The history of the land speed record is a high-octane pursuit of perhaps the ultimate world record. The competition has seen national rivalries play out as the limits of the technology of the day are reached and surpassed.
The first holder of the record was the Frenchman Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat when in 1898 he achieved the speed of 39.24 mph in the electric powered Jeantaud Duc. Just one month later the record was taken by the Belgian Camille Jenatzy in the GCA Dogcart with a speed of 41 mph.
The record would pass back and forth between the two race car drivers throughout 1899. With Jenatzy getting the better of the duel, with the introduction of the first purpose-built speed car and breaking the 100 kph milestone in the process.
This 65 mph record would stand for almost 3 years until a steam-powered car driven by another Frenchman, Léon Serpollet took on the challenge. The previous record was beaten by 10 mph but this record wouldn’t stand for nearly as long. American, William K. Vanderbilt, in the first internal combustion engine powered car, beat it by just one mph only 4 months later.
The period between 1902 and 1906 saw the record change many times. Successful attempts were made by Henri Fournier, Maurice Augieres and Arthur Duray before Henry Ford in his Ford 999 Racer took the record in 1904. This was the first time the speed record had been set outside of France or Belgium, but certainly not the last.
Louis Rigolly, then Pierre de Caters took back the record for France and then Belgium. The important milestone of 100 mph was crossed by Louis Rigolly on his second successful record attempt with a speed of 103.56 mph.
Two more Frenchmen, Paul Baras and Victor Hémery, would claim the record before American Fred Marriot in his steam-powered Stanley Rocket set a speed of 127.66 mph at Daytona Beach. This record would stand for over 3 years before Hémery retook the title at Brooklands in England towards the end of 1909.
The Two Pass Rule
The early records were set under different standards with world records not always being recognised by everyone. As the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus began to be recognised as the authority on the records, their standard began to become used. Their regulations required two passes to be made in opposite directions to rule out any wind assistance, these initially had to be completed within 30 minutes, later being changed to 1 hour.
The first time the record was set under these new rules, was also the first time a Brit had claimed the title. Lydston Hornsted achieved 124 mph in his Benz No.3 in 1914 at Brooklands.
Following the first world war, Kenelm Lee Guinness took the record in a Sunbeam 350HP. This was the first many successful attempts in the 1920s. Most notable of these were Malcolm Campbell’s 4 claims within the decade, driving, initially, the Sunbeam 350HP and later the aero engine powered Blue Bird.
The 1930s saw the record change hands frequently and saw the location of the attempts change from Daytona Beach to the Bonneville Salt Flats. The ’30s was a time when the British enjoyed total dominance of the record, with it being claimed 5 times by Campbell, by George Eyston three times in Thunderbolt and by John Cobb twice in Railton.
The ’30s had seen the record climb to 369.74 mph. Cobb returned in 1947 to increase this to 394 mph. There were two further wheel driven successes in the 1960s by Americans Mickey Thompson and Bob Summers with speeds just above 400 mph.
The introduction of jet engines initially led to some confusion over the rules and what was allowed. Malcolm Campbell’s son Donald set the record in the wheel-driven Bluebird CN7 in that period. Eventually, the association in charge (which had since changed its name to the FIA) decided to change the rules to allow any vehicle running on wheels to be eligible for the record.
The first jet-powered car to claim the record was Spirit of America driven by American Craig Breedlove. He would go on to set the record a further 4 times in the 1960s with his final success in 1965 reaching 594 mph. Record times were set by two other Americans in the ’60s, Tom Green in Wingfoot Express and Art Arfons in Green Monster. The final American to set the record was Gary Gabelich in the rocket-powered Blue Flame with a speed of 630 mph.
That stood for 13 years before Britain’s Richard Noble in Thrust 2 went 4 miles per hour faster in 1983. The current record was set in 1997 by Andy Green driving TrustSSC. The twin Rolls-Royce Spey powered car went supersonic reaching an average of 760.343 mph over the two passes.
Attempts are still being made to surpass the 1997 record involving both Richard Noble and Andy Green with the Bloodhound LSR project. The project plans to hit the 1,000 mph mark, which would break the record by the largest ever margin if achieved.