John Rhodes Cobb
(1900 - 1952)
John Rhodes Cobb (December 2, 1899 - September 29, 1952) was a British racing motorist. He made money as a director of fur brokers Anning, Chadwick and Kiver and could afford to specialise in large capacity motor-racing. He was born and lived in Esher, Surrey, near the Brooklands race track.
He held the ultimate lap record at the track driving the 24 litre Napier Railton at an average speed of 143.44 mph (230.84 km/h) achieved on 7 October 1935, regaining it from his friend Oliver Bertram.
Driving the piston engined, wheel driven Railton Special he broke the Land Speed Record at Bonneville on August 23, 1939 at a speed of 367.91 mph (592.09 km/h). Without this being beaten he raised the record to 394.19 mph (634.39 km/h) in 1947. The record was unbeaten until 1963 when it was narrowly surpassed by Craig Breedlove in the jet powered Spirit of America.
During World War II he served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force and between 1943 and 1945 in the Air Transport Auxiliary. He reached the rank of Group Captain.
He died attempting to improve the water speed record at Loch Ness in the jet speedboat Crusader at a speed in excess of 200 mph (320 km/h). There is a memorial to him erected by the people of Glenurquhart. He is buried at Christ Church, Esher.
He was awarded the Segrave Trophy in 1947.
He made the cover of Modern Wonder magazine, the British equivalent of Popular Science or Mechanix Illustrated. Eventually, he was to make three distinct sets of runs. His prewar ventures were sponsored by Gilmore Oil, discussed below. His most memorable version in 1947 was sponsored by Mobil Oil.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are the remains of a prehistoric lake of about 19,000 square miles area. Although it is perfectly flat, it is 4,000 feet above sea level, imposing a consequent loss of power on the engines due to reduced oxygen. The temperature on the salt runs up to more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and this too imposes problems for adequate cooling of engine and tires. The flats offer a straight run of about 13 miles, which is actually more like the minimum run for acceleration, the timed run, and braking from 400 miles per hour, Cobb's ultimate target.
Railton overcame all these problems and Cobb was to be the fastest man on wheels three times before his death. Cobb made his first run in September 1938, when the world record was 345 mph and at that time, Cobb had never driven faster than 170 mph at Brooklands. The world record changed hands several times. Land speed racing was suspended during World War II.
In 1947, Cobb came back to Bonneville with a thoroughly redesigned car. The vehicle was so futuristic in appearance that he was profiled on the cover of LIFE Magazine.
Reid Railton used many unorthodox methods to achieve his result. He started with an S-shaped backbone chassis, and used two second-hand 1928 Napier Lion aero engines from a motor boat, but set them at an angle, one driving the front wheels and the other the rear wheels.
Railton pared weight from the supercharged Lion engines until they scaled only 1120 lb each yet still delivered a total 2500 horsepower. There were neither flywheels nor clutches, and Cobb sat up front ahead of the power plants, as in a modern racing car.
The special lightweight body shell was made in one piece and had to be taken off for refueling and tire changes between the two runs necessary for the record. The streamlined shell could be lifted off by six men. Like the Golden Arrow, ice was used for cooling, saving the weight of a radiator. The melted ice was also used to take heat away from the drum brakes and had to be replaced between runs. Wheelbase was 13 ft 6 in. Overall dimensions were: Length: 28 ft 8 in; Width: 8 ft wide; and Height: 4 ft 3.
A truck was used to tow-start the Railton. In order to avoid stepping on the delicate aluminium shell, Cobb entered the cockpit from a ramp on the truck. On September 15,1947, he became the first man to drive at more than 350 mph. On his last run, he clocked 394.20 mph on the North Leg and 403 mph on the South Leg, becoming the first man to exceed 400 mph in a wheeled vehicle.
Only a few weeks later, he was killed while attempting to break the water speed record, eerily meeting the same fate as Segrave..
Cobb's car held the land speed record until 1963, a remarkable 16 year run.
On the 29th of September 1952, John Cobb made an attempt at the world water-speed record on Loch Ness. The boat he was to use in his world record attempt was built by Vospers Ltd., was based at Temple Pier, Drumnadrochit and was called 'Crusader'. He was attempting the double, he already held the world land speed record at over 390 mph. Loch Ness was chosen because of it's length and straightness. Because Loch Ness has a prevailing southwesterly wind this would be one of the deciding factors on which day to make the attempt. The water would need to be flat calm in order to reach high speed without hazard. The distance Cobb had to cover to gain the official record was 1 statute mile but in both directions and an average speed being calculated for both runs. The run had been measured and marked by two large milestones, one on either side of the Loch, and can still be viewed today. The timekeepers where to be supplied by the M.M.A. (Motor Marine Association).
