A Short History


In 1899, the first car to exceed 100kph was the streamlined electric special of Camille Jenatzy (below), named La Jamais Contente - 'The Never Satisfied'. Summing up the attitude of all the LSR contenders ever since.

The Bluebirds and the Golden Age

A successful racer at Brooklands, Captain Malcolm Campbell first started his association with the LSR by buying the 350hp Sunbeam which Kenelm Lee Guinness had used to set an new record of 133.75mph in 1922. 
In 1924 Campbell modified the car with a longer, streamlined tail and new fairings to the body and suspension.  The car was repainted in Campbell's favourite shade of blue and named "Bluebird" the same as his pre-war racing cars.
After a couple of abortive attempts at Fanöe beach in Denmark, where tyre failures caused the death of one boy spectator and nearly destroyed the car, Campbell moved to Pendine Sands in South Wales and raised the record twice to 146.16 and then 150.76mph.
Campbell realised that the Sunbeam with its elderly 18 litre Manitou aircraft engine was not going to stay competitive for long, and had ambitious plans for an all new 'Bluebird'. The new car took two years to build at enormous cost. Using a 450hp 12 cylinder Napier Lion aero engine, a huge Chassis built by Vickers Ltd. and a body made by Jarvis & Sons of Wimbledon, the machine was built by the Robin Hood Engineering Works in Putney Vale.

In 1927, by now obsessed with the record which had been pushed up to 171.02mph by Parry Thomas's Babs during his absence, Campbell rushed the new car to Pendine and without waiting for favourable weather or tide conditions set out on the soaking, soft beach. He managed a time through the flying kilometre at 179.158mph and was running even faster on his return run when he hit a sharp bump in the sand which knocked his goggles off. Driving one handed at nearly three miles a minute on streaming wet sand, he managed to replace them and regained enough speed to regain the record at an average of 174.883mph.

The horrific death of Parry Thomas in 1927 was the end for Pendine Sands as a record course. Major Henry Seagrave used Daytona beach and raised the record in a quantum leap to over 200mph in his 1000 horsepower Sunbeam. This huge increase meant that Campbell had to redesign Bluebird again, using a high boost version of the Lion Engine prepared for the Schneider Trophy air race developing 875hp and a completely new wind tunnel tested body designed for it by Vickers. The Car was ready by the start of 1928. 
He too took the car to Daytona, which had by now become an organised speed 'Meet' and in typically impatient style set off almost immediately without waiting for the high winds to die down completely. The beach was bumpy and at the end of his first run on 19th February he was running very fast at over 210mph when he was thrown up in his seat as before at Pendine, losing his goggles and forcing his foot off the throttle. The resulting deceleration threw the car into an enormous series of swerves, but Campbell let the car run with the skid until the speed dropped enough to regain control. He then immediately turned the car around for the return run. Either as a calculated risk, or as an oversight caused by his enormous terrifying slide, Campbell did not change tyres as arranged and set off straight away. Luckily this time he missed the bump and his tyres survived, giving him a new record average of 206.956mph.

Moving the course to Daytona had renewed American interest in the LSR and a number of projects were under way to try to end the British car's domination..  Frank Lockhart was killed when his beautiful and fast Black Hawk Stutz  burst a tyre at nearly 220mph but Ray Keech's triple engined 81(!) litre Triplex snatched the record form Bluebird after only two months.
Campbell, his patriotism and ego stung, had already resolved to regain the title when it was announced that his old rival Seagrave was building a new car. Once again he redesigned Bluebird with a new body and made an attempt on the record at Verneuk Pan, a dry lake bed in South Africa. This attempt came to naught when the news came through that Segrave's new car had raised the record to 231.446mph. The Golden Arrow was astonishingly efficient, completing only one quick test run at 100mph or so before making its two record runs seemingly effortlessly. This incredible car can lay claim to being the most effective LSR car built, having run for a total of roughly 24 miles in its entire lifetime. 

Campbell gave up on Veneuk Pan and returned to give Bluebird her biggest redesign yet. The car was reduced to its bare chassis and under the auspices of Reid Railton at Thompson and Taylor of Booklands a new 1450 bhp Napier engine, K.L.G. gearbox and offset propshaft. The body was again redesigned much lower with a large stabilising fin at the rear.
Returning to Daytona in 1931 and despite the bumps, Campbell was delighted when the new car recorded a new LSR of 246.09mph, more than four miles a minute. On his return to Southampton he was greeted by a special flight of aircraft and a "Bluebird Special" train. His Majesty the King announced that Campbell was to be knighted for his achievements in breaking the record five times. Campbell was 46 and many expected him to retire with his ambitions fulfilled. However, 'Jamais Contente', The man who had become synonymous with record breaking thought that 246.09 was tantalisingly close to the magic figure of 250 miles per hour.

