• Two-time land speed record-holder (1939, 1947) at Bonneville
• Set both in wildly different Railton Special vehicles
• His 1947 mark stood longer than any LSR in history
• Set lap record at England’s Brooklands race track (1935)
• Royal Air Force pilot during WWII
• Died in 1952 attempting world water speed record on Loch Ness
Englishman John Rhodes Cobb earned prominence in the U.S. by establishing the Land Speed Record on the Salt Flats of Bonneville. In 1939, he drove his piston-engine, wheel-driven Railton Special to a new world mark of 369.70 MPH. In 1947, Cobb upped his own record to 394.2 MPH in a completely redesigned Railton Mobil Special. Cobb used two second-hand 1928 Napier Lion airplane engines mounted at an angle, one driving the front wheels, the other the rears. Their output was estimated at 2,500 HP. Cobb’s record lasted longer than any other LSR for the flying mile, finally surpassed by 1993 inductee Craig Breedlove’s jet-powered Spirit of America (407.45 MPH) in 1963 and the Summer Brothers’ piston-engine, wheel-driven Goldenrod (409.277 MPH) in 1965. An RAF pilot during WWII, in 1935 Cobb had set the ultimate lap record at England’s Brooklands race track at an average speed of 143.44 MPH. Cobb perished in 1952 attempting to break the world water speed record at Loch Ness in the jet speedboat Crusader.
By Joe Scalzo
Five Englishmen — Parry Thomas, Malcolm Campbell, Henry Segrave, George Eyston, and John Rhodes Cobb (1899-1952) — spent parts of the first half of the 20th Century racing gargantuan six- and eight-wheel projectiles, with each one of them battling to make himself the planet’s fastest man. Cobb and his piston-engine Railton Special won the battle, setting a new World Land Speed Record of 350 mph in 1938; another new one of 369 mph in 1939; and then, in 1947, hurtling across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 394.l9 mph — an LSR standard which lasted for almost 20 years.
But Cobb, in 1954, committed the fatal mistake of going amphibious. On the same Scottish Lake said to be home to the Loch Ness Monster, Crusader, his jet engine speedboat, struck an unexpected wake at 200 mph and Cobb was thrown out and drowned. In honor of his exploit, the citizens of Glen Urquhart, on the Loch Ness shore, erected a Cobb memorial which still stands.
Cobb was a giant standing better than six feet tall and weighing 220 pounds. He was born in 1899, in the village of Esher near Brooklands, the world’s fastest banked racing track, 2.7 miles to the lap, which he frequented as a boy and on which he would set many speed records as a man. It was the personal financial resources Cobb earned as managing director of a number of companies in the fur trade that permitted him to fuel his passion for high-speed racing.
Cobb’s wins and records at Brooklands were numerous: In 1925 he won his first race in a 10-liter Fiat; in 1929 to 1933, in a 10.5-liter Delage imported from Paris just for him, he broke the flying start record three times and won the British Empire Trophy; and in 1933 he commissioned the design of the Napier-Railton, powered by a huge V-12 aircraft engine
The Napier-Railton was Cobb’s monster — applying anything above quarter-throttle made it impossible to keep on the ground. Even so, the Napier-Railton set the all-time Brooklands lap record of 143.44 mph; twice won the Brooklands 500; broke the world’s one-hour mark; and never maimed Cobb.
World War II shut down Brooklands and the LSR business and Cobb, leery of air raids, buried his record-holding Railton Special for the conflict’s duration. Then from 1943 through 1945, he enlisted as a pilot in the Royal Air Force and was discharged with the rank of Group Captain. Cobb was a patriot.
Los Angeles native Joe Scalzo is one of America’s finest motorsports journalists, having written thousands of articles and many beloved books about car and motorcycle racing including City of Speed, The American Dirt Track Racer, the Bart Markel Story and The Unbelievable Unsers.
Former world land speed record-holder Danny Thompson
(Mark Hicks Westside Photography)