Never Mind The DB7, Here's The Railton

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
never mind the db7 heres the railton

Psst! Hey, you! Yes, you! The guy with the gold Bentley-By-Breitling-Celebrating-Bentley-Brand-Breitlings diamond-studded watch! With your arm around two Estonian working girls! I know you’re about to step into a fresh new Aston Vanquish, but perhaps Sir would be interested in something authentically English and genuinely bespoke? An individual creation from a man whose contribution to the automotive design scene is beyond question, a man who designed the car to which your current matte-finished whip is about to pay homage? Surely you’re interested, right? And here’s the good news: it’s far too expensive!

Sir William Towns designed a few extremely important Aston Martins, including the original, no-Daniel-Craig-involvement DBS, the stunning Lagonda sedan, and the stunningly techno-vicious Bulldog. Having moved on to industrial design in his fifties, he remained interested in opportunities to design cars. Therefore, when he found some money in the form of LPG drilling impresario John Ranson, he returned to the field with a concept for a uniquely British luxury “drophead”.

The name of the brand, Railton, was a “reboot” designed to honor English automotive pioneer Reid Railton. Mr. Railton’s career spanned nearly forty years and peaked with the postwar Railton Mobil Special which eventually broke the 400mph barrier. He put his name on a variety of production cars but apparently limited his activites after World War II to the land-speed-record cars. His death in 1977 apparently freed Towns to use the name, along with the Fairmile and Claremont model named.

If you hadn’t figure it out already, seeing the interior shot should clinch it for you: the Railton was a rebodied Jaguar XJ-S. By 1991, the year of the Railton’s debut, the XJ-S was already a sixteen-year-old car riding on a twenty-four-year-old platform, but the resurgent Egan-era Jaguar had done a lot to make it livable, enjoyable, and somewhat reliable. One prototype was built of both the Fairmile and Claremont. The Claremont is the one you see here, and Towns retained possession of it until his death. The Fairmile, which was displayed at a variety of auto shows, was the same car without the wheel spats. Construction was handled by Park Street Metal, which also built the Jaguar XJ220 in series production. The bodywork was hand-beaten from aluminum panels, just the way you’d expect.

The intended price for the Claremont was 105,000 pounds, which would be roughly equivalent to $280,000 today. Let’s call it $279,999. Heavy bread for a Jag, and about four times what the donor car cost.

Performance Car, which became EVO later on in life, tested the blue Railton Claremont in company with three “tuner” XJ-S variants and were utterly scathing about its eight-plus-second 0-60 time and ocean-liner handling. They much preferred the big-bore Lister XJ-S with its 911-Turbo-rivaling performance, of course. The Railton made no sense to them. The project did not continue past the production of the first two cars, probably for lack of dealer interest.

Towns’ death in 1993 eventually sent the Claremont to the auction block in 2002, where it fetched an undisclosed amount that was surely far short of its original cost to create. To the modern eye, the car looks sleek, restrained, and unabashedly upscale. At the time, however, the buyers for cars in this price range wanted something that was either supercar fast or not easily identified as a Jaguar XJ-S in a new suit. Lister sold plenty of pumped-up Jags but Railton couldn’t sell a single classed-up one.

As usual, there’s a slightly ironic postscript to this story. The ancient XJ-S didn’t find a new career under the hand-beaten panels of a Railton Claremont, but it did find redemption as the basis for the 1994 Aston Martin DB7. That particular Jag-in-drag saved the Aston brand and ensured that it survived long enough to become a trinket for Kuwaiti investors with a fetish for pumped-up homages to the Towns-penned DBS. The XJ-S also served to underpin the first-generation XK8 which was a tremendous success as well and did quite a bit to restore the dimmed luster of the Jaguar brand in the United States. Surely there’s a bit of Railton in the XK8’s over-long overhangs, a little touch of William in the night?

It would be nice to think that perhaps the name could see a third age, a venture-capital revival to produce a hand-beaten aluminum drophead for the oil-rich Moscovites and Saudis who stand so prominently in the roster of the newly wealthy, but such a vehicle would have to compete with all the faux-British luxury iron already on the market. Why buy a Railton when the Phantom Drophead has such star quality? It’s a shame. Still, for the genuine enthusiast, it’s still possible to get most of the Railton experience for a fraction of the cost: just try a solid-condition XJ-S HE. British motoring at its best, or perhaps its worst, but truly British for all that.

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3 of 17 comments
  • El scotto El scotto on Jan 22, 2013

    Oh Boy! Another weird, expensive British car essentially built in a shed. Nothing new, time to move on.

  • Maymar Maymar on Jan 22, 2013

    Am I the only one who's getting a GEO Storm vibe from that front end? I dunno, like so many other automotive startups, it has that generic vibe. Your garden variety XJS may not be as sleek, but it has character.

    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Feb 22, 2013

      I saw the first picture, and thought it was some one-off Storm thing. Even the emblem is the same shape.

  • Jeff S I am not a fan of Tesla and they were niche vehicles but it seems that they have become more common. I doubt if I get an EV that it would be a Tesla. The electrical grid will have to be expanded because people over the long run are not going to accept the excuse of the grid can't handle people charging their EVs.
  • AMcA The '70 Continentals and Town Cars may have been cousins to the standard body Fords and Mercurys, they didn't have to be disguised, because they had unique, unbelievably huge bodies of their own. Looking at the new 1970 interior, I'd say it was also a cost savings in sewing the seat. Button tufted panels like the 1969 interior had require a lot of sewing and tufting work. The 1970 interior is mostly surface sewing on a single sheet of upholstery instead of laboriously assembled smaller pieces. FINALLY: do I remember correctly that the shag carpet shown under these cars was a Photoshop? They didn't really go so peak '70s as to photograph cars on shag carpets, did they?
  • Inside Looking Out Toyota makes mass market cars. Their statement means that EVs are not mass market yet. But then Tesla managed to make mass market car - Mode; 3. Where I live in CA there are more Tesla Model 3s on streets than Corollas.
  • Ltcmgm78 A lot of dirt must turn before there's an EV in every driveway. There must be a national infrastructure plan written by other than politicians chasing votes. There must be reliable batteries that hopefully aren't sourced from strategic rivals. There must be a way to charge a lot of EVs. Toyota is wisely holding their water. There is a danger in urging unplanned and hasty moves away from ICE vehicles. Do we want to listen to unending speeches every election cycle that we are closer than we have ever been to 100% electrification and that voting for certain folks will make it happen faster? Picture every car in your town suddenly becoming all electric and a third of them need a charge or the driver will be late for work. This will take a lot of time and money.
  • Kendahl One thing I've learned is that cars I buy for local errands tend to be taken on 1,000 mile trips, too. We have a 5-speed Focus SE that has gone on longer trips than I ever expected. It has served us well although, if I had it to do over again, I would have bought an ST. At the time of purchase, we didn't plan to move from 1,000 feet elevation to 6,500. The SE is still adequate but the ST's turbo and extra power would have been welcome.