Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


IT’S NOT EASY to work a high point of one’s career into everyday conversation, but it can be done. There I was leafing through the 1969 volume of R&T, prompted by 50 years ago and all that. Wife Dottie was already there as Editorial Associate. Our San Diego friend Ron Wakefield was Engineering Editor. And, wouldn’t you know, in January 1969, on pages 84–85 there was a Richard Corson-illustrated article “John Cobb & the Napier-Railton.”

John Rhodes Cobb, 1899–1952, English racing driver. Three times holder of the World Land Speed Record (including 394.19 mph at Bonneville in 1947). Cobb perished on Loch Ness in attempting to set a World Water Speed Record in 1952.

“John Rhodes Cobb,” the R&T article began, “was a physical giant, given to giant deeds in giant cars.… By his early teens he was hopelessly addicted to the big outer-circuit machinery [at Brooklands]; the behemoths, the aero-engined hybrids.”

“He began to ride the mechanic’s seat in the most famous cars at the track, impressing drivers with his calm. Even rides in the enormous black Fiat, ‘Mephistopheles,’ Cobb allowed as merely ‘a bit exciting,’ despite Ernest Eldridge’s penchant for charging off the banking sideways.”

Cobb drove his first Brooklands race in 1925 at the wheel of a 10-liter Fiat. Another of his Brooklands’ mounts was the 27-liter Higham Special (also known as Chitty 4).

“In 1932,” the R&T article continued, “Cobb sounded out Reid Railton of Thomson & Taylor about a new car. Railton visualized a leviathan powered by the 24-liter 502-hp Napier ‘Lion’ aircraft engine of WWI fame.… The car, body by Gurney Nutting Ltd., was 15-and-a-half feet long. It was tagged the Napier-Railton….”

Illustration by Richard Corson in R&T, January 1969.

Details of the Napier-Railton are given here at SimanaitisSays. These include its “broad-arrow” Napier engine, its world records at Montlhéry, Bonneville, and Brooklands (this lap record still stands), its cameo role in a 1949 Ava Gardner movie, and—ta da—my brief piloting this fabulous car at Pebble Beach in 2007.

John Cobb’s Napier-Railton, Pebble Beach, and me, 2007. Image by John Lamm.

It’s not easy to work this into conversation, but it can be done. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019


  1. matt sanders
    August 10, 2019

    I knew the late Arthur Cottrell who worked on the Napier Railton at T & T in the 30’s and I have a number of pictures of him with the car. He used to push start it down the banking after making adjustments. He also worked on the famous 3011 Whitney Strait later Bira Maserati, the Dick Seaman Delage (also a Cobb car) and he worked for Connaught in the 50’s.

  2. Michael Rubin
    August 10, 2019

    Tell us about it, Dennis. What was it like?

    • simanaitissays
      August 10, 2019

      See my earlier refs cited. It was brief and utterly a high point of my career. Surprisingly docile until I tickled thoe 24 liters with that middle pedal. Then I got nervous. Wanna be the one who bends an historical artifact?

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