After communication and engineering had broken almost all of nature’s barriers, we were left to create and challenge our own man-made boundaries. In the 1930s, there was no better place to do this than the impressive Brooklands Circuit in Surrey, England. Created as a no-expense spared aerodrome, this banked circuit motivated a new variety of racecars such as our feature Napier.
One of the pride and joys of British motoring was and still is this curious looking 1934 Napier-Railton. The nation’s love for this car enabled the BDRC to secure 800 000 GBP by donation to keep it as a permanent fixture in the Brooklands Museum. This is easily the most fitting home since the Napier-Railton holds the Outer Circuit lap record of 143.44mph at Brooklands which was the center of British motoring before the war. In a sense, this is the ‘Ultimate Brooklands Racecar’.
The story of the Napier-Railton begins with race driver John Cobb who had a rich history at Brooklands before this car came about. As early as 1925, he took his first win at the track in a 10-Litre Fiat that was paid for by the spoils of his fur trading business. He went through a number of other cars before commissioning the Napier-Railton to specifically break speed records. Its custom chassis was designed by Reid Railton and construction was executed at Thomson and Taylor’s garage in the Brooklands Aero Village. This was the same outfit that made the trio of legendary Bluebirds for Malcolm Campbell.
Many features of the Napier are unique including its oversize tires made custom by Dunlop and a rear suspension that uses twin elliptic leaf springs. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have an electrical system at all and is devoid of headlights or window wipers. This means the car has to be push started despite its massive size and weight.
Sitting at the front of the 15 foot chassis is a massive 12-cylinder Napier Lion aero engine that was probably yanked from any number of the 160 different planes that used it. Chosen for its brute power, the W12 was connected to the rear wheels through a custom-made Moss three-speed gearbox that lacked reverse or any synchro gears. It’s now generally agreed that the engine produces around 540 bhp which is way too much for a car lacking front brakes.
The Napier-Railton is covered in a massive polished aluminum body that does little to help its 4518 lbs of bulk. Its design is currently credited to Gurney Nutting and somehow hides the huge length of the chassis. To help keep the proverbial ‘what is this?’ question to a minimum, the script ‘Napier-Railton’ is affixed to both sides of the ‘bonnet’.
Inside the cockpit has a range of Jaeger gauges, a four-spoke Bluemel wheel and an adjustable seat to accommodate the various drivers that performed some of the more lengthy runs. As with many cars of the time, the accelerator is centrally located with the clutch and brake on either side.
Completed sometime in 1934, John Cobb was able to contest Brookland’s fabled races and took top honors in 1935 when he won the BDRC’s 500. He also fetched the outer circuit lap top speed record at 143.44 mph and the regular circuit lap record, both which cemented the Napier-Railton’s place in history. Later, the car made an appearance at the Bonneville Salt Flats where it ran an average of 158.6 mph for 24 hours!
Eventually the Napier-Railton was sold to a parachute company to test various disc brake configurations. At this time, the 16 inch drums were permanently replaced by more sane 6-piston aeroplane discs.
Despite the age of the car, it still retains its original engine and gearbox that have both run over 12000 racing miles. Remarkably, the BDRC rallied enough money in 1997 to buy the car from Lucas Huni and keep the Napier-Railton in the UK. It’s currently run twice yearly near the Brooklands Museum and also makes appearances at many English events including the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
A record-holding racing car is started up at Brooklands. If you think modern racing cars look dangerous, then this should be an eye-opener. The noise is incredible.
1934 Napier-Railton Special Gallery
1934 Napier-Railton Special Video
During Dunsfold Wings and Wheels Georgina Wood got the chance to drive the Brooklands Napier-Railton around parts of the Top Gear test track. This video gives a good idea what it is like to drive this 24 Litre Aero Engined beast. The truly amazing thing was that Georgina had had no experience of driving it before, apart from a few basic lessons.
Napier-Lion XIA W12
DOHC, 4 valves per Cyl
Tripple Claudel-Hobson Carburetors
23970 cc / 1462.7 in³
402.7 kw / 540 bhp @ 2350 rpm
22.53 bhp per litre
263.54 bhp per tonne
body / frame
Aluminum Body over Steel Ladder-Type Frame
f brake size
mm / in
r brake size
x 406 mm / x 16 in
Rigid Axle w/Semi-Elliptic Leaf Springs, Double Hartford Shock Absrobers
Live Axle w/Double Semi-Elliptic Leaf Springs, Hardford Dampers