The Napier-Railton was designed for wealthy amateur racing driver John Cobb by Reid Railton, and built by Thomson & Taylor Ltd at Brooklands in 1933. Cobb wanted a car which could win races and take the Outer Circuit lap record at Brooklands, but also take long-distance records.
For power and reliability, Railton chose a 12-cylinder, 24-litre Napier Lion XIA aero-engine developing 535bhp at 2500rpm, and fitted it in an exceptionally strong frame with 10-inch-deep side-rails. The engine’s power was taken through a 16-inch single-plate clutch to a three-speed gearbox with wide-spaced ratios but no reverse gear, and thence to a rear axle with a 1.66:1 final-drive ratio. The car was fitted with a unique double-spring cantilever rear suspension, a 15-gallon (68-litre) oil tank and a 65-gallon (295-litre) fuel tank: as it was to be used only on oval tracks and flat circles, it was fitted with drum brakes only on the rear axle.
The Napier-Railton proved to be a winner from the beginning: Cobb won its first-ever race, at Brooklands on 7th August 1933, setting a new standing-start lap record in the process. At the end of that season, Cobb took the car to the banked track at Montlhéry, near Paris, for an attempt on the world 24-hours record (because of a local ban on night-time racing, Brooklands was not suitable for long-distance record attacks). The rough track damaged the radiator, but before the attempt was abandoned records from 50 miles to 1000km, and from one hour to six hours, had been broken.
In 1934 it set a new Brooklands lap record of 139.71mph, and then Cobb went back to Montlhéry for another attempt on the 24-hours run. This time it set new world records from 1000km to 3000km, but after 19 hours the record attempt ended in a spectacular crash when Freddie Dixon, one of the four drivers, lost control in the rain. Four months later the car was back winning at Brooklands, and setting another new lap record, at 140. 93mph.
The 1935 season saw Cobb’s first foray to Bonneville, seen as a safer and faster venue than Montlhéry, where local driver Ab Jenkins had laid out a 10-mile (16km) circular track for record breaking. For this first visit to the salt, the 65-gallon fuel tank was replaced by a 100-gallon one, and in a trouble-free run on 15th/16th July, the Cobb and three other drivers set 21 records (every world record from 50km to 24 hours) – the most important being that 24-hour record at 134.85mph.
On its return to Brooklands, the Napier-Railton, driven by Cobb and Tim Rose-Richards, won the British Racing Drivers Club 500 miles race – at an average 121.28mph this was the fastest-ever 500-miles race anywhere in the world until 1949. A month later, Cobb set the fastest-ever lap at Brooklands at 143.44mph (69 seconds for 2¾ miles), a record that stands in perpetuity.
Having lost his Bonneville records to fellow-Englishman George Eyston, Cobb returned to the salt in September 1936, with the car now fitted with an electric bump-starter which proved its worth when the car spun and stalled a couple of times on the 12½ mile (20km) circuit. This time, Cobb and his three co-drivers set new records for 1000, 2000 and 3000miles, 3000 and 5000km and 12 hours, with the ultimate prize being the 24 hours at 150.16mph. Just two weeks later, Ab Jenkins took the record back with the Curtiss aero-engined Mormon Meteor, but the Napier-Railton will always be the first car to average over 150mph for 24 hours. The car’s last racing success came back at Brooklands in 1937, when it won the BRDC 500km race at 127.04mph, after which Cobb retired it as he could no longer beat the Brooklands handicapper.
In 1950 the old car (now fitted with an elongated nose and tail) starred as a “land-speed record-breaker” in the James Mason/Ava Gardner movie “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman”, during the filming for which it was driven into the sea at Pendine Sands in Wales. After Cobb’s death in 1952, it was sold to the GQ Parachute Company, and adapted for testing aircraft braking parachutes: for this, the original drum brakes were replaced with Dunlop aircraft-style disc brakes, still only on the rear wheels.
After spells in vintage racing with the Hon Patrick Lindsay and at the Midlands Motor Museum and in various private ownerships, it was purchased in 1997 by Brooklands Museum with the help of a National Lottery grant. Other than for the tail – rebuilt to the original Gurney Nutting shape – the disc brakes and a smaller replacement fuel tank, the car is just as it was in its heyday, still fitted with the original engine (with original pistons and valves despite having covered over 12,000 miles at racing speeds in just five pre-war seasons), and exercised regularly.