F Features

Book Review: Reid Railton – Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen

Karl Ludvigsen, Reid Railton: Man of Speed, 2018, Evro Publishing (www.evropublishing.com), two volumes

When we think of the ‘names’ in motorsport, we usually think of the heroic drivers or perhaps the car owners or patrons who financed their efforts but, in truth, the engineers who created the designs and who saw them through to fruition have played an all-important role in the success of these efforts. One engineer who is getting his due now, after all these years, is Reid Railton, who as chief Engineer for the Brooklands-based Thompson and Taylor played a vital role in the epic Land Speed Record wars of the 1930s – notably with Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird, John Cobb’s Napier-Railton and the Railton Special as well as the small-bore MG EX.135 – and in attempts at the Water Speed Record (hydroplanes) as well.

In 1965, the well-know automotive writer Karl Ludvigsen wrote a long article for Automobile Quarterly under the pen name Elliott Miles (1). Railton gave his daughter Sally Railton Joslin a copy of this issue with the note, “This is a fairly good account of what your father did with his life.” So it is no wonder that when, in recent years, Joslin decided to commission a longer biography of her father, she turned to Ludvigsen. It took him two years but he has produced a wonderful definitive two-volume biography of this remarkable engineer who played such a pivotal role in the chase for the Land Speed Record before WWII as well as speed record attempts on water. (2)

I must admit, of Railton’s several avenues of achievement, I am most interested in the LSR aspect – and of all his successes, the LSR work has to stand out above it all. As Ludvigsen said in his AQ piece, “Railton’s career marks him as a titan in the profession of engineering for high speed.”

Railton’s first involvement with LSR came when, as a new engineering graduate, he joined with Parry Thomas in his project to build up a car which could set speed records. Starting with one of Count Louis Zborowski's series of aero-engined cars named 'Chitty Bang Bang', they rebuilt it using a 27-litre Liberty V-12 aero engine and renamed it ‘Babs’. It did set a record speed twice (171 mph in 1926) but during a later record run on the Pendine Sands in Wales the car overturned and Thomas was killed.

After an interval when he produced his own sports cars, called the ‘ARAB’, he joined forces with Taylor and Thomson, a partnership which had taken over Thomas’ work at the Brooklands autodrome – as their chief engineer – and he was to continue in this role throughout the bulk of his LSR career and until the start of WWII.

1935 Blue Bird V model editHere is a model of the 1935 Blue Bird V as driven at Bonneville (photo GRW/PRN)

His next project came from Malcolm Campbell, who had built a series of LSR cars under the name ‘Blue Bird’. Campbell had set new records at Pendine with earlier versions of his Blue Bird but, in 1929, Henry Seagrave had set a new record (231 mph) in his ‘Golden Arrow’ at Daytona Beach. Campbell went to South Africa with an upgraded Blue Bird in an attempt beat Seagrave’s speed but he failed. On his return to England, he asked T&T to redesign and rebuild the Napier-engined Blue Bird to ready it for a new attempt at Daytona. Railton was hampered by Campbell’s insistence that the new car be an upgrade of the existing one – albeit with a new, more -powerful Rolls-Royce V-12 aero engine.

Campbell took this car to Daytona in 1931 and he set a new record at 246 mph – and he was awarded a knighthood. The car was upgraded and a new, more-powerful Rolls-Royce aero engine fitted. By 1935 the car had been modified with a more streamlined envelope bodywork and dual rear tires in search of more traction on the Daytona sand. He set a new record at 277 mph but he had been hoping for 300-plus. They took the car back to England to prepare it for another run – this time at the Bonneville salt flats which had not before been used for a speed run like this. He came back to America later that same year and set a new LSR just a hair over 300 mph. After this Campbell turned from land speed records to water speed records – still relying on Railton’s engineering prowess. (The 1935 version of the Blue Bird has been restored and can be seen at the Daytona International Speedway).

Meanwhile John Cobb had asked Railton to build him a car with which he could challenge for the fastest lap at Brooklands and the long-distance speed records. Railton and T&T built a new car based on using the huge 24-litre Napier W-12 aero engine housed in a chassis that made it a sort of 150% scale version of the then current open-wheel race cars. Cobb did set a record lap at Brooklands – 143 mph – which was never broken and they took the car to Bonneville in the mid 1930s where they set 47 speed records including an average speed of 151 mph for 24 hours. (This car can be seen at the Brooklands Museum).

