Since humans first attached wheels to an engine, the quest to go fast has continued unabated and the evolution of land speed records has unfurled a rich tapestry of technological innovation, human courage, and an unyielding thirst for glory.
The quest to create the fastest vehicle on land – perhaps the ultimate world record – is more than a contest of raw horsepower. It’s a testament to human ingenuity and resilience in the face of extraordinarily formidable barriers. Join us as we embark on a thrilling, high-octane journey through time, tracing the milestones of the relentless endeavour to break the fastest land speed record.
Fast, Faster, Fastest - A Short History
The land speed record history dates back to the birth of the motor car. For years, trains held unofficial land speed records, but in December 1898, Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, driving an early electric French car called a Jentaud, set the world land speed record of 39.24 mph, or 63.15 km/h.
The record changed hands no less than five times in the following four months, a straight shootout between Chasseloup-Laubat and Belgian racing driver Camille Jenatzy. It was the latter, driving a 1.5 tonne torpedo-shaped electric car named La Jamais Contente, ‘The Never Contented’, who was the first to break the 100 km/h barrier (62 mph) in the French town of Achères in May 1899.
Three years later in Ablis in France, American motor racing enthusiast William Kissam Vanderbilt II set the fastest land speed record in a French-made Mors powered by an internal combustion engine. This would be the power-source of choice for several decades. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1960s when internal combustion was replaced by turbojet and rocket engines, that attempting the world land speed record became a staggeringly complex – and eye-wateringly expensive – feat of science, engineering and technology.
In around 1902, the Automobile Club de France recognised itself as the arbiter of land speed records. In the 1940s, after different clubs recognised different rules and regulations, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) unified the rules for the world land speed record. The standard for measuring speed is set over a specified course, either one kilometre (0.62 miles) or one mile (1.6 kilometres). The average speed is calculated from two runs, also known as ‘passes,’ conducted in opposing directions within a one-hour timeframe and initiated from a rolling start. To validate a new record, it must surpass the previous record by a minimum of one percent.
The Story of the Land Speed Records
Since Chasseloup-Laubat in the last years of the nineteenth century, there have been hundreds – if not thousands – of attempts to become the fastest vehicle on land, but very few are successful. Here, we’ll list the milestone records, culminating with the world land speed record that was set over a quarter of a century ago.
The first recorded speed in excess of 100 mph (161 km/h) was set in July 1904 by French driver Louis Rigolly who hit 103.5 mph (166.6 km/h) in a 13.5-litre Gobron-Brillié racer. He covered one kilometre on a beach in Ostend in Belgium in a time of 21.6 seconds.
It took twenty-three years to get from 100 mph to 200 mph when Sir Henry O’Neal de Hane Seagrave, a pioneer of land and water speed records, reached 203.7 mph (328 km/h) in a 900 hp Sunbeam called Mystery at Daytona Beach in the USA in March 1927. The 7.6-metre, 3.6-tonne car that set the fastest land speed record was powered by two, 22.4-litre aircraft engines.
One of the most famous names in land speed record history was the first person to pass 300 mph (480 km/h) in September 1935. At Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, Malcolm Campbell’s Campbell-Railton Blue Bird, equipped with a 2,800 hp, 36.7-litre, V12 supercharged Rolls-Royce aircraft engine, attained 301.1 mph, or 484.6 km/h.
Almost thirty years later in July 1964, Malcolm Campbell’s son Donald driving Bluebird CN7, a 4,000 hp Bristol Proteus gas turbine-engined car, set the record at 403.1 mph, or 648.7 km/h, at Lake Eyre in Australia. He is the only person to have held the world land speed record and the water speed record in the same year, 1964. He died during a further attempt on the water speed record at Coniston Water in the Lake District in 1967.
The Jet Age
In 1964, the FIA changed the rules of land speed records to allow any vehicle on wheels, regardless of how they are powered. This allowed for the introduction of jet-powered cars, and the world land speed record was about to go stratospheric.
In October 1964, American racing driver Craig Breedlove broke the almost-mythical 500 mph (804 km/h) barrier at Bonneville Salt Flats in the turbojet-powered Spirit of America.
A year later, Breedlove was back at Bonneville in Spirit of America – Sonic 1. The car was powered by a General Electric J79 afterburning turbojet engine from an F-4 Phantom II fighter jet and reached 600.6 mph (966.5 km/h).
Thirty-two years passed before the 700 mph (1,126 km/h) barrier was broken. In September 1997 at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, Wing Commander Andy Green, a retired RAF fighter pilot, drove Thrust SSC powered by two Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines at an astonishing speed of 714.1 mph, or 1,149.3 km/h. Twenty days later, again at Black Rock Desert in the 16.5 metre, 10.6 tonne Thrust SSC, Andy Green set the fastest land speed record ever at 763.035 mph, or a quite astonishing 1,227.986 km/h over a flying kilometre. In doing so, he broke the sound barrier on both runs.
Jamais Contente Indeed
Will the world land speed record ever be broken? Perhaps, but the combination of immense technical and physical challenges, financial constraints, safety issues, environmental concerns and pure practicality have not necessarily rendered the challenge impossible ,but it is becoming increasingly more difficult.
From humble beginnings at the start of the twentieth century to breaking the sound barrier by the end of it, the pursuit of land speed records has relentlessly advanced the frontiers of technology, design, and engineering and brought forth an era of unprecedented innovation.
Every time the fastest land speed record is broken, it serves as a stepping stone for the next. As new frontiers of speed and technology emerge, so does the drive to conquer them.