Showdown on the salt flats. Eyston vs. Cobb. True gentlemen heroes who raised the record-breaking bar in Bonneville. Over 10 years, the rivaly between George Eyston and John Cobb raised the Land Speed Record by more than 100mph. Paul Fearnley tells the tale of the very best of enemies. Photography LAT/Brooklands Museum Archive.
One was owlish, the other plump – think popular schoolmaster and prosperous merchant banker. Yet these unassuming British gents with a strong sense of duty fought a fierce but friendly battle far from the home fires of Blighty to be the fastest man on Earth. They succeeded in this endeavour on six occasions – three apiece – and in one remarkable 24-hour period in September 1938 swapped this singular honour twice. In doing so, they raised the Land Speed Record from 300mph to 400mph in 10 years from 1937 – and did so in spectacular cars that were spectacularly different. Captain George Eyston’s Thunderbolt was an eight-wheel behemoth; John Cobb’s Railton Special was a 4WD lightning strike. Though the former landed the early hammer blows to win their ‘Rumble in Bonneville’, it blew itself out and the latter – neater, smarter, fitter – indubitably won this LSR war, albeit either side of WW2.
Bespectacled, tall and fit – a keen rower, he was a prototype jogger – Eyston arrived in the States in September 1937, later than he would have liked, admitting to having barely slept for eight months. For he had overseen every aspect of the design and frantic construction of his challenger at Tipton’s Bean Industries, a bankrupted car firm specialising in castings for the motor trade. His original intention had been a ‘lightweight’ single-engined car like Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 300mph Blue Bird of 1935, but when it became apparent that an extra 50mph would require at least 50% more power – realistically two engines – Dunlop’s mounting concern had to be addressed. The build grew like Topsy thereafter to become the longest, heaviest LSR vehicle until Thrust SSC 60 years hence.
Fundamental to Thunderbolt was its pair of 1931 Schneider Trophy-type Rolls-Royce R (for Racing) 60º V12s. These supercharged 36.7-litres – twin-spark, single-overhead cam, four-valve heads – generated (a detuned) 2350bhp… each. Mounted in parallel amidships, a structural benefit at a cost of frontal area, they were mated by synchronising clutches connected by short shafts and trains of gears to a central positive-stop gearbox with three speeds. A chassis- mounted bevel box then transferred power via UJs to twinned 44in tyres carried and controlled independently by wishbone links and a transverse leaf spring. Twin rear axles was considered a complication too many.
Its brave driver – WWI veteran Eyston ‘boasted’ a Military Cross as well as a military moustache – sat ahead of these engines and behind a pair of front axles. Also independent, by transverse links and leaf springs, the latter were of different track to avoid running in the same rut while improving air penetration. Both steered, through different arcs, but only the rear, wider one was braked by inboard friction platetype discs and spinners – “quite effective from 180mph” – lined by Ferodo and operated by Lockheed hydraulics and (later) servos. The remainder of this seven-tonner’s momentum – there had been neither the time nor funds to save weight – was dissipated by a rear transmission brake of the same type, sited behind the axle, plus air brakes that emerged from the flanks “to shed the first 50mph or so”. Clothed in Birmabright alloy, this mighty sight was topped by an octagonal maw – a nod to Eyston’s long association with MG? – and tailed by a towering triangular fin.
The wieldiness of this untested machine was of less concern than the bad weather and poor track conditions that greeted Eyston on the Utah/Nevada border. Thunderbolt didn’t run on the flats until 8 October – and immediately suffered problems shifting gear. By the month’s end it had proven that it had the speed, but not the reliability for the mandatory each-way runs within the hour. Twice, torsional vibration wrecked its spring-loaded dog-clutches and parts had to be duplicated in LA. On the third occasion, however, Eyston had Offenhauser make, under supervision, his redesigned mechanism, and went hunting elk in the downtime.
