A Series of Interviews with Personalities famous in the Realms of Motoring Sport No. 9 — Robert Cowell
At the age of three, Robert Cowell tells us that he fell out of a fast-moving car on to his head. This may, or may not, be the reason why ever since he has been a super-enthusiast. He decided to be a racing driver after reading Alfred Edgar’s stories when about eight, though it was not until he reached the ripe age of nine that he was able to ride ten shillings’ worth of motor-cycle in the back garden (to the displeasure of the neighbours). A few years later he was spending all his school holidays, as an apprentice, at Trojan’s of Croydon, and owned a weird collection of vehicles bought from saved lunch money. These vehicles were diced round private grounds, and included a Morgan which had reversible steering and would steer to the right on full left lock.
Later he found a superior outlet, and a very enterprising one. He would arrive at a race meeting on a push-cycle, on the carrier of which was a bucket and some overalls. Dumping the cycle he would don the overalls, fill the bucket with water and walk boldly into the paddock (presumably with no fear of being challenged). Once there, he would soon fit himself into the picture, lending a ready hand to whosoever gave him the opportunity. In this fashion he began to get a little knowledge of the modus operandi of motor racing.
After some experience of grass and dirt-track riding on motor-cycles, Cowell burst into the motor-sporting world with a Le Mans Singer, with which he participated in sundry trials. He prepared this little vehicle himself, and gained an award in every event entered. Trials were not for him, however, and it was mostly the pleasant company of that grand fraternity which made the events so enjoyable.
With a view to increasing his mechanical understanding, he took a job at General Aircraft Limited, and later took a short service commission in the R.A.F. but was invalided out as permanently unfit for further flying duties. Via a J4 M.G. he came to his first racing-car, when he was only eighteen. It was a supercharged single-seater 750-c.c. Austin, and was maintained for him by R. R. Jackson. This car had independent front suspension, “Q” type M.G. brakes, a bronze head, a very special crank and a Roots-type blower. He ran in several Brooklands races and at Lewes.
At this time he was a student at University College, London (Engineering Dept.), where he met his wife, Diana, who is now a B.Sc.Eng.(Hons.).
Cowell cannot remember being really frightened in a race, probably because things happen so quickly, as when Louis Gerard crashed just in front of his Alta in the Antwerp Grand Prix. (This admission is common and interesting in the case of Cowell, who has done a great deal of flying in fast fighter aircraft, and states that even 400 m.p.h. at tree-top height does not give anything like the impression of speed which can be obtained in a racing-car, and is dull in comparison.) The most frightening experience, however, which he can remember, occurred on his first appearance in the single-seater Austin. The venue was Lewes. He had settled himself in the cockpit, a difficult manoeuvre necessitating the removal of the steering wheel. The engine was started up and almost right away the off side of the engine burst into flames. Simultaneously (the irony of fate?) a broken fuel pipe in the cockpit drenched his trousers with fuel. The next instant he found himself outside the car, in spite of the fact the steering wheel was still in position. The flames were quickly subdued, as they were only caused by the hot exhaust pipe burning the newly applied paint on the bonnet’s side, but it was a horrible moment.
Cowell joined the Army at the beginning of the war after several attempts at getting back into the R.A.F. He started as a fitter in the R.A.S.C. and rose to the rank of captain, and took charge of a heavy repair shop overseas. Subsequently he was successful in transferring to the R.A.F. and did two operational tours on fighters. He flew Spitfires, Mustangs and Typhoons, and was finally shot down by light ground defences east of the Rhine. During his six months as P.O.W. he organised study and lectures in various branches of engineering, not forgetting motor-racing.
In the course of Cowell’s motoring career he has had the good fortune (aided by design) to own a selection of the most potent and desirable sports cars. For sheer sustained interest in driving he has always enjoyed Bugattis, with Alfa-Romeos a close second, though not so stable at speed; but considers the 2-litre Alta is the finest sports car in the world. At the moment he owns a new 2-litre supercharged single-seater Alta racing car, with a tubular frame and four-wheel independent suspension by means of torsion bars. This car was completed during the war. For general use as a sort of towing car, hack and travelling workshop Cowell has a Jeep, built from ex-Army scrapped parts.
Concerning his advice to the beginner, he does not consider it an advantage for a racing driver to have any great mechanical knowledge. In fact, sometimes it is a definite disadvantage if only from the point of view of peace of mind towards the end of the race! However, there are few these days who have the wherewithal to enable them to employ others to prepare their cars. With many, of course, half the fun comes in the preparation. He advocates helping other people in running their vehicles. “Motor racing,” says Cowell, “is the most wonderful sport in the world, and the mere fact that it is so difficult to get into makes it even more pleasant when, after years of hard work and scheming, you have a racing car to drive.” The racing car of today is a scientific machine; all modifications and adjustments that are carried out should be carefully logged, and the old maxim of only making one adjustment before a test is most important.
When he was a Director of Continental Cars, Ltd., he was amazed to find the number of fellows who were anxious to buy a sports car but whose wives would not let them. On one occasion he took a charming girl to Brooklands, and, whilst standing behind a racing car deeply inhaling the glorious aroma of castor base and dope, the young lady announced “What a beastly smell!” Cowell often wonders how she got home.
He also recalls one of his girl friends remarking that she always regarded her greatest rival as being an Aston-Martin.
This young man (he is still in his twenties) shows promise of great future achievements. He has very quickly got off the mark on his post-war programme, both from the point of view of business and sport (here it must be difficult to know where one stops and the other begins). Already he has an imposing list of post-war achievements :
2nd-2-litre Class, Elstree.
2nd-2-litre Class, Prescott.
2nd-2-litre Class, Shelsley.
As for hobbies, Cowell has a large collection of motoring literature, also of car badges, but he would not dream of putting these on a car. He plays several musical instruments.