(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



Doug Nye: The lost land speed record contender

AUG 24th 2017

Land speed record breaking had become a huge part of the then-confined – but rapidly growing – British motor sporting scene. British challengers like Sir Malcolm Campbell, post-war his son Donald, Sir Henry Segrave, John Cobb, Captain George Eyston, Lt Col Goldie Gardner, Ernest Eldridge and J.G. Parry Thomas had really “done a number” on the nation’s psyche from the 1920s into the 1960s. Record breaking was regarded very much as a desperately dangerous journey into the unknown and the men who were ready and willing to commit themselves to the attempt – effectively strapping themselves, or even eschewing anything so pansy as straps, sitting themselves in one of these amazing rocket projectiles and blasting off towards the far horizon, were national heroes… no question.

One of the most pleasant and durable of all these British ‘Speed Kings’ was George Eyston. And back in August 1937 – eighty years ago now – ‘Motor Sport’ magazine announced that “Great Britain has produced yet another car with which to attack world’s flying start short distance records, or, in the eyes of all the non-technical world, to attempt to further raise the “motor car speed record” held by Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Rolls-Royce engined car, for this country, at 301mph. The new car is the work of Capt. George Edward Thomas Eyston and never before has anyone kept so stupendous a task so quiet. The daily press news hawks, who are usually quick to send motoring stories, even if not accurate in their presentation, only managed to get pictures of the partially-completed monster as Eyston sailed for America to inspect the Utah salt-lake course.

Eyston aims to raise the record to around 350mph, and as ‘Bluebird’ the present holder would require 50 per cent extra horsepower to realise this speed, in theory, the new car has ben given two engines of the make and type used by Sir Malcolm, so that double the power is available – or approximately 4,800 to 5,000bhp. It seems likely that to accommodate these two engines will necessitate a greater frontal area than that of the present record holder, but against this must be set the 100 per cent additional power. Cant. Eyston has chosen the make of engine that has figured in recent speed attempts of this nature on land and water and which is accepted as best for our control of the sky – Rolls-Royce…”.

This unassumingly patriotic piece continued to describe how the two Rolls-Royce V12 engines were mounted side by side behind the driver, and how they powered a central three-speed gearbox via a train of gears. The gearbox drove a bevel box mounted on the chassis frame and how the rear wheels were driven from that box by jointed shafts. Four wheels featured up front, all inter-connected for steering – like some of the famous four-wheel steering Foden lorries. Inboard-mounted drum brakes could slow the wheels via drive shafts to keep unsparing weight – already massive of course – to a minimum and to protect the vulnerable Dunlop high-speed tyres from the heat stress of hot brakes. Air brake flaps also featured at the great car’s tail.

The ‘Motor Sport’ piece then retreated into ‘car guy’ defensive mode – declaring “Eyston’s attempt will undoubtedly give rise to sceptical queries as to the value of these ultra high-speed dashes in freakish high-powered cars. A sufficient answer is that the realms of higher research must not be allowed to stagnate, apart from the possibility of America striking a surprise blow to British prestige in this sphere… So the warmest wishes to the success of Eyston’s newest, and boldest, venture.”. The magazine feature concluded with “We humbly suggest that the time is ripe for a book dealing with postwar attacks on the ‘Land Speed Record’. Such a book might well be named ‘Into the Unknown’.”

The good Captain named his great new town-engined six-wheeled car ‘Thunderbolt’. Between 1937 and 1939, the competition for the Land Speed Record really lay between two Englishmen: George Eyston and John Cobb. 

Both were immensely popular contenders – Eyston the warmer, more open and engaging of the pair – Cobb almost completely silent, a towering, bulky, gentlemanly, taciturn figure who spoke at best in monosyllables to all except his closest associates. He was, quite simply, a very private person, shy and naturally guarded.

On November 19th, 1937 Eyston in Thunderbolt set a new world record mark at 312.00 mph (502.12 km/h) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA. Within a year – on August 27th 1938 – Eyston and Thunderbolt returned to Bonneville with improved aerodynamics and boosted the record to 345.50mph (556.03 km/h) The new mark survived only briefly as on 15 September 1938, with Eyston an interested spectator, John Cobb’s Railton Special broke the 350mph (560 km/h) barrier and raised the land speed record to 353.30mph (568.58 km/h). The Captain then responded by driving Thunderbolt to a new record of 357.50mph (575.34 km/h) defeating Cobb within 24 hours of his triumph. 

Eyston and Thunderbolt then held the record for almost a year, until Cobb struck back on August 23rd, 1939, with a Bonneville, run at 369.70mph (594.97 km/h)… whereupon the Second World War suspended the competition. But while John Cobb came back post-war and further developed his Railton-Mobil Special to break the 400mph (640 km/h) barrier, Eyston would never again deploy Thunderbolt in an assault upon that record, which frankly had been punched beyond his reach.

Now while both John Cobb and George Eyston would become Goodwood visitors, and indeed in Eyston’s case a Goodwood official, into the early 1950s, only Cobb’s magnificent record breaking car would survive, being preserved today in the Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum – which for some reason sees fit to ignore it on its website… unless I’m too dim to spot it there. Poor Eyston’s magnificent Thunderbolt, meanwhile, suffered a demeaning fate in 1946, only nine years after its record-breaking career had begun and had been so celebrated by ‘Motor Sport’.

It had been displayed in the British Pavilion at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in the city of Wellington, in1939-40. The Centennial Exhibition had been centred upon display buildings at Rongotai, Wellington, and in wartime, the site became a military barracks and training centre, with Thunderbolt apparently stored in one of the buildings. As wartime risks saw bales of New Zealand-produced wool committed to storage – waiting for safer shipping conditions to prevail – it seems that Thunderbolt became surrounded by, and possibly buried by, this enormous and ever-growing wool stock. 

On or around 3 in the morning on September 25th, 1946, the Rongotai storage building caught fire. The flames were fed by tarred roofing – one source tells us that “27,000 bales of wool, valued at £600,000, a quarter of the stored wool; five aircraft, two Tiger Moths, one Harvard, eighteen Gipsy aircraft engines, one five ton truck plus many other stores were destroyed. A British insurance company had insured the Thunderbolt and a payment was made at her loss.” 

The charred – and rusting – remains of the Land Speed Record holder’s frame are said to have been left in the open near Turangi Road adjacent to Rongotai College grounds in Wellington. And in the early 1950s, when a new Wellington Airport was being built it is believed that what was left of Thunderbolt was cut up into more convenient dimensions, and dumped in a local landfill tip.

Captain Eyston himself – Military Cross, OBE, Legion d’Honneur – passed away in June 1979, aged 83. He was described to me by World Champion Driver Phil Hill as “a prince amongst men” – and I have never heard anyone ever have a bad word for him. He was another British hero who postwar had a Goodwood role to play…

British is Best - Eyston’s Thunderbolt on the salt flats at Bonneville, Utah, USA…

Captain George - Eyston in his MG racing days pre-war, again at Brooklands, Goodwood’s predecessor motor circuit.

Captain George in 1955 seen with Jaguar PRO and D-Type driver Bob Berry. Eyston became a prominent and popular member of the RAC Competitions Committee - liked, admired and respected by all.