I guess it was the return to Pendine Sands last week of Malcolm Campbell’s original Bluebird, plus the knowledge that, if all goes to plan, Britain will next year tighten further its grip on the Land Speed Record that reminded me of my favourite LSR man, and his achievements on Bonneville Salt Flats, half a century ago this year.
Arthur Eugene Arfons was not cut from typical Land Speed Record Breaking cloth. He wasn’t wealthy and he certainly wasn’t an aristocrat. He was a mechanic, but a genius at what he did. He and his brother Walt became well known on the drag racing circuit before Art got bigger ideas and turned his attention to the Land Speed Record.
His first attempt was called the Anteater for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who looks at it. Inspired by John Cobb’s Railton Mobil Special, the Anteater came to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1960 powered by a 28-litre, supercharged Allison aero engine originally designed for the P38 Mustang fighter. It is almost certainly the only car in the world ever designed to do 315mph in first gear, the second of its two ratios intended to take Arfons beyond where Cobb’s record of 394mph had rested since 1947 and into the history books. Except it didn’t quite work out that way. Transmission problems constantly got the better of his and even when he returned with an improved more powerful Anteater in 1961, 313mph was all he could manage.
Soon however his attention was elsewhere. He’d discovered a General Electric J79 engine for sale as scrap in Florida. This was essentially the same unit used to power Lockheed Starfighters. Arfons took a look and reckoned the engine (which had inhaled something large and metal) was not quite the wreck General Electric supposed. So he bought it, took it home to Ohio, removed and repaired its bent blades and put it all back together. In the meantime he had designed an entire new jet car called Green Monster to go around it. Once the two had become one, he tied the Monster to a three tonne concrete block and lit the engine, vaporising his chicken shed in the process.
Arfons didn’t have the money to build a beautifully streamlined machine like the Spirit of America helmed by his main rival Craig Breedlove, so figured he’d have to get by with horsepower alone – 17,500bhp to be precise. The other design limit on Green Monster was its size: it had to be small enough to fit in the back of his bus.
The car ran in anger at Bonneville for the first time in the fall of 1964, by which time Breedlove had inconveniently already done 407mph, which was only later recognised as a true Land Speed Record because, at the time, the rules stipulated the car had to be wheel driven, which neither the Spirit of America nor the Green Monster were. Undeterred, Arfons climbed into his home built special with its scrap engine, lit the fuse, clung on and did an average of 434mph for his two-way runs. Eight days later, Breedlove did 468mph and, two days later, 526mph. Was Arfons downhearted? He was not. He just wound the Green Monster off the clock and the following week did 536mph, which meant that between them and in not much more than a year they had added over 140mph to a Land Speed Record that had stood for 16 years.
But it wasn’t enough. Breedlove was back in 1965 with an all-new Spirit of America, Arfons with the same old Green Monster. Breedlove went first and did 555mph, Arfons clocked 576mph. Then Breedlove did 600mph.
Undeterred, Arfons came back for one more try in 1966. He was timed at 590mph in one direction but as the car exited the flying mile at around 615mph, a wheel failed. The wreckage was reputedly strewn over a three-mile area, a wheel having allegedly passed through the blades of a hovering helicopter. The team were appalled by the prospect of what they might find inside the destroyed Green Monster. In fact Arfons had made not just about the world’s fastest car, but probably its strongest too. Suffering only superficial injuries, he flew home the next day, having survived what stands to this day as the fastest accident on four wheels.
It was the last time Arfons would seriously attempt to break the Land Speed Record, but the speed bug never left him. He survived a comparatively trivial 350mph flip in 1989 and last raced at Bonneville 1991 aged 65 with his Green Monster 27. Arfons died in 2007 with three Land Speed Records to his name, a record I believe surpassed by Breedlove and Campbell alone.