The fast set: a history of the land speed record
Rob Ryan tells the stories of the motormen who have tried to become the fastest on earth, and why it is a peculiarly British pursuit
Tom Wolfe called it 'The Right Stuff', a mix of courage, tenacity, technical ability, vision and perhaps a touch of recklessness. He coined it in reference to the pioneers of rocket-powered aircraft including the Bell X-1, such as the legendary Chuck Yeager. But the term could equally apply to those who step into rocket-powered land vehicles, who strive to be the fastest men on earth. True, the power source may be relatively recent, but it is a title that has been fought over since 1898, when a Frenchman called Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat took his Jeantaud Duc, an electric car, up to a head-spinning 65.79 mph/105.88 kph. A gauntlet had been thrown down.
The French remained early leaders in the joust, using both electric and steam-driven vehicles. In 1902, Americans and the internal combustion engine came on scene when William K Vanderbilt pushed the record to 92.3mph/148.54kph. L'Automobile Club de France, which regulated speed attempts, was a sometime controversial guardian of the award: in 1904 it disqualified none other than Henry Ford because his run of 91.37mph/147.05kph had taken place on a frozen lake. In 1924 came the first British holder of the Fastest Man On Earth tag, Lydston Hornsted, with a run of 124.09mph/199.70kph. It was a portent of things to come for – as in many branches of motorsport – British ingenuity, engineering and pluck would propel the country to domination in the land speed department, a pre-eminence challenged only by the USA.
In 1924 the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR), the newly appointed governing body for the land speed record, dictated there must be two timed runs in opposite directions to mitigate any wind variations. These regulations remain pretty much unchanged today, although record attempts are now administered under its successor, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile.
That same year, Englishman Malcolm Campbell claimed the record on Pendine Sands in Wales, in a Sunbeam he christened Blue Bird, returning the following year to burst through the 150mph barrier. Incidentally, 1924 was when Belstaff waxed-cotton jackets first appeared for civilians. Campbell was an also avid motorcyclist and became a keen wearer, as their jackets were soon de rigeur for the serious biker.
The 1920s saw a battle between British racers Campbell, John Godfrey Parry-Thomas (the first man to die in a record attempt) and Henry Segrave, who in 1927 took his machine Mystery past 200mph. But the Americans weren't done yet. In 1928, Ray Keech clocked in at 207.552mph/334.007kph on Daytona Beach, Florida. But it was the last hurrah for a while – in the 1930s the title belonged to the British triumvirate of Campbell (in 1937 his Blue Bird broke the 300mph marker), George Eyston in Thunderbolt, and John Cobb in his Railton Special. Up until the Secon and for some years after, Great Britain seemed to have a monopoly on the land speed record books.
Then the game changed. In Australia in 1964, Donald Campbell, Malcolm's son, set a new world record of 403.10mph/648.73kph in Bluebird CN7. But it also marked the end of an era – the time of wheel-driven record-breakers had passed; rocket and jet-powered vehicles would now dominate. Now the Americans were back, with Craig Breedlove in Spirit of America, Tom Green with his Wingfoot Express and Gary Gabelich in Blue Flame all snatching the crown at some point.
It wasn't until 1983 that the Brits finally caught up, with Richard Noble in the appropriately named Thrust2, with its Lightning fighter jet engine taking the car up to 633.47mph/1019.47kph. It was a record that stayed put for 14 years, until RAF fighter pilot Wing Commander Andy Green took out ThrustSSC – developed by Richard Noble, among others – eventually blasting his way to 763.065mph/1228.034kph and breaking the sound barrier while he was at it. Surely going supersonic was the end of it? After all, Green's record still stands. Not at all. Enter Bloodhound.
Overseen by Project Director Richard Noble and again with Andy Green at the controls, Bloodhound uses both a rocket and a jet engine to produce 135,000 horsepower – more than six times the total power of a complete Formula One grid – enabling it to potentially cover a mile in just 3.6 seconds. Its aim is to reach 1,000mph/1,609kph and it will be making the first trial/testing runs at Cornwall Airport Newquay 26-30 October before the team move to the Hakskeen Pan in South Africa. There, an attempt on the 1,000mph barrier will be made in 2018.
Belstaff will be there, echoing its past association with speed king Malcolm Campbell and other pioneers from Lawrence of Arabia to mountaineer Chris Bonnington and explorer Levison Wood. They will be providing sunglasses and clothing in 'Bloodhound Blue', and supporting the great British tradition of pushing the speed envelope until the record yields.