The Quiet Gentleman of Speed on Loch Ness

John Cobb

John Rhodes Cobb
2nd December 1899 – 29th September 1952

John Rhodes Cobb is a British hero we particularly remember at Loch Ness. He was the first man to travel at 400 mph on land and 200mph on water, the holder of 68 land speed records and the all-time Brooklands track record holder.

His story spans the birth of British motor-sport through to the jet-age, but much more than the simple achievement of speed itself, it exemplifies the enormous technical progress and innovation in the first half of the last century.

Cobb was a gentle giant of a man who shunned publicity and was the antithesis of a typical speed king. Most of his life he was a highly successful and respected businessman in the City of London, transforming into a speedster at weekends and when he could get away. Yet, he is also recognised as the ultimate record breaker’s record breaker and the dominant influence on all those who followed.

Brought up in Surrey in the early 1900s as the world’s first racing circuit Brooklands was being constructed nearby, he came from a family of hardy pioneers who dominated the affairs of the Falkland Islands for nearly a century. A naturally gifted driver with a love of speed and a strongly patriotic spirit, he quietly strove to keep Britain on top.

In 1935, he pioneered the use of the Utah Salt Flats by the British, and on his last visit in 1947, he put the Land Speed Record beyond reach for 17 years.

The most innovative speed craft ever designed

In August 1952, when he arrived at Loch Ness to bring the Water Speed Record back to Britain.

He was 52, the fastest man on earth, the Chairman of the Falkland Islands Company, a recently married man and a schoolboy hero on both sides of the Atlantic.

His craft, Crusader, was the most innovative speed craft ever designed, involving four years research and development, a team of quite remarkable men and most of the British military research establishments.

Crusader was the first purpose-built jet-powered water craft, part boat, part aircraft, and a revolutionary design even by today’s standards.

This great endeavour was a direct result of a new age of technology, and was the first speed attempt which was approached in a systematic and scientific way incorporating a jet engine. The project involved the leading minds of their time in the field of speed, and they all gathered at Loch Ness in late August 1952. Three were holders of the coveted Segrave Trophy.

Under the gaze of a fascinated community, Crusader was prepared for her trials. The narrowest part of the loch, south of Urquhart Bay, was selected for the measured mile and local surveyors were used to mark out the course, mile marker posts and stations for the time keepers on the northern shore.

Out of deference to the religious feelings of the local community, John Cobb ruled that no work or runs would take place on Sundays and this considerate gesture initiated the close bond which was formed between Cobb and the local people.

John Cobb's Railton Special

Railton Special – built for John Cobb’s successful attempts at the land speed record in 1938.

Crusader made her first outing on 3rd September and the following day in quite choppy conditions reached 140mph, an experience Cobb compared to driving a London bus with no tyres over cobbles. Despite problems with the front plate deforming and the desire of the builder to return the craft to Portsmouth for modifications, it was decided to continue and the official timekeepers arrived on 18th September.

There followed a week of gales and lashing rain which raised the level of the Loch by nearly a metre, re-floating shoreline debris and introducing driftwood from inflowing streams.

On 27th September, John Cobb and his team were visited at Temple Pier by HRH the Queen Mother on her return trip from opening the Commando Monument at Spean Bridge. They were all set for the attempt and on Sunday, 28th September, the conditions were ideal and the loch was mirror calm but John Cobb kept to his undertaking to the community not to run on a Sabbath.

On the 29th September all was prepared but the early morning run was aborted as a south easterly wind disturbed the water surface. By mid-morning the conditions improved and the team took up their positions again and Crusader set off on her fateful final run.

Whilst exceeding the world record by a staggering amount, his craft disintegrated and John Cobb was catapulted to his death in the remote dark waters of the loch.

As the news reverberated around the world, the speculation began and has continued to this day. With his death the golden era of British speed ended. Aided by access to the recently discovered project files and extensive research, we now know that had it not been for an unpredictable sequence of events on the day, John Cobb and Crusader could have changed the course of speed history.

The fastest speed obtained on water

Although he had failed to take the official record, a speed of 206.89mph was recorded which was the fastest speed obtained on water at that time.

Two days later, thousands of mourners lined the streets of Inverness as the cortege left the Inverness Royal Infirmary for its long sad journey south and on 3rd October John Cobb was laid to rest in the plain family grave at Christ’s Church, Esher in Surrey.

Memories of events, the great man, and Crusader are still strong amongst the people of Glen Urquhart who witnessed and even took part in the project activity as teenagers. His qualities were greatly admired by the more reserved Highland people who affectionately referred to him as “the Quiet English Gentleman”.

A cairn on the north shore, near the site of the crash, funded and built by the people of Glen Urquhart, commemorates his bravery and humility is still maintained by the community to this day. Across the Highlands there are many who can still recall the excitement, the eerie but unforgettable sound of the Ghost engine and the terrible sadness of that September, 65 years ago.

*This article has been reproduced with kind permission from an original work by Architech Animation Studios, Inverness.