Category Archives: Automotive


Guidobaldi 1939 Tilting-Body Prototype Racer

By William Pearce

Francois Guidobaldi was born in 1888 and lived in Antibes, France, near Nice and the Italian boarder. In the early 1900s, Guidobaldi became a cycling champion and started to focus on mechanics and engineering. He filed around 28 patents over his lifetime, with a carburetor for automobiles being one of the first, awarded in 1912. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Guidobaldi was a team mechanic for Benoît Falchetto, who drove Bugatti racers. During that same period, Guidobaldi either founded or worked for the Société anonyme, moteurs à explosion pour aviation, marine et automobiles (MEAMA / the Combustion Engines for Aviation, Marine and Automobiles Corporation), at which he designed and built an air-cooled, two-row, 10-cylinder aircraft engine.


Francois Guidobaldi started work on his race car in 1939, and it took two decades to finish. Looking similar to a late 1930s Auto Union Grand Prix racer, the car’s body hides its unusual suspension system that enabled the chassis to lean into turns and its custom two-stroke, air-cooled, eight-cylinder radial engine. (Cyril de Plater image)

After lengthy consideration and planning in the mid-1930s, Guidobaldi began work on a race car. Guidobaldi’s car would incorporate a number of his ideas on how to improve handling—namely, the body and wheels would tilt in toward the curve when the vehicle was in a turn. This lean would help minimize lateral g-forces and improve the vehicle’s stability. Work on Guidobaldi’s engine design and the car’s chassis development started around 1939. The car’s basic mid-engine layout was similar to that of the Auto Union Grand Prix racers that were very successful in the late 1930s. However, the outbreak of World War II and material shortages after the war caused Guidobaldi to make slow progress on his car, which at times was called the “Guidomobile.”

They chassis of Guidobaldi’s car consisted of two large tubular steel side rails connected by various cross members. Triangular structures at the front and rear of the chassis attached it to the vehicle’s independent suspension. The suspension consisted of a series of rubber dampers sandwiched between steel plates. The chassis mounting point near the top of the triangular suspension structure enabled the chassis to hang and swing like a pendulum from the mount. While in a turn, centrifugal force would swing the chassis and prevent the buildup of lateral g-forces. At the same time, the suspension was engineered so that it would articulate with the body and the steering so that the tires leaned into the turn. The net result of the design was that the car took turns somewhat like a motorcycle. Strong springs connecting the upper suspension links to the chassis centered the chassis when the vehicle was traveling in a straight line and helped moderate the centrifugal effect when in a curve.


This picture appeared in a French newspaper in 1951. However, if Francois Guidobaldi is in the driver’s seat, he is much too young for the picture to have been taken in 1951. It is possible that the picture was taken much earlier and near the start of the car’s construction in 1939. Note the angle of the chassis and rear tires as they lean into the turn.

The driver sat in a low cockpit at the center of the car. The gas tank was located behind the cockpit and extended forward along both sides of the driver at the bottom of the cockpit. The engine was positioned between the fuel tank and the rear suspension mount. Mounts for the engine were clamped to the tubular frame rails. The three-speed transaxle with reverse gear was positioned under the rear suspension mount. At all four corners, the car had Bugatti knock-off wheels and Bugatti finned drum brakes.

Perhaps the only thing more unusual than the car’s leaning chassis was its engine. Guidobaldi designed, built, and installed into his car a two-stroke, eight-cylinder, air-cooled radial engine. The engine was placed horizontally (crankshaft was vertical) to get the car’s center of gravity as low as possible. From the drive side of the engine (under the car), a shaft extended forward to power two Roots-type superchargers built by Bugatti, and another shaft extended to the rear to power the transaxle. Two Guidobaldi-designed carburetors added the fuel. From the supercharger, the air and fuel mixture was delivered to the cylinders via intake manifolds under the car.


The “Guidomobile’s” engine package being tested. Laying a radial engine flat provided a low center of gravity, but it also complicated the drive arrangement. The two Bugatti superchargers on the left were driven via a single shaft from the engine. Note the individual exhaust stacks above the frame rail.

Intake and exhaust ports were on the drive side of the engine, facing the ground. An intake valve was positioned in each cylinder head and controlled via a rocker and pushrod by a cam ring atop the engine. The exhaust port was located on the cylinder just below the intake port. The flow of exhaust was controlled by the piston uncovering and covering the port. Exhaust from each cylinder flowed into an exhaust stack, with four stacks exiting horizontally on each side of the car. Two magnetos were mounted horizontally on the top (non-drive) side of the engine. Each magneto fired one of the two spark plugs mounted in the cylinder and flanking the intake valve. The engine was started via a remote starter engaged through the transaxle at the rear of the car.

The engine’s exact displacement is a bit of a mystery. One publication lists the bore and stroke as 2.36 in (60 mm), which would give a displacement of 83 cu in (1.36 L). However, many other publications state the engine’s displacement was either 61 or 67 cu in (1.0 or 1.1 L), which would result in a bore and stroke of approximately 2.17 in (55 mm). The engine was later enlarged to 91 cu in (1.5 L). If the bore and stroke were originally 2.36 in (60 mm), the bore would have been increased to 2.48 in (63 mm) to achieve a total displacement of 91 cu in (1.5 L). However, if the bore and stroke were originally 2.17 in (55 mm), then the bore would need to be increased to 2.60 in (66 mm) to reach a displacement of 91 cu in (1.5 L). It seems more reasonable to increase the bore of the air-cooled cylinders by .12 in (3 mm) than it does by .43 in (11 mm). Regardless of its actual displacement, the engine produced 180 hp (132 kW) at 6,500 hp in its original form. The engine’s power rating at 91 cu in (1.5 L) has not been found, but was presumably around 200 hp (147 kW). At some point after 1960, the two Bugatti superchargers were replaced by a single Roots supercharger of Guidobaldi’s own design.


The bodiless “Guidomobile” on display at the Exposition Automobile de Nice in 1956. An aged Francois Guidobaldi stands at center holding his hat. The triangular suspension structures are apparent, as is the low-mounted engine. The circular mounts near the top of the suspension structures are the pivot points for the chassis, allowing it to swing.

Guidobaldi built the car almost entirely by himself, even making wooden cores to create clay molds for casting parts. The main structure of the chassis was seemingly complete by 1951, and the unbodied car was displayed at the Exposition Automobile de Nice in 1956. Some sources state the Guidobaldi undertook test drives in the late 1950s on the winding roads in the Maritime Alps. There are accounts that the car gave an unsettling ride while traversing curvy roads. The chassis would rise and fall as the suspension leaned back and forth, subjecting driver to movement in all directions. It is not clear when the aluminum body was added to the car, and no pictures of the original body have been found. A new body was constructed in 2010 when the car was restored. The new body reportedly follows the aesthetics of the original body, which had been badly damaged over the years.

The aluminum body built in 2010 covers the entire chassis. Large cutouts are present by each wheel to allow room for the suspension’s travel. A number of inlets provide ample cooling air to the engine. Air from the from grille passes through the entire body. A large scoop on each side of the car, just behind the front wheels, delivers cooling air to the engine. Two smaller scoops atop the engine cowling provide further cooling. A number of louvers behind the engine help the heated air leave the engine compartment. During the 2010 restoration, the exhaust stacks were lengthened and turned up 90 degrees to exit the top of the car’s sides.


Side view of Guidobaldi’s restored car illustrates the cooling air scoops just behind the front wheel and on the side of the engine compartment. Note the numerous louvers and vertical exhaust stacks. The fuel filler cap is just behind the driver’s headrest. (Cyril de Plater image)

Guidobaldi had always planned to build a passenger car using the same leaning chassis concept, but no such car was ever built. In the 1960s, a number of automobile manufacturers had an interest in Guidobaldi’s car. Perhaps the most interested was Mercedes-Benz, but negotiations failed to yield any agreement. Guidobaldi predicted his race car could achieve a top speed of 174 mph (280 km/h) and had eyed Formula 1 as a testing ground, but a lack of funds curtailed his aspirations. The expenses of building the car and filing patents left Guidobaldi with little extra money. On 6 August 1971, Guidobaldi passed away. His car had already been locked away and nearly forgotten.

In 1980, Antoine Raffaelli purchased the car from Guidobaldi’s son, Virgile. The car was then sold to Adrien Maeght in 1984. Maeght displayed the car at the Musée de l’Automobile à Mougins until the museum closed in early 2009. At that time, Guidobaldi’s car was purchased by David Humbert, who ordered a total restoration. Luc Franza completed the restoration to running order in 2010, and the restored “Guidomobile” debuted at the 8th Avignon Motor Festival in March. The car was then displayed at the Monaco Motor Show in June 2010 and in March 2014 at the

Concours d’Elegance du Monaco, where it won first prize in the technology category. Starting in September 2014, the car was displayed at the Cité de l’Automobile – Musée National, Collection Schlumpf in Mulhouse, France. In late 2019, and still in perfect condition, the “Guidomobile” was offered for sale. The vehicle serves as a lasting tribute to all engineers who chase their dreams.


Rear view of the “Guidomobile” shows the car with a slight lean into a right turn. Note the different angles of the left and right rear suspension arms. Just visible at the top of the car is the rubber damper system for the rear suspension. (Cyril de Plater image)

– “Un mécanicien d’Antibes a réalisé cette monoplace de 180 Ch (Formule 1)” Supplement à l’Automobile N°107 (March 1955)
– “La voiture révolutionnaire de F, Guidobaldi” by Sven-Ake Nielsen, l’Automobile N°157 (March 1959)
– “The Leaning Car” by Sven-Ake Nielsen, Sportscar Graphic (April 1960)
– “Un rêve d’inventeur” by Dominique Pascal, Auto Passion N°6 (September 2006)
– “Un chef d’oeuvre ressuscité” by Philippe Loisel, La vie de l’Auto N°1424 (16 September 2010)
– “Road Vehicle Tilting Inwardly in Curves” US patent 2,791,440 by Francois Guidobaldi (granted 7 May 1957)


Eldridge FIAT Mephistopheles LSR Car

By William Pearce

In 1907, FIAT won the French Grand Prix and had a good racing season overall. The manufacturer’s success inspired Scotsman George Abercromby to order his own FIAT race car with the hope of winning the 1908 Montagu Cup Race held at the Brooklands raceway in Surrey, England. Abercromby’s car was designated SB4 Corsa (Race) by FIAT, and was an improvement of the 1907 Grand Prix racer.


Felice Nazzaro sits behind the wheel of the original FIAT SB4 built for George Abercromby in 1908. A leather panel could be added to enclose the side of the very open racer.

The FIAT SB4 consisted of two straight frame rails that supported the engine at the front of the car, followed by two very open seats just before the rear wheels and a fuel tank at the extreme rear. The four-cylinder engine had two cast cylinder blocks, each with two cylinders. Reportedly, each cylinder had one intake valve and two exhaust valves. The intake valve and one exhaust valve of each cylinder were actuated by pushrods from the right side of the engine, while the remaining exhaust valve was actuated from the left side of the engine. The cylinders had a 7.48 in (190 mm) bore and a 6.30 in (160 mm) stroke. The SB4 engine displaced 1,107 cu in (18.15 L) and produced around 175 hp (130 kW) at 1,200 rpm.

The engine was concealed in the SB4 racer under a cowling and had an underpan. Mounted behind the engine was a four-speed transmission that powered a differential shaft just forward of the rear wheels. Sprockets and chains delivered power to the rear wheels. All of the wheels were made of wood. A foot pedal engaged a brake on the gearbox, and a hand lever operated a brake on the differential shaft. There were no front brakes.


Ernest Eldridge sits in the highly-modified FIAT SB4, now lengthened and powered by a 300 hp (223 kW) A.12bis engine. The car is pictured at Brooklands in 1924.

Abercromby’s SB4 was delivered to England in the spring of 1908, and FIAT driver Felice Nazzaro raced the car at Brooklands in June. Nazzaro defeated Frank Newton driving the Napier Samson and averaged 94.75 mph (152.49 km/h) over the 27.25-mile (43.85-km) race with one lap recorded at 121.64 mph (195.76 km/h). However, Abercromby was not pleased with the car (or perhaps FIAT) and refused its delivery. Therefore, the FIAT was not entered in the 1908 Montagu Cup Race held in August. A legal skirmish ensued between Abercromby and FIAT and was won by FIAT, with Abercromby ultimately taking delivery of the vehicle.

Abercromby raced the FIAT a bit in 1910, but mechanical issues prevented success. The car passed through a few owners before World War I but was run very little. After World War I, John Duff discovered the FIAT stored in a garage and was able to purchase the car. Duff somewhat restored the racer, replaced the wood wheels with wire ones, and had a new body made that enclosed more of the car and improved its aerodynamics. Duff and co-driver R F Cooper entered the car for various Brooklands meets in 1921, but mechanical issues prevented it from starting most of these races. The Fiat did place second in a Lightning Short held in August, but cracked pistons took it out of subsequent races.


Eldridge and Jim Ames in Mephistopheles at Arpajon, France for an LSR attempt. Note the chain drive.

In 1922, Duff had replaced the pistons with lighter ones designed by Harry Ricardo. With co-driver L G Callingham, Duff finished third in a sprint race held in May, turning a lap at 107.10 mph (172.36 km/h). However, the FIAT’s engine blew up spectacularly during a longer race, with parts flying in all directions. Duff decided that the FIAT was not worth his time, and he sold the damaged, 14-year-old car to Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge.

Eldridge had started racing at Brooklands in 1921 behind the wheel of a 1907 Isotta Fraschini Grand Prix car powered by a 488 cu in (8.0 L) four-cylinder engine that produced around 100 hp (75 kW). Disappointed by his lackluster performance, Eldridge decided to modify the car with a six-cylinder, inline Maybach AZ engine that displaced 1,251 cu in (20.5 L) and produced 180 hp (134 kW) at 1,200 rpm. The Isotta Fraschini car required extensive modifications to support the large Maybach engine, which originally powered an airship. The modified car was known as the Isotta-Maybach, and Eldridge debuted it in April 1922. Eldridge found success with the Isotta-Maybach and was able to lap Brooklands in excess of 100 mph (161 km/h).