'Crusader's' jet engine was tested many times on the run up to the official attempt, the same engine fitted to the 'Comet' jet airliner, a De Havilland Ghost which produced a 5000 lb static thrust, who's ear shattering whine could be heard reverberating around the Glen. The construction of Cobb's 31 ft long speedboat was of aluminium and marine ply making it a light,dynamic vehicle.
For a number of weeks Cobb gradually pushed Crusader ever closer to the record during test runs and was quietly confident of victory. The world media by this time was beginning to assemble hoping to witness history in the making and the 'Glen's' population was agog with excitement. As each day dawned the anticipation for perfect conditions was overwhelming, this particularly affected the local school children who wanted to be present when the attempt took place. Mr Cobb's press officer, Mr Angus Barr, asked the public to refrain from boating on the Loch during calm weather so 'Crusader' could be tested safely.
On Friday 5th September Cobb held two speed trials, on both occasions the boat handled well. The second trial was faster than the first. 140 mph for the second trial and 20 mph slower on the first. Then 'Crusader' was lifted out of the water for a 48 hr inspection. Friday 12th September. 'Crusader' back on the loch, did a double run between Drumnadrochit and Invermoriston. Cobb was confident he had beaten the world record in the run to Invermoriston. The record was held by an American, Mr Stanley Sayres, at 178.4 mph.
By the 16th of September the equipment used by the timekeepers to measure 'Crusader's' speed over the measured mile was in position in the area where the attempt was to be made. By this time patience was wearing thin, time ticked by waiting for the right conditions.
Tuesday 23rd September. Before 8am in the morning 'Crusader' was lowered into the water and Cobb took her for another trial run. Shortly after 8am he shot forward to the run in to the measured mile. A side wind blew her slightly off course. After that false start he was towed back and she streaked off on the measured mile once again reaching over 180 mph. The official timing for that trial was announced later by Lt. Commander Bray of the M.M.A., 185.57 mph for the outward trip and 161.71 mph on the return giving an average of 173.14 mph. An attempt was to be made on Friday the 26th of September for the official record but had to be postponed because it was reported that flood water from the River Garry was bringing driftwood i.e. tree trunks into the loch.
When the morning of the 29th arrived conditions were far from perfect, slight ripples on the surface of the water .By almost 9.30 am conditions had worsened, then events took a turn for the better in that surface conditions had improved dramatically. At 11.25 am 'Crusader' was again put in the water at Temple Pier and the official observers boat 'Maureen' set off to land the timekeepers at the Drumnadrochit end of the Loch. The 'Maureen' had reported the timekeeper were ashore at 11.50 am. At 11.55 am 'Crusader's' engine was started and she catapulted out at an angle from Urquhart Bay. Cobb came round to his starting point and revved his engine up to full power. 'Crusader' rose in the water and the attempt was under way, the time was almost 12 noon. With a slight burst of spray in front and a trail of white foam behind she skimmed over the course and reached the second marker. As 'Crusader' reached 200 mph eyewitness accounts say she was hardly touching the water when she came out of the measured mile. Then 'Crusader' started to decelerate to make the second run but hit a wave causing her to bounce twice, she recovered for a second but the next moment the horrified spectators saw the boat plunge in a whirl of spray and foam, flaked with flying wreckage. There was no audible explosion but the boat gave the appearance of bursting apart. Hopes for Cobb's safety was roused when the yellow light attached to his safety apparatus bobbed to the surface. The 'Maureen' made her way to the floating debris and lowered a small boat which reported Cobb had been found. The news brought an immediate call over the radio for a doctor and ambulance, but later it became clear Cobb was dead, probably killed instantly.
His body was taken by fast motor boat to Temple Pier where a large silent crowd waited for news. As the report of his death grew from a rumour to a certainty the spectators left and Temple Pier lay deserted. The disaster had been watched by Mrs Cobb from a point above the measured mile. Later she was driven back to Inverness and at 4 pm left by car for London. Mr Cobb's body was taken to the Royal Northern Infirmary, Inverness where a postmortem examination was carried out. Wednesday 1st October. Thousands of people lined the streets of Inverness to bid farewell to John Cobb, as the hearse left the Royal Northern Infirmary heading for Surrey.
The timekeeper's log stated that before the disaster Cobb was travelling at 206.89 mph, this is the fastest time ever recorded over water but cannot count as a record as the attempt must be made over two runs in opposite directions.
During the Second World War, John Cobb served first in the R.A.F. and then from 1943-1945 as a ferry pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary.