1936 Railton. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
The term hybrid now generally means a vehicle with both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine, with the engine as the primary power. But in earlier times hybrid referred to another type: a car from one manufacturer with an engine from another. It often meant an English car with American power, such as the Hudson-engined Brough Superior, Cadillac Allard, Nash Healey or Ford-engined Sunbeam Tiger. The car that started it, the first production Anglo-American hybrid, was the 1933 Railton, fitted with Hudson Terraplane engines.
The Railton evolved from the Invicta, manufactured by Invicta Cars of Cobham, Surrey, a specialist maker since 1925 that became known for fast, expensive, low-slung, sporty cars. When the depths of the Depression brought Invicta to its knees in 1933, it closed its Cobham facility and moved to Chelsea, London where it carried on a much smaller-scale operation.
A new venture then replaced Invicta at Cobham. Noel Macklin was a former principal of Invicta and Reid Railton was a famous speed record car engineer who designed Land Speed Record holding cars for both Sir Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb. He also created Campbell’s Bluebird II speedboat that held the Water Speed Record for 10 years. Macklin and Railton decided that mating fine English coachwork, like that of the Invicta, with a strong American engine and running gear would produce a spirited car. They would call it the Railton.
For power they turned to the low-cost American car, the Essex Terraplane that had been introduced by Hudson in 1932 to cope with the Depression. It came initially with a 3.2-litre (193 cu in.) side-valve six with 70 horsepower, which was five more than Henry Ford’s sensational new V8. And since it was mounted in a lighter car it could outrun Ford’s more famous V8.
In 1933, Hudson made a 4.0-litre (244 cu. in.), 94-horsepower, inline-eight available in the Terraplane. While the Terraplane six was fast, the eight was even faster and immediately began setting speed records. It soon amassed over 50 American Automobile Association stock car records, including climbing Mount Washington and Pikes Peak, and achieved 132 km/h (82 mph) at Daytona Beach.
The Terraplane engined Railton emerged in 1933 looking very much like the Invicta. It came as a convertible coupe and touring, later expanded to coupes and sedans. With a weight of just 1,134 kg (2,500 lb) and a 94-horsepower eight under the hood it had sensational performance. Contemporary tests indicated zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 10 seconds and top speed of 148 km/h (92 mph). This was quicker acceleration than any other English car and would have stood up well for many years after the Second World War. Its top speed was challenged only by some more expensive marques like the Lagonda, Rolls-Royce and Bentley. It was much faster than the SS, forerunner of the Jaguar, and became an instant favourite of the motoring press.
The fastest Railton was the rare cycle-fendered Railton “Light Sports,” of which only three or four were made. It weighed only 1,031 kg (2,100 lb) and was said to be capable of 172 km/h (107 mph).
The Railton custom-built body was mounted on a sturdy Terraplane X-braced frame with solid axles and leaf springs front and rear. Power went to the rear wheels through Terraplane’s manual, floor-shifted, three-speed transmission and Hudson’s oil-immersed “wet” clutch.
Railton made a small batch of 1933 cars with the 4.0-litre Terraplane eight, then, for 1934, switched to the Hudson 4.2-litre eight, which gave 113 horsepower and even more spirited performance. It became a favourite of Scotland Yard and other police services. Some 1934s got Hudson’s “Axle Flex” semi-independent, parallelogram type front suspension, but it could be troublesome, so Hudson and Railton were soon back to solid axles.
Railton went into 1935 unchanged, and produced 377 cars, its best year ever. For 1936 Railton got Hudson’s hydraulic brakes and a remote control shift lever that replaced the long Hudson wand.
From then on Railton seemed to lose its way as a purveyor of fast, special interest cars. They got heavier and more expensive, with less to distinguish them from competitors like MG. By 1937 Railton was back to a Hudson six-cylinder engine, and toward the end, just before the Second World War, they were using 1.3-litre Standard fours.
Approximately, a dozen Railtons were assembled after the war in Hudson’s Chiswick facility near London using pre-war components, but its time had passed. Although several Anglo-American hybrids like the Allard, Nash-Healey and Jensen Healey would come along, the colourful originator of the genre had passed into history.
The Railton name was again revived in 1989 with cars based on Jaguar components, but it was not successful.