But this was only a prelude to Railton’s most significant achievement – the ‘Railton Special’. Cobb was able to acquire a pair of supercharged Napier W-12s and he had T&T/Railton design and build him a car with which to challenge the LSR. George Eyston was already well underway in building his own LSR car – the ‘Thunderbolt’ – which would use a pair of the more powerful Rolls-Royce V-12 aero engines which were state of the art in that day. The Thunderbolt set a new LSR at Bonneville in 1937 (312 mph) before Cobb’s car was ready.

Railton SpecialA contemporary post card showing the Railton Special

When the Railton was shown to the press in early 1938, it was seen as revolutionary. The innovative design had produced a car that, while it had less power than the massive Thunderbolt it was much smaller and lighter. Its four-wheel drive promised to be give it the traction it needed to accelerate to record speed. Both cars showed up at Bonneville that year. The Thunderbolt was out first and set another LSR record but the Railton followed up with an even higher speed. A day later the Thunderbolt had recaptured the record –and the 1938 season was done.

In 1939, the Railton Special returned to the salt flats alone and Cobb a new record at 370 mph. These record runs are never without complications and, as the war threatened, they returned home convinced that they might have been able to break the 400 mph barrier.

Soon after that Railton moved to California where he was occupied with war time engineering developments for high-speed navy boats like the WWII PT boats.

After the war, Railton from his California home was able to direct some small upgrades to the Railton and the car returned to Bonneville in 1947. They did not quite break the 400 mph average (raising the record to 394 mph) although they did have a one-way run over the magic 400 mark (403 mph). No one was able to better this two-way speed until 1963 when Craig Breedlove went 407 mph in a three-wheeled jet powered tricycle (which was not recognized by the FIA) and 1964 when Donald Campbell set a average speed of 403 mph (which was recognized by the FIA). (The Railton Special is in the Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum.)

MG EX135 postcardA contemporary postcard showing the MG EX135

Railton was also the creator of the streamlined envelope-bodied version of the MG EX.135 record car. This originally looked more-or-less like the slab-sided MG-TCs we know but, in pursuit of more speed, T&T was commissioned to rebuilt this car as a streamliner in the mid-30s. By this time Railton was confident that he understood how to build speed record cars and he did so without the benefit of wind-tunnel time. In 1939, they took the car to the new speed record venue which the Germans had built on a new stretch of autobahn south of Berlin – and in the hands of Goldie Gardner it took record after record – using engines modified to run in different displacement classes. Indeed, by the time they were done the car held records in five of the ten displacement classes recognized by the FIA. It was the first car to break 200 mph in both the 1100 cc and 1600 cc classes. (The MG EX.135 can be seen at the British Motor Museum.)

During the 1930s Railton had re-engineered the small Riley Nine sedan into a competitive sports car. This car was the starting point for the design of the ERA race cars which were the dominant British racing cars in the late 1930s through to the early 1950s.

I have always been impressed with Ludvigsen’s writing going back to the Sports Cars illustrated days in the 1950s and this book is no exception. He handles the engineering aspects in a clear and detailed way. I was impressed by his reporting on the various speed attempts. I have never seen such a detailed description of the hurdles these men faced and the reasons why these speed attempts seldom reach their theoretical maximum speed. Of course, he has focussed on those aspects of the LSR history that pertain specifically to his subject – Railton. I recommend that you read this book alongside another which covers more comprehensively all the speed attempts by various people. I like the Cyril Posthumus/David Tremayne book entitled ‘Land
Speed Record (1985)’. It’s out of print now but I expect you can find a used copy from an online book dealer.

Railton was also a key player in the pre-war water speed record attempts by Campbell and the post-was WSR attempts by Cobb (which ended in a fatal crash) – and that’s a whole other story in itself.

All through his career as an engineer Railton was also involved with the design of road-going cars including his own ARAB and Railton, the Railton being a sports car based on the pre-war Hudson running gear – a more successful idea than you might think. As well, he worked on the Riley Nine and the ERA. After the war, living in the US, he continued to consult with Hudson.

This is an outstanding book and one which will give you a new appreciation of the work that was done at Brooklands by outfits like Thompson and Taylor – and of the prowess of Railton. Sally Joslin must be happy that she chose Ludvigsen to write her father’s biography.

* * * * *

1. The AQ article is in Volume VII, No. 4 (1965)
2. Ludvigsen gave a long presentation on the topic of his book at the Brooklands Museum. You can see the entire speech on YouTube (“Reid Railton Man of Speed”); recommended watching.

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