Number Plates - DPA 231

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The Railton car went into production during the nineteen-thirties as a result of design work by Reid Railton who was chief design consultant for Thomson and Taylor the Brooklands specialists who could make anything from a front axle beam to a Land Speed Record car. The Railton car was of the breed that became known as “Anglo-American bastard”, these being cars built in England using American components with English sports car knowledge and fitted with English coachwork. Compared to something exotic like a Bugatti or an Alfa Romeo, which were purist cars, these Anglo-Americans seemed a bit crude and primitive. The Railton was born out of Hudson and Terraplane and used a side-valve straight-eight engine of 76×114 mm. — 4,168 c.c., with a single Zenith down-draught carburetter. The gearbox was 3-speed and reverse, a typical American of the day, as were the brakes and axles. Saloon and drophead coupe bodies were offered and they were remarkably flexible and smooth cars to drive, endowed with surprising performance for what appeared to be an agricultural lump of iron for a power unit.

Thomson and Taylor were distributors for the Railton cars, which were built just outside Cobham, in Surrey, and in 1935 they produced what was termed the Light Sports Tourer model. Mechanically it was not changed very much though the engine was moved back in the chassis to give a better balance, but in place of the normal luxurious saloon or coupe body they designed a very spartan 2/4-seater sporting body, with small mudguards and the bare minimum of equipment. The result was an embarrassingly quick sports car that set a new standard of acceleration in those days, with 0-60 m.p.h. in 8.8 seconds. At the time a performance yardstick for road-going sports cars was 0-60 m.p.h. in 10 seconds. It would do 50 m.p.h. in first gear, 70 m.p.h. in second gear (or middle gear) and 100 m.p.h. in top gear, with very little fuss or bother, the big side-valve engine only revving to 4,300 r.p.m. The real embarrassment of the Light Sports Railton was its ability to out-perform some of the purist exotica, with twin overhead camshafts, superchargers or multi-carburetters. Whereas you would open the bonnet of an Alfa Romeo or a Bugatti just to enjoy the workmanship in the engine room, the last thing you did with a Railton was to look under the bonnet. There was nothing very attractive about an iron side-valve engine with a single down-draught carburetter mounted high up on a cast manifold. Even the wheels were anathema to the purist, for though they were wire-spoked they were of the bolt-on variety, with chrome nave-plates covering the nuts. In most sports cars of those days the gearbox was something to enjoy and on which to practise the art of quick and deft gear-changes, but the Railton with its 3-speed gearbox was lamentable.

The prototype Light Sports built by Thomson and Taylor, the body being made for them by a coachbuilder in Thames Ditton, was registered DPA 231 and became, in effect, the test-car, demonstrator and hire-car all rolled into one. Stripped of its mudguards, lamps, spare wheel and windscreen it was entered in a 9-mile race on the Brooklands Outer Circuit, driven by Leon Cushman, who had raced for the Alvis Car Company some years before. In this October handicap event in 1935 the Railton finished second at an average speed of 104.85 m.p.h., which caused a few eyebrows to be raised in the paddock.

It was loaned out to various motor magazines for road-test and Motor Sport featured it in the December 1935 issue, recording a flying half-mile in racing trim at 102.86 m.p.h. Out on the road with all the equipment in place it cruised at 80-85 m.p.h. and with the windscreen erect was good for a bit over 90 m.p.h., but it was the lively acceleration that impressed. It seemed to be a bit thirsty, recording 12 m.p.g., so it was a good thing that the rear-mounted tank held 13 gallons of petrol. The lights were pretty rudimentary and in common with most American cars the electrics were only 6 volt. A favourite test was to take cars up the test-hill at Brooklands, which finished in a 1 in 4 gradient. The Light Sports Railton revelled in such climbs and one magazine’s test-driver was surprised by the potential of DPA 231. Nonchalantly smoking his pipe he accelerated up the hill and was completely air-borne at the top, all four wheels nearly three feet off the ground. His photographer recorded the moment for posterity, the driver being totally unaware of his situation as the photo was taken. He was sitting there, calm and unmoved, pipe in mouth, but a second later the car crashed down on its front wheels and the driver had a very busy time gathering it all up. It is not recorded what happened to his pipe!

DPA 231 became a very familiar number in British club events, being loaned to various people for rallies and driving tests and in 1938 it had a very busy season in the hands of Charles Follett, a well-known Alvis driver. He competed at Shelsley Walsh, winning the class for TT-type sport cars in 44.40 seconds, at Donington Park where it won two handicap races, in the Light Car Club’s 3-hour race for production sports cars on the Campbell Road Circuit at Brooklands (7th place) and in Brooklands Outer Circuit races. In the BRDC 50-mile race in September 1938 the Railton was second at an average of 107.8 m.p.h., with a best lap at 112.71 m.p.h. and at the Dunlop Jubilee Meeting it scored a 3rd place on the banked track.

It may have been an “Anglo-American bastard” but it was undoubtedly one of the best of them. Eventually it found its way out to New Zealand, where it still lives. A second car was built and sold to Mr. J. Kingston-Whittaker, who used it in rallies, but I can find no trace of any further Light Sport Railtons being built. In recent years there have been a couple of fake cars constructed from Railton bits. — D.S.J.