A new book celebrates one of the greatest engineering minds Britain has produced. Here, in an exclusive extract, we show how design genius Reid Railton became the brains behind Malcolm Campbell’s epic attempt on the 300mph speed record
In his musings of August 1933 on future land-speed-record cars, Reid Railton said he thought “Big changes will be made in the external appearance of cars built for record attempts. The limiting factor is always the resistance offered by the whole car in travelling through the air. It is known that one bad feature of a motorcar in this respect is that the four wheels project into the air and cause eddies which upset the air flow around the body itself.
“It is almost certain that if some brave man ventured forth in a vehicle with all the wheels enclosed (looking something like a clockwork mouse), he would go very fast indeed if he had the luck to meet conditions of wind and surface that were perfect. On the other hand, if he proved unlucky in some way for which the designer had made no provision, he would stand a remarkably good chance of breaking his neck. Furthermore we are by no means sure as to what would happen to the tyres if they were completely enclosed and so were deprived of the cooling breeze which they normally obtain.”
The last consideration guided Railton’s final design of the Blue Bird V body. Although the rest of the car was fully faired and enclosed, the treads and outer faces of its tyres were exposed. This preserved their cooling at the expense of an acceptable drag increase in a body that was the sleekest of contemporary contenders for land-speed honours. The stabilising fin was now smoothly incorporated in the tapering tail while the cockpit and its windscreen were better faired into the shape as a whole. Displaced from the tail by the bulky cylinder operating the air brakes, a 40-gallon fuel tank was in the left of the body adjacent to the transmission.
The result was a machine scaling 10,450 pounds, an increase of some 1,500 pounds from Blue Bird IV. “Railton and his assistants at Thomson and Taylor’s had worked on the chassis from the end of April, 1934 until the beginning of November,” said Sir Malcolm. “Over two months more had been occupied in building the new body. Theoretically the reconstructed car was capable of a speed in the region of 335mph provided, of course, that a run could be made under the most perfect imaginable conditions.’
The result was stunning — a record car par excellence. Although in one sense the hammer with four new heads and six new handles, its transformation over the years was such that Reid Railton could now call it his design in its entirety. At the outset he had wanted to create a new car from scratch instead of modifying the Villiers/Maina effort. He now had a car to call his own, virtually every part the product of his pencil, with its 1933 version already the fastest in the world. Though designed “on locomotive lines”, as Railton was wont to say, it was a magnificent-looking machine.
“Blue Bird is a masterpiece,” vouchsafed Motor Sport. “All those who have had a hand in its design and construction are to be heartily congratulated on a production — nay, a creation — which reflects the greatest possible credit on British engineering skill. Mr Reid A Railton has designed many fine cars in his short career; certainly he has never designed a more impressive one than Blue Bird. The same can be said for the firm which has built the car from his designs, Messrs Thomson & Taylor of Brooklands.”
“ONCE AGAIN WE set out for Daytona with high hopes for success at last,” said Sir Malcolm of his quest for the 300mph record. From January 31 1935 he and the Blue Bird V team were in Daytona for eight weeks in search of a good beach. An initial hitch was discovery that the engine’s exhaust stubs were too short with the result that their cowlings buckled, allowing gases into the cockpit that made Campbell think the V12 was on fire. Another anomaly was that closing the radiator shutter made the car slower instead of faster.
“After weary weeks of waiting for the conditions that simply would not come,” wrote the Speed King, “at last the beach had improved to an extent which made the risk of a trial at least justifiable. The condition of the beach was really bad but it was the best we could hope for. After repeated effort the highest speed we could attain in one direction only was 281mph. So uneven were the sands that the car continually left the ground completely – but even so I thought we should have travelled faster than we did.”
In fact the speeds on March 7 were 281.030mph northbound and 272.727mph on the return run for an average of 276.816mph. This was a new land-speed record, to be sure, but only a scant 4.4mph faster than Campbell’s record of two years earlier – negligible reward for the costly efforts of all concerned.
“Having considered the whole matter very fully,” said Campbell, “I came to the decision that it was essential to try out Blue Bird on the Salt Flats to ascertain whether the course was at fault or whether we must look elsewhere for the causes of failure.” As far as he was concerned Sir Malcolm was missing the difference between Blue Bird V’s theoretical top speed of 335mph and the 277mph recorded at Daytona – a difference of almost 60mph or 21 per cent. Had he been sold a pup by Railton and Thomson & Taylor?
Post-Daytona post-mortems duly followed at Thomson & Taylor. “It was possible that our wind-tunnel calculations were not accurate,” wrote Sir Malcolm, “so these were very carefully checked with the result that we found them to be correct within one per cent. Of course we realised that it is a practical impossibility to build a body that actually corresponds exactly to the model used in the wind tunnel. The latter, being solid, is entirely free from air leaks, while the body that is built from it obviously cannot be so. Still, this factor could not by any means account for so large a margin as more than 50mph in car speed.”
Or could it? In his remarks to the Institution of Automobile Engineers at the beginning of 1934, Railton admitted that the state of the wind-tunnel art was by no means definitive. “It is difficult in a wind tunnel to reproduce the conditions under which the full-size car has to run. The presence of the ground immediately under the car affects the airflow round it and has an important influence on the optimum body shape. It might seem at first sight as though the provision of a thin plate under the wheels of the model would reproduce this effect but, owing to skin friction on the plate and the consequent eddy formation, the method is not very accurate.
