Even before the automobile, mankind has been obsessed with speed. The desire to get there faster has been a measure of progress through out history. However, the invention of the automobile has brought on an era in which man has been able to harness increasingly greater power along with an explosion of increased speeds. This history of land speed records will travel from France to the U.S. and back to England in its journey for the record holders. We’ll look at what currently is happening in this fascinating world of blistering speed.
The Early Years
Land speed record attempts are now over 100 years old. Before the advent of the automobile, man was accustomed to moving at a very leisurely pace. The fastest he could go was at a full-out gallop on the back of his horse, which may have been close to 40mph. The first record with an automobile was set in 1898 by Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat of Paris, France. His single run through a measured kilometer took 57 seconds; an approximate speed of 39.24mph (63.13kph). All he wanted to do was prove that his automobiles he was manufacturing worked well and for him, this was one way to prove it. What the Count started, and he didn’t know it, was set in motion a challenge which sparked the imagination of millions of individuals around the world thrilled with the concept of speed. However, it has lured into action only a select few adults who have accepted that challenge over the last century. This is about those few.
Jenatzy, one of the early speed seekers.
Marriot, one of the early competitors of the
record seeking few.
The land speed record came to the United States in 1904, when Henry Ford wanted to prove to the world that his cars were built better than anyone else’s on the market. On January 12th, at Lake St. Clair Michigan, near Detroit, Mr. Ford bounced his Ford Arrow accross the frozen lake to reach an average speed of 91.37 mph (147.04 kph). He remarked of the run, after retirement, that it had scared him so bad that he never again wanted to climb into a racing car. With the news of his record spread around the country, his new car company got a much needed boost at becoming one of the most successful automobile manufacturers in history.
Ford in his “Sweepstakes”.
The 100mph barrier was quickly broken later in that same year, when the land speed record returned to France. Louis Emile Rigolly was one who loved racing wheel-to-wheel with an opponent and is considered the world’s first true drag racer. After being defeated in a standing mile race against Paul Baras, Rigolly decided to do something spectacular to save face; he flew through the kilometer at a speed of 103.55mph (166.64kph) and thoroughly dazzled the crowd in the stands.
Rigolly at the wheel.
The Developmental Era
Ab Jenkins acquired his first car in 1906 and began racing competitively in the 1920s. In 1926 he drove across the country from New York City to San Francisco in the time of 86 hours, 20 minutes. Two years later he completed his first twenty-four-hour race on a board track in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He went on to set numerous speed and endurance records on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats and, in addition to building his own worldwide reputation, attracted other notable drivers to Utah, including England’s Sir Malcolm Campbell, Captain E.T. Eyston, and John Cobb, who established land speed records of the measured mile on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the later 1930s. On Labor Day, 1950, Jenkins shattered twenty-six world and American records on the salt flats in his Mormon Meteor III. He attained a top speed of 199.19 miles an hour on a twelve-mile circular track. He established world records of 184.46 miles an hour for 100 miles; 190.92 for 200 miles; and 190.68 miles an hour for one hour of continuous running.
While there were many others who claimed the record at progressively faster speeds, the next notable level of acheivement went to Malcolm Campbell of England. On February 4, 1927 Campbell drove the Napier-Campbell Bluebird to 174.883mph (281.447kph) on the beach at Pendine Sands, England. The Bluebird was the first car built strictly for breaking the land speed record; making it unique.
Cambell in the Bluebird.
Breaking the 200mph barrier was the accomplishment of Major Henry Seagrave. He drove the Golden Arrow to a new record speed of 231.446mph (372.340kph), at Dayton Beach, Florida. What made this car unique is that it holds a special record of its own; the least used car in history; having been driven a total of onlyh 18.74 miles. Seagraves was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his achievements. Sir Henry also attempted to capture the water speed record in his Miss England II boat, when it hit a log in the water and capsized; killing Seagrave and mechanic Victor Halliwell.
Seagrave’s Sunbeam car.
Cambell in his later Bluebird at Daytona
The competition between Campbell and Seagraves brought down the 300mph barrier when Sir Malcolm, also knighted for his achievements by the King of England, averaged a speed of 301.129mph (484.818kph) at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah on Sept. 3, 1935 with a much more powerful V-12 Rolls-Royce engine in the Campbell Rolls-Royce Bluebird.
Cambell sitting at the wheel of an earlier model vehicle.
John R. Cobb, of England, was driving the Railton Mobil Special in his attemtp to break the 400mph barrier when on Sept. 16, 1947 he managed to average only 394.196mph (634.196kph) at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. Cobb too, attempted to claim the water speed record in his Crusader, on Loch Ness, Scotland, but lost his life on Sept. 29, 1952 when it flippped and exploded.
Cobb’s Railton Mobil Special.
Mickey Thompson, of the U.S., attempted a crack at the 400mph barrier on Sept. 9, 1960. Driving the Challenger I powered by four Pontiac V-8 pushrod engines producing 700 hp each, he made a single pass, but broke down before he could successfully complete the return run to meet the requirements of an averaged speed. It wasn’t until Breedlove and Arfons battled it out in the early ’60s that an American would break into speeds beyond 400mph, with Breedlove being the first, but with a completely different powered vehicle than before.
