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Tales from Brooklands: Reid Railton

16 May 2021

In our next Tales from Brooklands, volunteer Peter Kearns is sharing the story of automotive engineer and record-breaking car designer Reid Railton.

When you visit Brooklands Museum, you will see the name Railton cropping up on different occasions. The real stand-out example is the Napier-Railton racing car, a huge, shiny silver, single-seater racing and record-breaking vehicle that holds the Brooklands Motor Course lap speed record and always will. Another is a large, but remarkably light and extremely fast, red luxury sports car, the Railton Terraplane. These are just two of the many world-beating engineering projects whose success was derived from Railton’s knowledge and skills.

Reid Antony Railton was born in 1895 in Manchester, son of a Manchester stockbroker. He was educated at Rugby School and Manchester University and then joined Leyland Motors in 1917. When he was at Leyland, the chief engineer, J. G. Parry-Thomas, took Railton on as an understudy. This led him to his first major project, on the design of the Leyland Eight, a 6.9 litre, eight-cylinder, mammoth luxury car. Developing this car involved a great deal of driving at high speed around the Brooklands track. It is said that this experience drove Parry-Thomas on to his desire to go ever faster, to go racing and to go land-speed record chasing. These exploits were not seen in a favourable light by Leyland Motors and so Parry-Thomas parted company with the company. Reid Railton soon followed him and worked on his projects, living for a time, in Parry-Thomas’s home at Brooklands.

As well as supporting Parry-Thomas, Railton worked on an innovative sports car called the Arab. This had a 2.0 litre engine that used leaf springs to open and close its valves. During Railton's time working on the Arab, Parry-Thomas had a fatal accident in a land speed record attempt and Pendine Sands. The following year Reid Railton closed down the Arab production and returned to working at Brooklands.

He was appointed Technical Director of Thomson & Taylor Ltd., a company designing and building of racing and speed record cars on the Brooklands site. From here Reid Railton’s career and reputation really took off. His first Thomson and Taylor project was designing the second-generation Blue Bird land speed record car for Malcolm Campbell, using a 24 litre Napier Lion 12 cylinder ‘broad arrow’ aero-engine. This car set a record of 242 mph on Daytona Beach in 1931, before Reid Railton designed a third Blue Bird with a supercharged, 37 litre Rolls-Royce V12 engine. Campbell returned to Daytona two years later and pushed the record to 272 MPH.

This was also where he designed the Napier Railton mentioned at the start of this article. It achieved a Brooklands Outer Circuit lap of 143.44mph in 1933. This was not surpassed before the Brooklands Motor Course closed to motor racing at the start of World War II. It will therefore stand forever. In this period he was also engaged in designing Riley and ERA racing cars, at Thomson and Taylor.

Reid Railton continued to design speed record cars for John Cobb. One of these, the Mobil Railton Special set the land speed record at 394.7 mph in 1947.

During the pre-war period, Reid Railton had also worked with Noel Macklin, an established motor engineer, who had decided to build a new luxury sports car based around the new Hudson-built Terraplane, which already had a reputation in America as a fast car, a relatively light body with straight-eight power. Macklin got Railton to work with him to refine the Hudson chassis, which he did by dropping its ride height and fitting stiffer Hartford friction shock absorbers. This was the Railton Terraplane referred to at the top of this article.

Reid Railton had suffered from long term poor health and so decided to move with his family to California for its more beneficial climate. There he worked for Hudson cars, while also keeping his hand in, long-distance, with Thomson & Taylor. In California, he went on to work for the Hall-Scott Engine Company, then engaged in a major contract to build V12 engines for the Royal Navy's Fairmile B-class submarine chasing boats.

This was not his only interest in marine engineering. Malcolm Campbell asked him to work on a water speed record boat, using the engine from his Blue Bird land speed record-holding car. Reid Railton also worked with Fred Cooper on the design of the hull for this boat, which became Blue Bird K3. Reid Railton then suggested to Malcolm Campbell that he needed to move on to a different style of hull design. This led to K4 being developed by Vospers, but still using the same engine. Fred Cooper left the project and so Reid Railton’s involvement in and influence over, the project grew.

Soon John Cobb also decided to move on to water speed record chasing. Reid Railton engineered the Crusader project for John Cobb. Sadly this ended with a fatal accident on Loch Ness in 1952.

Next Reid Railton assisted Ken and Lewis Norris with the development of what became Bluebird K7, this time for Donald Campbell. It was Reid Railton who suggested to Donald Campbell that he should move to a ‘propeller riding’ configuration for this boat. This advice was based on data and knowledge that Reid Railton had learned from working with Ted Jones. He was the designer and builder of Slo-Mo-Shun IV, which then held the water speed record.

Throughout his career, Reid Railton was creative and innovative, generating new ideas and engineering solutions. He was highly thought of across the industry and he was respected by his peers. He was always ready to learn from his peers and to build on their data, and experience.

Reid Railton died in Berkeley, California, in 1977 at the age of 82. His work lives on today in the vehicles and boats he worked on that still exist, and in the many of his innovations that have been used in later designs.

Peter Kearns, Brooklands Museum volunteer

John Cobb and Reid Railton at the Bonneville Salt Flats with the Railton Special 1938

John Cobb with Reid Railton in the Railton Special Chassis

Reid Railton, Sammy Davis and Ken Taylor examining a component

Malcolm Campbell demonstrates the 1933 Blue Bird at Brooklands

John Cobb in the Napier-Railton, Brooklands 1935