Finally, with clouds hovering over Floating Island – “This was a race against Old Man Winter” – Thunderbolt drew a new line in the salt: 312mph, on Friday 19 November. Eyston knew that it had been quick enough, he said, when his goggles had begun to flutter in the cockpit’s gathering eddies; calmly he took a hand off the wheel to relocate them. He knew, too, that there was more to come and vowed to return in 1938. When he would not be alone.
Pass the salt, George!
Eyston and Cobb had been amicable rivals since starting racing in the mid-1920s. Even when their controversial 1932 British Empire Trophy dice at Brooklands was overturned by the stewards and went before an RAC adjudication panel – Cobb got the nod – they dined together on decision day. Both were ex-public schoolboys with Cambridge degrees – Eyston was descended from Reformation martyr Sir Thomas More and lived in the family seat of East Hendred, Bucks; old Etonian Cobb was a successful fur broker from Surrey – but they went about business in distinct ways. Eyston was inventive and thought on his feet, acted on hunches; Cobb was enquiring, his approach more measured. The prolific Eyston folded himself into cars of all sizes whereas the particular Cobb preferred a comfortable, tailored fit.
Enter design genius Reid Railton. Educated at Rugby School and Manchester University, this son of a stockbroker had assisted LSR-holder JG Parry-Thomas at Leyland Motors – and maintained contact through the short-lived Arab car project – until the latter’s fatal crash on Pendine Sands in March 1927. Joining Brooklands’ famous Thomson & Taylor speed shop as technical director, Railton created the 250mph and 300mph iterations of Blue Bird, plus the Napier-Railton that Cobb used to set the Outer Circuit record in 1935. But the Railton Special was his pièce de (wind) résistance. Twin-engined, but there any similarity with Thunderbolt ended.
The relative lack of power, 1250bhp each, from its blown 23.9-litre Napier Lion VIID ‘broad arrow’ W12s – originally fitted to Standard Oil heiress and tattooed sportswoman Marion ‘Joe’ Carstairs’ Estelle V powerboat – was compensated for by their weight (960lb each versus the R’s 1640lb), plus Railton’s attention to detail, lateral thinking and lightness of touch. He mounted these twin-cam four-valvers at an angle either side of an S-shaped backbone by John Thompson Motor Pressings of Wolverhampton.
The offside unit was for’ard, the nearside aft, the latter driving the front wheels, the former the rears. Each had its own David Brown three-speeder with aluminium casing, and the only connections between them were the cables attached to the gearlever and throttle pedal in the cab-forward cockpit.
Its exterior also broke new ground. Although Eyston had consulted French aerodynamicist Jean Andreau, there’s no evidence that Thunderbolt emerged from a windtunnel. The Railton Special, in contrast, resulted from one of five scale models assessed at Teddington’s National Physical Laboratory; T&T’s position at the hub of British motorsport and aeronautics had allowed Railton to quiz several experts, among them Vickers Supermarine’s RJ Mitchell, of Schneider Trophy and Spitfire fame. The selected shape, nicknamed ‘the Bun’, had the smallest surface area and thus the lowest skin friction. Formed by brothers George and Jack Grey, this all-enveloping aluminium unibody weighed 6cwt and was lifted manually onto eight locating pegs. Shaped like a flounder, its tail was accentuated by a track crabbed by 2ft, to 3ft 6in, and devoid of a fin. Fatalistic Railton and Cobb doubted any stabilising effect beyond 200mph.
Neither was this envelope compromised by a radiator aperture, the cooling of engines and hydraulic contracting-band transmission brakes catered for by 75 gallons of iced water stored directly behind the left-front wheel. A foot wider and 5in taller, but, at 28ft 8in, almost 6ft shorter than its rival, it weighed 3½ tons. Not only was it much lighter and more slippery than Thunderbolt, but also its four Dunlops, running 30psi more than the 120psi of Eyston’s eight, generated less rolling resistance, a benefit that even Railton had underestimated: at 400mph on salt it would account for almost 50% of total drag.
