As the land speed records continued to rise, it started to become clear that using modified production vehicles was no longer enough. Indeed, the 235 km/h reached by Campbell’s first Bluebird was easily beatable, and the record holder himself was already busy building a new Bluebird. The year was 1925 and many people wanted to write their name in what was rapidly becoming a veritable ranking of courage.
The first man to show that it was possible to go faster was an English hot-head, John Godfrey Parry-Thomas who, just one year later in 1926 and with very little money, modified a hand-crafted car, complete with chain-driven transmission. Re-bodied and upgraded with a Packard Liberty 450 horsepower aero-engine and nicknamed Special “Babs”, he reached 275,229 km/h in Pendine, Wales.
Courage and fantasy were no longer enough though, and it was time for technology to take the lead. One year later, while attempting the record again, poor Thomas died without being able to see just how far along better-financed projects had come in the development of cars that wouldn’t just break the 300 km/h barrier but would soon reach 400.
This was the challenge – and what’s better than a challenge to move humanity forward? – between Henry Segrave and Malcom Campbell, both British, both determined to break the speed records both on land and on water. A challenge that from 1927 to 1935 saw the creation of special vehicles capable of reaching almost 500 km/h. A challenge that also saw many accidents and deaths while attempting to set new records. Segrave himself lost his life in 1930 the very same day he broke the record on water, striking a submerged tree trunk at full speed. He was just 34 years old.
But his exploits, which began with the Sunbeam Slug that took him beyond 326 km/h, a record immediately broken by Campbell, are inextricably linked to the magnificent Golden Arrow, the first real record car studied in every detail in the wind tunnel. The front projected downwards to avoid losing grip, the fairing between the two wheels to reduce vortexes, the spoked wheels covered by a disc for the same reason and the pronounced rear fin, transformed this racing car into an authentic monument to speed. The aircraft engine, a Napier Lion W12, produced close to 1,000 horsepower. It was 1929 when it reached 372.61km/h on Daytona Beach.
Campbell’s answer wasn’t long in coming – from 1931 to 1935, Malcom Campbell beat this record no fewer than four times, first with Bluebird equipped with a supercharged Napier Lion VIID 12 engine, then with the RR Bluebird equipped with a Rolls Royce aircraft engine that powered it to 484.620 km/h. A detail worth mentioning: to guarantee better traction for these enormous power outputs, the beach in Daytona was abandoned as the sand, albeit very hard, was still sand, in favour of the Salt Lake in Bonneville.
The new Bluebirds further developed the idea of the Golden Arrow but used far more powerful aero-derived engines. Even the technical decision to position the driver alongside the transmission to lower the height of the vehicle also contributed to the jump in performance. In fact, aviation in those years had made great strides thanks, among other things, to the Schneider Trophy which was established to promote the technical development of seaplanes and which, in 1934, saw a new speed record of 709.209 km/h claimed by the Fiat-powered Macchi. Truly spectacular for a single-engine plane back then (it’s curious to think that the Air Speed Record for a non-seaplane aircraft, set the following year, was “just” 567 km/h).
Back down on the water, poor Segrave’s record was broken in 1932 in the USA, and now stood at 201 km/h and even motorbikes had made considerable progress with a BMW which reached 256 km/h with an entirely faired bike. And what about trains we hear you ask? Steam was still puffing away…! Between England and Scotland, the Flying Scotsman flew at over 100 miles per hour (161 km/h to be precise). But it was time for motor vehicles to go beyond 500 km/h. The challenge continues.