Mephistopheles about to make a record run at Arpajon. Eldridge always did an excellent job handling the car’s power, and only the tires suffered.

In search of more power, Eldridge was able to acquire a war-surplus FIAT A.12bis engine, a type that powered various Italian aircraft during World War I. The six-cylinder, inline A.12bis had two intake and two exhaust valves for each cylinder, all actuated by a single overhead camshaft. Two spark plugs were fitted on each side of each cylinder. The engine had a 6.30 in (160 mm) bore and a 7.09 in (180 mm) stroke. The A.12bis displaced 1,325 cu in (21.7 L) and normally produced around 260 hp (194 kW) at 1,700 rpm. Eldridge had made some modifications to the engine, including improving its ignition system, and his example produced 300 hp (233 kW) at 1,400 rpm and 320 hp (239 kW) at 1,800 rpm. Rather than modifying the Isotta-Maybach, Eldridge sought a new chassis for the engine and purchased the FIAT racer from Duff as the basis for his new project. The Isotta-Maybach was sold to Loftus Claude Gerald Moller Le Champion, and Eldridge focused on his FIAT racer.

In order to fit the A.12bis engine, Eldridge added about 17 in (432 mm) to the FIAT racer’s chassis. Some sources state that this section was originally from a bus frame, but it is more likely that the metal was supplied by the London General Omnibus Company and that it was not from a scrapped bus. A new, more enclosed body was made to cover the longer car, but the transmission and chain drive were retained. The car used a 176 lb (80 kg) flywheel, and the clutch had 57 plates. The underpan was extended the entire length of the car. Eldridge’s 300 hp FIAT was 16 ft 8 in (5.09 m) long, 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m) wide, 4 ft 7 in (1.40 m) tall, and weighed approximately 3,858 lb (1,750 kg). Mounted on the car’s 21 in (533 mm) wire wheels were 33 x 6 in (838 x 152 mm) tires.


Mephistopheles streaks along the public road in Arpajon as it makes a record attempt. The road had a 4.5-mile (7.2-km) straight.

Eldridge debuted his 300 hp FIAT at Brooklands for the Summer Meeting held on 23 June 1923. The car was run without the body, as it had not yet been completed. Various issues were encountered, but Eldridge was able to complete a lap from a standing start at 88.77 mph (142.86 km/h), which was a good speed but not fantastic. After repairs, Eldridge pushed his standing start speed up to 91.17 mph (146.72 km/h), but trouble persisted, and the car was withdrawn.

In late October 1923, the 300 hp FIAT was back at Brooklands where Eldridge set a world half-mile (.8 km) standing start record, averaging 77.68 mph (125.01 km/h) over two runs. In April 1924, Eldridge completed a Brooklands lap at 122.37 mph (196.94 km/h) and finished second in the Founder’s Gold Cup Race, coming in behind Le Champion driving Eldridge’s old Isotta-Maybach, which had a 20 second head start. The powerful car had an extreme tendency to quickly destroy tires. In early June, Eldridge was back at Brooklands and lapped the track at 107.10 mph (172.36 km/h) from a standing start and 123.89 mph (199.38 km/h) the next time around. Eldridge had become as comfortable as possible in the 300 hp monster FIAT.


Eldridge with the new radiator cowling installed on Mephistopheles. Note the engine’s 12 open exhaust stacks. The car was run in this configuration at Montlhéry in 1925.

The Automobile Club de France was sponsoring speed trials in Arpajon, France in early July 1924, and Eldridge decided to take the 350HP FIAT and attempt a Land Speed Record. At the time, the LSR stood at 133.75 mph (215.25 km/h) over the flying km (.6 mi) and 129.17 mph (207.88 km/h) over the flying mile (1.6 km) and was set by Kenelm Lee Guinness driving the Sunbeam 350HP at Brooklands on 17 May 1922. The course for the trials was a 4.5-mile (7.2-km) straight section of a tree-lined public road that linked Arpajon to Paris.

The aero-engined FIAT, now with white ‘FIAT’ lettering, caused quite a commotion in France, and the car was nicknamed Mephistopheles (Mefistofele in Italian) by the press. Mephistopheles is a folklore demon that collects the souls of the damned. The name stuck, and the car became known as the FIAT Mephistopheles / Mefistofele.


Eldridge and Ames in Mephistopheles leads John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in his Leyland-Thomas racer at Brooklands on 11 July 1925. Thomas would come back to win the three-lap match race, which involved both cars operating beyond their limits. Thomas set a Brooklands lap record during the race. (Brooklands Museum image)

On 6 July 1924, Eldridge and his co-driver Jim Ames took Mephistopheles out for a record run. The co-driver had the tasks of actuating a pump to maintain fuel pressure and of opening an oxygen bottle, which Eldridge had devised to feed the gas into the engine in an attempt to make more power. The pair ran at the record-breaking speed of 146.8 mph (236.3 km/h) over the km (.6 mi). However, Frenchman René Thomas protested the run, as Mephistopheles had no reverse gear, which new rules stipulated was required. Earlier in the day, Thomas had established a new record in his V-12-powered Delage DH at 143.312 mph (230.638 km/h) for the km (.6 mi) and 143.26 mph (230.55 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km). Thomas’ protest was upheld, and he retained the LSR while Eldridge was disqualified.

Not to be outdone, Eldridge modified Mephistopheles to conform to the rules. Exactly how this was done is up for debate. Some sources state that he flipped the drive chain to make a figure eight and spin the drive axle in reverse. Others contend that while this would make the car back up, it would not be able to move forward without having the chain put right again, and such a modification was unlikely to conform to the rules. More likely, a simple reverse gear was made incorporating an auxiliary shaft from the transmission.


Thomas (left) and Eldridge (right) shake hands after the match race. Both men were the epitome of the sportsman. The cowling of Mephistopheles is in the foreground.

Whatever the ‘fix,’ the modifications to Mephistopheles satisfied the officials, and another record attempt was planned for 12 July 1924. At this point, the time trials were over, and the public road was open to normal traffic. In the early morning, with police standing-by to hold traffic, Eldridge and co-driver D. W. R. Gedge ran the 16-year-old Mephistopheles on the road and established a new LSR at 146.014 mph (234.986 km/h) over the km (.6 mi) and 143.260 mph (234.794 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km). True to its nature, Mephistopheles destroyed its tires along the way. This was the last LSR set on a public road. They also set a standing start 1 km (.6 mi) record at 85.477 mph (137.562 km/h). Eldridge held the LSR until 25 September 1924, when Malcolm Campbell set his first LSR at 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h) over the km (.6 mi) in Guinness’ old Sunbeam 350HP, which became the first Blue Bird.

After the record run, Eldridge had Mephistopheles modified slightly with a new, more-streamlined radiator cowling. In October 1924, the car competed against John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in the Leyland-Thomas racer at the opening of the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry track south of Paris, France. Mephistopheles won the six-lap race at 121.04 mph, but both cars suffered tire failure along the way. On 27 November 1924, Eldridge attempted to better his LSR but was only able to establish a new 10-mile (16.1-km) record at 121.443 mph (195.444 km/h). In December, a new 5 km (3.1 mi) record was set at 128.53 mph (206.85 km/h). Back at the Montlhéry track on 29 March 1925, Eldridge and Mephistopheles set new records covering 5 km (3.1 mi) at 129.23 mph, 5 mi (8.0 km) at 128.20 mph, and 10 km (6.2 mi) at 128.34 mph (206.5 km/h).


FIAT Mephistopheles as seen at the Goodwoood Festival of Speed in 2011. The car is owned by Fiat and normally kept at the Centro Storico Fiat (Fiat Historic Center) in Turin, Italy. (Fiat image)

Since the debut of the 300 hp FIAT, there had been much interest in a match race against Thomas in the Leyland-Thomas racer. That head-to-head race was finally held at Brooklands on 11 July 1925, and no one in attendance was disappointed. Mephistopheles’ new radiator cowling had been discarded by this point. The Leyland-Thomas used a highly-turned, straight-eight engine that had a 3.5 in (89 mm) bore and a 5.75 in (146 mm) stroke. The engine displaced 443 cu in (7.26 L) and produced an impressive 240 hp at 3,500 rpm. Thomas got off the line first but was soon passed by Eldridge. Both men pushed their machines to the limit, skidding around the track at times. Thomas was able to get back by Eldridge and take the win, although both cars lost one tire near the end of the three-lap race. Eldridge and the FIAT had a best lap of 125.45 mph (201.89 km/h) and finished at an average of 121.19 mph (195.04 km/h). During the race, Thomas set a Brooklands lap record at 129.70 mph (208.73 km/h) and finished at an average of 123.23 mph (198.21 km/h).

In late July 1925, Eldridge sold Mephistopheles to Le Champion. Le Champion campaigned the car off and on for some time, but Mephistopheles’ habit of devouring its tires did not serve it well during most races. The car was acquired by W.G.S. Wike and George Gregson in October 1931. After racing it for a short time, Wike and Gregson regularly drove the car on public roads. Gregson eventually took full ownership of Mephistopheles but was killed at the Battle of Dunkirk during World War II. In 1945, the car was acquired by Charles Naylor, who later sold it to Fiat around 1960. Mephistopheles was restored and participated in a vintage race in 1961 and in other races over the years. It has most recently appeared at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2001 and 2011. Mephistopheles is preserved at the Centro Storico Fiat (Fiat Historic Center) in Turin, Italy. Although Eldridge did not make any further LSR attempts, he was involved with George Eyston’s Speed of the Wind and Thunderbolt cars.


FIAT Mephistopheles on display giving a glimpse at the car’s A.12 engine. While not the original engine installed by Eldridge, the power plant is more than enough to push Mephistopheles to speeds beyond that at which any sane person would travel. (Fiat image)

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

Brooklands Giants by Bill Boddy (2006)
The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)


Cobb Railton Land Speed Record Car

By William Pearce

John Rhodes Cobb was a fur trader who turned to auto racing and setting endurance records in his Napier-Railton car. The Napier-Railton was designed by Reid Antony Railton, head engineer at Thomson & Taylor. Run by Ken Thomson and Ken Taylor, the company was located at the Brooklands raceway in Surrey, England and specialized in designing and building race cars.


John Cobb and the Railton streak across the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1947. The car was the first to go over 400 mph (644 km/h).

Around October 1935, Cobb approached Railton and Taylor about designing a Land Speed Record (LSR) car. At the time, a new record had just been set on 3 September 1935 by Malcolm Campbell. For the record, Campbell ran his Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird car at 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. After the record, Campbell retired from attempting any further LSRs. Railton had done much of the design work on Campbell’s car, and Cobb did not care much for Campbell. What Cobb offered Railton was the freedom to design a LSR car from scratch. All of Railton’s work with Campbell was redesigning and modifying a car that was originally built in 1926.

Cobb made slow, deliberate steps toward his goals, and his work on the LSR car would be no different. It was not until early 1937 that Railton and Ralph Beauchamp began serious design work on the car. At the same time, Cobb’s friend and fellow record-breaker George Eyston began the construction of his own LSR car, Thunderbolt. Eyston’s huge car was powered by two Rolls-Royce R engines and needed eight wheels to distribute its immense weight. While similar in concept and designed to achieve the same goal, Railton’s LSR car design would stand in stark contrast to the Thunderbolt. Railton’s LSR design carried the Thomson & Taylor designation Project Q-5000. Cobb named the car Railton in honor of its designer.

While Cobb was financially well-off, he did not have unlimited funds for an LSR car. Railton wanted to design the car using existing technology and keep its proportions within the limits suitable for four wheels. Railton also felt that four-wheel drive was necessary. Having the front and rear wheels driven independently by their own engine circumvented many challenges and simplified the overall design. The choice to use two Napier Lion W-12 engines was an easy one. Railton had experience with the engine when he first worked on Campbell’s Blue Bird in 1930. The Lion was also selected to power Cobb’s Napier-Railton, and Thomson & Taylor had much experience with the engine type, as they converted them for marine use.


Rear view of the Railton shortly after its completion in 1938. Once the one-piece body was quickly removed, nearly all of the car’s components were accessible. The large water tank is on the left, and the air brake can be seen forward of the rear tires.

Originally designed in 1917, the Lion was a 12-cylinder aircraft engine with three banks of four cylinders. The center bank extended vertically from the crankcase, with the left and right banks angled at 60 degrees from the center bank. Two supercharged Racing Lion VIID engines were available for Cobb’s LSR car. Built in 1929, the engines had been used by Marion Barbara (Joe) Carstairs to power her Estelle IV motorboat. The Lion VIID was the same type of engine Campbell had used to power his Blue Bird in 1931 and 1932. The modified engines produced 1,480 hp (1,104 kW) at 3,600 rpm during tests, but would only produce 1,250 hp (932 kW) at Bonneville’s 4,200-ft (1,280-m) elevation. Carstairs gave both Lion VIID engines to Cobb. Incidentally, Carstairs had funded Campbell’s purchase of two Lion VIID engines in 1930 for his Blue Bird.

After the basic design of the car’s body was determined by wind tunnel tests, Railton focused on filling the body with the needed equipment. The Railton’s frame was a single central boxed girder made from high-strength steel and perforated with large lightening holes. The girder was 11 in (279 mm) wide and varied between 8 and 12 in (203 to 305 mm) tall. When viewed from above, the girder took the shape of a flattened S. Mounted above the front and rear of the girder were the front and rear axles. The cockpit was mounted in front of the front axle on cantilevered supports that extended from the girder. The central part of the girder was angled seven degrees across the car’s centerline. Staggered outriggers extended from each side of the girder to support a Lion engine. The engines were installed 10 degrees off the car’s centerline. The front engine was offset to the right and drove the rear wheels, and the rear engine was offset to the left and drove the front wheels.

Each engine drove a three-speed transmission without a conventional clutch or flywheel. Gear changes were made carefully and with the aid of an overrunning clutch device with locking dogs. Linkages were synchronized so that the single throttle pedal operated both engines, the single clutch pedal unlocked both clutches, and the single gearshift lever operated both transmissions. Each driveshaft also incorporated an 11 in (279 mm) drum brake with hydraulically actuated shoes contracting on its outer diameter. The drums were water-cooled, utilizing the same coolant as the engines. Just forward of the rear wheels was a pneumatic airbrake. Its operation could be linked to the brake pedal so that it deployed vertically as the brake was pressed.


