John Rhodes Cobb (1899 - 1952)


Railton Cobb Du Cane - copyright Steve Holter
John Cobb (centre) with Reid Railton (left) and Peter Du Cane (right)

Cobb was born in the village of Esher, in the county of Surrey, on 2 December 1899, near the Brooklands motor racing track. He had a career as a successful businessman as the Managing Director of the fur brokers ‘Anning, Chadwick and Kiver’, the financial resources from which he used to fund a passion for large capacity motor high speed racing.

Cobb won his first track race in a 1911 10-litre Fiat in 1925, and raced in the Higham Special at Brooklands race track in 1926. In 1928 he privately purchased a 10 & a 1/2-litre Delage which was imported to England from the factory in Paris, which he raced at Brooklands from 1929 to 1933, breaking the flying start outer lap Record three times in these years, and being clocked at a top speed of 138.88 miles per hour on 2 July 1932. In 1932 he also won the British Empire Trophy at Brooklands.

In 1933 he privately commissioned the design and construction of the 24-litre “Napier Railton” from “Thomson & Taylor”, with which he broke a number of track speed records, including setting the ultimate lap record at the Brooklands race track which was never surpassed, driving at an average speed of 143.44 mph (230.84 km/h) achieved on 7 October 1935, having earlier overtaken the 1931 record set by Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin driving Bentley Blower No.1, and regaining it from his friend Oliver Bertram.

His attention then turned to the outright land speed record. Driving the piston-engined, wheel-driven Railton Special, he broke the World Land Speed Record at Bonneville salt flats on 15 September 1938 by achieving 350 miles per hour. He broke it a second time at the same site on 23 August 1939, achieving 369 miles per hour.

John Cobb in the Railton Mobil Special
John Cobb in the Railton Mobil Special
John Cobb - image copyright Steve Holter
John Cobb

During the World War 2 he served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, and between 1943 and 1945 in the Air Transport Auxiliary, being demobilized with the rank of Group Captain. He made an (uncredited) appearance in the wartime propaganda film Target for Tonight (1941).

Cobb returned to the Bonneville salt flats again in 1947, where on 16 September he beat his own standing 1939 World Land Speed Record by reaching 394.19 mph (on one of the two runs he was clocked at having reached 415 mph) This record remained in place until 1963, when it was surpassed by the American Craig Breedlove.

After the 1947 achievement, Cobb turned his mind to becoming on water what he now was on land, and went after the World Water Speed Record. He commissioned from Vospers the Reid Railton designed jet-engine powered speedboat Crusader, and selected the long water loch of Loch Ness in Scotland for the speed trial.

Cobb was killed at the age of 52 on 29 September 1952 whilst piloting Crusader at a speed in excess of 200 mph (320 km/h). During the run the boat hit an unexplained wake in the water and disintegrated, killing him instantly.

© Steve Holter