Countless enthusiasts have seen this famous image of John Cobb’s giant Napier-Railton Special leaping through the air and never knew the story behind it. Here’s rare newsreel footage of that very race: the 1937 Brooklands 500.
John Cobb’s Napier-Railton Special was a giant. Its 24-liter Napier Lion aircraft engine alone weighed half a ton, fed by a 15-gallon oil tank, with 12 enormous cylinders laid out in a three-row W pattern that pounded out 560 horsepower and over 1200 lb-ft of torque. The 4,500 lb. chassis, constructed by Thompson & Taylor in 1933, rode on 36-inch tires, barely cloaked in a thin aluminum body shell by Gurney Nutting. In a straight line, the monster was known to be good for more than 170 mph, and driver-owner John Cobb was more than capable of hanging on.
Cobb used the enormous machine not just for land speed records; he actually drove the beast in regular closed-circuit racing events, including the Brooklands 500 in Weybridge, Surrey, England on September 18, 1937. It was at this race that the famous photo was captured (there are multiple images, in fact) of the Napier-Railton leaping through the air on the treacherous Brooklands banking. It’s said Cobb was doing better than 130 mph as he bounded over the big bump where the track bridged the River Wey, touching back down again hundreds of feet later. Despite the harrowing ride, Cobb won the event going away.
In this original British Pathé newsreel, you’ll see glimpses of Cobb, Sir Malcolm Campbell, FRW “Lofty” England, and Prince Bira in attendance, along with a lingering glance at the mighty Napier-Railton Special (which still exists in wonderful condition today). Video below.