Books about famous racing drivers and titans of industry abound, but tomes on mechanical engineers are few and far between. Reid Railton was no ordinary engineer, and fittingly, author and historian Karl Ludvigsen’s latest effort, Reid Railton, Man of Speed, runs to two volumes and 848 pages, recounting in detail the extraordinary life of a man behind so many historically significant speed-record vehicles.
Born in Cheshire, England, in 1895, Railton graduated from Manchester University before joining Leyland Motors in 1917. There, he was mentored by J.G. Parry-Thomas, the company’s chief engineer and a man with a passion for going fast. Working closely together, the pair designed the Leyland Eight, an early supercar powered by a 6.9-liter hemi-head straight-eight. Driving the car on the Brooklands track was enough to convince Parry-Thomas that his destiny was racing cars, not just designing them.
Railton left Leyland Motors to form his own concern, the Arab Motor Company, which produced a limited number of advanced sports cars over its three years in existence. At the same time, Railton assisted Parry-Thomas in designing and building cars capable of setting speed records, and on a run at Pendine Sands in 1927, Parry-Thomas was killed when the rear wheel of his car, named Babs, collapsed at speed.
Shortly after, Railton closed Arab Motors and took a job as technical director of Thomson & Taylor, a company that specialized in the design and construction of racing cars. There, Railton worked with immortals like Donald Campbell, Tim Birkin, and John Cobb finding ways to push existing speed records – on land and in the water – ever higher.
Cars like Cobb’s 1933 Napier-Railton and Railton Special and Campbell’s post-1931 Bluebirds, Tiger, and Tigress were designed or improved by Railton, as were boats piloted by Campbell and Cobb. Railton designed the chassis of the English Racing Automobiles (E.R.A) single-seat racers, which were then built for E.R.A. by Thomson & Taylor.
Railton relocated to California in 1939, where he worked for the Hall-Scott Motor Company, designing engines that were used in Britain’s submarine-hunting fast patrol boats and later consulted for Hudson. He died in Berkeley, California, in 1977, at the age of 82.
Reid Railton, Man of Speed goes into exquisite detail on Railton’s life and achievements, and each is illustrated with photographs (in black and white and color), engineering drawings, maps, and more. Book one runs 424 pages, and focuses on Railton’s work with Parry-Thomas at Leyland Motors; his time as chief engineer for Thomson & Taylor; his work with Campbell on speed records at Daytona Beach and Bonneville; the development of the E.R.A. chassis; Cobb’s record-setting Napier-Railton; and Railton’s own tenure as an automaker at the Arab Motor Company.
Book two, which also runs 424 pages, covers the late 1930s through the postwar years, detailing the development of Goldie Gardner’s MG EX.135, which set small-displacement speed records in both the prewar and postwar years; the speed-record boats built for Sir Malcolm Campbell; Cobb’s Railton land speed-record car (often described as the engineer’s crowning achievement), which set land speed records before and after the war; his time at Hall-Scott; his work as a consultant for the Hudson Motor Company; the revival of the Railton as the Railton-Mobil; and his work on the Crusader, a “tricycle” configuration speed-record boat with rear outriggers powered by a DeHavilland Ghost turbine engine.