“This inaccuracy, however, only affects the absolute value of the results. For models of the same general type, the relative results of tests using a ground plate are probably quite reliable. In other words, where the aim is to get the highest possible speed as against forecasting exactly what that speed will be, this method is both quick and reliable.”
Railton went on to relate the available power to the characteristics and speeds of four land-speed record protagonists: the 1,000hp Sunbeam, the Golden Arrow, the Napier-engined Blue Bird III and the Rolls-Royce-powered Blue Bird IV. From this comparison, he said, “The interesting fact emerges that in each of these four successful record cars the actual power exerted by the engine at the ultimate speed was about double that required theoretically to overcome the corrected aerodynamic drag of the model.” This left considerable margin for error, a margin well in excess of the one per cent mentioned by Campbell. Here Railton faced his most daunting challenge yet in a career that had hitherto progressed effortlessly.
ALTHOUGH BLUE BIRD V embarked for Utah by train, Campbell himself did not travel until he was advised that the salt lake was suitable for his purposes. Arriving with Campbell were his 14-year-old son Donald, Railton and mechanic Harry Leech.
While others had travelled fast on the salt beds since the Blitzen Benz in 1914, Campbell was the first to attempt tremendous speed in an officially timed straight line. “Never shall I forget my sensations as the car got off the mark!” he said of his first trial on September 2. “Would the rear wheels grip or would the rear wheels slither about when we reached a certain speed? Nobody could tell and we had to find out in practice.
“On the way to the starting point we found that salt was picked up by the wheels and became packed tightly against the streamlined fairings, rubbing the tyres. This was something that we had not anticipated. It brought a risk that at speed the jammed salt might lock the front wheels. This chance was obviated and overcome, however, by cutting away the lower part of the fairings and so allowing the salt to fall clear.”
With the car fresh from the workshops and with a new clutch, Campbell was urged to take it easy. He knew, however, that speed was needed if he were to assess the course adequately. “Before I realised we were properly away,” he told The Motor, “we had reached the maximum speed suggested by my staff. The course appeared to be perfect and the temptation to let the car go was more than I could resist. It was the most wonderful sensation I have ever felt. Here we were, skimming over the surface of the earth, the black line ever disappearing over the edge of the horizon, the wind whistling past like a hurricane and nothing in sight but the endless sea of salt with the mountains 50 miles away in the distance.
“The two outstanding impressions that remained were first, the extraordinary and really wonderful sensation of skimming over the black line — there was none of the awful vibration I had so often experienced at Daytona as the car leaped off the ground and came crashing to earth again. Secondly I could never see the black line for more than a hundred yards ahead of the car as all the time it seemed to be disappearing over the edge of the horizon. It was like chasing an endless ribbon.”
Again early in the day to minimise the heat, Sir Malcolm went for the record just after 7.00am on September 3. Motoring flat out, he changed up to second at 100mph and into top at 200. Both he and Railton were to regret that no effort had been made to test the radiator shutter on the previous day. At 290mph, two miles before the measured mile on his outward run, Campbell pushed the lever that closed the shutter. He soon saw a film of oil rising to cover the inside of the windscreen and began to feel dizzy as engine exhaust leaked into the cockpit. To add to the drama of the run the left-front tyre blew during braking, finally catching fire.
“THE CAUSE OF the cockpit trouble was at once obvious—and very easily curable,” Campbell said later after conferring with Railton. “Down by my feet in the bottom of the cockpit was the engine crankcase breather. We had very carefully done all we could to make the cockpit airtight. In practice it is impossible to seal the cockpit completely against the tremendous pressure of air at more than 250mph and tiny leaks past the bulkhead served to carry away the oil from the breather. As soon as I closed the radiator, this air pressure was cut clean off. In response to the suction of the air rushing past the cockpit, an oil mist floated up all over the inside of the windshield.”
Fortunately an hour for the turn-around was now allowed, following representations made by Campbell several years earlier. All of that was needed to get the mechanics and equipment to a car that was out of position after the tyre fire, change all the wheels, clean off the oil film, wait for timing problems to be rectified and then plug in the compressor to restart a reluctant Rolls-Royce V12. Campbell made it through the mile just in time, eschewing the radiator shutter after the first experience.
The AAA Contest Board timed Blue Bird V’s outward run at 304.311mph and her return at 298.013mph for an average speed of 301.129mph. It was Sir Malcolm’s ninth land-speed record and his last, at the age of 50.
“One factor pleased me perhaps more than any other,” mused Sir Malcolm afterward. “That was that our run had proved conclusively that our design was correct in every respect. Blue Bird, on her first attempt, had reached a speed of 304mph and our photographic records prove that had the course been longer the ultimate speed would have been higher. I am positive that with a few minor alterations she could improve her present record by at least a further 15mph. Taking into consideration that we were losing 18 per cent of our power in consequence of the high altitude and gaining only 14 per cent in lessened wind resistance, it means that our original calculations were not far wrong.”
Cue quiet sigh of relief from the direction of Reid Railton.
Reid Railton, Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen is out now, published by Evro Publishing in two volumes at £150. ISBN:978-1-910505-25-0
Available from www.evropublishing.com and www.motorsportmagazine.com/man-of-speed
Readers of Motor Sport are invited to an illustrated talk and presentation of the unique life of engineering genius Reid Railton by the author Karl Ludvigsen on Tuesday April 24.
The event will take place in the Napier Room at the historic clubhouse at Brooklands Museum, Weybridge, Surrey, KT13 0QN from 7.30pm-9.30pm.
Tickets cost £2 for members and £7 for non-members. To book, visit: www.brooklandsmuseum.com email: [email protected] or call 07880 670359