The Reluctant Hero

1952: the year in which King George VI died, John Derry crashed at the Farnborough Air Show, and Britain first exploded its atomic bomb. The year of Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig, the Lynmouth floods, the Harrow train crash, the introduction of disc brakes.

The year in which John Rhodes Cobb, one of Britain’s most unsung motorsporting heroes, was killed during an attempt on the water speed record.

Today, if you drive south from Inverness on the A82(T) along the north-western shore of Loch Ness, and before you reach the sleepy village of Drumnadrochit near Urquhart Bay, there is a stone cairn on the left side of the road. It overlooks the measured mile upon which he perished 40 years ago this month, and commemorates, his fated attempt on the record on September 29 1952.

The names of the Campbells still linger in the British public’s psyche, and Segrave had his contemporary fame, but Cobb was the reluctant hero, a shy, bearlike man who made his money from the fur business but liked nothing better than to drive fast cars. He was big, like the machinery he drove so well, and he was unflappable. Little is ever known to have upset his urbanity.

When he set what would remain forever the Outer Circuit lap record at his beloved Brooklands, with a speed of 143.44mph, he merely remarked: “Circulating Brooklands at 140mph was no picnic and needed a very good knowledge of just where the bad bumps were. Taking corrective action the instant the bumps were struck saved a lot of wild skidding and consequent loss of time. It was possible to keep one’s foot down all the way round…”

This in a leaf-sprung behemoth powered by a 23.9-litre Napier Lion W12 and weighing 31cwt, and with zero downforce. To put that further into perspective, the Indianapolis ‘record’ lap speed of the time was Rex Mays’ 120.736 set in the Miller-engined Adams when he took pole for the 1935 500. Cobb’s achievement was the equivalent of a 276mph lap of the Brickyard today…

“The key to a fast lap consisted of a good entry on to the Home Banking,” he was drawn to continue. “If it were taken too slowly time was lost; if taken too fast the resultant skid toward the top of the banking caused one to have to slow down – to say nothing of scaring one stiff.”

Fear was something John Cobb controlled well behind that phlegmatic exterior, if indeed he ever really did feel it. There were some who believed he was more afraid of upsetting his mother than he was of the possible consequences of his high-speed calling. He accepted the risks with fatalism.

Though it was not always fashionable for such an attribute to be appreciated and acknowledged widely in those days. Cobb was the perfect test driver, a true prototype for today’s technocrats. The relationship between the fur broker, genius designer Reid Railton and engineers Kenneth Thomson and Ken Taylor was based on mutual respect. Cobb could relate precisely what his vehicles were doing at any given speed, and would follow his team orders to the letter. Nevertheless, he was not averse to trying to devise a means of resetting the rev telltale that Taylor rigged up for the 1947 attempt on the land speed record, should he inadvertently exceed it.

Like Senna today, he took a deep interest in his machinery. When he went to Bonneville with the Railton he knew every nuance of the tyres from watching them closely during high-speed tests at Fort Dunlop. He knew he had to avoid wheelspin at all costs, while at the same time accelerating quickly enough to make full use of the available track. None of his land speed records 350.20 in 1938, 369.70 in ’39 and 394.19mph in ’47 was simply a matter of planting his right foot and holding the steering wheel for the sake of appearances. He developed an almost telepathic ability to sense just what state his rubber was in at each mile, and such hyper-alertness was vital since he sat so far forward in the remote cockpit of a 2600bhp four-wheel drive car that was 28 feet long and had no tail fin to counter any tendency to yaw. He once likened his attempt on the Brooklands lap record to: “seeing how far one could lean out of a window without falling out, and therefore somewhat risky,” but the land record was no sinecure, either.

