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The Reluctant Hero

by David Tremayne.

1952: the year in which King George VI died, John Derry crashed at the Farnborough Air Show when the De Havilland DH110 broke up in mid air, and Britain first exploded its atomic bomb. The year of Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig - and the controversial 'Let him have it, Chris' comment as Craig shot dead PC Sidney Miles. The Lynmouth floods, the Harrow train crash, the introduction of disc brakes.

The year in which John Rhodes Cobb, one of Britain's most unsung motorsporting heroes, was killed during an attempt on the water speed record.

It was also the year in which I was born, six weeks prematurely. Had my mother gone full term, I'd have been a 1953 baby and the link would not have existed. I found out at an early stage of my obsession with speed that I shared the same birth date as Cobb: December 2. That strengthened the affinity I felt.

Today, if you drive south from Inverness on the A82(T) along the north western shore of Loch Ness, and before you reach the sleepy village of Drumnadrochit near Urquhart Bay, there is a stone cairn on the left side of the road. It overlooks the measured mile upon which he perished 40 years ago, and commemorates his fated attempt on the record on September 29 1952.

The names of the Campbells still linger in the British public's psyche, and Segrave had his contemporary fame, but Cobb was the reluctant hero, a shy bearlike man who made his money from the fur business but liked nothing better than to drive fast cars. He was big, like the machinery he drove so well, and he was unflappable. Little is ever known to have upset his urbanity.

When he set what would remain forever the Outer Circuit lap record at his beloved Brooklands, with a speed of 143.44mph, he merely remarked: "Circulating Brooklands at 140mph was no picnic and needed a very good knowledge of just where the bad bumps were. Taking corrective action the instant the bumps were struck saved a lot of wild skidding and consequent loss of time. It was possible to keep one's foot down all the way round..."

This in a leaf-sprung behemoth powered by a 23.9 litre Napier Lion W12 and weighing 31 cwt, and with zero downforce. To put that further into perspective, the Indianapolis 'record' lap speed of the time was Rex Mays' 120.736 set in the Miller-engined Adams when he took pole for the 1935 500. Cobb's achievement was the equivalent of a 276mph lap of the Brickyard today...

"The key to a fast lap consisted of a good entry on to the Home Banking," he was drawn to continue. "If it were taken too slowly time was lost; if taken too fast the resultant skid toward the top of the banking caused one to have to slow down - to say nothing of scaring one stiff."

Though it was not always fashionable for such an attribute to be appreciated and acknowledged widely in those days, Cobb was the perfect test driver, a true prototype for today's technocrats. The relationship between the fur broker, genius designer Reid Railton and engineers Kenneth Thomson and Ken Taylor was based on mutual respect. Cobb could relate precisely what his vehicles were doing at any given speed, and would follow his team orders to the letter. Nevertheless, he was not averse to trying to devise a means of resetting the rev telltale that Taylor rigged up for the 1947 attempt on the land speed record, should he inadvertently exceed it.

Like Senna, he took a deep interest in his machinery. When he went to Bonneville with the Railton he knew every nuance of the tyres from watching them closely during high-speed tests at Fort Dunlop. He knew he had to avoid wheelspin at all costs, while at the same time accelerating quickly enough to make full use of the available track. None of his land speed records - 350.20 in 1938, 369.70 in '39 and 394.19mph in '47 - was simply a matter of planting his right foot and holding the steering wheel for the sake of appearances. He developed an almost telepathic ability to sense just what state his rubber was in at each mile, and such hyper-alertness was vital since he sat so far forward in the remote cockpit of a 2600bhp four-wheel drive car that was 28 feet long and had no tail fin to counter any tendency to yaw. He once likened 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," but the land record was no sinecure either.

It was rare for John Cobb to say much, in public or in private, for he was a man of few words. He much preferred to let what he did do the talking. He was even reluctant to discuss his business at fur brokers Anning, Chadwick & Kiver, where his directorship took him as far abroad as Russia and the United States. Yet, for all that, people liked and respected him for the man he was, one of strict moral codes. In New York he was once presented with a watch. At the time such advertising gifts were not commonplace and, unfamiliar and uncomfortable with such new mores, he disposed of it to a friend who had made a facetious reply when he asked how much anyone would give him for it. Cobb not only accepted the low figure, but refused point blank to reclaim the watch when he later learned just how valuable it had been.

