World Land Speed Record Drivers And Their Missiles On Wheels

Send This Page To A Friend

It is hard to imagine that as long ago as 1904 some cars travelled faster than 100 m.p.h. The very first car to do so was a Gordon-Brillie, an almost forgotten name. It reached nearly 104 m.p.h. and was driven by M. Rigolly. Before him, the first speed records were set by men driving electric cars. Then drivers of steam cars took over and in 1902 reached 75 m.p.h.

The Land Speed Record then became the domain of the petrol-driven cars, with one notable exception. In 1906 an American Stanley Steamer made a fantastic run at nearly 128 m.p.h. Even after another eight years had passed, petrol cars were still a few miles an hour behind this record.

Until World War 1 these record-breaking machines were ordinary racing cars, specially prepared. There was nothing particularly unusual about them as cars. But after the war, special monsters, powered by aircraft engines, were built solely to attack the coveted World Land Speed Record. They were the first "missiles on wheels". In 1926, driving Sunbeam cars, two British drivers, Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell had a number of successes on long English beaches. At South port, Segrave took the world record past 150 m.p.h. Campbell at Pendine reached 174 m.p.h. But as these record breaking cars became more powerful, a problem arose particularly in Europe. The beaches were too short to allow the cars to be fully extended.

For world record attempts a really long run was needed. The speed measured was an average of two runs made in opposite directions over a measured mile. To reach a maximum speed before entering the measured mile the driver needed a run-up of around six or seven miles, and a similar distance in which to slow down. A clear straight run of some 15 miles was a necessity! In a world record attempt, the two runs must be made within an hour of each other.

The Famous Stanley Steamer At Daytona



It was no easy job to find such a location. The famous Stanley Steamer run of 1906 had been made at Daytona, an 11 mile beach in Florida, U.S.A. In 1927 and 1928 it again became the venue for some record-breaking runs, this time by Segrave and Campbell. Both lifted their speeds. Segrave averaged 203 m.p.h. over the measured mile in 1927. The following year Campbell took this to 207 m.p.h.

Segrave needed a new car if he was to regain his record. In 1929, he appeared with the fabulous "Golden Arrow", powered by an enormous 1,000 horsepower aeroplane engine. In it Segrave thrilled the world by creating a new record of just over 231 m.p.h. The battle was on. Malcolm Campbell, too, produced a new car. He called it "Bluebird", a name that was to become legend in land and water speed record breaking. In his first "Bluebird", in 1931, Campbell reached 246 m.p.h. Later model "Bluebirds" did even better, taking the world record to just under 277 m.p.h.

By 1935 even Daytona beach was not long enough for attempts on the World Land Speed Record. A new site was found on the salt flats at Bonneville. Here Campbell, using the same car, bettered his own record by 25 m.p.h. making him the first man to do more than 300 m.p.h. on land. As a matter of interest, the prototype Spitfire made its first flight in this same year and it had a maximum speed of 50 m.p.h. higher than the "Bluebird's".

Campbell and Segrave Are Knighted



For their efforts, these two men were knighted. Sir Henry Segrave and Sir Malcolm Campbell were true pioneers of speed. Campbell's record stood for two years until another Englishman, Captain George Eyston, crossed the Atlantic taking with him an extraordinarily powerful machine of 6,000 h.p. Its name was "Thunderbolt". Never was a car more appropriately named. In 1937 this ten-tyred whale shaped monster, with its 73 litre engine, shot across Bonneville's flats at 312 m.p.h. Eyston was not content. The following year he lifted even this fantastic speed by close on 50 m.p.h. to 357 m.p.h.

But George Eyston had a rival in his friend, John Cobb. Cobb's gigantic silver car the "Railton" had been designed by a brilliant engineer, Reid Railton. It was only half the power and half the weight of Eyston's car and had four tyres as against Eyston's ten. Cobb was confident. At Bonneville he improved on Eyston's record by nearly 12 m.p.h. to bring the World Land Speed Record in 1939 to 369.7 m.p.h.

After World War 2, Cobb wanted to carry on where he had left off and be the first man to pass 400 m.p.h. Engineer Railton took charge again and designed a massive three-ton car known as the "Railton Mobil-Special". It was powered by two 12-cylinder aeroplane engines. Cobb was a big man but when he sat at the controls, even he was dwarfed by the enormous bodywork and engine.

When a car reaches such a weight and size, the problem of transmitting the power through the rear wheels becomes a tough one. Railton solved it by using a four-wheel drive. One engine, mounted at the rear drove the front wheels; the second engine, mounted at the front drove the rear wheels. After frantic efforts on all sides the new missile was ready for its great moment.

Railton Mobil-Special
John Cobb in the cockpit of his Railton Mobil-Special before
the body of the car was placed into position...

The Railton Mobil-Special



One sunny day in 1947 Cobb drove his "Railton Mobil-Special" out on to the now famous salt flats. At Bonneville there is a six mile run-in for cars to gather speed before entering the measured mile. Cobb needed every yard of it. As he called on the mammoth engines for yet more and more power, his speed rose almost incredibly. He entered the measured mile, hurtling onwards faster than any man had ever travelled before. He glanced down at the instrument panel for one fleeting, magnificent second. The historic reading was 410 m.p.h.

Cobb had six miles in which to slow down and stop the car. Travelling at over 6 miles a minute he was covering a mile every ten seconds. He took his foot off the accelerator and the engines cut.

The great roar was gone and the tearing wind noise seemed by comparison - silence. His speed seemed hardly to drop, and he felt the monster would never slow down again. He jabbed cautiously at the brakes and sensed little effect. But as each mile rushed by, the wind, the friction of the tyres and the increasingly effective brakes had their effect. The mighty Railton Mobil-Special, a few minutes before like a thing with a life all its own, was reined in and brought to a halt.

