Sitting on a bookshelf just opposite me as I write is a bound run of the early French motoring journal ‘La France Automobile’. It was launched in 1896 by an enthusiastic journalist and entrepreneur, and co-founder of the Automobile Club de France, named Paul Meyan. His first editorial explained that “Just as the Automobile Club de France is an enterprise of encouragement, ‘La France Automobile’ will be the organ of propaganda that will drive the same principles…”.
A brief history of early land speed record cars
Early horseless carriage cars were widely regarded by the general public as the preserve of the landed, the monied, the privileged… and the plain, eccentric, loony. But republican France was extraordinarily open to, and accepting of, new technologies. While the practical automobile had been a German innovation, the likes of Benz and Daimler found their largest and most eager market in France – while our British ancestors remained firmly wedded to the horse… but also to rail.
In the 18th century, Dr Johnson had slapped down the faithful Dr Boswell’s predictions of high-speed stagecoach travel with the words “Fie, sir – twenty miles in one hour upon a coach? No man could rush so fast through the air and continue to draw breath!”. Of course, this is palpable nonsense. Dr Johnson can never at that time have stood on a coastal cliff in a gale, or spent much time outdoors if he thought a 20mph wind would smother him.
As early as 1829 Goldsworthy Gurney had claimed “an extreme rate” of 20-30mph for his steam-engined road coach. A British train on Wellington Bank, Somerset, was claimed to have hit 81.8mph as early as 1854. In 1890 the French claimed one of their locos had reached 89.48mph at Champigny Pont sur Yonne – though of course we Brits scoffed at the very idea.
Even so, for many one of the attractions of contemporary train travel was the sheer exhilaration of speed. Cruising speeds around 55-60mph on favourable stretches of line were commonplace. And then the self-propelled road car came along. Once there were two sporting-minded car owners, competition began. In the earliest days seeing whose car could climb the steepest hill quickest settled many a bet. In 1887-88 – as detailed previously here – races took place in Paris. And then in 1898 the Bordeaux-Biarritz city-to-city race saw the winning Bollee average 26.7mph, including stops – which infers a cruising speed in motion of 35-40mph.
On November 27th, 1898, Meyan and his associates ran a timed hill-climb at Chanteloup, just outside Paris. The course was only a mile and furlong, and its gradient 1-in-12. But 54 cars were entered, 47 made the climb, and the Belgian Camille Jenatzy set FTD in his CITA electric car, averaging 18mph.
A week later, Meyan announced that his journal would be running a course de Vitesse on a carefully-measured 2,000 metre level road in Acheres Park, St Germain, north of Paris. The first kilometre would provide standing-start speeds – the second a flying-start maximum velocity. Meyan’s aristocratic friend Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat’s Jeantaud electric, powered by a single 36hp motor fed by Fulmen non-rechargeable batteries, clocked 63.157km/h – 39.245mph – through the flying kilometre – to be acclaimed as having set the very first World Land Speed Record.
Chasseloup-Laubat’s time through the flying km – his Jeantaud “… trailing a few blue sparks and a slight tang of ozone…” had been 57 seconds. Most spectators – and certainly the Count himself – had travelled faster by train, and deflatingly the contemporary push-bike record through a flying kilometre was 56 seconds – a second faster…
However, Camille Jenatzy had been otherwise engaged on Acheres weekend, and in a letter to ‘La France Automobile’ on December 18th he issued a challenge – un defi – to Chasseloup-Laubat, claiming confidence in his ability to better the Jeantaud’s time under the same course conditions, within one month.
Back at Acheres on January 17th, 1899, the pair faced off. Jenatzy ran first in his Chanteloup-winning electric car, 54 seconds for the flying kilometre, 41.42mph. For the first time the official WLSR had been broken. The Count responded with 51.2secs, 43.69mph, the second time the WLSR had been lowered, though the effort burned out the Jeantaud’s motor 200 metres from the finish. Ten days later Jenatzy was back in the Park, 44.8 seconds – 49.92mph.