Thunderbolt had not rested on its laurels. By then ‘just’ six tons – at £1 per pound shed – thanks partly to a switch to coil-spring suspension, both nose (smaller and elliptical) and tail had been reshaped, adding 3½ft to the length, while the supercharger inlets either side of the cockpit had been enlarged without, it was hoped, increasing drag; to the same end the cabin was enclosed.
As Europe bickered on the edge of conflict, two Empire men prepared to do their bit on the other side of the world. Eyston, the holder and, at 41, the elder by 29 months, had first dibs by gentleman’s agreement. He arrived in early July – and again found the flats flooded by brine. In a stuffy galvanised garage in Wendover, the nearby railroad tank town, his crew sweated over the reassembly – when they weren’t defeating the local ladies’ softball team. Engines were run.
A breathing tube was added for fear of carbon monoxide, but Thunderbolt was yet to turn a wheel when Cobb arrived in August. Indeed, the latter ran first, without bodywork initially, and clocked 250mph by way of a shakedown. Eyston continued to bide his time; Cobb, content for now, went fishing in Yellowstone.
Eyston finally ventured out on 16 August and managed 270mph before almost choking on fumes when an engine backfired and he braked too hard to avoid softness at the track’s end; he emerged blackened by soot. Cobb was next and ran sufficiently quickly – an estimated 320mph – to buckle the tail and almost suck his Perspex viewing slit from its frame. Despite these hiccoughs he announced that he was “ready”. Impressed, Eyston shook his hand – and America was enthralled by the “mannerly strife of their quiet, casual but tensely dramatic battle”.
On Friday 24 August, Eyston hopped out of bed at 1am with a purposeful: “Righto!” The drying track was still a mile short of optimum, but Thunderbolt, laying a long trail of black smoke – it ran rich for cooling reasons – and ‘towing’ its sound 200 yards behind it, performed well: 347.155mph on its northbound outward run. The return was quicker: Eyston felt sure that he’d cracked six miles per minute. Sadly it was too fast for the ‘magic eyes’ timing beam: a silver car on a reflective surface under a low sun was blamed for its malfunction. Eyston put a brave but grimy face on it, insisting: “I am becoming used to the speed and don’t now have the sensation of the earth curving down in front of the car. The only way to describe how I feel is that I’m whistling through space.”
Cobb sportingly offered him next turn. With the flanks of Thunderbolt by then painted black, and those blinkin’ eyes moved closer and in front of dark backdrops, there were no glitches on Saturday morning: 345.49mph, even though Eyston did not use full throttle on “one of my more casual trips”. Yep, “there’s plenty of soup left”, grinned his mechanics.
Few held out hope for Cobb, whose car accelerated more rapidly but lacked the visual and aural impact of its rival. Methodical Railton’s target had been 350mph and thus there was little room for manoeuvre. Then it poured on Monday morning. And then, with Eyston circling in a plane, an engine cut out on Tuesday’s return run.
Team player Cobb accepted the blame, but a freewheel system, in place of heavy flywheels and clutches, was proving problematic. More storms swept in and Cobb, his permit expiring in three days’ time, made an attempt on a slushy, shortened course. He felt sure he had broken the record even so – but a tailwind had died at a crucial juncture and he fell short: by 3mph.
On his final scheduled day, Thursday 15 September, he arrived as always with minimum fuss, a half-hour before zero hour – unlike Eyston, who would busy himself for hours before an attempt. The lugubrious Cobb then ‘walked the plank’ cantilevered from the Dodge tender so as not to dent his car, its sides also painted black, as he stepped down into the driver’s seat. And, despite blurred vision – “like a terrier shaking a rat” – he broke 350mph: by 0.2mph.
A heavily remodelled Thunderbolt was ready and waiting – and had been for 10 days. Mercurial Eyston had removed its fin and enclosed its nose, having adopted ice cooling.
When Railton saw the car he joked that he could have supplied blueprints. Eyston knew which way the wind was blowing. That owlish ‘schoolmaster’ was a hustler at heart.