MOTOR SPORT reader Michael Radford, whose grandfather founded the Swift marque and who himself is Chairman of the Swift Club, remembers meeting Cobb on the occasions when he would visit his parents for lunch. "He and Vicki were their close friends, and as a schoolboy I was awed when the great man came to the house.

"My father had a Ford dealership and was fascinated by cars, and Cobb used to bring a new Bentley, or a new Jaguar or Austin Healey - C Type prototypes, that sort of thing - and let Father take them out. He went to my sister's 21st at our house, four months before he died.

"What he liked, what he taught my mother, was to make a dry Martini to set the palate up for good food. He taught her to make these marvellous American style Martinis.

"I often wonder what he was like as a younger man. I always remember him as quiet and unassuming, shy. But I was just about 13, and you know how shy you are yourself at that age! It was like meeting a God among mortals. It was one of the great joys of my life; hero worship wasn't in it. To get round that Outer Circuit at Brooklands at the speed he did; what a man!"

At no time in his illustrious career did Cobb ever receive the recognition that his achievements merited, even though he was a patriot who spent considerable sums of his own money to boost British prestige. As well as his three land records he once held every world mark from one to 24 hours, set the Outer Circuit lap four times at Brooklands, and was officially the first man to travel at 400 when he achieved a speed of 403.1 mph one-way during his final run in the Railton. The lack of recognition troubled him not at all, however. He was not like Sir Malcolm Campbell, to whom publicity was meat and drink. Some say there was a degree of needle between the two speed kings, that Cobb never quite forgave Campbell for the part he believed he paid in the sale of Brooklands, and that the nature of their relationship added spice to his plans to go after the land speed record, and perhaps later to demonstrate that a jet-engined boat could be made to work successfully after Campbell's dogged but fruitless efforts with the Goblin-powered Bluebird in the last years of his life.

More, he resembled his great friend and rival George Eyston in shunning the limelight. But where George was an improviser, and suck-it-and-see type, Cobb would not be rushed and would reach his goal by calm, steadfast plodding. In an age when we have become used even to team-mates in Formula One falling out, let alone rivals, Cobb and Eyston remained firm friends throughout their duel for the land record at Bonneville in the late thirties, and the latter was the manager of the ill-fated Crusader jetboat project.

Attention bothered Cobb. For all his 52 years, it embarrassed him. When he returned to Southampton in 1947 after becoming the first man to hit 400 in land, there was not ticker-tape welcome. Even local dignitaries did not turn out to greet him. He was pleased. He was far happier on the desolate wastes of Bonneville, alone with his trusted aides and his own thoughts, ready to face whatever challenge was there to be conquered by equable temperament and underrrated talent.

Contemporary newsreel shots would show him standing quietly in any gathering, arms usually clasped behind his back. A big man who adored his mother and valued her opinion more than any other's; a shy giant who was generally thought to be uneasy in the company of younger women. It thus came as no surprise to his friends when he married Elizabeth Mitchell-Smith just before his last Utah record. He was shattered by her death only 12 months later of Bright's Disease, the chronic inflammation of the kidneys, but kept his feelings bottled up for months afterwards as he strove to acclimatise to this personal devastation. Then, in 1950, he married Vera Victoria Henderson and his old character was finally able to re-assert itself.

He and Vicki met through friends. Today she lives alone in her elegant flat in Chelsea, and I learned of her whereabouts through one of those wonderful strokes of luck that some along every now and then. Michael Radford hasd written to Bill Boddy at MOTOR SPORT magazine, and a copy of the letter had been passed to me because of my interest in record-breaking. Michael had included several comments about John Cobb which I put away in a mental file, and which he was kind enough to expand for this story as he put me in touch with Vicki. By sheer chance, it transpired that she lives 10 doors away from another good friend. After John's death she resumed an interest in interior decorating and travelled widely, before settling down there 15 years ago. She is an interesting and interested companion, conversing about travel and modern sport with an incisive knowledge and expressing the pertinent view that money has brought about the current pressures and resultant controversies within the latter. "John was nothing flash, like you might think a racing driver was going to be," she insists of her late husband.

I suggested that she had been instrumental in helping him to start to live again after Elizabeth's death, and she sparkled warmly. "It would be lovely to think so," she said quietly, and the eyes that held mine over the generous Manhattans she had poured us were so bright and alive.

"John wasn't so much shy, as reserved," she continued, as she added that she agreed with the title of this feature. "He never did want any publicity for anything that he did. You know, Sammy Davis, the writer, always used to say that he'd ask John out to lunch to try and find something out about whatever he was up to, and they'd have a wonderful meal, with lots of chat, but at the end of it he was no wiser!"