Donald Campbell, son of Sir Malcolm, followed in his father’s footsteps and claimed the land speed record on July 17, 1964 at Lake Eyre, Australia. This record was the only one set outside the U.S. during this period in the early sixites. His Bluebird-Proteous CN7 reached an average speed of 403.135mph (648.783kph) using a gas turbine engine. He lost his life attempting to break the 300mph barrier on Consiton Water in his jetboat, Bluebird. To quote Donald from an interview on television in the ’60s:
“I’ll never forget what my dear old friend, Leo Villa, once told me about land speed racing. He said to me, ‘Before you get into this, there are two things you need to know and think carefully about. First, once you get into it, you’ll NEVER be able to leave it alone. Secondly, you’ll never be able to get used to the atmosphere.’ And on both counts, dear old Leo Villa was right.”
Cambell’s Bluebird-Proteus CN7.
Pat McNeil has submitted three photos of the Bluebird-Proteus CN7 from Sept. of 1960 when it was in Utah for some runs. Thank you, Pat for sharing them with us.
Future vehicles would be free wheeling; driven with jet or rocket powered thrust, with the exception of one. The early ’60s was the beginning of a new era in land speed vehicles. Through the early part of this decade, the claim to the title “The Fastest Man on Earth” went back and forth between three Americans – Art Arfons, his brother Walt, and Craig Breedlove. The time had come for Americans to once again enter into the race for the prestigious and highly honorable title which was at that time viewed as pushing the limits on the frontier of speed on land. These two gentlemen’s speeds crept up gradually from just over 400mph to 600mph in a few short years. Arfons achieved a maximum speed of 576.553mph (927.873kph) in his Green Monster on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah on November 7, 1965.
Three days later, Craig Breedlove drove his Spirit of America – Sonic 1 to 600.601 mph (963.364 km/h) with a 15,000 lb. thrust jet engine blazing behind him. After surviving a near fatal crash with his earlier model (see photos below) Spirit of America – it crashed by losing its chutes & rolling over a burm and into a canal – Breedlove had triumphantly returned to break the 600 mph barrier which had eluded him for so long.
Breedlove’s earlier vehicle and the saltwater pond it ended up in after he lost both chutes.
His Sonic I vehicle that broke the 600 mph. barrier.
Five years would pass before a new challenger would up the record. On October 23, 1970, Gary Gabelich drove the Blue Flame, a unique engine propelled by Liquid Natural Gas, to 622.407 mph (998.341 km/h).
Gabelich’s Blue Flame.
Gary Gabelich visits soldiers in Vietnam in 1971 while on tour promoting his project. (Photo by George Kane) The Blue Flame’s land speed record was 630.388 miles per hour, set in the flying kilometer. At 1,0114 kilometers per hour, it was the first to exceed 1,000 kph.
622.407 (1,001 kph) mph was the mile record, set simultaneously.
The kilometer record wasn’t broken until the Thrust SSC in 1997, 27 years later.
Gabelich’s flying mile record stood unchallenged for 13 years, until on October 4, 1983 Richard Noble of the U.K. would drive his Thrust 2 to a new record of 633.468 mph (1016.083 km/h), but this time on Black Rock Desert in Nevada instead of at Bonneville. It was learned later that, had Noble gone only 7 MPH faster, he would have nosed up and crashed. For 19 years the Americans had dominated the land speed record books, but now the British have returned to reclaim, it once again.
The Budweiser Rocket Car used a sidewinder missile to push it up to Mach 1, but didn’t meet the international requirements for going into the record books. (Rules require a two way averaging of speeds – within 60 minutes of each other – to be officially accepted as a record.)
In 1983 Richard Noble flew his Thrust II low over the Black Rock desert to set a new record of 633 mph. It was learned later, as reported in a BBC two part special about the ThrustSSC Project, that had Noble gone only 7 MPH faster, the Thrust2 would have gone airborne; resulting in certain death. Noble’s record stood unchallenged for 13 years. (However, when I asked Joh Ackroyd about this at their 10 year anniversary reunion, his response was, “Hogwash, that’s the media for you!”)
Richard Noble with his Thrust II.
The Supersonic Class – Beyond the Sound Barrier!
Then, in October of 1997, Andy Green, an RAF fighter pilot, driving for Richard Noble in the Thrust SSC did the unthinkable by breaking the sound barrier at Mach 1.02. The speed of sound is estimated to be roughly around 740 MPH, but varies depending on temperature and elevation.
In the process, he set a new two way average record run of 763.035 mph. While the ThrustSSC stands alone in its class of land speed record vehicles to this day, there are those who are setting their sights on getting the record back; working quietly and patiently until their time comes to take a crack at the record and hopefully reclaim it. Other vehicles will, no doubt, join this elite class some day with even faster speeds.
The Supersonic Thrust SSC at Black Rock Desert in 1997.
Richard Noble in front of his record car in the museum back in the U.K.