(1937 - 1938)

Thunderbolt is essentially a “missing link” in the line-up of preserved LSR cars. The photograph on this site shows Thunderbolt as built in 1937 for its first atempt on the LSR (breaking Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 1935 301 mph record with Blue Bird) setting a new mark of 312 mph. Progressively modified during 1938, initially with a smaller radiator intake and fin and then with ice coling only and no fin, Thunderbolt enjoyed a “duel” with John Cobb’s Railton Special during that year. Eyston and Thunderbolt eventually took the record to 357 mph into 1939 (Cobb retook it that year and held it until 1964).
Under construction in 1937 the photo was taken for Keystone-Paris
Wreck remains in Wellington New Zealand
Date Location Driver Driver Country Vehicle Power Speed over
1 Km
Speed over
1 Mile
November 19, 1937 Bonneville Salt Flats, USA George E. T. Eyston Great Britain Thunderbolt
2x- Rolls Royce - SC V-12
IC 312.00 mph (502.11 km/h) 311.41 mph (501.17 km/h)  
August 27, 1938 Bonneville Salt Flats, USA George E. T. Eyston Great Britain Thunderbolt
2x- Rolls Royce - SC V-12
IC 345.20 mph (555.55 km/h) 345.48 mph (556.00 km/h)  
September 16, 1938 Bonneville Salt Flats, USA George E. T. Eyston Great Britain Thunderbolt
2x- Rolls Royce - SC V-12
IC 357.33 mph (575.07 km/h) 357.49 mph (575.32 km/h)  

A British Land Speed Record holder of the 1930s, driven by Captain George E.T. Eyston

Records held

Between 1937 and 1939, the competition for the Land Speed Record was between two Englishmen: Captain Eyston and John CobbThunderbolt's first record was set at 312.00 mph (502.12 km/h) on 19 November 1937 on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Within a year Thunderbolt returned with improved aerodynamics and raised its record to 345.50 mph (556.03 km/h) on 27 August 1938. [1]

This record only stood for a matter of weeks before John Cobb's Reid-Railton broke the 350 mph (560 km/h) barrier and raised it to 353.30 mph (568.58 km/h) on the 15th September 1938, as Eyston watched. This inspired him to take Thunderbolt to a new record of 357.50 mph (575.34 km/h). Cobb had held the record for less than 24 hours.

Eyston and Thunderbolt held the record for almost a year, until Cobb took it again at a speed of 369.70 mph (594.97 km/h) on 23 August 1939. This was the last record attempt before WW2. Although Cobb returned after the war and further developed his car to exceed 400 mph (640 km/h), Thunderbolt never attempted the record again.

The car itself

The leading Land Speed Record cars of the period had taken two approaches to obtaining power: either using the latest and most sophisticated aero-engines available, or combining multiple engines together. Thunderbolt simply used both techniques, to produce an unprecedentedly powerful car. In its day, terms like "leviathan" and "behemoth" were commonly used to describe the 7 ton car, over twice the weight of its competitors.

The engines were a pair of Rolls-Royce R-type V-12 aero engines, as previously used singly in Malcolm Campbell's Blue Bird of 1933. Indeed one of Eyston's spare engines for the record attempts was on loan from Campbell. There were so few of these engines built (around 20) that many of them had illustrious careers over several different records. One of Thunderbolt's had already powered theSchneider Trophy winner. Each engine was of 36.5 litres capacity, supercharged, and had an individual output power of 2,350 bhp (1,752 kW; 2,383 PS). Handling all this power through a single driven axle required great innovation in metallurgy and in manufacturing the geartrain, as well as water-cooling the completed transmission.

The chassis and bodyshell were built at the Bean works in Tipton. [2] There were three axles and eight tyres. The two leading axles steered and were of varying track, so that each tyre ran on a clean surface rather than following a rut. The driven rear axle used twin tyres to reduce the load on them, a technique already used by Bluebird. Separate panels of polished silver Birmabright, a new aluminium alloy, clad the chassis. The body never had the aerodynamic refinement of the Railton Special and was distinctly blocky in appearance. At the rear was a large triangular tailfin, flanked by a pair of hydraulically-activated air brakes. [3]

Design changes

When first built there was a large eight-sided cooling air intake at the front, replaced by a smaller oval intake for the 1938 season. Another improvement for this second attempt was to paint a matt black arrow onto the side of the car. During the first attempts, the new photo-electric timing equipment had failed to detect the polished aluminium car body against the brilliant white salt.

For the 1939 attempts, the streamlining was increased further. Cooling was now by a tank of melting ice rather than a radiator (as used first by Golden Arrow). A rounded nose now filled the previous radiator air intake and the stabilising fin was removed, all leading to an appearance more like Cobb's Railton.

Colour postcard drawing of Thunderbolt, with the closed nose
Head-on photograph, showing the nose

both from [4]

Thunderbolt today

Exhbited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition at Wellington from 1939 into 1940, Thunderbolt was just days away from being returned to the UK when it was almost destroyed by a warehouse fire in 1946. In recent years, its location - buried in a landfill tip - has become known.  Engine remains can be seen in the Museum of Transport and Technology, Western Springs, Auckland, NZ.

Another surviving engine can be seen in the Science Museum in London.

Bonneville 1937

I found these amazing photos on the HAMB of George Eyston and Thunderbolt taken during the Land Speed Record Attempt at Bonneville in 1937. Thanks to Mark (LowKat) for posting these.


John Cobb and ET Eyston Racing at the Salt Flats