As a writer, reading between the lines of the former Bentley boy and Le Mans winner's biography of Cobb, The John Cobb Story, it is clear that even the adroit David was struggling to get him to say anything about himself! John Cobb, who liked his whisky and soda and his pre-prandial Martini, was a gentleman and a gentle man, who kept his own counsel. "Of course we spoke about things together," says Vicki, "but he wasn't a man for discussing his problems. I didn't know anything about the mechanical side of things, had no idea bout engines, so there wasn't any point in talking about that. He was a relaxed man in company that he knew, and he had a very special sense of humour with his friends."

The sleek silver and goldfish red Crusader was finally ready for trials in September 1952. Cobb has initially considered Windermere but thought it was too short and plumped instead for the space at Loch Ness. He had never driven a racing hydroplane, let alone one 31 feet long with a 13ft beam and 5000lbs of thrust from its de Havilland Ghost turbojet, but having jumped straight in the deep end in big cars in his Brooklands career - such as the chain-drive Fiat and the 10 litre V12 Delage - he acclimatised rapidly to his new environment. Driving Crusader, he said, was like "driving a London omnibus without tyres on." There were numerous problems, as inevitably there would be with such untried technology.

Cobb made his first run, at around 100mph, on September 3, following up with 140 the following day. Minor modifications were reeded to the hull, to prevent Crusader shipping gallons of water. On September 10 and 11 he believed he had broken the record unofficially, hitting speeds over 180 mph. Then, on the 19th, a Friday, he achieved 185.57mph running north to south, exactly the same as Stanley Sayres' one-way best but well above his fresh American mark of 178.497 in Slo-Mo-Shun IV. A combination of poor weather and the usual difficulty of getting Crusader up on to the plane slowed the return run to 160.71 so that the average speed fell to 173.10, just below the record. "No, I don't think I did it," said Cobb as he stood back at base on the ageing Temple Pier in Glenurqhuart before the official speeds came through. "There was too much wind and she was tending to become unmanageable. I had to hold her back a bit."

After a larger rudder had been fitted, there were two more high-speed runs on the 27th, a Saturday, but Cobb did not exceed 150 this time. The Queen Mother paid a visit that day. "You have my best wishes - good luck," she said to Cobb, telling Vicki: "I feel sure your husband is going to break the record." Hers was not the first royal interest the project had attracted; Prine William of Gloucester and his younger brother Richard had been shown round the boat on the 2nd.

On the 29th, a Monday, they were ready to try again. According to Michael Radford, Cobb told his mother and Vicki that he had a premonition about the last run in Crusader. The boat was constructed from birch ply and a stressed skin of double diagonal plywood, but the front planing point was aluminium. Constructor Peter Dy Cane, of Vosper, had considered wood since he believed it to be inherently stronger, but finally opted for metal through convenience. After the series of test runs there was a clear evidence that the planing shoe was distorting. He offered to revise the craft at Vosper's expense, but Cobb preferred not to postpone the attempt, aware that he was keeping a lot of people waiting. There was what Du Cane described as a 'high-powered' meeting at the Drumnadrochit Hotel, in which his was a lone voice against Cobb's, Railton's and Eyston's. They all favoured continuing, to attempt to bear the record by a small margin and to return subsequently for another attempt the following year once the offending shoe had been modified. Thoughtfully, Cobb wrote a letter which absolved Du Cane of any responsibility. In the meantime, they strengthened the planing surface as much as possible.

That morning Crusader was taken out early on to the black waters of the lock as the overnight wind had dropped. To begin with it was oily calm, but as is the way with record breaking, a light breeze sprang up just when everythign was ready and the team was forced to abandon the effort. By noon, a little low in spirits, they repaired for coffee in the lounge of the Drumnadrochit Hotel to discuss the next step. Then came word that the loch was flat once more, and hurriedly everyone departed again for their stations. The support boats had been left in position, but as Vicki took up station with Du Cane in the radio car at a site overlooking the midpoint of the measured mile, Cobb returned to the loch and found the timekeepers' 40ft boat Maureen returning to base against orders. He was angered by the wake that was created. Time was of the essence on the fickle black water, however, and he could not afford to wait any longer.

William Rees, the radio/intercom organiser, was the last person to speak to John Cobb. "I adjusted his helmet and said, 'Are you all set?'. He replied: 'Yes, here goes. Conditions seem to be quite favourable at the moment. Let's take advantage of it.' I wished him 'Good Luck'. He gave me the thumbs up sign and set off."