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Chasseloup-Laubat struggled to respond. On March 4th he returned to Acheres. The Jeantaud company built electric taxis for use in Paris – over 120 years ago, how prescient does that now sound? – and the company had rebodied the Count’s record car with a pointed ‘wind-cutting’ nose, fared-in undertray and a pointed tail. Chasseloup sparked it up and sliced 6 seconds off the Jenatzy record, 38.8 seconds, 57.6mph. Aerodynamic form had proved a positive factor in World Land Speed Record competition.
It was then that Jenatzy – the fiery red-bearded Belgian – reacted to losing his record by then building a ‘freak’ car tailored specifically to taking it back. His Compagnie Internationale des Transports Automobiles Electriques Jenatzy – CITA produced a simple chassis frame with front and rear axles suspended on semi-elliptic leafsprings. It rode on small-diameter wood-spoked wheels wearing the fattest Michelin tyres yet seen. A cylindrical torpedo-like body was fitted, designed by Leon Auscher of the Rothschild coachwork company, and skinned in lightweight partinium, an alloy of aluminium, tungsten and magnesium. A large 900rpm electric motor drove to each rear wheel. The car was high-built, and what aerodynamic advantage might have been gained from its wind-piercing missile of a body shape was offset by the chassis and running gear exposed below, and by Jenatzy himself, sprouting unfaired out of the open cockpit on top.
He named his missile ‘La Jamais Contente’ – ‘The Never Satisfied’ – which, while specifying Jenatzy’s mindset, was – he said – in honour of his wife. His impatience spoiled his first record attempt with the car at Acheres (appropriately, on April Fool’s Day, 1899), since he set off while the timekeepers were still setting up their equipment, and they missed his flying kilometre time. Unable to run again that day due to spent batteries, Jenatzy returned on April 29th – 34 seconds – 105.904km/h – breaking the 100km/h barrier for the first time – 65.79mph. In less than five months the official WLSR mark had been bettered five times.
Jenatzy’s record would survive three years, by which time petrol and steam car performance had surpassed the heavyweight battery-laden electrics. In 1902 Leon Serpollet’s steamer finally raised the record to 75.06mph on the Promenade des Anglais along the seaside at Nice. Two years later, Louis Rigolly’s 1904 Gobron-Brillie broke into three figures Imperial with 103.55mph at Ostend.
Into 1905 the LSR car began to develop beyond the more common road racing design of the time. Bigger engines, then streamlining became vital. Alexandre Darracq had engineer Louis Ribeyrolles design a special car – which emerged as the stark, spartan 22.5-litre 200hp V8 Darracq – driven by Victor Hemery at Arles to clock 104.65mph. In 1914, Major L.G. ‘Cupid’ Hornsted unleashed the 200hp Blitzen Benz at Brooklands – 128.16mph in one direction, a mean 124.10mph two-way.
It took until 1920 before the 150mph mark was exceeded, by Tommy Milton’s twin-engined Duesenberg on Daytona Beach, Florida, but that was one-way only, and to counter wind-assistance European authority was demanding evidence of a return run to specify a sustainable average.
In 1922 Kenelm Lee Guinness raised the LSR to 133.75mph at Brooklands in the aero-engined 350hp Sunbeam. Two more surviving LSR cars today are the Rene Thomas Delage and Ernest Eldridge Fiat ‘Mephistopheles’ which fought one another at Arpajon in France – 143.31mph to the Frenchman, 146.01mph to the intrepid one-eyed British amateur (hurrah!). It was then 1925 before Malcolm Campbell’s very special aero-engined ‘Bluebird’ raised the official mark above 150mph – clocking 150.76mph on Pendine Sands in Wales.
Perilously – with tragedies along the way – man’s quest for speed on land progress into the 1930s. The competition became a peculiarly British motor sporting obsession with such hugely celebrated heroes as Campbell, Parry Thomas, Henry Segrave and eventually George Eyston and John Cobb taking the top honour up to 1939. In 1927 Segrave broke the 200mph barrier, 203.792mph on Daytona Beach in the gorgeously unlovely twin-engined 1,000hp Sunbeam ‘Slug’ – preserved today at Beaulieu. Another Segrave LSR car displayed there in the National Motor Museum is the truly mouth-watering ‘Golden Arrow’ (231.446mph at Daytona) with its Napier Lion broad-arrow 12-cylinder aero engine.
