The Land Speed Record

The land speed record is a funny beast. Unlike the close-quarters, wheel-to-wheel battles for F1 supremacy in the world’s coolest cities surrounded by entourages, glitz and glamour, the pursuit of absolute speed is somewhat more fundamental.

From Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubet in an electric Jeantaud Duc in 1898 to Andy Green in ThrustSSC in 1997, here is our story of the land speed record.


ThrustSSC Nevada License Plate © Ben Sutherland

Man’s quest to go faster and faster has been evident for thousands and thousands of years. Our Neanderthal cousins would try and outrun each other tracking the kill and the Romans developed races – on foot and on wheels – over a measured distance, eventually calling them the Olympics.

Then, two thousand years later, the internal combustion engine was invented and the desire to go quicker and quicker became acute. Here’s quick compare and contrast:

  • Speed limit on British roads: 70 mph (112.6 km/h)
  • Bugatti Veyron top speed:8 mph (431.0 km/h)
  • Airbus A380 cruising speed: 560 mph (901.2 km/h)
  • Eurofighter Typhoon top speed: 1,320 mph (2,124.3 km/h)
  • Apollo 10 re-entry speed: 24,791 mph (39,897.2 km/h)
  • Speed of light: 670,616,629 mph (1,020,000,000 km/h)

The Speed Pioneers

The first two Alpha males who went head to head were Frenchman Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubet and the red-bearded Belgian, Camile Jenatzy.  Chasseloup-Laubet hit 39.24 mph in an electric Jeantaud Duc and they went back and forth until Jenatzy reached 65.79 mph. This duel was superseded by Leon Serpollet who managed 75.06 mph in a steam-powered car of his own design in 1902 called Oeuf de Paques (the ‘Easter Egg’).

These primitive battles raged on with the French trading records until the early 1920s when technical innovation and specific knowledge took over from winging it.

In July 1924, a British engineer called Ernest Eldridge was the last man to set the land speed record on an open road. He was driving a one-off 2-tonne Fiat called ‘Mefistofele’ with a 21.7-litre inline-six A12 aeroplane engine and attained a speed of 145.9 mph.


Fiat Mefistofele © Justin Tiller

The Age of Campbell

The late 20s and early 30s was the all-conquering age of Malcolm Campbell and by now, each attempt was officially sanctioned according to a strict set of rules. The chief amongst which was that each attempt was to be an average of two runs in opposite directions within one hour to negate the effects of slope and wind. He broke the land speed record an astonishing nine times, starting with a 146.1 mph run in a 350 bhp V12 Sunbeam at Pendine Sands in Wales. It was followed up with 174.88 mph and then he breached the 200 mph barrier with 206.95 mph.

Between 1931 and 1935, Campbell owned the record. No-one could get near him. He edged the record up past 250 mph, 270 mph and 280 mph until in 1935, he breached the previously unattainable 300 mph holy grail.

He was driving a Campbell-Railton Blue Bird (designed by Reid Railton) and it’s worth stopping for a moment to look at the mind-blowing numbers:

  • Engine:7-litre, 2,300 bhp Rolls-Royce R V12
  • Length:2 metres
  • Weight:75 tons


1935 Campbell-Railton Blue Bird © kitchener.lord

During a measured run at the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 1935, Campbell became the first man in history to drive over 300 mph with a run of 301.12 mph with his son Donald there to watch him. Like his dad, he went on to hold both the land and water speed records.

From England…to America

Up until the mid-60s, Britain owned the land speed record (most notably the duel between John Cobb and George Eyston) but inevitably, the Americans got involved. Professional racing driver Craig Breedlove reached 407.44 mph but instantly caused controversy in 1963 in his jet-powered car ‘Spirit of America’ because it was a three-wheeler and the jet engine didn’t supply power to the axles but within two years he was back.

In the meantime, Donald Campbell’s turboshaft Bluebird CN7 set the official record in Australia at 403.1 mph but was disappointed he didn’t hit Breedlove’s mark.

By the 1960s, turbojet engines were par for the course and Breedlove and his nemesis Art Arfons traded the record in an almost fatal game of Russian roulette.

So desperate were they to have the record they pushed each other to the absolute limit –

  • Art Arfons/03 mph/October 5th 1964/Green Monster
  • Craig Breedlove/48 mph/November 2nd 1965/Spirit of America
  • Craig Breedlove/60 mph/November 15th 1965/ Spirit of America


Spirit of America – Sonic 1 © Insomnia Cured Here

Arfons and Breedlove were lucky to survive serious crashes that destroyed both cars but within five years, both cars would be obsolete. The era of rocket power was with us.

