One of the Festival of Speed’s umpteen party tricks is to bring the rarest competition machinery – on two, four and more wheels – to the event for enthusiasts to ogle.
Many of the event’s priceless bikes and cars, that have shaped more than 100-years of motorsport endeavour, are, in truth, as rare as they come. We’re talking Team Hen’s Teeth’s and Gold Dust Racing’s finest here: unique racers that you’ll only see at very few places, including this West Sussex retroblast.
Among the most significant of this rare breed is a car so staggering it’s impossible to reconcile yourself to the fact that it’s more than 80-years-old, such is its engineering effectiveness, not to mention physical presence, power output and soundtrack.
Yes, the hillclimb course – that’s the ground and the trees that line the route – will once again reverberate to the sound of the British-built Napier-Railton: a record-breaking monster with off-the-scale status and value. And, as one-off specials go, this 1933 machine is a torchbearer.
Built by the renowned Thomson & Taylor operation at Surrey speedbowl Brooklands, the car was designed by Reid Railton, an employee of the firm famous for creating such works of art as the 17 ERA pre-war grand prix racers, as well as Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird land-speed record car.
‘Perhaps Cobb’s greatest achievement in this extraordinary machine was pushing the outer-circuit lap record at Brooklands to an average (average!) of 143.4mph.’
Powered by a 24-litre Napier Lion aircraft engine in W12 configuration, Railton’s handiwork was commissioned by racing driver and record breaker John Cobb: who wanted to charge headlong through speed barriers, pushing the boundaries of bravery and the associated glory to another level.
Cobb achieved his dream, and how. In a five-year period between 1933 and 1937, the car broke almost 50 speed records, at various circuits around Europe, including Brooklands, and on the hallowed salt flats of Utah: spiritual home of going-as-fast-as-you-can-in-a-straight-line records.
Perhaps Cobb’s greatest achievement in this extraordinary machine was pushing the outer-circuit lap record at Brooklands to an average (average!) of 143.4mph, which the then-35-year-old achieved in 1935. If you’ve visited the steep, concrete-banked Weybridge circuit, which hosted an eclectic mix of club and international events between 1907 and the onset of World War 2 in 1939, you’ll appreciate how terrifying that sounds.
If you haven’t yet patronised the magnificent site, home to what was the world’s first purpose-built paved racetrack, then do so, sharpish, not least to see the Napier-Railton up close in the museum, which became its home in the late-1990s.
Lovingly fettled by Brooklands museum director Allan Winn, the car comes out to play on important occasions such as at Goodwood, where Kiwi Winn, one of a cast of very few entrusted to take the wheel of this 600bhp, 170mph leviathan, will provide Festival goers with a snapshot to life as a 1930s daredevil hero like Cobb – albeit in relative slow-motion among the Class 2 ‘Pre-War Power’ runners.
Photography courtesy LAT and Dave Rogers