresses the tyres of a heavy car — and ordinarily favourable conditions, Cobb should put the figure to between 138-139 m.p.h. fairly easily. Whether he will do more depends on how the huge car takes, and withdraws from, the banking.” (That was written in 1934— in which year the Napier-Railton set the record to 139.71 m.p.h.)

After the war Sir Geoffrey Quitter made good use of the ageing car for testing GQ aircraft parachutes, after it had survived some nonsense as the mechanical hero in the film “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman”, shown again recently on TV. At this period Ken Taylor’s son Ian helped in the conversion to Dunlop disc brakes (on the back wheels only, as the original drum brakes had been). The Napier Railton was then acquired by that courageous driver the Hon. Patrick Lindsay, who used it for VSCC racing, even spinning it on one memorable occasion, at Oulton Park. Douglas Hull had prepared it for Lindsay.

By this time it had deteriorated and when Bob Roberts took it on, it needed an overhaul. This was done by Peter Horne. and I discussed it with him a short time ago. The meeting took place at the Hammersmith premises of Lendrum & Hartman, one-time the celebrated Buick Concessionaires in this country. They still handle GM cars, their showroom being largely filled with Opels when I called, but these were overshadowed by some big American cars, including a Cadillac Seville, and by a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud in the background with a “Sold” sticker on its windscreen. Mr. Horne converts these American automobiles to right-band-drive, a difficult task, involving moulding new facia panels. He contrives to keep all the controls as they are with l.h.d., even in those GM models with a steering-column gearchange. While we were discussing how customers for these celebrated American makes buy them much more readily if they have automatic transmission and r.h. steering, a colleague of Mr. Horne’s mentioned knowing Kaye Don when he was selling Pontiacs in this country. It was a small world, for when I returned to the office I happened to pick up an old photograph of R. J. Munday, who raced one of the Leyland-Thomases at Brooklands, and the caption said that he was enjoying his Pontiac “supplied by Kaye Don”. . . .

Peter Horne told me that second gear in the three-speed Moss gearbox had been thrashed hard by GQ and it had to be replaced, at that time. Peter had worked at T & T’s up to 1941 and, faced with the Napier-Railton again, he set about stripping-down the 24-litre Napier “Lion” engine. Surprisingly little had to be replaced, although the water-pump drive had sheared. The badly-leaking water jackets were seen to, and then pressure tested. The old brake drums and the complex exhaust system (for the 12 cylinders in three banks of four) were missing. The disc brakes have, therefore, been retained but Mr. Horne had to make up the Brooklands-type exhaust piping and big silencers again, a very difficult task successfully accomplished, as will be appreciated if you look at the car today.

The Borg & Beck clutch was in good shape but all the wheel bearings and some of the gearbox bearings had to be replaced. It was confirmed to me that the “Lion” engine is an aero-engine, not the “Sea-Lion” marine adaptation of the famous Napier power unit. Peter also thinks that the rumour that this one engine lasted the life of the car and was never stripped down previously is probably true — remarkable when you calculate that thc Napier-Railton must have run at least 12,000 very high-speed miles since it was built, at the very minimum, even if the big engine did run most of the time at only about 2,000 r.p.m. Different from today’s Fl engines that are stripped down on average after some 800 miles!

The instruments are thought to be the original ones, but there were two blanked-off holes in the facia that were not accounted for, and although a Lucas triple headlamp set was made for the car when it was running at night on the Utah salt-flats in pursuit of the 24-hour record (apart from an ingenious electric starter engaging with a back wheel), Peter never discovered how these lamps were mounted. . . . But evidence of where the bent chassis had been repaired after the Dixon accident was visible. Restored, to Bob Roberts’ high standards, the famous car is now in his Midland Motor Museum at Bridgnorth, where I went to see it again, driving there in a new Vauxhall Astra.

In pristine condition, the old giant forms one of the major exhibits in the selective display of competition cars that is the essence of Bob Roberts’ Museum. It is a tribute to Hodec Engineering of Old Woking who carried out the restoration for the car’s present owner. Not only does the MMM have this famous car on show but it also has all the original works-drawings and the workshop schedules for all the chassis parts that were used in its construction at T & Ts, while subsidiary exhibits behind the Napier-Railton include one of the plain-treaded Dunlop 7.50-20 tyres from the Bonneville record runs in 1936, a blueprint of the circular courses at the Salt Flats used by Cobb, a huge George Monkhousc photograph taken during a pit-stop in the 1935 BRDC 500 Mile Race at Brooklands, an engine test-sheet, and my “profile” about the car, etc. In the pit-stop picture Tim Rose-Richards is sitting impassively in the cockpit while fuel is hosed into the 65-gallon tank and the enormous tyres are changed by “Dunlop Mac” and his men. The stop took more than ten minutes, with three more, much shorter, stops later in the race yet Cobb and Rose-Richards won at 121.28 m.p.h. or faster than the contemporary Indianapolis 500s were being run. I remarked to Michael Barker, the Museum curator, that I seemed to remember the Napier-Railton’s pit-crew having a signal-station over on the Bylleet side of the Track, to warn them when tyre wear was becoming a problem or that the car was coming in; I could not recall whether this was done by radio or by land-line, the latter I think, but did they lay their own 1½ miles of cable or simply “tap” a convenient BARC telephone-wire?