In 1933, the Napier engine was replaced by a  36.5 litre Rolls Royce R type unit giving 2300 hp. With this and some minor modifications to the bodywork Campbell raised his own record to a huge 272.46mph. Despite the lack of challengers to his record, he wouldn't rest on his laurels and determined to be the first to 300mph. Yet another version of Bluebird was prepared with an all enclosing body, twin rear wheels and vacuum operated air brakes. The Car achieved a new LSR of 276.816mph but it was  clear Daytona was now becoming too short at 10 miles to give enough room for these high speeds and the soft surface caused wheelspin problems.

Various record cars including the enormous pre-war Blitzen Benz and John Cobb's Napier Railton had used the dry lake Bonneville as a surface. This enormous area of salt flats was chosen as the venue for the assault on the 'Three Hundred'. In September 1935  a course was laid out on the salt and the Bluebird set out early in the morning of September 3rd .Oil covered the windscreen as he entered the measured mile and a front tyre burst towards the end of the run but Campbell held the car and stopped safely albeit with three tyres shredded to the canvas and one on fire. As the car was prepared for the return run, Campbell's son Donald tried to talk to him but quickly realised that it was the wrong thing to do, as the obsessive record breaker was quite expecting to die on the second run. Again the tyres were shredded and the car went into a lurid slide at the end of the course but stopped safely. The average for the two runs was 301.129mph. Finally the indefatigable Campbell was satisfied, at least with the LSR. He turned his attention then to the water speed record, still making and planning speed records until his death at 63 in 1948.

The Wheel Driven Record

Sir Malcolm Campbell had firmly established record breaking in the public imagination. By the time Bluebird had achieved 300mph in 1935 the major players were all household names in England. Captain George Eyston's Thunderbolt record car, a 73 litre, twin Rolls Royce engined monster raised the target to 312.00mph in 1937, starting a duel with the quiet, modest Surrey fur broker John Cobb, whose exploits in the 23 litre Napier Railton at Brooklands and Bonneville were well known. Cobb held the highest regard for Reid Railton's design genius, and this together with his own almost shy modesty led to the naming of his new LSR car simply as the Railton.
Startlingly beautiful in its purity, the shape of the Railton was an almost perfect teardrop. The one-piece shell lifted off to reveal an S shaped chassis containing two Napier Lion Engines which drove all four wheels. Built by Thompson and Taylor, the Railton was ready for a record attempt in the summer of 1938, arriving at Bonneville at the same time as Eyston's new Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt pushed its own record up to 345.49mph before the much smaller engined Railton was the first to 350mph a few weeks later.
Cobb's record was only to stand for one day however, as Eyston took his quickly modified behemoth out the next morning and raised the record to 357.50mph.
The following year, on the eve of the second World War Cobb returned to Bonneville and flashed through the measured mile in less than ten seconds to set a new figure of 369.70mph. The war precluded any more record attempts (including the very interesting stillborn T80 Daimler Benz project now resting in the Mercedes museum in Stuttgart) so it wasn't until 1947 that Cobb returned, His sights firmly set on 400mph  in 1947. 
Bonneville's salt  floods each winter so the surface varies according to the weather. This year it was bumpier than usual with soft patches and pot holes so while the Railton touched 403, the average for the two runs (and a new record) was a tantalising 394.196mph.

For sixteen years, Cobb's record stood and, like the four minute mile, the four hundred miles per hour record seemed unattainable. "Class records" for cars of specific engine size or over longer distances were broken but despite the efforts of LSR legends such as Art Arfons, Mickey Thompson and Dr. Nathan Ostich no one came very close to the Railton's record. 
Donald Campbell already had broken 200mph on water and in 1956 started work on a 400mph car. The Campbell-Norris CN7 car used a Proteus gas turbine engine from the Britannia airliner and developed about 4100 hp. The body was a sort of monocoque made from aluminium honeycomb and naturally the car was named "Bluebird". Although the car used a jet engine, it was driven through its wheels via spiral bevel gearboxes at both ends. After an enormous crash at 360mph which Campbell miraculously survived, the project (which was reputed to have cost over £1 million) seemed finished. On regaining consciousness, Donald almost immediately asked how soon the car could be repaired and hearing this Sir Alfred Owen, head of the Owen Organisation said "If Campbell has the guts to carry on, I'll build him another car"
The new Bluebird had a tail fin for additional stability and a modified oxygen system which had been held responsible for causing the crash by allowing the driver to become light headed Eventually after a plague of technical and weather problems the car recorded a speed of 403.10mph. It was to be Donald Campbell's only foray into the LSR and he returned to water records. 
The speed of over 400mph was a qualified success however. By the time Bluebird had made it Craig Breedlove had already set 407.45mph in Spirit of America. This car was not universally recognised though, as it had only three wheels (which made it technically a motorcycle!) and because it was driven by the pure thrust from the engine like the jet aircraft it resembled. John Cobb's prophesy seemed to be held true by the authorities. "A jet propelled car would not be a motor-car; it would be a sort of aeroplane dragging its wheels along the course".
Thus the Land Speed record became split into two classes, for wheel driven vehicles, and for those propelled by pure thrust. It was obvious however that Jet cars were the way to much higher speeds and quickly the ultimate LSR went up to over 500mph. The wheel driven record was much harder to crack, and the only project which managed it was the Summers brothers' Goldenrod. A beautifully shaped tiny projectile built around four Chrysler Hemi engines set in a row. The combined output of these engines was somewhere in the region of 2400 hp, the engines two shared gearboxes linked by a special Hurst shifting mechanism. I was lucky enough to meet Bill Summers (right) at Goodwood this year and he told me his brother Bob needed both hands to change gear, letting go of the wheel at over 200mph while he did so! Their 1965 record of 409.277mph  stood for many years.

