John Rhodes Cobb (1899 - 1952)

Send This Page To A Friend
Fade To White
John Rhodes Cobb  (1899 - 1952)

John Cobb
IN THE EARLY 1920s, so the story goes, a young man approached Malcolm Campbell in the paddock at Brooklands, and asked him for his autograph. That young man - John Cobb - later rode as passenger in a race, in Ernest Eldridge's Fiat, Mephistopheles. Eldridge, no mean driver himself, was reported to have said: 'This man will make a better driver than I'.

Cobb's rise to fame was meteoric, and soon it was said: 'For handling really huge and difficult cars, he is already on a par with Parry Thomas, and there is every reason to suppose he will go further, for his time seems only just begun'.

John Cobb was born on 2 December 1899, and educated at Eton and Trinity; he was a city businessman whose wealth came from his fur-broking interests. He first appeared at Brooklands in competition, at the wheel of Richard Warde's 10-litre Fiat, at the Autumn 1925 meeting, where he duly won his race.

The Parry Leyland vs. The Eldridge Mephistopheles

Cobb's victory, however, was overshadowed by another event at that meeting, the long-awaited match between Parry Thomas' Leyland-Thomas and Ernest Eldridge's giant Fiat, Mephistopheles. For the next couple of years, Cobb enhanced his reputation with some stirring performances at the wheel of various powerful cars, including the Leyland-Thomas No. 1, Babs, the 10-litre Fiat and Jack Barclay's TT Vauxhall.

Then came the chance to acquire one of the fastest cars in the world - and one which was much more suitable for the Brooklands circuit. This was the celehrated 10½-litre, V 12 Delage, which had first appeared at the Gaillon Hill-climb in 1923, and which the crack Delage driver Rene Thomas had driven to victory in countless events in France.

In 1924, Thomas took this car to Arpajon where he set up a new world speed record of 143.3 mph, soon beaten by Mephistopheles at 146.01 mph. The Delage company decided not to attempt to better Eldridge's record, as they felt that to tune the Delage's engine any further would be 'dangerous', and it was subsequently retired from competition and offered for sale. Seemingly, no-one was interested, until much later, when John Cobb came to hear of the car.

Shipping The Delage To London

Cobb travelled to Paris, and within the space of twenty-four hours had purchased the Delage, complete with a spare engine and a host of extra parts, including a choice of seven rear axle ratios, for the bargain price of £350, shipped it aboard a Seine steamer bound for London, and celebrated his purchase with a champagne dinner. His confidence was not misplaced as, in its opening season, 1929, the big Delage annexed eleven British records, lapping at speeds in excess of 125 mph.

The Teardrop body being lifeted above the Railton Mobil Special Chassis
The Teardrop body being lifeted above the Railton Mobil Special Chassis.

Cobb's Crusader in transit to Loch Ness
Cobb's Crusader in transit to Loch Ness.

Moments to tradgedy, Cobb and The Crusader on Loch Ness
Moments to tradgedy, Cobb and The Crusader on Loch Ness.

Over the next three years, the Delage proved itself a remarkably consistent performer, perhaps the high-point of its career being a close-run match race with Birkin's Bentley in 1932. In that same year, Cobb carried off the BRDC British Empire Trophy Race at an average speed of 126.4 mph. However, he had an even more potent car on the stocks so, after the 1932 season ended, the Delage was sold to Oliver Bertram, a young barrister who was beginning to make a name as a racing driver. Eventually it passed into the hands of the Junior Racing Drivers' Club for the instruction and use of members.

Cobb's new car, which was taking shape in the workshops of Thompson and Taylor at Brooklands, was revealed to the public in the summer of 1933, exciting much comment. In many ways, it was a modern equivalent of the aero-engined monsters of the 1920s, being powered by a 24-litre, twelve-cylinder Napier-Lion aviation engine, which had the cylinders set in arrow-head formation in three banks of four. Unlike earlier aero-engined giants, such as Chitty-Chitty-Bang- Bang and Viper, Cobb's car was a scientifically designed vehicle, having more in common with the sophisticated land speed record cars of the period than the conventional racing car.

The chassis, very strong and deep, was typical of the work of the car's designer, Reid Railton, Parry Thomas's ex-assistant (who had also designed Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird. Everything about the car suggested solidity and reliability, which was amply borne out by its subsequent career, among its many feats were numbered two victories in the BRDC '500', in 1935 and 1937.

In 1935 the fastest-ever lap of Brooklands (143.44 mph), and the fastest speed (almost 152 mph) recorded at the track. In addition, it had travelled to Montlhery (where, with Freddie Dixon at the wheel, it left the track and finished in the ditch) and Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, in an attempt on the 24-hour record, which was set up with twenty other world's records, in July 1935 at a speed of 134.85 mph. And all this without a hint of mechanical trouble.

Only Three Gears, But You Would Change Into Second At 150mph, and Third at 250mph

In 1939, the partnership of Cobb and Railton again bore fruit, this time in the shape of a new Land Speed Record contender. This Railton Mobil Special used twin 1250 bhp Napier aero-engines, mounted in an S-shaped backbone frame which allowed them to be mounted at an angle. This considerably reduced the car's overall width and frontal area: one engine drove the front wheels, the other the rear. The streamlined body had a frontal area of only 30 sq ft, which gave it a theoretical top speed of 400 mph plus in top gear. From rest, the car could reach 100 mph in ten seconds still in first gear; Cobb changed into second at 150mph, and into top at 250mph.

Cobb's enclosed cockpit was set well ahead of the front axle; the entire body shell lifted off to replenish the fuel tank and the ice and water tanks used for cooling so that no filler caps or hatches broke the car's smooth, highly aerodynamic surface. Cobb successfully broke the record held by George Eyston's massive six-axled, eight-wheeled Thunderbolt, recording an average speed of 369.7 mph. After the war, in which he flew for the RAF and the Air Transport Auxiliary, Cobb made another attempt on the record. At Bonneville, he achieved an average of 394.18 mph with a one-way of over 400 mph, making Cobb the first man ever to achieve over 400 mph on land.

The Water Speed Record Claims Another Life

Like Sir Malcolm Campbell, John Cobb also turned his attention to the world water-speed record. But on the 29th September 1952, while travelling at speed on Loch Ness, Scotland, Cobb's jet boat Crusader exploded, killing the driver whose skill, courage and enterprise had inspired the admiration of the world. Cobb's body was taken to the Royal Northern Infirmary, Inverness where a postmortem examination was carried out. On Wednesday the 1st October 1952, thousands would line the streets of Inverness to bid farewell to John Cobb, as the hearse left the Royal Northern Infirmary heading for Surrey.

The timekeeper's log stated that before the disaster Cobb was travelling at 206.89 mph, this is the fastest time ever recorded over water but cannot count as a record as the attempt must be made over two runs in opposite directions. The record holder, Stanley Sayres fastest speed for a one way run was 185.57 mph. Cobb's manager said "What John did was to be the first man to travel in water at over 200 mph".
John Cobbs Napier- Railton racer
This image we believe to be circa late 1960's, and shows Cobb's famous Napier- Railton racer. It was powered by a massive 505 bhp, 12-cylinder, 23,970 cc Napier Lion aero engine of W configuration. Note the massive cantilever springs at the rear.
Latest Classic Car Classifieds