It was rare for John Cobb to say much, in public or in private, for he was a man of few words. He much preferred to let what he did do the talking. He was even reluctant to discuss his business at fur brokers Alining, Chadwick & Kiver, where his directorship took him as far abroad as Russia and the United States. Yet for all that people liked and respected him for the man he was, one of strict moral codes. In New York he was once presented with a watch. At the time such advertising gifts were not commonplace and, uncomfortable with it, he disposed of it to a friend who made a facetious reply when he asked how much anyone would give him for it. Cobb not only accepted the low figure, but refused point blank to reclaim it when he later learned just how valuable it had been.

Reader Michael Radford, whose grandfather founded the Swift marque and who himself is Chairman of the Swift Club, remembers meeting Cobb on the occasions when he would visit his parents for lunch. “He and Vicki were their close friends, and as a schoolboy I was awed when the great man came to the house.

“My father had a Ford dealership and was fascinated by cars, and Cobb used to bring a new Bentley, or a new Jaguar or Austin Healey C Type prototypes, that sort of thing and let Father take them out. He went to my sister’s 21st at our house, four months before he died.

“What he liked, what he taught my mother, was to make a dry Martini to set the palate up for good food. He taught her to make these marvellous American style Martinis. “I often wonder what he was like as a younger man. I always remember him as quiet and unassuming, shy. But I was just about 13, and you know how shy you are yourself at that age! It was like meeting a God among mortals. It was one of the great joys of my life; hero worship wasn’t in it. To get round that Outer Circuit at Brooklands at the speed he did; what a man!”

At no time in his illustrious career did Cobb ever receive the recognition that his achievements merited, even though he spent considerable sums of his own money to boost British prestige. As well as his three land records he once held every world mark from one to 24 hours, set the Outer Circuit lap four times at Brooklands, and was officially the first man to travel at 400 when he achieved a speed of 403.1 mph one-way during his final run in the RaiIton. The lack of recognition troubled him not at all, however. He was not like Sir Malcolm Campbell, to whom publicity was meat and drink. Some say there was a degree of needle between the two speed kings, that Cobb never forgave Campbell for the part he believed he paid in the sale of Brooklands, and that the nature of their relationship added spice to his plans to go after the land speed record, and perhaps later to demonstrate that a jet-engined boat could be made to work successfully after Campbell’s dogged but fruitless efforts with the Goblin-powered Bluebird in the last years of his life.

More, he resembled his great friend and rival George Eyston in shunning the limelight. But where George was an improviser, a suck-it-and-see type. Cobb would not be rushed and would reach his goal by calm, steadfast plodding. In an age when we have become used to team-mates in F1 falling out, let alone rivals, Cobb and Eyston remained firm friends throughout their duel for the land record at Bonneville in the late ’30s, and the latter was manager of the ill-fated Crusader jetboat project.

Attention bothered Cobb. For all his 52 years, it embarrassed him. When he returned to Southampton in 1947 after becoming the first man ever to travel at 400mph on land, there was no ticker-tape welcome. Even local dignitaries did not turn out to greet him. He was pleased. He was far happier on the desolate wastes of Bonneville, alone with his trusted aides and his own thoughts, ready to face whatever challenge was there to be conquered by equable temperament and underrated talent.

Contemporary newsreel shots would show him standing quietly in any gathering, arms usually clasped behind his back. A big man who adored his mother and valued her opinion more than any other’s; a shy giant who was generally thought to be uneasy in the company of younger women. It thus came as a surprise to his friends when he married Elizabeth Mitchell-Smith just before his last Utah record. He was shattered by her death only 14 months later of Bright’s Disease, but kept his feelings bottled up for months afterwards as he strove to acclimatise to this personal devastation. Then, in 1950, he married Vera Victoria Henderson and his old character was finally able to reassert itself.

He and Vicki met through friends, and today she sparkles warmly when you suggest that she was able to help him start to live again after Elizabeth’s death.