Don Vesco's turbine powered (but wheel driven) streamliner has recently (October 2001)  raised the official FIA wheel driven record to458.440 mph!  A fantastic achievement. He said " The down run Thursday morning at 11:03 a.m. resulted in a speed over the measured mile of 458.718 MPH. The return run at 11:58 a.m. was 458.162 MPH for an average of 458.440 MPH. The weather that morning was perfect, about 60 degrees (f), very little wind, no clouds. The salt was the best I have seen it in the 43 years I have been going to Bonneville."  Pictures and more info are set to appear on the Team Vesco site at www.teamvesco.com

Stop Press...December 16 2002.  I'm very sorry to report that Don Vesco has died, of cancer in San Diego aged 63. One of the great names of record breaking and a Bonneville legend. He will be greatly missed. 

Jet Thrust

Craig Breedlove is to the jet car age as Sir Malcolm Campbell was to the 'twenties and 'thirties. The first to break 400, 500 and 600mph, he was finally eclipsed by The Blue Flame of Gary Gabelich 1n 1970 which raised the record to 622.407mph. There it stood for thirteen years while the world economic climate and a loss of public interest in record breaking seemed to mean that no serious challenge would emerge. 
The patriotic British businessman Richard Noble however was busy working towards a record attempt. After spending almost every penny he had on Thrust 1, a fairly crude  device used as a rolling test bed he  destroyed it in a 140mph roll at RAF Fairford in 1977. Undaunted, the same evening he began work on Thrust 2.
Thrust 2 was a proper LSR car, with a tubular spaceframe chassis housing a Rolls Royce Avon turbojet from a Lightning fighter. The basic design being loosely based on one of Art Arfons' Green Monster cars. The whole car was built on an incredibly tight budget. For example, the donation by Lucas of  a switch and a few feet of cable qualified them as a major sponsor! By taking a stand at the 1977 London Motorfair Noble and his team managed to enthuse the public and persuade reluctant captains of industry to help. Eventually, after innumerable financial and technical crises the Car was shipped to  Bonneville in 1981 where Noble managed a peak speed of 500mph before the rains came ant turned the course back into a lake. This was similar to the appalling bad luck suffered by both Malcolm and Donald Campbell, especially when they were flooded out the following year without turning a wheel, but they had at least proved the car had potential. 
In 1983, moving to the Black rock Desert in Nevada, The Thrust 2 team set a new LSR of 633.468mph as Richard Noble said "For Britain, and the Hell of it"

Although they had only broken Gabelich's record by a small margin, no serious contenders seemed inspired to take Thrust 2's  LSR crown, Until in the early 'nineties a number of projects were rumoured. Australian Rosco McGlashan was building a  Thrust 2 lookalike called Aussie Invader II, There were stories that the Maclaren F1 team were working on a LSR vehicle and that Craig Breedlove was planning a new Spirit of America. Noble had wanted to build another car for some time and realised that the last great prize was the speed of sound. He had taught himself to drive Thrust 2 despite having no experience of racing or speed testing and acquitted himself brilliantly but he appreciated that controlling something with more than twice the power through the sound barrier was a job for an expert!
Flight Lieutenant Andy Green was selected from a field of applicants including pilots, race and rally drivers as the man with the 'right stuff'. His experience in flying supersonic fighters for the RAF and almost superhuman coolness under pressure made him the obvious choice.

The Aussie Invader and Maclaren projects evaporated but Breedlove's Spirit of America was built. This astonishing vehicle, said to owe more to eye judgement than computer modelling was actually ready at the same time as Thrust SSC and both camps were on the Black Rock Desert together. Sadly Breedlove missed out on being the first to 700mph and he survived a huge scare when the Spirit suddenly veered nearly ninety degrees off course. In the true spirit of record breaking, the gentlemanly Breedlove offered the Thrust team the use of all his facilities and stayed on with his damaged car to help and cheer them on. On Tuesday 7th October 1997 Thrust SSC made an early morning run and generated a sonic boom for the first time. An official attempt on the record a few days later failed due to the car not being turned around within the statutory one hour allowed. A week later, on 15th October, Andy Green made the two runs through the measured mile, each time generating a perfect shockwave in front of the car and a huge sonic boom. The Land Speed Record is now faster than sound.

The official list of Land Speed Record holders is below. All speeds are in miles per hour. British Contenders in Green, American in white, others in blue.  Some early records were not recognised by European authorities at the time. The exact rules have changed a little over the years but the basic ones are that the car has to make two timed runs in opposite directions over a measured mile within one hour.

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