Railton Water Speed

Reil Antony Railton (1895 - 1977)

To say Railton was an automotive engineer, as well as the designer of land and water speed record vehicles is to totally understate the influence his skill and knowledge has had on engineering and design.

Much of his life is hard to piece together due to his near obsessive desire for privacy away from his work.

The bald facts are that he was born on June 24th, in Chorley, Alderley Edge, Cheshire, and Christened on 13 August 1895. His father, Charles Withington Railton, was a Manchester based stockbroker, and his mother was Charlotte Elizabeth (née Sharman).

Reid was educated at Rugby School and then Manchester University, from where he graduated in 1917. From there he joined Leyland Motors, becoming design assistant to J.G. Parry Thomas on a high specification luxury car, known as the Leyland Eight.

When Thomas was forced to leave Leylands, due to his insistence that to prove the car, it should be raced, Railton eventually followed, living for a short period in Thomas’ house, “The Hermitage”, at the Brooklands.

After Thomas’ death at the wheel of his beloved land speed car Babs at Pendine Sands in 1927, Railton stayed on to work for Thomson and Taylor as their Technical Director.

It was at Brooklands he met and became friends with John Cobb, who had raced at Brooklands in Babs, as he had been an unofficial sponsor of Parry Thomas in his quest to develop the car, in exchange for a chance to race.

With Thomas’ death, and after Railton had instructed Babs should be buried in the sands of Pendine, Cobb eventually commissioned a car of his own, with only one obvious choice for the position of designer, Reid Railton.

The Napier Railton was an innovative car, and was used by Cobb to set numerous circuit and distance records, both in the UK and Bonneville salt flats in the USA. The car finally took the Outer Circuit record at Brooklands.

All throughout this period Railton had been employed on the continuous development of Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird land speed cars, which finally raised the land speed record to over 300 mph in 1935.

Railton Special
Reid Railton in the driver’s seat of the Railton Mobil Special

Railton is especially remembered for his Railton Mobil Special land speed car, a design of such ingenuity and lateral thinking it is still unique in the world of record breaking. In 1947 this car set the record at 394.7 mph, exceeding 400 mph on one of its two record runs, a speed that took even a jet car many years to beat, and even longer for a conventional piston engined car to get close to.

During his last two land speed record attempts, Campbell had confided to Railton that he was going to retire after exceeding 300mph, and turn his attention to the World water Speed record, and it was to be Railton’s task to contrive, yet again, to save Campbell’s money, by designing a drive system to utilise the Blue Bird car’s engine, while also assisting Fred Cooper to design the hull. Later, when this first Blue Bird boat, K3 had reached its limits, it was Railton who was instrumental in advising Campbell to use a new form of hull, while yet again moving the drive train from the old design to the new Blue Bird, K4, to be built by Vospers under the direction of Peter Du Cane.

With the departure of Cooper from this second Blue Bird boat design, Railton’s input grew, but it must have come as a breath of fresh air when John Cobb gave him a clean sheet of paper to design a new land speed contender.

After the tragic end of the Crusader project on Loch Ness in 1952, Railton came to assist Ken and Lewis Norris, as they set about designing what was to become the singularly most successful World Water Speed record craft, Bluebird K7. Railton had assisted the young Campbell in converting Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird K4 into a prop riding configuration, with data and knowledge he had learnt directly from his association with Ted Jones, designer and builder of the then record holder, Slo-Mo-Shun IV. With the loss of Crusader, Donald Campbell’s idea of winning the Harmsworth Trophy developed into that of returning the water speed record to England, and Railton worked closely with the Norris Bros in the design of the all metal Bluebird K7.

Railton was never a very healthy man, and he had made plans to move his family to the more beneficial climate of California, where he worked for Hudson cars, while also keeping his hand in, long distance, with Thomson & Taylor.
When John Cobb decided to follow the seemingly traditional path of land speed contenders to seek speed records on water, there was only one man he would consider as designer, and from this decision grew the Crusader project, that ended so badly on Loch Ness on September 29th, 1952.

© Steve Holter