Cobb Sets The Record On Land, But Luck Deserts Him On The Water



Cobb had touched 410 miles per hour, but had not sustained it over the measured mile. His average was a fraction under 386 m.p.h. There was a chance to improve it on the return run. His second average, on the way back, was a magnificent 403 miles per hour so that the final computation made Cobb holder of a new land speed record of 394.2 miles per hour.

Cobb, though a modest man, was both ambitious and in love with speed. With the Land Speed Record behind him, he set out to recapture for Britain the Water Speed Record, and set himself the goal of 200 m.p.h. In 1952 he made his one attempt. Luck deserted this brave man and he was killed.

For many years the world was fascinated by the danger and glamour involved with challenging World Speed Records. Of course there was also anotehr side to it. A great deal of careful, emotional, even humdrum work had to be done in advance. The special engines on these unique missiles are tested, stripped and examined, rebuilt and tested again and again. Elaborate and expensive wind tunnel trials were used so that aerodynamic drag would be at a minimum. Tyres presented an enormous problem, as the surface temperatures rose incredibly at such high speeds. They had to be measured accurately on special rigs and their reaction checked in minute detail by the most scientific tests.

Donald Campbell's Bluebird



Before even these stages were reached, a fantatstic amount of effort and human ingenuity had gone into the design and construction of the car. For example, in Donald Campbell"s "Bluebird", five years of planning and one million man hours of work were needed before the public saw the completed car for the first time in May, 1960. And then the 4,000 h.p. turbo jet car was wrecked at Bonneville in September, 1960, in a trial run.

Unberlievably it was only a short time before the decision was made to re-build "Bluebird" for another attempt. The resolve of Campbell, particularly given his brush with death, could never be questioned. Campbell had set himself the staggering goal of 475 miles per lour, with an eventual target of 500 m.p.h. Into the venture he put £40,000 of his own money, while others combined to contribute the rest of the £1,000,000 needed to develop and build her.

The Heat Of The Day Drew Moisture From The Salt, Making The Bonneville Flats Useless



He took his four ton machine, with its aluminium honeycombe type structure to the salt flats of Bonneville in 1960, just as his father had done in an earlier "Bluebird" 25 years before. It is no exaggeration to say that the world waited to hear the result of his attempt. Donald Campbell went about his job systematically. Dawn each day found him in "Bluebird" making a trial run across the salt flats in the still cool air. When the sun rose, "Bluebird" was back under cover, for the heat of the day drew moisture from the salt to form sheets of water and so rendered the Bonneville flats useless.

It was on the sixth of these early morning trials that disaster struck. Donald Campbell was hurtling down the 11-mile record course. By now he felt confident in raising his speed to 350 miles an hour: Then without warning the car veered off course and flew into the air. Onlookers estimated that the front of the car shot some 30 feet into the air as a flurry of salt spewed skyward behind it. It hit the ground again 220 yards on, bounced skyyward for a short distance, touched ever so lightly, then hurtled through the air for another 50 yards before bouncing twice and landing hard on its belly, to slide with shocking deceleration for another 500 yards before stopping. The right front wheel broke off and rolled a quarter of a mile further on.

The Fastest Man On Earth



Campbell escaped death by a miracle. Yes, he was strapped into the "Bluebird's" cockpit. He wore his crash helmet. But it was, none-the-less, a miraculous escape. Perhaps it was significant that his lucky teddy bear mascot "Wappott" was in the cockpit with him."Bluebird" was a complete wreck, but not all those five years and million man hours were lost, for another "Bluebird" would be built and ready in 1961, with Campbell at the wheel to try again to bring the World Land Speed Record up towards 500 miles per hour.

Tradgedy would strike in 1967 when, like Cobb, Campbell attempted to become the fastest man on water. It was on January 4th that his Bluebird K7 flipped and disintegrated at a speed in excess of 300 mph (480 km/h). The Bluebird had completed a perfect north-south run at an average of 297.6 mph (478.9 km/h), and Campbell used a new water brake to slow K7 from her peak speed of 315 mph (507 km/h). Instead of refueling and waiting for the wash of this run to subside, as had been pre-arranged, Campbell decided to make the return run immediately.

The second run was even faster; as K7 passed the start of the measured kilometre, she was travelling at over 320 mph (510 km/h). However her stability had begun to break down as she travelled over the rough water, and the boat started tramping from sponson to sponson. 150 yards from the end of the measured mile, Bluebird lifted from the surface and took off at a 45-degree angle. She somersaulted and plunged back into the lake, nose first. The boat then cartwheeled across the water before coming to rest. The impact broke Bluebird forward of the air intakes (where Donald was sitting) and the main hull sank shortly afterwards. Campbell had been killed instantly.

Campbell's last words on his final run were, via radio intercom: "Pitching a bit down here...Probably from my own wash...Straightening up now on track...Rather close to Peel Island...Tramping like mad...er... Full power...Tramping like hell here... I can't see much... and the water's very bad indeed...I can't get over the top... I'm getting a lot of bloody row in here... I can't see anything... I've got the bows up... I've gone...oh...."

When such men as Malcolm Campbell and his son, Segrave, Eyston and Cobb broke records, their victories were not just in technology and science. They were human victories, too, of courage and determination. It remains to this day no small achievement to become, the fastest man on earth.
Malcolm Campbell's 1931 Bluebird
Malcolm Campbell's 1931 Bluebird...
Latest Classic Car Classifieds

You may also like...