Tracing the Origins of One of the Great Early Racing Photos

I take car photography seriously, not just as a job or hobby, but also because I believe that documenting cars and covering motorsports through the eras can be culturally and artistically significant, and as such I always want to pay respect to the people that shot the pictures that I find inspiring.

And that brings me to this photo. 

The title is often listed as “John Cobb drives the Napier-Railton on a record run at Brooklands”, or, in other places it’s called “John Cobb in the 24-litre Napier-Railton taking the 'bump' on the Members' Banking in 1935.”

And the photographer… is unknown. 

The Napier-Railton was an airplane-engined car, built on the grounds of the Brooklands Circuit in Weybridge, England. It set the the all time track record, averaging 143.44mph, a record that was never broken. 

In the photo, it’s hitting the bump on the banking, and has all four wheels off the ground. We have this amazing low perspective, we see the movement from the car, and it’s a great composition of a dramatic foreground and a background that gives you a sense of the circuit and the scale. 

There’s a more detailed caption of the photo from

Cobb takes flight as the Napier-Railton transitions over the River Wey to the Railway Straight and Brooklands. The bridge over the river created a bump that caused faster cars to become airborne, an indication of how Brooklands was a rough track. The image illustrates both the enlarged scuttle and the rear shield added to protect the driver. Note the bar-less radiator housing.

 I was reminded of how much of an impact this photo had on me when I visited the Brookands Circuit, and saw the track, the banking, and the Napier-Railton in person. When you go to Brooklands, this photo is almost a mascot of the museum. It’s not obscure, you can buy postcards of it, refrigerator magnets, posters,  and it’s a prominent part of the museum’s branding.

Once I got home, I thought it would be a worthwhile challenge to see if I could find out who the photographer was, and put credit where credit is due. Unfortunately, my 20 minutes of Googling came up with nothing. It comes up in lots of places, but the credit is usually only listed as Brooklands Museum Archive, or another archive image library. 

So I contacted the Brooklands Museum to see if they can help me track down the photographer. It was a long shot, but I thought maybe there was a slight chance they knew, but no one had listed it on the website. 

Within just a few days, a friendly staff member from the museum trust responded, and provided a little bit of added backstory: 

I can confirm the photo is part of the Brooklands Museum Collection. 

We actually have a photo of several members of the press lying on the track to take the photo, unfortunately I am having trouble find it to show you! I believe there were many shots taken by a number of photographers. I'm not sure of the exact photographer who took the one which is in our collection.

Apologies I couldn't help any further.

 I was happy to get that response, and while I was researching that video, I think I found the photo she was talking about! This is a low-res version that’s circulating online. Getty Images has a higher-res version, with this description:

17th May 1937, Surrey, England, John Cobb in his Napier-Railton roars past photographers whilst taking part in the Brooklands Gold Trophy Coronation Race.

Even the dates aren’t consistent: this says 1937, and the other photo is claimed to be 1935.

In all likelihood, we may never know who took the photo, due to the nature of how photos were shot and distributed at the time, but maybe someone has an old book out there that has the names of the photographers who were out there shooting that day. 

I would love for this to be resolved, I think it would be incredible to have someone to credit, but I also just wanted to share a little bit about this image that made an big impression on me, and opened my eyes to both car racing and photography in the mid-1930s. I can’t imagine being John Cobb, behind the wheel of that monstrous race car, going 145 on the banking with minimal safety equipment.  

But spare a thought for the photographers literally hanging over the track, who were also risking their lives to tell John Cobb’s story.

1 comment

  • I can understand your fascination with this iconic photograph of an iconic machine at an iconic circuit.

    The hi-res Getty image looking over the press photographers is simply stunning and was obviously taken the same day as the "Who Shot This? photo but on a different lap: The cars Cobb is passing at 135mph coming off the banking onto Railway Straight are different in each picture and the guy sitting on the wall on the inside of the circuit hasn’t moved but has shifted his legs slightly. So, these two pictures could have been taken one lap, or 75 seconds, apart.

    In my opinion the Getty image is the superior of the two but the track-level shot certainly leaves us in no doubt that the two-tonne Napier-Railton was completely airborn !

    I do not have a name for the photographer of the image you are asking about but there is a huge visual clue as to which of those pressmen took the shot. From what I see there are six people lying down at the edge of the track with one person standing above them. There may be others out of shot to the left but the structure close to the top of the banking would make that an awkward position to be lying down.

    The big clue comes from the Getty image – the lighter section of concrete which comes up the banking from lower right towards centre left with the photographers’ heads obscuring it to the left.

    At the far bottom left corner of the iconic picture, “Who Shot This?”, you can make out this seam between the lighter and darker concrete.

    So, the guy that took the photograph was drum roll the one in the lighter jacket immediately to the right of the man wearing a hat.

    bob london

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