The 1970s were ushered in with American Gary Gabelich being the first to set a record in a rocket-powered car when he took his Blue Flame up to 622.4 mph.

It took a further 13 years to raise the record by just 11 mph when two new names take up the story.

Part 1: Noble & Thrust2

In 1983, Richard James Anthony Noble OBE wrested the record from the clutches of the Americans and brought it home. Designed by John ‘Ackers’ Ackroyd with an original budget of £175 (not a typo, that budget was one hundred and seventy-five pounds), Thrust2 realised Scottish entrepreneur Richard Noble’s dream to bring the land speed record back to Britain.


Thrust2 © tomfkemp

Powered by a single Rolls-Royce Avon jet engine, Thrust2 averaged 633.468 mph (1,019.47 km/h) over two runs at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada on 4 October 1983 and 14 years later, he did it again.

Part 2: Noble & ThrustSSC

ThrustSSC (Super Sonic Car) was a quite remarkable exercise in engineering, mechanics, aerodynamics and physics and it was developed by Noble working alongside designer and engineer Glynne Bowsher, aerodynamicist Ron Ayers and ex-F1 designer Jeremy Bliss.

When Noble heard in 1990 that Craig Breedlove was in the advanced stages of planning to take the record back to America, he reacted. Noble knew, though, that any advance on his existing record would take one (or both of them) through the sound barrier and in order to catch up with the Americans, he would have to put in five man hours to every one Breedlove put in.

After seven years of highly complex technical research and development (and even if we tried to describe what they did we wouldn’t understand it but you can read about it here), ThrustSSC was ready.

  • Engines: 2 x afterburning Rolls-Royce Spey Turbofans (used in the F-4 Phantom)
  • Weight:6 tons
  • Length:5m (54 feet)
  • Width:7m (12 feet)
  • Net Thrust: 223 kN (50,000 lbf)
  • Power: 110,000 bhp (82MW)
  • Fuel Consumption: 18 litres/sec (or the road car equivalent of 0.05 mpg)

Alongside the mechanical and tech wizardry the car needed a driver and one man fit the bill perfectly. Wing Commander Andy Green OBE BA RAF, a British fighter pilot was chosen from a limited pool of exceptionally qualified men and on September 25th 1997 he took his seat inside ThrustSSC at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. That day he set the absolute speed record of 714.14 mph (1,149.29 km/h) and a little under three weeks later on 15th October 1997, he was back in his – rather uncomfortable – seat.


ThrustSSC © Jimmys Daskalakis

Fifty years and one day after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in his Bell X-1 rocket plane, Andy Green – codenamed ‘Dead Dog’ – steered ThrustSSC into the history books with an average run of a staggering 763.035 mph (1,228.034 km/h) becoming the first car to break the sound barrier – a domain previously reserved for jet fighters and bullets.

The Future of the Land Speed Record

In the same way that the holy grail of a 300 mph production car is a dream of the designers at Bugatti, Pagani and Ferrari and the like, so the 1,000 mph holy grail is what Richard Noble, Ron Ayers and the team are working towards with the Bloodhound SSC programme.

You can read more about it here and Ron Ayers talks about the challenges: ‘Our present target of 1,000 mph is certainly a formidable challenge and it may indeed be close to the asymptotic limit. We have found nothing that tells us 1,000 mph is impossible [but we think] the target is somewhere near the limit of what is feasible with current technology so the target is a very challenging one.’


Bloodhound SSC © Jaguar MENA

It’s much more than facts and figures though. It’s about man’s collective drive to succeed, to go further and faster than those that came before. It’s about the spirit of adventure as well as the ‘limitless power of applied engineering and technology’ and hitting 1,000 mph can be ranked alongside the first ascent of Everest or the maiden Concorde flight and some of the most significant events in the evolution of man.

They re-wrote the rulebook of what was possible and Bloodhound SSC will do the same.

‘I was accosted by a policeman at the House of Commons this year’ said Noble. ‘You Richard Noble?’ he asked. ‘Er, yes – am I in trouble?’ ‘No’ replied the policeman. ‘I want to shake your hand. As a result of Thrust SSC my son decided to become an engineer.’