Front view of the Railton on the Salt Flats in 1938. The open covers at the bottom of the car allowed access for two of the body’s eight mounts. Note that the air brake has been removed, as Cobb found the driveshaft brakes more than adequate.

The front axle featured a differential and independent wishbone suspension. The rear axle was narrower than the front and had a solid housing with no differential. The axles’ final drive ratio was 1.35. A combination coil spring and shock absorber controlled the suspension’s movement at each wheel. Forward of the left engine was a 90 US gal (75 Imp gal / 341 L) water tank for engine cooling. The tank was filled with ice, and delivered water to the engines. The Railton had no radiator, and the heated water was purged after passing through the engines. Behind the right engine was a 22 US gal (18 Imp gal / 82 L) fuel tank and an 18 US gal (15 Imp gal / 68 L) oil tank.

The Railton was entirely encased by its streamlined body. The body was designed to not create any lift. Wind tunnel experiments and calculations indicated that the nose of the car would need to be lifted 12 in (305 mm) before aerodynamic lift overcame the car’s weight. The maximum expected lift on the Bonneville Salt Flats was 3 in (76 mm). The one-piece upper body was made of aluminum panels welded and riveted to aluminum supports. The body weighed approximately 450 lb (204 kg) and was designed to be quickly removed to allow access to the entire vehicle for servicing. The 44 x 7.75 in (1,118 x 197 mm) Dunlop tires were mounted on 31 x 7 in (787 x 178 mm) steel wheels and were concealed beneath humps protruding above the body’s upper surface. A square opening covered the cockpit, which was sealed by an aluminum cover with a bulge and a small windscreen for the driver’s head. Two cockpit covers were built, one with an open top and one with a closed top. The open top version was discarded shortly after arriving at Bonneville.

The car’s body could be lowered in place over the seated driver, or the driver could enter the cockpit with the body in place via the opening. However, an overhanging structure to the cockpit opening was needed to support the driver if the body was in place. An undershield covered the underside of the chassis. The body was secured to the car’s frame at eight points and attached to the undershiled via approximately 36 Dzus fasteners. Exhaust from the upper cylinder bank of each engine exited via a manifold protruding above the body. Exhaust from each engine’s left and right cylinder banks exited via a manifold protruding from the underside of the car. The inboard exhaust passed though the girder frame. All exhaust manifolds were directed to the rear. The Railton was 28 ft long (8.53 m), 8 ft (2.44 m) wide, and 4 ft 3 in (1.30 m) tall. The car’s wheelbase was 13 ft 6 in (4.11 m). The front axle had a track of 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m) and the rear track was 3 ft 6 in (1.07 m). The Railton weighed 6,280 lb (2,849 kg).


The Railton being prepared at Bonneville in 1939. The fuel tank has been relocated to the car’s port side, and a large ice tank has been added at the back of the car. The man by the body is painting the Gilmore Red Lion on the nose of the car.

On 5 April 1938, the nearly-complete Railton was debuted for the press. The car was missing its wheel covers, but the craftsmanship involved in its construction and the vehicle’s purpose were evident. Attending the event was Eyston, who, in his Thunderbolt car, had established a new LSR of 311.42 mph (501.18 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 312.20 mph (502.44 km/h) over the km (.6 mi) on 19 November 1937. The Railton was first displayed to the public on 18 April at Brooklands. There were no suitable places in Britain to test the car, so once it was completed, it was packed up and sent to the United States at the end of July.

When Cobb, his team, and the Railton arrived on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Eyston and Thunderbolt had been there for a few weeks. The weather had been bad, and Eyston had not been able to make any record attempts. The course was shortened to about 10 miles (16 km) because of the poor conditions. For starting, first gear was engaged, and the Railton was pushed by a truck to about 20 mph (32 km/h), at which point the magnetos were energized to start the engines. Cobb began testing the Railton, including a first shakedown run up to around 250 mph (402 km/h) without the car’s body. Initial test runs with the body resulted in deformations caused by air pressure pushing on specific areas at the rear of the body. Also, hot exhaust from the center cylinder banks damaged the top of the aluminum body. The body was straightened and reinforced, and an asbestos-lined steel shield was added behind the upper exhaust stacks. On 20 August 1938, conditions had improved, and Cobb took the Railton out for a serious test run. The peak speed was 300 mph (483 km/h) and the Railton averaged 270 mph (435 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km).

On 25 August 1938, the camera timing equipment failed to record Eyston in the Thunderbolt on what would have been a record-breaking run. The failure was caused by a lack of contrast between the car and the background. As a result, both Thunderbolt and Railton were partially painted black to improve contrast. On 27 August, Eyston in the Thunderbolt established a new LSR at 345.49 mph (556.01 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 345.21 mph (555.56 km/h) for the km (.6 mi).


Cobb and the Railton making a run on the Salt Flats in 1939. The trip that year was quite successful, but the start of World War II overshadowed the records.

On 30 August 1938, Cobb made a record attempt. The Railton’s quick acceleration caused the tires to spin, subsequently damaging them, and the attempt was aborted. Even so, Cobb reached 325 mph (523 km/h). More work was done while the surface of the Salt Flats continued to improve. Cobb had found that the driveshaft friction brakes were sufficient to stop the car, and the airbrake was removed. A record attempt was made on 12 September, but issues with shifting the car resulted in a speed of 342.50 mph (551 km/h). With the knowledge and experienced gained by all the previous runs, another record attempt was made on 15 September. Cobb made his run north and covered the mile (1.6 km) at an average of 353.29 mph (568.57 km/h). The body was quickly removed, and the tires were changed during the turnaround. On the return south, the Railton averaged 347.16 mph (558.70 km/h). Cobb and the Railton were successful and set new records of 350.20 mph (356.59 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 350.10 mph (563.43 km/h) over the km (.6 mi).

Eyston and his team had been modifying Thunderbolt for even more speed in case Cobb got the record. On 16 September 1938, one day after Cobb’s record run, Eyston and Thunderbolt made another attempt. The runs established a new LSR at an average of 357.50 mph (575.34 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 357.34 mph (575.08 km/h) for the km (.6 mi).

Cobb and Railton knew their car was capable of more speed. They also learned a lot from its first outing and had a number of modifications in mind. The decision was made to not push the Railton for higher speeds, but to return to England, modify the car, and return to Bonneville in 1939, when conditions might be even better.


Cobb sits in the bodyless Railton in 1947. This image illustrates the tight fit under the body of the two Lion engines, various tanks, and other components. The twin belts, pulley, and shaft of the anti-stalling device can be seen between the cockpit and rear engine, which drove the front wheels.

Back in England, the Railton’s frame was modified to prevent its deflection by engine torque, and the suspension was upgraded. The cooling system was revised by incorporating a new 90 US gal (75 Imp gal / 341 L) tank for ice between and behind the car’s rear wheels. A new 22 US gal (18 Imp gal / 21 L) water tank with an additional header tank of about 6 US gal (5 Imp gal / 23 L) replaced the fuel tank on the right side of the car. The fuel tank was relocated to the left side of the car where the old water tank used to be. For the new cooling system, a thermostat controlled the flow of ice water from the ice tank to the water tank. Water from the water tank flowed to the engines. The total-loss system did not circulate water back to the tank, but vented the heated water out of the car. An opening was added at the front of the car that ducted air to the front engine. The engines’ supercharger gears were changed to increase impeller speed and provide additional boost. The Gilmore Oil Company of California was brought on as a major sponsor for the 1939 record attempt, and the car was often referred to as the Railton Red Lion for that year. Gilmore’s mascot/logo was a red lion, and the company had a line of Red Lion Gasoline.

Cobb, his team, and the Railton were back at the Bonneville Salt Flats in mid-August 1939. The salt was in good condition, and Cobb would have a course of about 13 miles (21 km) for the record attempt. On 17 August, a single run north was made at 352.94 mph (568.00 km/h). A tire tread had separated, and some adjustments to the car were needed. The baffling in the coolant header tank was subsequently modified, and the car was put back into good working order. On 22 August, an attempt was made, and speeds for the run north were recorded at 369.23 mph (594.22 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 365.57 mph (588.33 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). On the return south, the left engine powering the front axle acted up, and the run was aborted. Adjustments were made to the carburetors, and another run was planned for the following day.

On 23 August 1939, the car was prepared, and Cobb set off in the early morning. The run north was covered at 370.75 mph (596.66 km/h) through the mile (1.6 km) and 367.92 mph (592.11 km/h) through the km (.6 mi). The car was back on the course in 25 minutes, after changing all four tires and adding fuel, oil, and water. On the run south, the Railton averaged 366.97 mph (590.85 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 371.59 mph (598.02 km/h) over the km (.6 mi). The average of the runs were new LSRs at 368.86 mph (593.62 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 369.74 mph (595.04 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). Cobb had exceeded six miles a minute, and a tachograph recording unit in the car indicated the peak speed was 380 mph (612 km/h).


While the body could be lifted by six men, many hands make light work. The oil tank is just forward of the rear wheel, followed by the relocated (in 1939) water and header tank. Many Dzus fasteners used to secure the body can be seen on the undershield. Note the very forward position of the driver

The Railton had performed so well that the decision was made to attempt longer distance records, and the car and the course were subsequently reconfigured. On 26 August 1939, Cobb and the Railton set new speed records covering 5 km (3.1 mi) at 326.66 mph (525.71 km/h), 5 miles (8.0 km) at 302.20 mph (486.34 km/h / timing equipment issues made this speed unofficial), 10 km (6.2 mi) at 283.01 mph (455.46 km/h), and 10 miles (16 mi) at 270.35 mph (435.09 km/h). Since the runs were made on the 13-mile (21-km) course, Cobb applied the brakes before exiting the longer, timed sections.

When the team had set off for the United States, Europe was in an unstable state and seemingly headed toward war. On 3 September 1939, as the team returned to England after their successful record runs, Britain declared war on Germany after the latter’s invasion of Poland on 1 September. Against such a backdrop, record setting became insignificant and irrelevant. During the war, the Railton was placed in storage, and Cobb served as a pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary. But there was still some unfinished business, as Cobb knew the Railton was capable of more speed.

Toward the end of 1945, Cobb had the Railton removed from storage and sent to the Thomson & Taylor shop to be put in working order. Since the engines did not have a flywheel, they had a tendency to rev down and stall out during gear changes. Such an occurrence essentially brought a record run to an end. While the car was being worked on, Railton, who was now living in the United States, had a device fitted to both engines to prevent the stalls. The device was essentially a shaft that connected the engine to its drive line via a belt-driven overrunning clutch. If the engine speed dropped below one-seventh that of the drive line, the shaft turned by the drive line would keep the engine running. Other modifications were additional ducting to feed air from the opening at the front of the body to both engines and changing the final drive gears for high speed. New fuels allowed the engines to operate up to 4,000 rpm, and the pair produced a combined 3,300 hp (2,461 kW). The work on the Railton was performed under the ever-watchful eye of Ken Taylor. The Gilmore Oil Company, a major sponsor from 1939, had been bought out by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, which marketed its products under the “Mobil” name. The company agreed to sponsor Cobb’s efforts in 1947, and the car became the Railton Mobil Special.


A serious Cobb peers out the windscreen of the Railton. The slits forward of the canopy brought in air to the cockpit. A steel and asbestos panel behind the upper exhaust stacks protected the car’s body from heat damage.

The restored Railton was displayed before the press in late June 1947 and departed for Bonneville in July. The salt flats and the course were found to be in poor condition, and the Railton’s engines ran roughly. It took some time to resolve carburation issues and make the engines run right. One of the engines was later damaged during a test run. A camshaft was shipped from England to repair the Lion. When the engine issues had been resolved, the ice tank was punctured during a test run. After the tank was repaired, everything was finally in order for a test run on 14 September. The run north was timed at 375.32 mph (604.02 km/h). However, the rough course had caused the aluminum body to crack, necessitating yet more repairs.

On 16 September 1947, the wind had picked up considerably and the course was still less than ideal, but the car was ready. Cobb decided to make a record attempt. Setting off to the south, Cobb shifted into second gear at around 120 mph (193 km/h) and hit third at around 250 mph (402 km/h). The Railton shot through the measured mile (1.6 km) at 385.645 mph (620.635 km/h). The tires were changed and fluids refilled. On the run north, Cobb covered the mile (1.6 km) at 403.136 mph (648.785 km/h). The two-way average of the runs was a new LSR at 394.197 mph (634.399 km/h). And so it was that a 47-year-old man in a 10-year-old car with 20-year-old engines established a new LSR. It had taken quite a bit of effort to set the record in 1947, but Cobb and the team were confident the car could break 400 mph (644 km/h) on both runs if the course were a little better and the wind a little less. The Railton had left the measured mile (1.6 km) at about 410 mph (660 km) and was still accelerating. Plans were started to make another attempt the next day, but a serious rainstorm ended any hope for further runs.

LSRs were big news in the late 1920s and early 1930s. By 1947, and with no challengers on the horizon, Cobb breaking his own record was not nearly as sensational as previous LSRs. Cobb decided not to race the Railton again unless his record was broken. The LSR remained Cobb’s long after his tragic death on 29 September 1952, when his Crusader jet boat disintegrated during a water speed record attempt at over 206 mph (332 km/h). Cobb did make at least one demonstration of the Railton at Silverstone Circuit in England on 20 August 1949. In 1953, the Railton was sold by Cobb’s estate to the Dunlop Rubber Company, which donated it to the Museum of Science and Industry in Birmingham in July 1955. The car was displayed in the United States in 1954 (New York) and 1962 (San Francisco), and at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. In September 2001, the Railton was moved to the Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, where the car is currently on display.


The Railton on the wide expanses of the Salt Flats in 1947. The various exhaust manifolds can be seen above and below the body. Note the two streams of water pouring out the underside of the car from the total-loss cooling system.

