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, England, 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. The initiators were Noel Macklin, a former principal of Invicta, and Reid Railton, 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 a low-cost American car, the Essex Terraplane, which had been introduced by Hudson in 1932 to cope with the Depression. It came initially with a 3.2-litre side-valve, 70-horsepower six, which was five more than Henry Ford’s sensational new V-8. And since it was mounted in a lighter car, it could outrun Ford’s more famous V-8.
In 1933, Hudson made a 4.0-litre, 94-horsepower, inline eight available in the Terraplane, and while the Terraplane six was fast, the eight was even faster. It immediately began setting speed records and soon amassed over 50 American Automobile Association stock-car records, including climbing Mount Washington and Pikes Peak, and achieving 132 km/h at Daytona Beach.
The Terraplane-engined Railton emerged in 1933, looking very much like the Invicta. It came as a convertible coupe and touring car, later expanded to coupes and sedans. With a weight of just 1,134 kg and a 94-horsepower eight under the hood, it had sensational performance. Contemporary tests indicated zero to 96 km/h in 10 seconds and top speed of 148 km/h.
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 and was said to be capable of 172 km/h.
The Railton custom-built body was mounted on a sturdy X-braced Terraplane 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 forces.
Some 1934s got Hudson’s “Axle Flex” semi-independent, parallelogram-type front suspension, but it could be troublesome and soon Hudson and Railton were 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 then 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 revived in 1989 with cars based on Jaguar components, but it was not successful.
© Copyright 2013