No Prize Needed
There has never been a prize for holding the World Land Speed Record, yet driving faster than anyone else captured the imagination of most car enthusiasts since the invention of the motor car itself. Never more so than in the early part of last century, when man and machine would combine to set, then break, record after record.
The very first record, in 1898, and the following five records, were set by electric cars. Then came the turn of steam-driven cars. But by 1902 it was evident that the petrol engine was the answer (albeit that borrowed from an engine designed to be used in the air, not on land). Although there is no limit to engine capacity, there have been different rules governing the record.
As jet power was developed through the 1950’s, organisers deemed there must be direct drive from the engine to at least two wheels, thus ruling out the possibility of using a jet engine to provide power by air thrust alone. Another important requirement was that the front wheels had to be capable of being steered. In addition, two runs were to be made in opposite directions within a period of one hour. This allowed time for refueling and tyre
changing, but helped cancel out any advantage of wind or gradient. The speed was assessed as the average of the two runs. To qualify for a new record the car had to better the existing record by at least one per cent.
However in the very early days the rules were not so well established, and while competitors had to comply with a maximum weight limit, only one run was required to set the record. Additionally, there have over the years been differences of opinion about the timing apparatus used. In the very beginning, of course, there were no recognised rules at all.
This was so until 1904, when the International Association of Motor Clubs was formed in an effort to secure world-wide agreement. It is widely accepted today that the Germans invented the motor-car, however it was the French that were the first to organise races, and so it came about that the headquarters of the first world body to control motor sport, the Association Internationale des Automobiles Clubs Reconnus, was in Paris.
The Rules Were Always Changing
In time, the A.I.A.C.R. became the F.I.A. (Federation Internationale de L’Auto), whose Sporting Commission controls all motor sport through the affiliated national clubs. In the early years of this century the French and the Americans failed to agree over rival claims to the highest speeds, and this led to conflicting lists being regarded as “official” in their respective countries.
Even today, when there is international agreement on these matters, the names of some of the early record-breakers differ in the lists maintained by different motoring organisations. Therefore the list as detailed below may be contradictory to that which you have seen elsewhere, either in books or on the internet. The French, who were the first to tackle a land speed record, introduced the first rules. They laid down that the run must be made over a measured kilometre. Later they modified this to impose the rule that runs must be made in two directions. Then another requirement was added, that record cars should be equipped with a reverse gear. Later still, hand-timing with a stop watch was ruled out and electrical timing insisted upon.
All these were common-sense provisions introduced in the light of experience. At one time, the maximum weight limit of 1,000 kilograms which applied to Grand Prix
cars in the early 1900's was also imposed on record-breakers, but this was short-lived. It was followed by the imposition of a rule that the interval between the two runs in opposite directions should not be more than half an hour, later lengthened to one hour.
This again was a commonsense rule to prevent drivers making one run, then waiting hours or even days for ideal conditions for the return run. A study of the medley of vehicles used for the many attempts on the land speed record over the years reveals that there are very few ideas of propulsion and the application of power that have not been tried. Some of them did not prove entirely practical. It is doubtful if a complete list of all the attempts ever made exists anywhere.
|The wreckage of Fred Marriott's crashed Stanley Steamer at Ormond-Daytona in 1907. The first man to travel 2 miles a minute, Marriott would return to push his records higher for the Stanley brothers in their new "Rocket", in competition with the petrol devotees. Marriott took nine minutes to reach top speed in a cross-wind, but suddenly the car hit a patch of ripples, leapt into the air and crashed. Thankfully he lived.
Germany's Mercedes-Benz T80 - a record breaker that never was. Hans Stuck and Porsche designed the car for Daimler-Benz just before World War 2. It used a 44 litre V12 aero engine developing 3000 bhp. There were three axles, and the driver sat at the front. The original plan was to attack the record at Bonneville, but German authorities insisted on it being done in Germany. The outbreak of war stopped production, and we do not believe the outer skin was completed.
Donald Campbell's Bluebird CN7 after its crash at Bonneville in 1960. In what would become a legendary crash, the CN7 was accelerating to almost 350 mph when it lost stability, skidded and bounced more than a quarter mile. Wreckage was strewn over a wide area and Campbell was rushed to hospital with a hairline fracture of the skull. Four years later he returned to Lake Eyre for the second time to end months of heartbreak.
The cars officially credited by the R.A.C. as having held the record represent only a handful of the number of unsuccessful attempts, which is probably in the hundreds. The word "unsuccessful" should be qualified; in some cases the driver did exceed the existing record, but did not conform to the rules in some way and so failed to take their place on the list.
Very little limitation has been imposed upon the type of vehicle used, which may be of any engine size; one of the biggest-ever was the American Triplex with a capacity of no less than 81,118 ci. The reason it is difficult to apply an engine size capacity is the fact that there is no land speed record “class” as such. Speed records could be taken in any one of 15 internationally recognised classes, ranging in engine size from 400 cc up to over 5000cc.
The fastest speed in any class, irrespective of engine size, qualified as the world record. A close inspection of the following list will also reveal just how much more difficult each new attempt on the record became. At the start, the record changed hands even on the same day, and while the jump to the magic ton (100mph) would come about in quick time (by 1904), it would take another 16 years for the record to climb to 150mph.
It was another seven years before the 200 mph mark was passed by Sir Henry Segrave, and 12 years more before Sir Malcolm Campbell took the record over 250 mph in 1932. By this time engineering was a much more exact science, in particular the study of metals and the manufacture of high-speed tyres. So it was only three years before the 300 mph hurdle was passed, again by Campbell, in 1935.
But even with all the knowledge that was gained in the Second World War, John Cobb was not able to put the two-way average over 400 mph in his 1947 attempt, although he did achieve this speed in one direction. For a long time the belief persisted that the way to more speed was
using a larger capacity engine, and record-breakers tended to use giant aero-engines in the search for enough power to beat their rivals.
It was not until the 1930's that a more scientific approach led to the building of cars which relied upon design rather than brute force to achieve their objective. Curiously enough the very first record-breakers in their crude electrically-driven cars realised the need for streamlined bodywork. Jenatzy's "Jamais Contente" used a torpedo-shaped
with this in mind. Yet this apparently obvious principle was soon lost, only to be re-discovered in the thirties.
As speeds rose another serious problem presented itself to seekers after the ultimate in speed, and this was the difficulty of finding a site which would permit a long enough straight run for acceleration, the timed run, and slowing down again. In the early days the French authorities nominated certain sites as officially “recognized” for record runs.
Finding The Ultimate Land Speed Record Venue
Then roads became too narrow for the speeds involved, and wide stretches of sand were sought after and used until they too became inadequate. Daytona Beach in Florida was a popular speed venue, and Pendine Sands in Wales. After unsuccessful experiments in Africa, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah served the purpose for many years. The history of the record mirrors the development of the motor-car. The first problem was to find enough power allied to reliability for the short time needed to cover a mile or a kilometre.
Then transmitting the power to the track became more difficult than producing it, so that transmission, suspension and particularly engine cooling became the pre-eminent problems. Some record-breakers used ice instead of water to dispose of the heat generated. This is not a practical method for longer runs, but tanks which could be re-packed with ice between runs were a feature of many of the land speed record cars through the 1950’s. In the early days the record speeds were not so far above those of production cars, and record-breaking, like racing, helped to improve the breed.
Land Speed Record Drivers
Camille Jenatzy - He Had 9 Lives, But A Practical Joke Proved Fatal
The Story Of The Land Speed Record and The Fastest Men On Earth (USA Edition)
Jeantaud - Short Lived French Electric Cars That Held The First Land Speed Record (USA Edition)