Essentially, Cobb and the Railton held the LSR for 25 years*—from 1939 until Donald Campbell went 403.10 mph (648.73 km/h) in the turboshaft-powered Bluebird CN7 on 17 July 1964. Cobb’s record represented the end of an era, as later speed machines used jet engines to push them along. But, the LSR for the class of piston-powered, wheel-driven cars is still the goal for many racers. On 9 September 1960, Micky Thompson made one run at 406.60 mph (654.36 km/h) in the Challenger 1 before a failed transmission aborted his return. Bob Summers went 409.277 mph (658.667 km/h) in Goldenrod on 12 November 1965, a speed that was not bettered until 21 August 1991, when Al Teague averaged 409.986 mph in Spirit of ’76. Tom Burkland in the Burkland 411 Streamliner achieved 415.896 mph (669.319 km/h) on 26 September 2008. On 17 September 2012, George Poteet in Speed Demon averaged 439.024 mph (706.541 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km). In a car originally built by his father in 1968, Danny Thompson averaged 448.757 mph (722.204 km/h) in Challenger 2 on 12 August 2018. On 13 August 2020, Poteet in Speed Demon took back the record, averaging 470.016 mph (756.417 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km).

*Or 24 years if Craig Breedlove’s 407.447 mph (655.722 km/h) run in Spirit of America on 5 August 1963 is considered. At the time, the record for the three-wheel, jet-powered, non-wheel-driven Spirit of America was not officially recognized.

Note: Spirit of ’76 and Burkland 411 Streamliner both used supercharged engines, while Goldenrod was normally aspirated. Goldenrod’s speed record for a piston-powered, normally aspirated, wheel-driven car stood for 45 years until 21 September 2010, when Charles Nearburg in Spirit of Rett achieved 414.316 mph (666.777 km/h).


The Railton on display at the Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum. Although fitting, the name “Dunlop” was never painted on the car while it was breaking records. (Geni image via Wikimedia Commons)

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
Napier: The First to Wear the Green by David Venables (1998)
The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
The Land Speed Record 1930-1962 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
The John Cobb Story by S. C. H. Davis (1953)
Napier: Lions at Large 1916 – 2016 by Alan F. Vessey (2016)


Eyston Thunderbolt Land Speed Record Car

By William Pearce

In 1935, Englishman George Edward Thomas Eyston traveled for the first time to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, United States. At Bonneville on 3 September 1935, Eyston was able to witness Malcolm Campbell setting a Land Speed Record (LSR) in the last of his Blue Bird cars at 301.473 mph (485.174 km/h) covering one km (.6 mi) and 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h) covering one mile (1.6 km). In August, Eyston set a number of endurance records in his car, Speed of the Wind, which had been specially designed and built by Eyston and his partner, Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge. Eyston and Speed of the Wind set more records in 1936 and intended to return to Bonneville in 1937.


George Eyston in the Thunderbolt on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1937. Note the short headrest fairing and the clearance bulges in the body panels above the wheels and engine.

In early 1937, Eyston and Eldridge began the design of an LSR car to break Campbell’s record and achieve a speed greater than 350 mph (565 km/h). Campbell’s last Blue Bird car was powered by a Rolls-Royce R engine and was supported by six wheels. It was quickly decided that the new LSR car would use two engines. After consulting with Dunlop, it was determined that the car’s weight necessitated the use of eight wheels. The car was primarily designed by Eyston. Eldridge contracted pneumonia returning from Bonneville after Speed of the Wind’s successful runs in 1936. Eldridge passed away on 27 October 1937, one day before the new LSR car was first run at Bonneville.

The new vehicle’s design progressed quickly, and Eyston and Eldridge were able to use their many contacts to obtain the parts needed for the car. However, major sponsors for their effort were in short supply. Eyston had become acquainted with many people at Rolls-Royce while he was building the Kestrel-powered Speed of the Wind. Eyston was able to acquire two Rolls-Royce R engines, the same type that Campbell had used to set several LSRs and had been used to set water and air speed records. Some sources state that Eyston wanted Merlin engines. However, since the Merlin was in an early production stage at the time and only produced around 1,030 hp (768 kW), this seems unlikely. Although heavier, the R engine had proven its reliability and produced twice the power of the then-current Merlin. With the power plant decided, serious work began on the new LSR car, which was later named Thunderbolt.


This top view of the Thunderbolt under construction illustrates the car’s layout. Note the track difference of the two front sets of wheels. The header water tank for each engine can be seen by the cockpit. The exhaust for the inner banks is at the center of the car. Only a single wheel is mounted on each side of the rear axle. The airbrakes are deployed and being skinned.

Thunderbolt was built to be strong and heavy. Two frame rails, 18 in (457 mm) tall at their maximum, ran the entire length of the car and supported all major components. A radiator was positioned at the front of the car and had an elongated, eight-sided opening. Behind the radiator was a splitter that directed air that had passed through the radiator either up above the car or below it. Both upper and lower air exits were positioned between the front-most wheels, which did not have brakes. Another set of front wheels with a slightly wider track were positioned behind the first set. This configuration allowed for a more streamlined nose and ensured the second set of front wheels would not ride in the ruts created by the first set of wheels. Drive shafts connected to the second set of wheels were equipped with hydraulically actuated disc brakes at their inner ends, which were supported by the main frame rails. This arrangement provided friction braking for the front of the car. All four front wheels were used to steer the Thunderbolt and featured independent suspension actuated by transverse leaf springs.

Behind the second set of front wheels was the cockpit. While the cockpit was open, the driver sat behind a windscreen. A headrest extended behind the cockpit and was faired into the car’s body. The main frame rails ran on both sides of the cockpit. The Rolls-Royce R engines were positioned behind the cockpit and outside of the main frame rails. A supporting frame extended outward from each of the main frame rails and cradled the engines. The placement of the engines added weight on the rear axle and helped improve adhesion to prevent wheel spin.

A header water tank was positioned in front of each engine, above the supercharger and alongside the cockpit. The intake scoops for the engines protruded above the car’s body and were located just forward of the cockpit. The intake duct ran under the header tank and to the supercharger. For the outer cylinder banks, individual exhaust stacks protruded from the car’s sides. Exhaust from each inner cylinder bank was collected by a manifold and directed out the upper-center of the car with the outlets protruding above the car’s body. Between the engines and the main frame rails was a 22 US gal (18 Imp gal / 82 L) oil tank and a 48 US gal (40 Imp gal / 182 L) fuel tank.


Nearing completion at Bean Industries, the Thunderbolt goes through an engine test run. Compressed air was used to start the engines. A cover is installed on only one of the engine intake scoops. Note the eight-sided radiator. (Getty image)

The output shaft of each engine was coupled to the three-speed transmission through friction plate clutches. However, the final drive gear was locked in using dog clutches to prevent slip. To accommodate the two engines, the transmission was 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m) wide and located on the Thunderbolt’s centerline. The transmission alone was 2,469 lb (1,120 kg) and contained 54 US gallons (45 Imp gal / 205 L) of gear oil, which was water cooled. It was connected to the drive wheels via a bevel gear. Two wheels were mounted to the drive axle on each side of the car, and each side used independent transverse leaf spring suspension. The drive shaft extended behind the rear axle and supported a hydraulically actuated disc brake, providing friction braking for the rear of the car. Behind the rear wheels were hydraulically controlled air brakes.

A light metal frame surrounded the car and served to secure Thunderbolt’s aluminum body panels. The body was designed by French aerodynamicist Jean Andreau. The body panels were made by Birmal Boat, Ltd and covered the car except for the radiator and cockpit openings. The panel fitment to the frame was so tight that bulges were needed to provide clearance for each wheel and for the valve covers of the engines’ outer cylinder banks. Most of the panels were designed to be quickly removed, especially those covering the wheels and engines. The Thunderbolt’s body tapered back behind the rear wheels, and a vertical tail was fixed at the extreme rear.


Thunderbolt at Bonneville in 1937. Note the fixed vertical tail. The dual rear wheels are visible, as is the outline of the retracted air brake. Eyston did not use the air brakes in 1937.

Thunderbolt was 30 ft 5 in (9.27 m) long, 7 ft 2 in (2.18 m) wide, and weighed 13,900 lb (6,305 kg). All eight tires were made by Dunlop and were 7.75 in (197 mm) wide and 44 in (1,118 mm) tall. The tires were mounted on wheels that were 7 in (178 mm) wide and 31 in (787 mm) tall and had a steel center and an aluminum rim. Each tire and wheel weighed around 210 lb (95 kg). At speed, the tires rotated 45 times each second and became 1.5 in (38 mm) taller. Reportedly, the R engines used in Thunderbolt had been derated for reliability and produced around 2,000 hp (1,491 kW). At power, the engines consumed 9.6 US gallons (8 imp gal / 36.4 L) of fuel each minute. Engines R25 and R27 were used in Thunderbolt. R25 was previously used in the Supermarine S.6B S1596 to set an absolute speed record of 379.05 mph (610.02 km/h) on 13 September 1931. Engine R27 had previously powered S.6B S1595 to set a new absolute speed record of 407.5 mph (655.1 km/h) on 29 September 1931. Additionally, Campbell had loaned one of his spare engines, R17, to Eyston.

Design and construction of Thunderbolt took about seven months, but the actual assembly of the car took only around six weeks. The car was built by Bean Industries, Ltd in Tipton, England. Reportedly, as the car was nearing completion, a public relations representative from Castrol wanted a name for the car. Eyston said to name it whatever he liked, and the representative from Castrol decided on Thunderbolt. Eyston, Speed of the Wind, and the untested Thunderbolt left for Bonneville in late August 1937 and arrived on 3 October. Upon arrival, the weather was poor, and the Salt Flats were in a sorry state. Time was needed for everything to improve, and that was time Eyston needed to finalize Thunderbolt.


This view of the Thunderbolt being serviced in 1937 with body panels removed shows the car’s inner frame. Part of the engine’s supporting cradle can be seen just under the engine. Note the coolant lines extending above the front axles.

Before getting behind the wheel of Thunderbolt, the fastest Eyston had ever driven was around 170 mph (275 km/h). On 28 October 1937, Eyston made his first test of Thunderbolt and decided to push the car. The run north was clocked at 309.6 mph (498.3 km/h), about eight mph (13 km/h) above the existing record set by Campbell. On the southbound return, the dog clutches were damaged by the engines running out of sync.

While Thunderbolt was being repaired, Eyston turned his attention to Speed of the Wind. On 3 November 1937, Eyston and co-driver Albert W. Denly set a new 12-hour record at 163.68 mph (263.42 km/h) and covered 2,000 miles (3,219 km) at an average speed of 163.75 mph (263.35 km/h). On 6 November 1937, Eyston made another run in Thunderbolt. Hoping to spare the clutches, Eyston utilized another vehicle to push start Thunderbolt and averaged 310.69 mph (500.01 km/h) on the northbound run. However, the dog clutches again failed on the southbound return.


Thunderbolt in 1938 with its new nose with rounded radiator opening, new intake scoops, and an extended tail. The headrest fairing has been extended back to the exhaust stacks, and the panels covering the wheels no longer have bulges. Barely visible are the shutters for radiator air exit on the car’s upper body between the first set of front wheels.

The clutch system underwent a modest redesign, and new parts were made. Some of the clutch redesign and new parts were made by Leo Goossen and Fred Offenhauser in Los Angeles, California. Eyston and the repaired Thunderbolt made another record run on 19 November 1937, with bad weather soon to close in. On the run north, Eyston shifted into second at 100 mph (161 km/h) and third at 200 mph 322 km/h). He covered the mile (1.6 km) at 305.34 mph (491.40 km/h) and the km (.6 mi) at 305.59 mph (491.80 km/h). It took just 16 minutes for Thunderbolt to be refueled and prepared for the return run with new tires. On the southbound leg, speed averages were 317.74 mph (511.35 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 319.11 mph (513.56 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). Eyston’s goggles had gotten caught by the slipstream, and he had to grab them with one had while steering with the other at over 315 mph (507 km/h). All the effort had been enough—Eyston and the Thunderbolt set a new LSR of 311.42 mph (501.18 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 312.20 mph (502.44 km/h) over the km (.6 mi).

In 1938, Thunderbolt was modified to improve its performance. The radiator inlet was extended slightly and rounded, with vanes added to help direct airflow. Shutters were added to the air exit to help regulate flow through the radiator. The engine intake scoops were enlarged, extended forward, and raised above the car’s body. The cockpit was enclosed by a rearward sliding canopy, and a respirator system was added. The respirator brought in fresh air from the front of the car. The headrest fairing was extended back to the center exhaust stacks. Exhaust manifolds replaced the individual stacks for the outer cylinder banks. New larger body panels without individual bulges over the wheels were installed. The vertical tail was decreased in size and modified so that it could be removed. The rear body of the car was extended for better streamlining. Coil springs replaced the heavy leaf springs used in the suspension. With all the modifications, Thunderbolt was lightened to about 12,000 lb (5,443 kg) and lengthened to about 35 ft (10.67 m).


After the timing camera failed to trigger in 1938, Thunderbolt had its sides painted black with matte paint to add contrast with the bright landscape. It was in this configuration that the car set its second LSR.

Eyston faced a challenger in 1938 in the form of John Rhodes Cobb and his LSR machine, the Railton. The Railton was designed by Reid Railton, powered by two Napier Lion engines, and much smaller and lighter than Thunderbolt. Eyston had intended to make his LSR runs in July, before Cobb arrived at Bonneville. However, bad weather and water on the course delayed any attempts until late August, by which time Cobb had arrived. On a test run at about 270 mph (435 km/h), smoke filled the cockpit due to an issue with the friction brakes. Eyston could hardly see and struggled to keep the car on the course. He felt that the respirator prevented asphyxiation and probably saved his life. Eyston decided to rely on the air brakes until the Thunderbolt slowed to 180 mph (290 km/h).

On 24 August 1938, Eyston averaged a blistering speed of 347.16 mph (558.70 km/h) on the northbound run. The return run may have been even faster, but the timing equipment malfunctioned and did not record a speed. The camera failed to trigger, most likely due to the lack of contrast with the silver car, white salt, and bright background. On the run, salt spray from the damp course was flung off the drive wheels and damaged the aluminum body panels above the wheels.