By 1930 Campbell’s latest ‘Bluebird’ surpassed 250mph – 253.97mph at Daytona – but speeds outstripped beach sand and it was on Bonneville Salt Flats instead – in Utah, USA – that in 1935 Malcolm Campbell’s ‘Bluebird’ did 301.129mph. Three years later – 1938 – taciturn, enigmatic fur trader John Cobb clocked 350.20mph there in his Railton special, and in 1947 he returned with his great car then Mobil-sponsored to raise the LSR to 394.20mph. Bonneville’s surface was in poor condition yet brave Cobb hit 415mph leaving the flying mile, and his run speed one-way was 403.135mph.
British and American speed kings had fought it out for years – but the LSR would remain Cobb’s and British for 16 years. American Dr Nathan Ostich then fielded his jet-engined car, ‘Flying Caduceus’ – unsuccessful but setting a precedent for jet power in place of piston engines. Sir Malcolm Campbell’s son Donald followed in his father’s footsteps, first as a World Water Speed Record breaker, then into 1960-61 with the latest ‘Bluebird’ all-wheel-driven by Proteus gas-turbine engine. He crashed heavily at Bonneville, Formula 1 BRM parent company the Owen Organisation then rebuilding it for further attempts, in 1963-64.
But meantime American hot-rodder Craig Breedlove clocked 407mph without evident difficulty driving his jet-engined three-wheeler. To qualify for a ratified FIA WLSR the rules specified the car had to be wheel-driven. Lashing a jet engine to a supermarket trolley was perhaps too easy…
At Lake Eyre in July 1964 Donald Campbell finally matched his father by becoming officially the fastest man on land (in a wheel-driven vehicle) – 403.10mph, still short of Breedlove’s mark with ‘Spirit of America’. Other Americans weighed in following the reaction-jet or rocket route – Tom Green’s ‘Wingfoot Express’, Art Arfons’ ‘Green Monster’ – and Breedlove responded with ‘Spirit of America – Sonic 1’. For peanuts compared to the astronomic cost of the lovely, yet somehow naïve, ‘Bluebird’-Proteus, the American special builders punched the LSR mark to staggering heights. Breedlove clocked 600.601mph in 1965, and in 1970 Gary Gabelich’s rocket-powered ‘The Blue Flame’ hit 630.388mph.
Only one British enthusiast responded effectively, and that of course was Richard Noble with his ugly but effective Rolls-Royce Avon-engined ‘Thrust 2’ – breaking America’s WLSR stranglehold on the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, in 1983 – at 634.051mph. Noble subsequently proved jamais contente… battling public and sponsor apathy to mastermind his twin-Rolls Royce Spey-engined ‘Thrust SSC’ in which Andy Green eventually raised the mark – in September 1997 - to a staggering 713.990mph. Jamais contente, indeed, streaking again along the sun-baked desert course, on October 15th, 1997, ice-cold, fearless Green averaged 760.343mph – and triggered a sonic boom as ‘Thrust SSC’ achieved its objective of breaking the sound barrier, on land…
It had taken 99 years from the very first World Land Speed Record for the land-borne automobile to exceed the speed of sound, but Richard Noble and his tiny team finally achieved it. Far short of the ultimate survived human speed record, of course, which is claimed NASA’s Apollo 10 lunar mission at 24,796mph – but one has to be reasonable. We car guys merely grub around on the ground down here… Yet today, 1,000mph is the latest WLSR target… jamais contente, indeed.
Photos courtesy of the GP Library.
Doug Nye began writing about racing cars at ‘Motor Racing’ magazine in 1963-64. Today he is a multiple award-winning motor sports journalist and author of over 50 years’ experience, with some 70 books to his name. He is Goodwood Motorsport’s founding Historian and consultant and fulfils similar roles for Bonhams Auctioneers and the Collier Collection/Revs Institute in Naples, FL, USA. He is a member of the National Motor Museum Advisory Council at Beaulieu, Hants, and is a regular columnist for ‘Motor Sport’ magazine, while contributing to many other specialist periodicals worldwide.
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