The Thrilling Story Of The Land Speed Record and The Fastest Men On Earth
Today we have a look at just a few of the amazing vehicles that have broken or attempted to break land speed records, since the very first record was established over a century ago. In Part One of our "Land Speed Record Vehicles" series, we feature the pioneers who steadily pushed top speeds higher and higher as they broke one record after another in the first half of the twentieth century.
The land speed record is awarded for the highest speed achieved by a wheeled vehicle driven on land. This is calculated from the speed achieved over a fixed length course, taking the average from two runs or passes. Vehicles must make two separate runs in opposite directions within an hour. To break the record, the speed has to be at least one percentage point higher than the previous record. Today, there are records for different classes of cars, such as those for steam driven vehicles, cars using gasoline or diesel engines, electric cars, records dependent on engine size and more.
Out of the mists of time, zipping at the mindboggling speeds of... 100 km/h
French racing driver Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the first recognized automobile land speed record in December 1898 in a Jeantaud electric powered car. His average speed was 39 mph (63.13 km/h), which he surpassed only a month later by reaching 41.41 mph (66.65 km/h). He was involved in many contests with the Belgian racecar driver Camille Jenatzy, as they took the title from each other, increasing the speed record each time.
(Ransom E. Olds in the Olds Pirate racing car in 1896-97; image via)
Jenatzy was the first man to break the land speed record, which he repeated three times. When he reached 62 mph in April 1899, he was the first driver to exceed 100km/h. Although Jenatzy lost the record to Leon Serpollet in 1902, he regained it the following year. Serpollet became the first driver of a non-electrically powered car to hold the speed record. His steam powered car called Oeuf de Paques, or Easter Egg, reached 75.06 mph (120.797 km/h) in April 1902.
The same year, American driver William K. Vanderbilt set the first internal combustion powered record when he reached 76.08 mph (122.438 km/h). In 1906 at Daytona Beach, American Fred Marriott increased the world land speed record to 127.659 mph (205.5 km/h) in a Stanley Steamer. The steam-powered record, the first to exceed 200 km/h, wasn’t broken until 2009:
Ray Keech set the land speed record 207.55 mph (334.019 km/h) at Daytona Beach in April 1928 in the 81 liter, triple-engine, internal combustion powered White Triplex. Keech died the following year in an auto accident:
Sir Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave managed to set three land speed records, as well as the water speed record, in his distinguished career. He was also first person to hold both the land and water records at the same time. Segrave died in 1930 after an accident when he broke the water speed record.
This is the Sunbeam Tiger, in which Segrave set his first land record in 1926, reaching 152.33 mph (245.149 km/h):
However, his record was broken the very next month, by J.G. Parry-Thomas driving this car called Babs, achieving a speed of 171.02 mph (273.6 km/h). In a later record attempt in 1927, Parry-Thomas became the first driver killed while making a land speed record attempt:
Segrave regained the land speed record in March 1927 at Daytona Beach, when he became the first person to drive a land vehicle at 200 mph (320 km/h). The Sunbeam 1000 HP Mystery was also known as ‘The Slug’ and was powered by two aircraft engines. It was the first car to travel at over 200 mph:
The Opel car company built a number of rocket-powered vehicles as publicity stunts in the late 1920s. This is the Opel RAK.2, powered by 24 solid-fuel rockets, which was driven at 143 mph (230 km/h) in 1928:
Here is Stutz Black Hawk V-16 Duesenberg, built in 1928... "Owner, driver, constructor, Frank Lockhart made an attempt on the record at Ormond Beach, Florida, on February 28, 1928, lost control and ended up in the sea, he was rescued, Keech then broke the record, then Frank tried again on April 25, 1928 blew a tire and lost his life." -
Sir Malcolm Campbell is one of the most famous record-breaking drivers, shattering nine land speed records at various times between 1924 and 1935. He also broke the water speed record four times. The Englishman used a number of different vehicles known as Blue Bird and was one of the few land speed record holders of the twenties and thirties to die of natural causes rather than in a racing accident, when he passed away at the age of 63 in 1948.
The Sunbeam 350HP was the first land speed record car to be fitted with aircraft engines. When Campbell bought the vehicle, it had already set a several speed records and he renamed the car Blue Bird. Campbell drove this version of Blue Bird in the first two of his nine record-breaking achievements at Pendine Sands in South Wales. In September 1924, he reached 146.16 mph (235.226 km/h), beating this with a speed of 150.766 mph (242.635 km/h) the following year.
With the Napier Campbell Blue Bird, Campbell was determined to break the 200 mph barrier, which he did in February 1928 at 206.956 mph (333.063 km/h). This record was broken shortly afterward by Ray Keach in the White Triplex. Campbell improved the car’s engines and design several times and the next version was the first vehicle to use supercharging for attempts at the land speed record. Campbell reached 246 mph (396 km/h) in February 1931then 251 mph (404 km/h) a year later:
(right image: "Campbell-Railton Blue Bird"; images via 1, 2)
The Campbell-Railton Blue Bird was Campbell’s final record attempt car, breaking the 300 mph (482.803 km/h) barrier at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in September 1935.
Between 1937 and 1939, two other English drivers, Captain George Edward Thomas Eyston and John Cobb, fought for the title. Eyston’s Thunderbolt reached 312.00 mph (502.12 km/h) in November 1937 then 345.50 mph (556.03 km/h) in August 1938:
Cobb’s Reid Railton took the record to 353.30 mph (568.58 km/h) the following month. Eyston drove Thunderbolt to a new record of 357.50 mph (575.34 km/h), before Cobb then reached 369.70 mph (594.97 km/h) in August 1939 at Bonneville in the Railton Special.
This was the last record attempt before World War II and Cobb’s land speed record stood until 1947, when he broke it himself, reaching 394.19 mph (634.39 km/h). Cobb became yet another casualty in 1952, when he died trying to break the water speed record on Loch Ness in Scotland while in a jet speedboat traveling at over 200 mph (320 km/h)...
(right image: toy model of Eyston’s Thunderbolt; left: Reid Railton, via)
Here is John Cobb’s 2,600-horsepower racing car. The 28-foot-8-in Railton Special, powered by two 12-cylinder engines, made a 334-mph trial run at Wendover, Utah in 1947. Photo by .
The 1939 Mercedes-Benz T80 was designed to smash the land speed record and be a propaganda triumph, heralding German technological superiority to the rest of the world. The car was capable of 3,000 horsepower and was expected to be able to reach 466 mph (750 km/h). The record attempt was arranged for January 1940, but the beginning of World War II in September 1939 meant that the attempt never took place:
Driven by renowned racing driver Stirling Moss, the MG EX181 set the Class F land-speed series for cars with engines between 1.1 and 1.5 litres at 245 mph (395 km/h) in 1957. Phil Hill drove the same car with a slightly different engine to 254 mph (408.773 km/h) two years later:
The Pioneer 2M, built in 1961, was gas turbine engine Soviet record-breaking vehicle. In 1963, it became the fastest car in the Soviet Union when J. Tihomirov reached 193.506 mph (311.419 km/h) at the Baskunchak Salt Lake near the Caspian Sea:
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