To beat Cobb, Thunderbolt’s vertical tail was removed and its nose faired over. This image shows the car with its tail removed. Also visible are the sliding canopy and the exhaust manifolds for the outer cylinder banks—all added for 1938. Note that the car’s sides are no longer black.

Repairs were made, and the sides of Thunderbolt were hastily painted matte black for contrast. On 27 August 1938, Eyston made another northward run and averaged 347.49 mph (559.23 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 346.80 mph (558.12 km/h) over the km (.6 mi). The return south covered the mile at 343.51 mph (552.83 km/h) and the km at 344.15 mph (533.86 km/h). With those speeds, Eyston had established a new LSR at 345.49 mph (556.01 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 345.21 mph (555.56 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). However, not to be outdone, Cobb bettered those marks on 15 September 1938, averaging 350.20 mph (356.59 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 350.10 mph (563.43 km/h) over the km (.6 mi).

Eyston had been preparing Thunderbolt for more speed in case Cobb took the record. The Thunderbolt’s radiator was replaced with a water tank. The radiator intake and air exit between the front tires were faired over. With the runs lasting mere seconds, the water would not completely boil over. Two small scoops, perhaps to cool the front brake, were added behind the new nose. Small bulges for the first set of front wheels were added to the body panels. The car’s vertical tail was removed. The black paint that had been hastily applied was removed, and a back high-contrast section that incorporated a yellow circle was painted on the panel covering the rear set of front wheels. On 16 September 1938, one day after Cobb took the record, Eyston and Thunderbolt made another attempt. Northward, the mile (1.6 km) was covered at 356.44 mph (573.63 km/h) and the km (.6 mi) at 355.06 mph (571.41 km/h). Traveling south, the speed was 358.57 mph (577.06 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 359.64 mph (578.78 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). The runs established a new LSR at an average of 357.50 mph (575.34 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 357.34 mph (575.08 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). Eyston reported no stability issues in the tailless car, but said that the lack of a radiator caused the cockpit to get quite hot on the return run as the water boiled off.


Eyston and Thunderbolt setting their third LSR. The black, high-contrast section by the second front wheel is visible. Note the lack of a vertical tail.

Wanting to break the 360-mph (580-km/h) mark and go faster than six miles (9.7 km) per minute, Eyston took Thunderbolt out again on 21 September 1938. Just entering the measured mile (1.6 km) on the run north at over 360 mph (580 km/h), the cover for the right rear wheels broke free. As the cover tore loose, it damaged the two right rear tires and caused them to destroy themselves. Unsure of the issues, Eyston kept the throttle down through the mile (1.6 km), which was only about 10 seconds. After the mile (1.6 km), Thunderbolt skidded to a stop three miles (5 km) short of the course’s end with its right rear corner dragging. The car was too damaged to be repaired at Bonneville. Despite the damage and extra resistance through the measured mile (1.6 km), the car’s average speed was recorded as 349.85 mph (563.03 km/h).

While Cobb returned to Bonneville in August 1939 and set new LSRs at 368.86 mph (593.62 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 369.74 mph (595.04 km/h) for the km (.6 mi), Eyston decided to take some time off from LSRs. Thunderbolt had been repaired, and Eyston knew it was capable of more speed, but not much more. Rather than racing again, Thunderbolt went on a world tour and was displayed at the New York World Fair in mid-1939. The car was subsequently sent to New Zealand and displayed in the British Pavilion at the Centennial Exhibition. After the Exhibition ended in May 1940, Thunderbolt and some other exhibits were stored at the Exhibition site in Rongotai, near Wellington. The outbreak of World War II put other priorities ahead of the exhibits. Extra space at the Exhibition site was used to store wool and several aircraft and aircraft engines. On 25 September 1946, the wool spontaneously ignited, and the blaze spread quickly amongst the 27,000 bales of wool in storage. Everything in the building, including Thunderbolt, was consumed by the fire. Reportedly, the remains of Thunderbolt were still located near the site as late as December 1956. The engines had been removed before the car was on display and were preserved. Engines R25 and R27 are respectively on display at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon and the London Science Museum.


Thunderbolt at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. This image illustrates the car in its final record-setting configuration. Note the covered nose, small scoops behind the nose, and the small bulges above the front set of wheels. The black section on the car’s side had a yellow circle at its center. The cockpit canopy and outer cylinder bank manifold are also visible. At this point, the R engines had been removed and mockups installed in their place. The Union Jack on the nose (and the rear body at one point) was added after the final record run.

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
Fastest on Earth by Captain G. E. T. Eyston (1939)
Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)
The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
Leap into Legend by Steve Holter (2003)
– “An Interview with Capt. G. E. T. Eyston” by William Boddy, Motor Sport (October 1974)
– “Thunderbolt Damaged in Speed Trail” San Pedro News Pilot (21 September 1938)

Speed of the Wind 1936 group

Eyston – Eldridge Speed of the Wind / Flying Spray

By William Pearce

As a teenager, Englishman George Edward Thomas Eyston was forbidden from racing bicycles by his parents. Unable to resist the thrill of motorsports, Eyston raced motorcycles under an assumed name to hide his activities from his parents. Eyston took a break from racing while he fought in World War I but returned to the sport shortly after the war, while he was in his mid-twenties. Eyston liked setting records, and in the late 1920s, he took on Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge as his Record Attempt Manager. Eldridge was a racer and record-setter in his own right, most famously setting a World Land Speed Record (LSR) on 12 July 1924 at Arpajon, France, driving the FIAT Mephistopheles at an average of 146.013 mph (234.985 km/h) over the flying km (.6 mi).

Speed of the Wind 1935 Getty 637451646

The recently completed, but yet to be painted, Speed of the Wind. The exhaust system and mufflers were used for the early-morning tests at Brooklands. Note the surface radiator in front of the cockpit. (Getty image)

Many of Eyston’s records were set on the speed ring at the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry track south of Paris, France. He became such a prolific record-breaker that the French dubbed him “le Recordman.” Eldridge and Eyston believed that setting speed records was a better business than racing. In racing, the winner would only be on top until the next race, which would be in hours or days or a week. But with speed records, the publicity and sponsorship opportunities would continue until the record was broken, which could be months or years. In addition, a bad race could garner negative publicity, but a failed record attempt mostly went unnoticed. In 1934, Eyston and Eldridge designed a car specifically to set endurance records between one and 48 hours. The concept of such a car may have been partly inspired by John Cobb and his Napier-Railton racer, which was completed in 1933. The Eyston and Eldridge endurance car was named Speed of the Wind, although some sources refer it as Spirit of the Wind.

Speed of the Wind was large and streamlined, but had a rather conventional appearance for a record-breaker. The car was powered by an unsupercharged Rolls-Royce Kestrel V-12 engine. The engine had a 5.0 in (127 mm) bore and a 5.5 in (140 mm) stroke. It displaced 1,296 cu in (21.2 L) and produced around 500 hp (373 kW). A normally aspirated engine was selected for increased reliability for the up to 48 hours of continuous operation needed for the endurance record runs. The particular Kestrel engine acquired for Speed of the Wind had been used by Rolls-Royce to power a test cell ventilation blower. Rolls-Royce designed and built a special shallow oil pan to provide enough ground clearance for the low-slung engine installed in Speed of the Wind.

The engine was installed in the front of the car and powered the front wheels via a four-speed transmission. The front axle had independent suspension supported by a transverse leaf-spring. Watching Citroën cars going endlessly around the Montlhéry speed ring inspired Eyston to use the front-wheel drive configuration on Speed of the Wind; it struck him that the front-wheel drive layout might offer a slight advantage for endurance records on circular tracks. The front drive wheels pulled the car around the course without skidding, while cars with rear drive wheels had a tendency to skid as they were pushed around the course.

Speed of the Wind 1935 Getty 637472104

The “nostrils” on the front of the car seldom held lights and were often at least partially covered. The caps for the left and right fuel tanks are visible on the car’s sides, just in front of the tires. (Getty image)

At the very front of the car and cut low into the body was a rectangular slot that fed air to a radiator. Two large holes that resembled nostrils were cut into the bodywork above the slot. These holes housed lights and also supplied additional cooling air to the radiator. The holes were often either partially or completely covered during many record runs. Covering the holes was a way to improve the car’s aerodynamics when the cooling system was not fully taxed or when the lights were not needed. A three-core surface radiator for oil cooling was positioned between the engine and the cockpit.

The cockpit was located between the surface radiator and rear axle. The lack of a driveshaft to the rear axle of the front-wheel-drive car enabled the driver’s seat to be positioned very low. The driver was protected by a windscreen and had removable panels on both sides of the cockpit to improve streamlining and ease access to the car. A large fuel tank was located on each side of the car, between the engine and cockpit. The rear of the car tapered back and down, while a faring behind the headrest extended back to form a short tail. Speed of the Wind was built by the C.T Delaney works, in Carlton Vale, northwest of London.

The completed, but unpainted, car was tested at Brooklands in 1935. A special muffler system was added to quiet the car for the early-hour and somewhat secretive testing. Once everything seemed in order, Speed of the Wind was painted red, and the car and its team set off for the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, United States. On the same ship was Malcolm Campbell, also traveling to Bonneville to set speed records with the last of the Blue Bird LSR cars. Eyston and Ernest arrived at Bonneville in time to see Campbell set his last LSR on 3 September 1935. Campbell covered 1 km (.6 mi) at 301.473 mph (485.174 km/h) and a mile (1.6 km) at 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h).

Ricardo Diesel Kestrel RR-D

The Rolls-Royce Kestrel-derived diesel engine built by Harry Ricardo. The side cover is removed to reveal the gearset that drove the sleeve valves. Note the fuel injectors positioned atop the cylinder bank.

In addition to the straight course setup for LSR attempts, Bonneville had circular courses 10 to 13 miles (16 to 21 km) in length (depending on the year and conditions) for endurance records. Earlier in 1935, American Ab Jenkins and Briton John Cobb had battled each other for various endurance records in their respective Duesenberg Special and Napier-Railton racers. When Eyston and Speed of the Wind arrived at Bonneville, Jenkins held most of the endurance records, including 24 hours at an average of 135.580 mph (218.195 km/h), covering 3,354 miles (5,398 km). One exception was the 10-mile (16.1-km) record, which was set by New Zealander Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith in the Fred H. Stewart Enterprise at 164.084 mph (264.077 km/h) on 26 January 1932.

On 6 September 1935, Eyston in Speed of the Wind established new records, covering 10 miles (16.1 km) at 167.09 mph (268.91 km/h), 100 km (62 mi) at 161.13 mph (259.31 km/h), 100 miles (161 km) at 159.59 mph (256.84 km/h), and 159.30 miles (256.37 km) in one hour. Mechanical difficulties with the front drive axle prevented the completion of additional endurance records.

Speed of the Wind was repaired, and another attempt was made on 16-17 September 1935. While slightly slower on the shorter records, Eyston and his co-drivers, Albert W. Denly and Christopher S. Staniland, managed to keep the car going for 24 hours. A 12-hour record was set at 143.97 mph (231.70 km/h), covering 1,728 miles (2,780 km), and 5,000 km (3,107 mi) was covered at 140.43 mph (226.00 km/h). The average speed for the 24-hour record was 140.52 mph (226.15 km/h), and a distance of over 3,372 miles (5,427 km) was traveled.

Flying Spray April 1936

With the Ricardo Diesel engine installed, the car became Flying Spray. At Bonneville in April 1936, the car now had an enclosed cockpit. Not seen is the cockpit cover. Note the disc wheel covers used to make the wire wheels more aerodynamic.

Earlier in 1935, rules governing vehicles powered by compression ignition (diesel) engines were officially recognized. Eyston had set numerous diesel endurance records which weren’t recognized in America, and the American diesel LSR of 137.195 mph (220.794 km/h) set by Wild Bill Cummings in the Cummins Diesel Special #5 on 2 March 1935 was not internationally recognized. Eyston saw an opportunity to break all existing diesel LSRs and set new world records that would be recognized by all.

British engineer Harry Ricardo had built a diesel, sleeve-valve version of the Kestrel. Known as the RR/D (Rolls-Royce/Diesel) or Ricardo Diesel. The engine could be fitted to Speed of the Wind with only minor modifications. Compared to the Kestrel, the Ricardo Diesel’s bore was decreased by .25 in (6.35 mm) to 4.75 in (121 mm). This provided room for the single sleeve valve around each cylinder. The sleeve valves were driven from the rear of the engine by a gearset that ran along the outer side of each cylinder bank. A new cylinder head featured a vortex-type combustion chamber with a fuel injector positioned vertically atop the chamber. The Ricardo Diesel displaced 1,170 cu in (19.2 L) and produced 340 hp (254 kW) at 2,400 rpm.

Flying Spray April 1936 run

Flying Spray being serviced before a record attempt in April 1936. Note that the nostrils are completely covered.

With the diesel engine installed, the car was renamed Flying Spray. An enclosed canopy was added to the car. In February 1936, the car was run at Pendine Sands, but no records were set. It was then sent to Bonneville, where on 29 April 1936, Eyston and the Flying Spray established new diesel LSRs. A total of three complete (out and back) runs were made, and the middle set was the fastest. Eyston set the diesel flying km (.6 mi) record at 159.10 mph (256.05 km/h), and the flying mile (1.6 km) record at 158.87 mph (255.68 km/h). These records stood until 11 September 1950, when they were broken by Jimmy Jackson in the Cummins Diesel Special #61 Green Hornet.

The spark ignition Kestrel engine was reinstalled, and the car was once again called Speed of the Wind. Two scoops were added atop the cowling to bring in air for the engine, and the cockpit canopy was discarded. Eyston and co-driver Denly were back at Bonneville in July to improve upon their endurance records. On 6 July 1936, a one-hour record of 162.528 mph (261.564 km/h) was set, breaking the old record by three mph (5 km/h). However, mechanical trouble brought a halt to the run before other records were broken.

