What’s on this week
CRUSADER: JOHN COBB’S ILL-FATED QUEST FOR SPEED ON WATER
For man and machine, there is perhaps no truer test of finding the limits than going for an outright speed record. Whether it be on land or water, the pursuit of pushing an average speed higher and higher was arguably at its peak during the early to mid-part of the 20th century.
Malcolm Campbell and his son Donald’s exploits with Bluebird both on land and in the water are the most notorious and welldocumented, but certainly not the only enterprise to strive for new records. John Cobb was another less well-known pursuer of speed who, like many before and after him, paid the ultimate price on 29 September 1952 on Loch Ness.
Steve Holter’s recently published book charts Cobb’s fatal endeavour with the jet-propelled Crusader, and attempts to put together piece by piece what led to the tragedy, from the flawed building of the vessel to how circumstances on the day played a part in the accident.
For motorsport fans there’s something to gently ease them in and feel more at home, with the opening chapters of the book focusing on Brooklands – the world’s first purpose-built circuit – as it follows the exploits of Parry Thomas and Malcolm Campbell. Readers are also introduced to Reid Railton, the legendary designer whose ‘mind was so far ahead of his time that the world needed years to catch up with him’, and who would be heavily involved with the design of Crusader.
Cobb soon appears on the scene, and his attention turns to beating the land speed record, which he did on three occasions with his Railton Mobil Special after forming a strong bond with Railton. His efforts then move to water, which as he describes is ‘a sort of tradition’ after Campbell Sr’s earlier exploits.
A large portion of the near 350-word book focuses on the conversations between Railton, Cobb and Peter Du Cane, managing director of the engineering company Vospers that was commissioned to build the boat. Dozens of letter extracts (and sometimes the letters themselves) are put across the pages, and it certainly paints a vivid and detailed picture of the struggles Railton and Cobb had in convincing Du Cane of various aspects the design should include and his apparent lack of progress.
While there’s a huge amount of detail and we get inside the minds of the protagonists, reading so many letters with many of the same details does become tiresome, and it’s perhaps apt that one of the chapters at this point is tilted Slow Going. It certainly feels as though the reader is in Cobb or Railton’s shoes at times!
Du Cane becomes something of a villain in the book, from ignoring Railton’s work on load bearings and forward-thinking design for his own traditional methods, to changing his account of the accident in the following days. Although Holter tries to present the facts as they are and let the reader decide for themselves, it’s clear that the focus for who is largely at fault gravitates towards Du Cane.
The remainder of the book focuses on the crash and aftermath,
with frame by frame footage analysed by Holter in great detail alongside eye-witness accounts.
Even for those whose enthusiasm for the sport is based on circuit racing, it’s a surprisingly captivating and relatively accessible read. There’s also an incredible wealth of archive images throughout, from testing models of Crusader to its build, and the fateful day at Loch Ness. There can be no doubt that the subject of Crusader has been researched in its entirety and, whether you’re a die-hard enthusiast or casual reader wishing to know more about the tragic accident, there is perhaps no better resource.