Moments later Cobb sped southwards at astonishing speed, close in to the west bank, but as he cleared the measured mile it could be seen that Crusader was porpoising dramatically. While conceiving Donald Campbell's Bluebird K7, designed Ken Norris would late analyse cine film recorded for 15 seconds immediately before and after the accident. It was shot at 16 frames per second, and the 248 frames revealed just how badly Cobb and Crusader were trapped in the dreaded aero/hydrodynamic problem. Cobb was being pitched up and down through an 18 inch arc five times a second. Just before the final dive the bows could be seen to be raised, with daylight visible beneath the hull as far aft as the sponsons.

A quarter of a second later the bow had dipped again, throwing up a cloud of spray.

"When on station we waited, straining ears amd eyes for the evidence which would tell that Crusader was on her way towards us," recalled Eyston in his book, Safety Last. "At last, we could just spot a plume of spray in the far distance - the great moment had arrived! The speeding boat was still perhaps six miles away but I could hold her in my glasses. Gradually the plume got more and more pronounced and could be picked up against the shoreline. Then - suddenly - it vanished."

"Crusader simply went into smithereens," said George Nicholson, manager of the Drumnadrochit Hotel. "I thought it must have dug its nose into the water."

Du Cane observed that Cobb was in trouble well before the end of the mile, and that he had already backed off when he came out of it and met three ripples, thought to have been the remnants of the wash created by the errant support boat. The impacts with the first two were serious. The third was fatal. The porpoising boat exploded into fragments. Cobb was thrown 50 yards ahead, and died instantly.

Harry Cole and Hugh Jones of Vosper raced their support boat to the spot where they had seen Cobb strike the water, and found him floating in a standing position, a foot below the surface. Somehow, they pulled his body aboard.

He had covered the measured mile in 17.4s, at an average speed of 206.89mph and with a peak of a phenomenal 240. But, because he had not achieved a return run, no record could officially be ratified.

"From the fact that he averaged more than 205mph over the whole measured mile and that he was in trouble before the halfway point it is not diffuclt to realise he must have been going very fast indeed initially," said Du Cane. "It would be difficult for him to keep an eye on the air speed indicator and he was undoubtedly going faster than he had meant to."

Within an hour of John Cobb's death the wind had dropped altogether and the loch was flat calm, bathed in warm sunshine.

"So came the awful job of 'arranging things' - of tidying up the medd," said Eyston. "Vicki was dreadfully upset and I felt the best thing would be to pack her off to London and her friends by the quickest possible means. I arranged a sleeper for her that night and found a companion for her. Then it was said that it would be better for her to go in slow stages by road. In such times, one never knows what to do for the best."

The team had worshipped John Cobb, and the Highlanders had taken him to their hearts too, for he had gone to great pains to integrate the Crusader project as best he could into their established way of life. In deference to their religious beliefs he had refused to run on Sundays even when, on the 28th, conditions had at last been precisely what he sought, with calm water and zero wind. He might well have taken the record that day and a lesser man would surely have been tempted, but to have done anything else but stay ashore would have offended his sense of propriety. "He was a big man, but he was very gentle, very quiet," Vicki remembered. "You know, I never saw him angry. I really don't think that he could be."

In his biography Fifty Years with the Speed Kings, Dunlop Mac recalled that the only time he ever saw Cobb vexed was when, relegated to a pedal role in an austere postwar Britain in which petrol rationing was still prevalent, he found those fortunate enough to be motorists ignoring him on pedestrian crossings.

"He was also gentle and patient with children," said Vicki. "I still have somewhere a little cardboard thank-you that all the children of Drumnadrochit sent him after he had shown them around the boat. Heaven for small boys, of course!"

The cars in the funeral procession through Inverness carried Cobb's silver and red racing solours. "Rain fell," recalled Eyston, "and it was consolation to walk bareheaded."

Cobb's father dies when John was young, and his mother supervised the farm they owned overlooking Sandown racecourse. He was educated at Eton and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Later he had bought a house on Kingston Hill, and it was there that he and Vicki shared their brief, exciting life together. After the tragedy on Loch Ness he was buried in Esher Church. Much further north, John Rhodes Cobb - the record breakers' record breaker - could not have a more fitting memorial than that cairn on the Inverness to Drumnadrochit road: something as solid, understated and enduring as the man himself. Something, like the legacy of his performances, that still awaits those that care to seek it out.

David Tremayne

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