Speed of the Wind 1936 group

A group photo from August 1936 shows Eyston in the cockpit and Eldridge on the far right. With the spark ignition engine reinstalled, the car was once again called Speed of the Wind. Note that the nostrils are nearly covered, new intake scoops have been added to the engine cowling, and the enclosed canopy has been discarded.

The car was repaired, and Eyston and Denly set off in Speed of the Wind to break more records on 12 July 1936. The action did not stop until two days later, on 14 July. A 5,000 km (3,107 mi) record was set at 150.221 mph (241.758 km/h); 3,578 miles (5,759 km) were covered in 24 hours at an average of 149.096 mph (239.947 km/h); a 10,000 km (6,214 mi) record was set at an average speed of 137.453 mph (221.210 km/h); and a 48-hour record was achieved at an average of 136.349 mph (219.432 km/h), which covered 6,545 miles (10,533 km).

Eyston and Speed of the Wind were back at Bonneville in October 1937, along with Thunderbolt—an LSR car built by Eyston and Eldridge. Thunderbolt was powered by twin-Rolls-Royce R engines, and Eyston would race it and Speed of the Wind, which had been modified with an enlarged tail and a vane attached to its front right corner. The vane acted as a rudder to help push the car into the constant turn needed for the circular endurance course.

Speed of the Wind 1937 Eyston

The taller tail and nose mounted vane are clearly visible as Speed of the Wind passes the camera at Bonneville in late 1937.

Jenkins and the Mormon Meteor II had established a new set of endurance records. In late October, Eyston and Denly made an attempt in Speed of the Wind to take the endurance records back, but inclement weather brought a halt to the endeavor. Another attempt was made on 3 November, and a new 12-hour record was set at 163.68 mph (263.42 km/h). In that time, Eyston and Denly had covered 1,964 miles (3,161 km). Speed of the Wind also covered 2,000 miles (3,219 km) at an average speed of 163.75 mph (263.35 km/h). However, the run could not be continued to 24 hours because the Speed of the Wind team had run out of tires due to the earlier attempt.

Eyston would spend the next few years setting LSRs in Thunderbolt and no longer focused on endurance runs with Speed of the Wind. At the start of World War II, the car was stored at Eyston’s workshop in Willesden, northwest of London. Speed of the Wind / Flying Spray (and the workshop) were destroyed by a German bomb during the London Blitz in late 1940 and early 1941. The Ricardo Diesel that powered Flying Spray was preserved and is on display at the British National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, England.

Speed of the Wind 1937 Eyston service

Speed of the Wind is serviced in 1937 as Eyston sits in the Cockpit. Note the surface radiator and taller tail.

The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
– “An Interview with Capt. G. E. T. Eyston” by William Boddy, Motor Sport (October 1974)
– “Speed Record set by Eyston” San Bernardino Sun (4 November 1937)
The High-Speed Internal-Combustion Engine by Harry Ricardo (1955)
Engines & Enterprise: The Life and Work of Sir Harry Ricardo by John Reynolds (1999)


Cobb Napier-Railton Endurance Racer

By William Pearce

After John Rhodes Cobb made a small fortune as a fur broker, he started auto racing. Early in Cobb’s racing career, he served as a riding mechanic for Ernest Eldridge and his FIAT Mephistopheles racer, and he occasionally drove John Godfrey Parry-Thomas’ Babs racer on the Brooklands raceway in Surrey, England. In the late 1920s, Cobb had established himself as a capable, gentleman racer at Brooklands. His cars were often serviced by Thomas at his shop, located at the Brooklands raceway. The company was formed by Thomas and Ken Thomson, and renamed Thomson & Taylor in 1927, with Ken Taylor joining the firm after the death of Thomas during a Land Speed Record attempt.


John Cobb sits behind the wheel of the Napier-Railton at the Brooklands track. The exhaust system with mufflers was a requirement for Brooklands and did a good job of muting the engine. Note the vertical bars covering the radiator.

In late 1932, Cobb ordered a special car from Thomson & Taylor that would be able to set lap records at Brooklands as well as establish endurance records up to 24 hours, with sustained speeds in excess of 150 mph (241 km/h). Cobb had previously set the Outer Circuit lap record at Brooklands three times, and it was a record that was special to Cobb. Cobb and Thomson & Taylor gave the task of designing the car to Reid Antony Railton, head engineer. Railton knew he would need to come up with a design that was strong, durable, and reliable to stand up to the rough Brooklands track and the prolonged endurance runs. The car Railton designed would be known as the Napier-Railton.

In selecting an engine for the new racer, Railton wanted something that was powerful and reliable—a high-performance engine capable of running at high-power for 24 hours. Railton selected the normally aspirated Napier Lion XIA. The Lion was a 12-cylinder aircraft engine with three banks of four cylinders. The center bank extended vertically from the crankcase, with the left and right banks angled at 60 degrees from the center bank. Normally fitted with a propeller gear reduction, the Lion XIA for the Napier-Railton was modified by Napier with a special, elongated crankshaft and the removal of the gear reduction. As tested by Napier, the special Lion XIA produced 502 hp (374 kW) at 2,200 rpm, 564 hp (421 kW) at 2,350 rpm, and 590 hp (440 kW) at 2,700 rpm. The engine was fitted at the front of the car and mounted between the chassis’ two large frame rails, which were 10 in (254 mm) tall. Five cross members secured the car’s frame.


The chassis of the Napier-Railton with its Napier Lion engine and three-speed transmission. The two levers by the transmission were for the gear shift and driveshaft brake. The oil tank can be seen extending below the driveshaft and under what would become the cockpit.

Behind the engine was a single-plate clutch and the three-speed transmission. Since the car was to operate almost entirely at high speed, the first and second gears were much weaker than the robust third gear. This enabled the transmission to be smaller and lighter. The transmission drove the rear axle’s very strong differential, which had a 1.66 drive ratio. The forged rear axle housing was made of three sections: a center section that carried the differential, and left and right sections that carried the full-floating axle shafts. An oil sump, finned for cooling, was attached to the bottom of the axle’s center section. The car’s front and rear axles were positioned above the underslung frame rails, which enabled the car to have a low center of gravity. The suspension for the front axle used half-elliptical leaf springs, and the suspension for the rear axle used two sets of cantilever leaf springs on both sides of the car. The Napier-Railton was fitted with drum brakes on the rear axle and no brakes on the front axle. A driveshaft brake was operated by a hand lever and acted as a parking brake.

The chassis was covered by an aluminum body made by Gurney Nutting Ltd. The radiator at the front of the car was encased by the body, with a large opening for cooling air. At various times, the radiator opening was covered with vertical bars, a single bar, or no bars at all. The engine cowling had large humps for the left and right cylinder banks, a louvered top, and was secured by leather straps. Exhaust gases from each of the three cylinder banks were collected into separate manifolds, with the manifold for the center bank located on the left side of the car. An exhaust system consisting of a muffler and tailpipe extending to the rear of the car could be attached to each manifold. This system was used when the car competed at the Brooklands track. An undershield covered the bottom of the chassis.


At 6 ft 3 in and around 240 lb, Cobb was one of the few that could make the large Napier-Railton look almost normal-size by comparison. The leather straps that secured the engine cowling passed through the humps covering the left and right cylinder banks.

The cockpit was behind the engine and offset to the right, with the driver’s feet to the right of the transmission. The throttle pedal was in the center, with the brake pedal on the right and the clutch pedal on the left. A raised scuttle panel and windscreen protected the driver. At times, an enlarged scuttle and a shield to the cockpit’s right rear were added to protect the driver from a burst tire. In addition, a covered mirror was occasionally fitted to the scuttle left of the cockpit. An 18 US gallon (15 Imp gal / 68 L) oil tank was positioned to the left of the cockpit. The tank extended under the driveshaft and below the driver’s seat, and its underside was finned for cooling. Behind the cockpit, the body of the car tapered to a short wedge. Housed behind the driver was a 78 US gallon (65 Imp gal / 295 L) fuel tank. The Napier-Railton had a 10 ft 10 in (3.30 m) wheelbase, a track of 5 ft (1.52 m), and was 15 ft 6 in (4.72 m) long. The car weighed approximately 5,000 lb (2,268 kg). Various tire sizes ranging from 19 x 7 in (483 x 178 mm) to 35 x 6 in (889 x 152 mm) were used throughout the car’s career, with smaller tires used for acceleration and larger tires fitted for top speed. The wheels were mounted to the car with knock-off hubs. For long record runs, the throttle could be held open via a cable, and lights could be added to the car. Push starting was employed to bring the Napier-Railton’s Lion engine to life.

The newly completed Napier-Railton made its debut for the press on 6 June 1933. Minor testing by Cobb and Railton occurred before the debut, and serious testing was carried out in July. The car’s public debut was at the Brooklands track on 7 August 1933. Cobb set a Brooklands standing start lap record on the first lap of the Napier-Railton’s first race, covering the 2.75-mile (4.43-km) course at an average of 120.59 mph (194.07 km/h). The Napier-Railton went on to win the short race.


A builder and team photo of the Napier-Railton at Brooklands. Cobb is in the driver’s seat; Ken Taylor is on the far left; Ken Thomson is third from left; Reid Railton is fourth from left. Note the single vertical bar on the radiator housing.

Cobb then took the Napier-Railton to the 1.58-mile (2.55-km) speed ring at the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry track south of Paris, France for an attempt on the 24-hour record. Over 6 and 7 August 1933, American Ab Jenkins had established a new 24-hour record of 117.821 mph (189.615 km/h) driving a Pierce-Arrow V-12 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This was the speed to beat. Cobb had previously arranged to use some equipment provided by George Eyston, a friend and fellow racer who was familiar with endurance runs at Montlhéry. The Napier-Railton’s exhaust mufflers were removed, and individual stacks were used. An angled shield was added to the scuttle left of the cockpit to block the exhaust flame glare from the center bank during night running. For the 24-hour attempt, Cobb’s co-drivers were Brian Lewis, Cyril Paul, and Tim Rose-Richards. Starting the record run on 2 October 1933, the car tore through its tires, and some difficulty was experienced with changing them. Push-starting the car after pit stops was also problematic. Rules stipulated that the car needed to travel forward under its own power. After shutting the car off during a pit stop, the crew needed to push it back some distance so that it could be pushed forward and started before it reached its original stopping point. Although several records were set with the Napier-Railton, including 200 miles (322 km) at 126.84 mph (204.13 km/h), 500 miles (805 km) at 123.27 mph (198.38 km/h), and six hours at 122.62 mph (197.34 km/h), the 24-hour attempt was abandoned after the radiator developed a leak and parts of the Montlhéry circuit began to break up under the car’s relentless pounding.

Back at Brooklands, Cobb and the repaired Napier-Railton set a new standing-start mile (1.6 km) record at an average of 102.52 mph (164.99 km/h) on 31 October 1933. On 4 November, the standing-start kilometer (.6 mi) record fell at 88.521 mph (142.461 km/h). Cobb was also timed covering 1 km (.6 mi) at 143.67 mph (231.21 km/h), the fastest speed recorded at Brooklands up to that point. On 2 April 1934, the Napier-Railton established a new Brooklands Outer Circuit lap record of 139.71 mph (224.84 km/h). Later that month, the Napier-Railton was back at Montlhéry for another 24-hour attempt. Cobb was supported by co-drivers Charles Brackenbury, Freddie Dixon, and Cyril Paul. Starting on 16 April, six hours passed at an average of 123.01 mph (197.97 km/h), 12 hours at 121.19 mph (195.04 km/h), and 2,000 miles (3,219 km) at 120.71 mph (194.26 km/h). On 17 April, after 19.5 hours had elapsed, Dixon lost control of the car, hit a guardrail and wound up in an infield ditch. Dixon was unharmed, but the Napier-Railton was damaged, and the record run was over. An AMR 33 light Army tank was required to pull the heavy car from the ditch. The Napier-Railton racer returned to the Thomson & Taylor works where it was repaired. At Brooklands on 6 August 1934, Cobb won the Championship Race and set a new Outer Circuit lap record at 140.93 mph (226.77 km/h).


Cobb takes flight as the Napier-Railton transitions over the River Wey to the Railway Straight and Brooklands. The bridge over the river created a bump that caused faster cars to become airborne, an indication of how Brooklands was a rough track. The image illustrates both the enlarged scuttle and the rear shield added to protect the driver. Note the bar-less radiator housing.

In mid-August 1934, Jenkins increased the 24-hour record to 127.229 mph (204.756 km/h). Cobb still wanted to set his own 24-hour record, and Jenkins’ success on the 10-mile (16-km) circular track in the wide expanses of the Salt Flats convinced Cobb to make the trip to Bonneville in mid-1935. For the Bonneville record attempt, a 120 US gallon (100 Imp gal / 455 L) fuel tank with two filler necks replaced the 78 US gallon (65 Imp gal / 295 L) tank, and the side panels covering the engine were removed for additional cooling. Like at Montlhéry, individual exhaust stacks were used.

Cobb, his team, and the Napier-Railton arrived at Bonneville in early July 1935. Ever the sportsman, Jenkins had a lot of equipment already setup on the Salt Flats and left it there for Cobb to use. On 12 July 1935, Cobb established a new 1-hour record at 152.70 mph (245.75 km/h) and a 100-mile (161 km) record at 152.95 mph (246.15 km) while testing the car on the salt. Backed by co-drivers Charlie Dodson and Rose-Richards, Cobb and the Napier-Railton set 16 records over 15 and 16 July 1935. The average speed for 500 miles (805 km) was 147.66 mph (237.64 km/h); 1,000 miles (1,609 km) was 144.93 mph (233.24 km/h); 12 hours was 139.84 mph (255.05 km/h); 2,000 miles (3,219 km) was 137.86 mph (221.86 km/h); 3,000 miles (4,828 km) was 134.56 mph (216.55 km/h); and 24 hours was 134.85 mph (217.02 km/h). In that 24-hour period, the Napier-Railton covered 3,236 miles (5,208 km).


