John Rhodes Cobb
Life in Elmbridge
The construction of Brooklands Motor Course at Weybridge in 1907 had a huge impact on the life of the then eight year old John Cobb living in nearby Esher. He would cycle to Brooklands regularly and watch legendary drivers such as Kenelm Lee Guinness and Jean Chassagne in the famous 350hp Sunbeam. John impressed these experienced drivers with his pertinent questions. Fortunately, he would be able to indulge his passion for this expensive sport as he was the youngest son of Rhodes Cobb, a wealthy fur broker and his wife Florence Goad. After completing his education at Eton College and Trinity Hall, Cambridge John Cobb joined his father's business and in due course also became the vice-chairman of the Falklands Islands Company Ltd. Prior to the Second World War he was commissioned by the Soviet government to sell their annual pelt stock.
His first success at Brooklands came on 10 April 1924, not for motor racing, but for gaining his aviator's certificate that was awarded by the GB, Royal Aero Club. His certificate was taken on a Sopwith, 100 hp Anzani. During the Second World War he served as a pilot in the RAF and then in the Air Transport Auxiliary from 1943-45. He reached the rank of Group Captain. Between 1925 and 1937 he raced and broke records at Brooklands, then in its heyday as the 'Ascot of Motoring'. In his first race at the Whitsun meeting of 1925 John Cobb came third driving a huge 1911 10 litre Fiat, capable of reaching lap speeds above 110 mph; a few weeks later he recorded his first win in the West Kent club meeting. He went on to drive an eight cylinder Leyland-Thomas car, followed by a 10.5 litre Delage which took him into the top rank of racing drivers and in which he broke the outer circuit lap record at Brooklands in 1929 with an average of 132 mph. He broke this record, driving his Delage on a further two occasions reaching a top speed of 133.88 mph on 2 July 1932. He now decided the time had come to acquire a new car as he was still being outdone by 4mph by Tim Birkin in his 'Blower Bentley'.
Cobb commissioned Thomson & Taylor to build his new vehicle, designed by Reid Railton, in their workshops at Brooklands. What emerged was the famous 'Napier Railton' which would provide enormous success for its owner. It was powered by a 24 litre Napier Lion engine and Cobb finally broke Brooklands Outer Circuit record on 7 October 1935 at a lap speed of 143.44 mph - a record which still stood when racing and record breaking ended at Brooklands in 1939. He bonded well with his production team and was able to give them accurate feedback on what his car was doing at any given speed. Also in 1935 he won the Brooklands 500 mile race, a feat he repeated in 1937 and on both occasions was awarded a gold star by the British Racing Drivers' Club. Cobb tended to underplay the dangers of his obsession with speed, likening his attempt on the Brooklands lap record to: "Seeing how far one could lean out of a window without falling out, and therefore somewhat risky."
His attempts to achieve land speed and endurance records took him away from Brooklands but he continued to live at The Grove in Esher, with his mother until his marriage in 1947 to Elizabeth Mitchell-Smith, who sadly died the following year of kidney disease. He married again in 1950, to Vera Victoria Henderson, their home was at Cullford, Coombe Park, Kingston, Surrey.
Life beyond Elmbridge
In 1935 Cobb drove the Napier Railton for the first time on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, USA; he set a new world record for one hour at 152.7 mph and raised the world's 24-hour record to 134.7 mph. John Cobb decided to commission a new car; the 'Mobil Railton' was a twin engine vehicle powered by two unblown Napier Lion engines. On 15 September 1938 he returned to Bonneville Flats and in the 'Mobil Railton' set a new world's land speed record at 350.2 mph. On the following day his rival George Eyston took the record with a speed of 357.5 mph. Cobb took his revenge one year later when on 23 August 1939 he regained the record with a performance of 369.74 mph. Service in the Second World War prevented further attempts on the land speed record until 1947 when Cobb returned to the Bonneville Flats once more. On 16 September he became the 'Fastest Man Alive' when he was the first person to exceed 400 mph on one of his two runs though his average speed was 394.19 mph. This record remained unbroken until Craig Breedlove passed it narrowly driving a jet-powered 'Spirit of America' in 1963. In recognition of his courageous feat John Cobb was awarded the Seagrave Trophy for 1947, one of the few official honours he received.
In 1952 Cobb set himself a new challenge - to break the world's water speed record of 178.4 mph held by American, Stanley Sayres. He drove 'Crusader', a motor boat powered by a de Havilland Ghost turbo-jet engine. Cobb commented that, 'It's like driving a London omnibus without tyres on' (quoted by ODNB, from Emery & Greenberg, The world sports record atlas (1986), p.172). Loch Ness was the chosen site for the attempt due to its length and straightness. Cobb made several runs over a six week period but the weather and water conditions did not favour his endeavours. Just after 12 noon on Monday, 29 September 1952 it was decided that conditions on Loch Ness were appropriate for an official attempt on the record. Two runs over a measured mile were required and an average speed then calculated. Crusader had just completed her first run when she bounced and disintegrated. John Cobb was thrown 50 yards from the open cock-pit. His wife, Vicky, witnessed his fatal accident. He had achieved a top speed of 206.89 mph just before the crash but, of course, the record could not stand as he had not completed two runs. The people of Glenurquhart placed a memorial in his honour on the shores of Loch Ness. His body was brought home to Esher and he was buried beneath trees on the eastern side of Christ Church churchyard.
"John was nothing flash, like you might think a racing driver was going to be." This was how his widow recalled her husband. He seems to have been a man of few words, modest and reserved. Cobb enjoyed a glass or two of dry Martini and was also fond of whisky and soda; once comfortable amongst friends he was a delightful companion with a good sense of humour. He enjoyed speed but he told the Associated Press that his key interest in motor racing and speed testing was in discovering technical improvements such as how tyres and oil react to high speeds that could then be used by the motor industry to finesse cars bought by ordinary motorists. John Rhodes Cobb was a quiet man of courage who existed in a fast and loud world; he now rests in a peaceful churchyard surrounded by the hubbub of the everyday life of Esher.
- History of Brooklands, www.brooklandsmuseum.com/index.php?/history/history_of_brooklands/
- Record Breaking at Brooklands 1920-1939, www.brooklandsmuseum.com/index.php?/history/record-breaking-at-brookland
- Scott A.G.M.Crawford, 'Cobb, John Rhodes (1899-1952)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004: online edn. Jan. 2011, [www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32467, accessed 24 April 2012]
- Capt. John Rhodes Cobb, www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=11852492
- 'John Cobb, Cobb Dies as Boat Breaks Up at 200MPH; Briton Set Automobile Speed Marks in US', New York Times, September 30, 1952, www.lesliefield.com/personalities/john_cobb_dies.htm
- David Tremayne, John Cobb, A Reluctant Hero, Classic & Sportscar, 1994, www.lesliefield.com/personalities/john_cobb_a_reluctant_hero.htm
- Obituary of John Cobb, Times [London, England], 30 Sept. 1952:8.The Times Digital Archive. Web 24 April 2012