“He wasn’t so much shy, as reserved,” she says, agreeing with the title of this feature. “Sammy Davis always used to say that he’d ask John out for lunch to try and find something out, and they’d have a wonderful meal, with lots of chat, but at the end of it he was no wiser!” As a writer, reading between the lines of the Le Mans winner’s biography of Cobb, it is clear that he was struggling to get him to say anything! John Cobb was a gentleman and a gentle man, who kept his own counsel. “Of course we spoke about things together, but he wasn’t a man for discussing his problems. I didn’t know anything about the mechanical side of things, had no idea about engines, so there wasn’t any point in talking about that. He was a relaxed man in company that he knew, and he had a very special sense of humour with his friends.”

When the sleek silver and goldfish red Crusader was finally ready for trials Cobb had never driven a racing hydroplane, let alone one with 5000lb of thrust from its de Havilland Ghost turbojet, but having jumped straight in the deep end in big cars in his Brooklands career the chain-drive Fiat and the 10 1/2litre V12 Delage he acclimatised rapidly. Driving Crusader, he said, was like “driving a London omnibus without tyres on.” There were numerous problems, as inevitably there would be with such untried technology, but on September 10 and 11 he believed he had broken the record unofficially. Then, on the 19th, he achieved 185mph in one direction, above Stanley Sayres’ fresh American mark of 178.497. Poor weather slowed the return run so the average speed fell just below the record, but on the 29th he was ready to try again.

According to Michael Radford, Cobb told his mother and Vicki that he had a premonition about the last run in Crusader. The boat was constructed from birch ply and a stressed skin of double diagonal plywood, but the front planing point was aluminium. Constructor Peter Du Cane had considered wood but finally opted for metal, but after the test runs there was clear evidence that the planing shoe was distorting. He offered to revise the craft at Vosper’s expense, but Cobb preferred not to postpone the attempt, aware that he was keeping a lot of people waiting. Instead, having thoughtfully absolved Du Cane of any responsibility, he agreed to attempt to beat the record by a small margin and to return subsequently for another attack once the shoe had been modified.

That morning conditions were not right, but just after the main team had returned to base, leaving the support boats in position, the weather changed. As Cobb returned to the loch he found the timekeepers in the support boat Maureen returning to base against orders, and was angered by the wake it created. Time was of the essence on the fickle black water, however, and he could not wait any longer. Moments later he sped southwards at astonishing speed, but as he cleared the measured mile it could be seen that Crusader was porpoising dramatically. Bluebird designer Ken Norris later analysed cine film and reported that he was being pitched up and down through an 18 inch arc five times a second. When Crusader met three ripples, thought to have been the remnants of the wash created by the errant support boat, the porpoising became so violent that the weakened front planing point collapsed and the silver boat exploded into fragments. Cobb was thrown 50 yards ahead, and died instantly. He had covered the measured mile in 17.4s, at an average speed of 206.89mph and with a peak of a phenomenal 240 but could not claim the record.

Within an hour of his death the wind had dropped altogether and the loch was flat calm, bathed in warm sunshine.

The Highlanders had taken Cobb to their hearts, for in deference to their religious beliefs he had refused to run on Sundays, even when, on the 28th, conditions had been precisely what he sought, with calm water and zero wind. He might have taken the record that day, but to have done anything else but stay ashore on the Sabbath would have offended his sense of propriety. “He was a big man, but he was very gentle, very quiet, very considerate,” Vicki remembers. “You know, I never saw him angry. I don’t think that he could be. He was nothing flash, like you might think a racing driver was going to be. And he was gentle and patient with children. I still have somewhere a little cardboard ‘thank you’ that all the children of Drumnadrochit sent him after he had shown them around the boat. Heaven for small boys, of course!”

They had shared their brief, exciting life together on Kingston Hill, and he is buried in Esher Church. Further north John Rhodes Cobb the record breakers’ record breaker could not have a more fitting memorial than that cairn on the Inverness to Drumnadrochit road: something as solid, understated arid enduring as the man himself. Something, like the legacy of his performances, that still awaits those who care to seek it out. D J T