The Napier-Railton in front of Gus F. Koehler’s Hudson dealership in Salt Lake City in 1935. The Hudson Motor Car Company provided courtesy vehicles to Cobb and his team. In its Bonneville configuration the Napier-Railton had a larger fuel tank, individual exhaust stacks, and its engine side covers removed. American and British flags were painted atop the radiator housing. The anti-glare shield appears in place on the left side of the car, but the windscreen is missing.

While Cobb achieved his goal, the record did not stand for long. At the end of August 1935, Jenkins increased the 24-hour record to 135.580 mph (218.195 km/h), covering 3,354 miles (5,398 km) in his new Duesenberg Special. In mid-September, the record was broken again at Bonneville, this time by George Eyston in Speed of the Wind, averaging 140.52 mph (226.15 km/h) and covering 3,372 miles (5,427 km). In three months, three groups of racers in three separate cars established three new 24-hour records, which varied by less than six mph.

After returning to England, Cobb and Rose-Richards won a 500-mile (805-km) race at Brooklands on 22 September 1935. The Napier-Railton averaged 121.28 mph (195.18 km/h), a speed that would not be bettered in a 500-mile (805-km) race until the 1949 running of the Indianapolis 500. On 7 October 1935, Cobb and the Napier-Railton set a final lap record at Brooklands of 143.44 mph (216.36 km/h). This speed was not exceeded before the track was partially torn up during World War II. During the attempt, Cobb covered 1 km (.6 mi) at 151.97 mph (244.57 km/h), the fastest speed recorded at Brooklands.


Cobb starting an attempt for the 1-hour record in 1936. The electric starting motor can be seen just before the rear tire. The driver would pull the lever that pressed the roller against the tire. The electric motor would then be turned on, driving the entire car forward. With a little bit of speed, the clutch could be let out, forcing the ever-reliable Lion engine to turn over and fire.

In mid-July 1936, Eyston increased his 24-hour record with an average speed of 149.096 mph (239.947 km/h), covering 3,578 miles (5,759 km). Cobb had already planned to make another attempt on the 24-hour record. By early September 1936, Cobb was back in Bonneville with Brackenbury, Johnny Hindmarsh, and Rose-Richards as his co-drivers. The Napier-Railton had a new external electric starting motor that, when engaged, drove the right rear tire to effectively push-start the car. Also, an exhaust manifold (without mufflers) was fitted to the center bank to reduce the glare from the flames at night. On 10 September, using the 12-mile (19-km) course, Cobb set a new 1-hour record at 167.69 mph (269.87 km/h) and covered 100 miles (161 km) at 168.59 mph (271.32 km/h). On 12 and 13 September, the Napier-Railton established four new records, including averaging 156.85 mph (252.43 km/h) over 1,000 miles (1,609 km), 149.27 mph (240.23 km/h) over 2,000 miles (3,219 km), and 150.16 mph (241.66 km/h) over 24 hours, covering 3,604 miles (5,800 km). Cobb’s new 24-hour record was less than one mph faster than the previous record set by Eyston; once again, the record did not stand for long. In late September 1936, Jenkins took back many of the records and averaged 153.823 mph (247.554 km/h) for 24 hours, covering 3,692 miles (5,942 km).

The Napier-Railton raced only at Brooklands in 1937. On 29 March, it won a race averaging 136.03 mph (218.92 km/h), the fastest race ever run at Brooklands. On 18 September 1937, Cobb, co-driver Oliver Bertram, and the Napier-Railton won a 500 km (311 mi) race averaging 127.05 mph (204.47 km/h). This was the last time the car was run on the track. Cobb retired from circle-track racing to focus attention on his Land Speed Record (LSR) car, the twin-Lion powered Railton. Eyston and Jenkins continued their duel for endurance records, and Eyston tried for absolute LSR records with his Thunderbolt car. The Napier-Railton was stored through World War II and acted as an LSR car for the 1951 film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Installed for the film were a streamlined radiator housing, a headrest behind the cockpit, and an elongated tail.


The Napier-Railton being utilized by the GQ Parachute Company to test aircraft braking parachutes. The pylon atop the rear of the car could automatically retract the parachute and store it for reuse. The streamlined nose was made for the 1951 film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and was removed in the mid-1950s.

After Cobb’s death while attempting a water speed record in September 1952, the Napier-Railton was used by Geoffrey Quilter of the GQ Parachute Company. The car remained mostly as it had appeared in the movie, but a smaller fuel tank was fitted, and a parachute testing structure was mounted above the rear axle. To improve stopping, discs replaced the drum brakes on the car’s rear axle. Quilter used the car for a number of years to test aircraft braking parachutes. Eventually, the original radiator housing replaced the movie nose.

The Napier-Railton was purchased by Patrick Lindsay in 1961. Lindsay competed in various Vintage Sports Car Club meets and other events, and was clocked at 165 mph (266 km/h) in the Napier-Railton. After Lindsay passed, the Napier-Railton was acquired by Bob Roberts in 1971. The car was restored to a configuration similar to how it appeared while being raced at Brooklands by Cobb. After Robert’s death, the car was purchased by Victor Gauntlett in 1987 and was subsequently acquired at auction by a German collector in July 1991. Following a protracted three-year negotiation, the Napier-Railton returned to England under the ownership of Lukas Hüni in early 1997. Under an agreement with the Brookland Society, Hüni held the car until funds could be raised to purchase the Napier-Railton for the Brooklands Museum. The car’s purchase was finalized in December 1997, and the Napier-Railton was officially handed over to the Brooklands Museum on 6 May 1998. The Napier-Railton, still equipped with its original engine, is on display at the Brookland Museum and is occasionally run for special events. Over its career, the Napier-Railton set seven records at Brooklands, 11 records at Montlhéry, and 29 records at Bonneville.


The Napier-Railton in its current form enjoying some sun. The car has been mostly returned to how it appeared for its various runs at Brooklands and is occasionally run at special events. (Dave Rogers image via Wikimedia Commons)

Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
Brooklands Giants by Bill Boddy (2006)
The 1933 24-litre Napier-Railton, Profile Publications Number 28 by William Boddy (1966)
Napier: The First to Wear the Green by David Venables (1998)
The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
The John Cobb Story by S. C. H. Davis (1953)
Napier: Lions at Large 1916 – 2016 by Alan F. Vessey (2016)
– “King of Brooklands: The ex-John Cobb Napier-Railton Impressions” by Don Vorderman, Automobile Quarterly Volume IX, Number 1 (Fall 1976)

Campbell-Railton-R-R 2013 National Motor Museum

Blue Bird LSR Car Part 4: Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce (1933-1935)

By William Pearce

Starting in 1925, Malcolm Campbell had established himself as a notable record breaker, setting new absolute World Land Speed Records (LSRs) six times. The development of his Blue Bird cars, from the Sunbeam 350HP, to the Napier-Campbell, and to the Campbell-Napier-Railton, demonstrated a steady improvement in speed and design.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1933 no body

With the Rolls-Royce R engine fitted, the chassis of the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird is shown nearly completed in December 1932. It was fundamentally the same as when powered by the Napier Lion. Note the new coolant tank (just forward of the engine) shaped to fill up the empty space in the car’s body.

Shortly after setting an LSR over the flying mile (1.6 km) at 253.968 mph (408.722 km/h) on 24 February 1932, Campbell considered ways to exceed 300 mph (483 km/h). Campbell’s then-current car, the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird, was powered by a 1,450 hp (1,010 kW) Napier Lion VIID W-12 engine. After returning to England from the record runs in Daytona Beach, Florida, Campbell started negotiations with Rolls-Royce to acquire an R racing engine. The 1,900 hp (1,417 kW) R engine was originally developed for the 1929 Schneider Trophy Contest, and its output was increased to 2,350 hp (1,752 kW) for the 1931 contest. The engine powered the winner of both races—the Supermarine S.6 in 1929 and the S.6B in 1931. On 29 September 1931, a special 2,500 hp (1,864 kW) sprint version of the R engine was used to power a S6.B to a new absolute speed record of 407.5 mph (655.8 km/h).

Beyond the personal satisfaction these records offered Campbell, there was a fair amount of national prestige involved. In April 1932, Rolls-Royce agreed to loan engine R37 to Campbell. Campbell approached Reid Railton to redesign his car to accommodate the R engine. The Blue Bird car was soon taken to the Thomson & Taylor shop at Brooklands for modifications, which were overseen by Railton and Leo Villa. Because of the new engine, the car is often referred to as the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird.

The Rolls-Royce R was a 60-degree V-12 that was supercharged by a double-sided impeller. The engine had a 6.0 in (152 mm) bore and a 6.6 in (168 mm) stroke. It displaced 2,239 cu in (36.7 L) and produced 2,350 hp (1,752 kW) at 3,200 rpm and 20 psi (1.38 bar) of boost. The 2,500 hp (1,864 kW) sprint version of the R made its power at the same rpm, but it used strengthened internal components and special fuels. The R37 engine sold to Campbell is often cited as a 2,500 hp (1,864 kW) sprint version which could operate at 3,400 rpm.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1933 Malcolm Donald

Malcolm Campbell and his son Donald pose next to the completed Blue Bird on 9 January 1933. Note the car’s new nose and the cowling humps for the engine’s cylinder banks. The intake for the engine stuck out prominently from above the radiator.

The R engine was longer, taller, and heavier than the Lion it was replacing. These differences necessitated changes to the Blue Bird’s chassis and body, but much of the car was unchanged. The engine was mounted to a subframe, which was then installed into the car’s frame. The three-speed gearbox was strengthened, and its ratios were updated to a 2.74 to 1 first gear, a 1.55 to 1 second gear, and a 1.00 to 1 third gear. The bevel pinion and a crown gear of the rear axle were driven at 1.2 to 1. The cockpit was still offset to the right, and the driveshaft was offset 7 in (178 mm) to the left. The left suspension had stiffer springs installed to help negate the engine’s torque.

The radiator was mounted to a new forward extension of the frame and enlarged to dissipate the extra heat generated by the more powerful engine. A new coolant tank, mounted directly forward of the engine, was made to conform to the shape of the engine and the car’s body. The car’s cooling system had a capacity of 36 US gal (30 Imp gal / 136 L). A forward-facing intake scoop positioned above the radiator increased engine boost by approximately 2 psi (.14 bar). The scoop ducted air under the coolant tank and to the engine’s four carburetors, located at the bottom of the supercharger housing. The 28 US gal (23 Imp gal / 105 L) fuel tank was still located behind the cockpit in the Blue Bird’s tail.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1933 rear

Malcolm Campbell in the Blue Bird’s cockpit. The right-side exit for the radiator cooling air is visible in front of the engine.

Modifications to the body were tested in the Vickers Ltd wind tunnel by Rex Pierson, and the chosen design was built by J Gurney Nutting & Co. The aluminum body sloped up from behind the radiator housing and formed two humps to cover the engine’s valve covers. The valve covers were actually exposed, forming the top of the engine cowling. The outer sides of the humps constituted the sides of the car’s body and had an exposed exhaust stack for each cylinder. The large cowling humps restricted visibility from the low cockpit, which was raised about 3 in (76 mm) to elevate the driver’s view.

The wheels, tires, and brakes were unchanged from the previous Blue Bird version. The front tires were 35 x 6 in (889 x 152 mm), and the rear tires were 37 x 6 in (940 x 152 mm). The tires were made by Dunlop, mounted to steel rims, and inflated to 125 psi (8.62 bar). Each tire and rim weighed approximately 224 lb (102 kg) and was secured to the car by 10 lug nuts. An aerodynamic disc made of aluminum covered each rim. Each wheel had a drum brake that was 18 in (457 mm) in diameter, 1.625 in (41 mm) wide, and machined with cooling fins around its exterior.

The Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird had a front track of 5 ft 3 in (1.60 m) and a rear track of 5 ft (1.52 m). The car’s wheelbase was increased 17.25 in (438 mm) to 13 ft 8 in (4.19 m), and its overall length was approximately 27 ft (8.23 m). It weighed around 9,000 lb (4,082 kg), which included approximately 1,450 lb (658 kg) of lead ballast by the rear axle intended to improve traction. With the more powerful R engine, wheelspin on the sandy beach was a serious concern.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1933 Donald

Donald Campbell in the Blue Bird’s cockpit. The lettering “Campbell Special” can be seen above the Union Jack. Note the screw jack mounting point by the left rear tire.

The car was finished in December 1932 and had “Campbell Special” written on the tail fin. Campbell, his team, and the Blue Bird left for Daytona Beach in January 1933. When Campbell arrived on 2 February, the beach was found to be in such a poor state that only nine miles of course were available, and all testing was put on hold in the hope that conditions would improve. After delaying two weeks for a better course, a trial run was made on 14 February that ended with an overheated gearbox after the first pass. Campbell reported a very unsteady ride on the beach and lots of wheelspin; he also injured his left hand and forearm while shifting. Work was done on the gearbox to improve oil circulation, and another week passed with Campbell recovering from his arm injury.

On 22 February 1933, the weather and beach conditions were decent, and Campbell decided to make an attempt on the record. The R engine roared to life as the Blue Bird set off south down Daytona Beach. Speeds for the run were recorded as 273.464 mph (440.098 km/h) for the km (.6 mi), 273.556 mph (440.246 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km), and 263.540 mph (424.004 km/h) for 5 km (3.1 mi). The Blue Bird was serviced, and its tires, damaged by shells on the beach, were replaced. On the return north, the speeds were 271.473 (436.893 km/h) mph for the km (.6 mi), 270.676 mph (435.611 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km), and 251.340 mph (404.493 km/h) for 5 km (3.1 mi). New records were set at an average of 272.465 mph (438.490 km/h) for the km (.6 mi), 272.108 mph (437.915 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km), and 257.295 mph (414.076 km/h) for 5 km (3.1 mi). Campbell broke his own record by 18 mph (29 km/h).

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1933 Daytona

The Blue Bird arriving at Daytona Beach in 1933. The jack screws are installed. Campbell’s crew is behind the engine and in while coveralls. From left to right are Harry Leech, Steve MacDonald (Dunlap), Alf Poyser (Rolls-Royce), and Leo Villa.

