A brief and interesting history of the World Land Speed Record

The early days of the World Land Speed Record were highly controversial as there was no consistent process for measuring or validating the trials. However, that didn’t stop several keen entrepreneurs from claiming their car was the fastest in the world.

The first of these was a Frenchman, Charles Jeantaud, whose electric car reached 63kph way back in 1898. Impressively, this same car topped 92kph only three months later which illustrates just how advanced electric cars were at the time. It actually took quite awhile for petrol engines to emerge as the preferred option and in 1906 the speed record was held by a steam powered car that reached 205kph (which remained the fastest steam powered car in the world for over 100 years – the longest standing automotive record in history).

Early attempts at the Land Speed Record gave car companies the chance to drum up some publicity, and for that very reason Henry Ford himself held the unofficial record in 1904. Although he wasn’t best known for his driving exploits, Henry Ford’s efforts behind the wheel of a Ford 999 gave his new company a chance to make some headlines.

Speed records continued to be disputed until 1924 at which point the world’s largest auto clubs agreed to a formal set of rules. The record speed would be averaged over two runs in opposite directions on a flat surface and the car’s engine had to power the wheels directly (ie: no rockets). Competitors also had to beat the previous record by a big enough margin to ensure it wasn’t the result of a small discrepancy in the measurement.


Pictured: Examples of the cars that competed for the World Land Speed Record prior to 1924.

At this point in time the British auto industry was booming and the UK took control of the Land Speed Record for forty years. From 1924 to 1964 the record was beaten 21 times and 20 of those successful attempts were made by British drivers. Malcolm Campbell became a household name in England during this time and he was even knighted as a national hero for constantly beating his previous efforts and fighting off new challengers. His son, Donald Campbell, would set the record for himself in 1964 but did so having always raced in his father’s shadow.

Many of those record cars were fairly basic in design and featured an aircraft engine bolted into a streamlined racing chassis. As the sixties drew closer, manufacturers started experimenting with jets and rockets which led to a massive change in the rules to avoid confusion over the outright record. In 1964 the restriction that a car’s wheels had to be driven directly by the engine was removed and the age of turbojets kicked off in earnest. Speeds increased dramatically and the cars effectively became missiles with wheels attached.

Once the rules were changed a number of specialist US teams fought each other for top spot but their reign was broken by Richard Noble, an Englishman who has stamped his own authority on the Land Speed Record since 1983. He set the new benchmark himself that year and then acted as Project Director for the next two successful attempts. The most recent of those, in 1997, was particularly special because the Thrust SSC became the first car to break the sound barrier (incredibly, this was achieved exactly 50 years and one day after Chuck Yeager’s first successful attempt to break the sound barrier in a plane). Creating a sonic boom with a car is simply astonishing.

That 1997 record still stands today but now members of the same team, including Richard Noble, are looking to go even faster with the Bloodhound SSC. Their target is 1000mph (1690kph) which is so incredibly quick that the test run, scheduled for October next year, will be enough to hold the record on its own. The car is amazing and amongst the list of impressive specifications is that a massive 542hp V8 engine powers the fuel pump. THE FUEL PUMP! The Bloodhound SSC is a beast and if it ends up being successful it will certainly be a machine worthy of holding such a prestigious record.


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