More so than ever today. the old monster is an impressive sight. The steering-gear and other chassis parts display clearly the fine tool-room work for which Ken Taylor of T & Ts was famous. The rnassive springs, ½-elliptic at the front, twin-cantilevers at the back. show that Reid Railton was determined that the rough surface of Brooklands should not defeat the suspension. Not only are the polished leaves of these Woodhead springs very wide and thick but each one has six leaves, or seven each for the back springs if you count the top spacer-leaves. The radiator cowl carries a tiny T & T badge but the bigger winged badge has yet to be refitted, The camshaft cover of the centre bank of cylinders of the Napier Lion engide carries a large brass plate explaining the complex firing-order, an arrow indicating that it should be read from the “Airscrew End”, which as installed in the chassis is the clutch end.

The car is shod now with 7.00-19 Dunlop Racing tyres. Looking into the spacious in which John Cobb and his co-drivers spent many eventful hours, one notes that the steering-column is braced by three tubular stays which cross the cockpit and are substantially anchored to the outside of the chassis side-members. The big steering wheel has four spokes and a small knurled knob in its hub which may be a handthrottle. The accelerator is central and to the left of the single bucket seat is the little gear lever, with the transmission hand-brake outboard of it — for driving impressions, see MOTOR SPORT for June, 1970, page 600.

When GQ Parachutes had the car some extra instruments were added and the aluminium dash panel, set under the scuttle in the o’s corner, became dishevelled. A new one was made, with the instruments positioned as closely as possible to their original locations. In fact, it is all quite simple, for a racing car. Dominating this panel is the large Jaeger tachometer, with its readings starting at the right top segment of the dial. The calibrations read 2, 5, and then well spaced out, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30, i.e. from 200 r.p.m. to 3,000 r.p.m. I think the engine normally ran at around 2,200 r.p.m, On the left of this tachometer is a little oil-temperature gauge, calibrated in steps of ten degrees frorn 30 to 100, with the more critical readings (80-90-100 deg,) again more widely spaced out. Beneath this dial is a huge domestic brass tumbler ignition-switch, up for “off”. To the right of the main dial are two matching small dials, for oil-pressure (10-100 lb./sq. in., in steps of ten pounds, equally spaced this time) and water temperature (the needle reading from 20 to 100 deg. C., in spacings of ten degrees, the vital indications here again being spaced out from 80-90-100). To the right of the water thermometer is a big knob for the Ki-gass. A large tap on the floor, convenient to the driver’s right hand, cuts off the fuel flow. The seat is adjustable, to suit anyone from Cobb to Dixon, by means of a central slide, which is locked in placed with a big key engaging with a line of locating holes on the floor.

It was good to see the old racing car that I used to watch frequently in its active days in such fine condition, and anyone who likes this kind of thing should most certainly try to see the final manifestation of the pre-war aero-engined Track cars, as represented by the Napier-Railton. The Museum sells a fine mounted colour photograph of it, for £3.00, and Grand Prix Models of Radlett should soon be releasing their new kit of the car. W. B.

The Midland Motor Museum has since confirmed that the engine now in the Napier Railton is the same one that was installed in the car in 1933. When this Type E89 Series X1A Lion engine was tested at Napier’s at Acton before being installed in the chassis it gave 564 b.h.p. at 2,350 r.p.m. on a c.r. of 6:1, and the maximum of 590 b.h.p. at 2,700 r.p.m. This compares with 400 b.h.p. from the original Lion engines in 1919, and 450 b.h.p. which these engines developed by 1921 and the 470 b.h.p. of the 1922 Schneider Trophy version. Cobb required reliability and obviously avoided the more highly developed versions of the Lion such as the 1929 Schneider Trophy engine, as used in Seagrave’s Golden Arrow, that developed 1,295 b.h.p. at the same speed and the eventual supercharged Lion that produced 1,450 b.h.p. — W.B.

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