Cobb was sleeping off his previous day’s exertions when Eyston, spare engine fitted, dethroned him: 357.5mph. Whereupon the more strategic Cobb – “after due deliberation” and with “objectives achieved” – called a truce and headed home. Pausing in Detroit, however, he stated that “400mph won’t be too difficult given the right conditions” before predicting 370mph for 1939. Eyston wasn’t convinced: “After you pass 300mph the graph of danger rises almost vertically and the graphs of car and engine performance drop rapidly. Man won’t go much faster than 360 and live to tell about it.”
Not that that stopped him trying. Weight distribution altered so that “she would keep her shoes on”, and a few more thou’ shaved from the wooden block behind its throttle pedal, Eyston gave Thunderbolt a final crack – with dramatic consequences. On Wednesday 21 September, tyres expanding under load fouled the right-rear corner and punctured, causing the car to toboggan across the salt at 347mph. With mangled bodywork and buckled chassis, the ’bolt was shot. It would never run again. Marooned in New Zealand after starring at Wellington’s Centennial Exhibition of 1939-’40, it was engulfed by a warehouse fire, stoked by 27,000 bales of wool, in September 1946, and left to rot. Local legend has it that the remains lie beneath the runways of an airport expanded in 1958.
The Railton Special twice went back to Bonneville, however, and left triumphant both times. In 1939, with support from Californian oil millionaire Earl Gilmore and another 100bhp from its venerable Lions, plus improved traction with the ice tank relocated to the tail, where vacuum air brakes had lain unused, Cobb “picked up where I had left off ”. In the renamed Railton Red Lion he set 369.74mph on 23 August.
It would have been more but for a misfire. Confidence high – his Blue Bird K4 hydroplane for Campbell had secured the Water Speed Record the previous Saturday – Railton said of the car: “Some day it will go even faster. But when depends on what Mr Hitler decides to do.”
Thus it would be nine years and a day since his first LSR that Group Captain Cobb averaged 394.196mph. He did so in a machine virtually unchanged bar its name – in acknowledgement of Mobil’s absorbing of Gilmore Oil – and while wearing the same coverall, its belt taken in a few notches because of wartime privations, linen helmet, goggles, gloves and cheap faded blue sneakers that he had in 1938.
His remarkable record would last 17 years – 12, sadly, more than the man. Cobb was killed in September ’52 attempting the WSR on Loch Ness in Crusader, a jet boat conceived by Railton. The first man to return to the pier, with tears in his eyes, was the doomed project’s manager: Cobb’s friendly but fierce LSR rival.
Clockwise, from above: Railton’s 6cwt body could be lifted manually; the two knights do battle on the salt; Thunderbolt at Utah filling station ready to run.
Ready for the off at what turned out to be a contentious 1932 British Empire Trophy at Brooklands: Cobb nearest, Eyston third from camera.
‘IT WAS THE LONGEST, HEAVIEST LSR VEHICLE UNTIL THRUST SSC SOME 60 YEARS HENCE’
Clockwise, from above: trying to cool Eyston’s Aston at Brooklands in ’26; Cobb’s Vauxhall laps Wilson’s Austin Seven in 1927 50 Miles Handicap; Eyston’s victorious 1934 British Empire Trophy Magnette; Cobb in Outer Circuit record-holding Napier Railton in 1935; with Brian Lewis.
The pair stayed friends despite judges awarding Cobb’s 10.5-litre V12 Delage the 1932 British Empire Trophy over Eyston’s Panhard (below).
Clockwise, from above: the usefulness of Thunderbolt’s fin was questionable over 200mph; Railton Special was far more aerodynamic looking than its rival; Eyston (left) with Bira at Donington in 1939; Eyston and eventual winner Freddie Dixon’s Rileys dice during the 1936 Ards TT.
‘THE TYRES PUNCTURED, CAUSING THE CAR TO TOBOGGAN ACROSS THE SALT AT 347MPH’