Campbell was disappointed with the speed and felt it was the worst ride he had ever had in his life. The tires had been cut by sharp shells, and the wheelspin made the car very difficult to control. Campbell planned to make another attempt on 23 February 1933 but cancelled his plans as a result of his injured hand and the poor beach conditions. Before the team returned to England, plans were in motion to redesign the Blue Bird to achieve 300 mph (483 km/h). Ideally, a longer and better course could be found that had more consistent conditions. Also, Campbell officially stated that he planned to retire from LSRs once he surpassed the 300-mph (483-km/h) mark.

Campbell and crew returned to England on 8 March 1933, but work at the Thomson & Taylor shop to modify the Blue Bird did not begin until April 1934. There was no question that Campbell was going to stick with the Rolls-Royce R engine, and he purchased R37 for £5,800. The car’s gearbox was fine, but the rear axle was damaged. A new axle was designed that incorporated dual rear wheels. The hope was that having twice the contact surface driving the car forward would lessen the wheelspin and improve traction. The rear wheels used 110 psi (7.58 bar) of air pressure, while the front wheels used 125 psi (8.62 bar). The new axle used two pinions on the same axis, with each engaging a separate axle shaft. This would decrease the tooth load but resulted in staggered axles, with the left 1.5 in (38 mm) behind the right. The new gear ratio for the rear end was 1.19 to 1. The axle was resprung equally, and ballast weight was positioned on the left side of the car to counteract engine torque.

A vacuum air cylinder was positioned behind the cockpit to operate air brakes, located behind the rear wheels. Each of the two air brakes offered 2 sq ft (.19 m2) of surface area that would be presented nearly perpendicular to the airstream. The fuel tank was relocated to the left side of the car, outside of the frame rail and between the front and rear tires. Its capacity was 48 US gal (40 Imp gal / 182 L). The steering system was revised to incorporate a more conventional design with a single steering box and interconnected front wheels.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1935 debut

The newly completed Blue Bird making its debut on 9 January 1935. The car’s streamlining was much improved. Note the relative positions of the cooling-air exit slot and the engine’s intake—this would later result in turbulent airflow into the intake. The right air brake can be seen behind the double-rear tires.

A new radiator was built that spanned the front of the car. Its new housing formed a wedge with an open slit at the front to draw in air. Using a lever in the cockpit, the slit could be closed for short periods of time to cut down wind resistance as the car traveled through the flying mile. The shape of the new radiator housing flowed into the new body, which was again developed through wind tunnel tests. The sides of the car now extended out to encompass the space between the front and rear wheels. A new tail fin extended back and up from the headrest behind the cockpit.

With the changes, and keeping all of the previous Blue Bird versions in mind, the press occasionally referred to the car as the Blue Bird V. The car had a track of 5 ft (1.52 m) and a wheelbase of 13 ft 8 in (4.19 m). Its overall width was 6 ft 11 in (2.11 m), and its overall length was 28 ft 3 in (8.61 m). The revised Blue Bird weighed around 10,450 lb (4,740 kg), including ballast.

During 1934, while the Blue Bird was being rebuilt, Ab (David Abbot) Jenkins was doing all he could to make the racing world aware of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Eventually, Railton met with Jenkins and visited the Salt Flats. Railton was impressed with that he saw and realized the LSR potential that the vast expanse offered. Campbell was also interested in the location. However, the Salt Flats were only usable in the summer and early fall, and the Blue Bird would not be finished until the winter. Because of the timing, the decision was made to take the car to Daytona Beach in January 1935. The Blue Bird’s chassis was finished in November 1934, and the body was completed in early January 1935.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1935 debut front

Front view of the Blue Bird illustrates the car’s reworked lines. The radiator intake slot is open, and its shutter door can be seen below the opening.

Arriving in Daytona Beach on 31 January 1935, the team went to work to test the newly revised car. Test runs were made on 14 February, but the main issue affecting the team was bad weather and unfavorable conditions on the beach. Jenkins heard of the wait and traveled to Daytona Beach to speak with Campbell about the Bonneville Salt Flats. He also showed a film of speed runs on the flats. Jenkins spent three weeks in Daytona, and by the time he left, Campbell was planning to be on the Salt Flats in August 1935.

Conditions had improved enough for another test run on 2 March 1935. Issues were encountered with body panels warping next to the exhaust stacks and allowing fumes into the cockpit. Also, the car’s speed actually decreased when the radiator shutter was closed—it seemed like the engine would lose power with the radiator closed. The following day, after modifications had been made, the Blue Bird recorded a one-way speed of 270.473 mph (435.284 km/h). During the run, the beach was so rough that Campbell was lifted out of his seat and his goggles were pushed down, leaving his eyes with no protection against the speeding airstream. Campbell decided against making the return run.

It was not until 7 March that Campbell attempted another record run. The mile (.6 km) run south was completed at 272.727 mph (438.912 km/h). The return north was much rougher, but the Blue Bird covered it at 281.030 mph (452.274 km/h). The average was a new record of 276.816 mph (445.492 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km), 276.160 mph (444.436 km/h) over the km (.6 mi), 268.464 mph (432.051 km/h) over 5 km (3.1 mi), and 251.396 mph (404.583 km/h) over 5 miles (8 km). The speeds were well short of the 300-mph (483-km/h) goal Campbell had set. This was the last absolute LSR set on Daytona Beach.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1935 Daytona

Campbell in the Blue Bird speeding south along Daytona Beach on 7 March 1935. The thick, black line of diesel oil marked the center of the course.

Part of the reason Campbell wanted to run on the Bonneville Salt Flats was to see if the sand at Daytona Beach was causing the discrepancy between the forecasted speed of over 300 mph (483 km/h) and the realized speed of 275 mph (443 km/h). While at speed, Campbell did not have time to look at the gauges and was unable to see if the engine boost pressure decreased when the radiator was closed. Back in England, A duplicate set of instruments were positioned in the right-side fairing. A light illuminated the instruments, and they would be recorded during runs with a Kodak movie camera to be reviewed later. Also, wind tunnel tests indicated that when the radiator slot was closed, the airstream was being deflected over the induction scoop, resulting in a decrease of engine power. The issue was solved by extending the scoop forward, past the opening for the radiator air exit. The Blue Bird was demonstrated at Brooklands on 21 April 1935 and then made ready for another LSR attempt.

The team arrived on the Bonneville Salt Flats in August 1935. Rolls-Royce had even loaned Campbell a spare engine, R39, to ensure the best possible outcome for the record attempt. Testing was done to make sure the rough salt surface would not damage the tires, and a perfectly straight and level 13-mile (21-km) course was completed on 1 September. A test run was completed on 2 September to make sure everything was in order and allow Campbell to become acclimated to the different surface. Some minor modifications were made to the Blue Bird, including increasing the clearance between the tires and wheel fairings to prevent the accumulation of salt.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1935 Bonneville

The Blue Bird after the test run at the Bonneville Salt Flats on 2 September 1935. Note the accumulation of salt between the tires and the wheel fairings. The elongated intake scoop can barely be seen. Donald Campbell is on the far side of the car by the front tire.

On 3 September 1935, Campbell climbed into the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird for an attempt on the LSR. Flying northeast across the open expanse of salt, he covered a mile in 11.83 seconds at 304.311 mph (489.741 km/h). When he closed the radiator opening, exhaust fumes filled the cockpit, and an oil mist covered the windscreen. At the end of the measured mile (1.6 km), the left front tire blew out at around 280 mph (450 km/h). Campbell had a rough time keeping the car under control; the tire caught fire, and Campbell stopped about half a mile (.8 km) short of where his crew was stationed. The crew loaded up their equipment and hurried to the car to prepare it for the return run. All six tires were changed, but the still-smoldering burst tire took much longer than the others. Barely within the hour time limit, Campbell was on the return trip southwest and covered the mile (1.6 km) in 12.08 seconds at 298.013 mph (479.605 km/h). He kept the radiator shutter open on this run and experienced a skid while braking.

Campbell exited the Blue Bird quite convinced that he had surpassed the 300-mph (483-km/h) mark. Moments later, the timekeeper informed Campbell that his speed averaged to 301.1 mph (484.6 km/h). An elated Campbell grinned broadly as the crew cheered. A few minutes later, while the team was tending to the Blue Bird, the timekeeper came back and said that an error had occurred. Campbell’s time was really 299.874 mph (482.600 km/h). Campbell was very disappointed but quickly recovered and said that he would make another attempt the next day. The team set to work preparing the car for another run. To solve the problem of exhaust fumes in the cockpit and gain some extra speed, an aluminum cockpit cover was quickly being made.

During dinner later that night, the timekeeper approached Campbell and took him aside. The timekeeper explained that a miscalculation had been made, and that he had actually gone 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h)—the initial calculation was correct. Campbell’s run in the Blue Bird was the first absolute LSR set on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Other records that Campbell set were 1 km (.6 mi) at 301.473 mph (485.174 km/h) and 5 km (3.1 mi) at 292.142 mph (470.157 km/h).

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1935 Scottish Motor Show

After setting the record at 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h), the Blue Bird was displayed in various locations. Seen here at the Scottish Motor Show in Glasgow in November 1935, the car is in the same condition as when it left the Bonneville Salt Flats. Note the extended engine intake and the front left body damage from the burst tire. The radiator slot is closed, and a Rolls-Royce R engine is in the background. (The Herald image)

Campbell was upset that the moment of his crowning achievement had effectively been taken away. True to his word, he retired from LSRs, and his run for the following day was cancelled. In a span of 11 years, Campbell had set nine LSRs, raising the record from 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h) to 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h). Within two years, Campbell would take on the even more dangerous challenge of setting Water Speed Records.

Campbell, his team, and the Blue Bird returned to England. The car was displayed in a number of exhibits and returned to the United States in 1937. It returned across the Atlantic in 1946. After Malcolm Campbell passed away on 31 December 1948, the car was purchased by his son Donald. Donald sold the Blue Bird in 1949 to acquire parts to complete the K4 hydroplane for an attempt on the water speed record. The Blue Bird returned to the United States and passed through a few owners and museums until it was acquired by the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum in Alabama, which restored the car in 1996 to the Daytona 1935 standard (no extended intake). The Blue Bird returned to England in 2004 and 2013 when it was displayed at the British National Motor Museum in Beaulieu with the Sunbeam 350HP and Donald Campbell’s Bluebird CN7. The Blue Bird is currently displayed in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, located at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. A replica of the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird is displayed at the Lakeland Motor Museum in Cumbria, England.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 2013 National Motor Museum

The restored Blue Bird at the British National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in 2013. Note the original engine intake, not the extended version used at Bonneville. (National Motor Museum image)

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
The Record Breakers by Leo Villa (1969)
The Unobtainable: A Story of Blue by David de Lara (2014)
My Thirty Years of Speed by Malcolm Campbell (1935)
The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)
Leap into Legend by Steve Holter (2003)

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Malcolm 1931

Blue Bird LSR Car Part 3: Campbell-Napier-Railton (1931-1932)

By William Pearce

Malcolm Campbell got his start in setting Land Speed Records (LSRs) in 1924 with the Sunbeam 350HP. His next LSR car, the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird, had reached its peak in 1928. Campbell knew his car needed a redesign to beat Henry Segrave’s 231.362 mph (372.341 km/h) run in the Irving-Napier Golden Arrow. In late 1929, Campbell called in Reid Railton to see what more could be done to improve the Blue Bird’s speed. Railton was an automotive engineer who worked for Thomson & Taylor at Brooklands. The Thomson & Taylor shop started out as Thomas Inventions Development, founded by John Godfrey Parry-Thomas and Ken Thomson. After Parry-Thomas, a friend and former co-worker of Railton, was killed during an LSR attempt in 1927, Ken Taylor joined the company, and it was renamed Thomson & Taylor.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Malcolm 1931

Malcolm Campbell in the newly completed Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird in January 1931. The car was powered by a 1,450 hp (1,010 kW) Napier Lion VIID W-12 engine.

Railton had the Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird sent to the Thomson & Taylor shop. A few weeks later, Railton advised Campbell that if he could acquire a 1,500 hp (1,119 kW) engine, the car could be modified to reach 250 mph (400 km/h). Campbell would need the speed. Sunbeam was finishing construction of its Silver Bullet LSR car with the goal of reaching 250 mph (400 km/h), and the car was expected to make a record attempt later in 1930.

Campbell went to the British Air Ministry seeking the loan of the latest Napier Lion engine. However, the Air Ministry was reluctant to lend an engine and required a £5,000 deposit per engine. Campbell was not prepared for this expenditure, but his friend and powerboat racer Marion Barbara (Joe) Carstairs donated £10,000 to cover the cost. Campbell returned to the Air Ministry and was able to acquire two Napier Lion VIID engines. The supercharged W-12 engine produced 1,450 bhp (1,010 kW) at 3,600 rpm and was the same type that powered the Gloster IV floatplane, an entrant in the 1929 Schneider Trophy Contest.

Once the engines were delivered, the Blue Bird was built at the Thomson & Taylor shop. The frame, front axle, rear axle center section, steering system, and brakes were all retained. A new flywheel, clutch, gearbox, and rear axle shafts were installed. The Railton-designed three-speed gearbox had a 4.01 to 1 first gear, a 2.27 to 1 second gear, and a 1.24 to 1 third gear. The gearbox was offset 7 in (178 mm) to the left and allowed the driver’s seat to be offset to the right and lowered to about 10 in (254 mm) above the ground. The lower driver’s seat allowed the height of the entire car to be kept to a minimum. The enclosed drive shaft ran along the left side of the cockpit to the rear axle, which was also offset. The rear axle was encased in an aluminum housing and driven at 1.27 to 1 via a bevel pinion and a crown gear.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird build 1930

The Campbell-Napier-Railton being built in the Thomson & Taylor shop at Brooklands. Note the offset of the gearbox and driveshaft. From left to right are Ken Thomson, Malcolm Campbell, Reid Railton, Ken Taylor, and Leo Villa.

The chassis’ half-elliptic spring suspension was altered so that the left side of the car was more heavily sprung than the right. This resulted in the left side of the car sitting slightly higher than the right when the vehicle was at rest. However, under power, the torque of the engine would level the suspension so that the car was at an even ride height. Provisions for screw jacks were added to all four corners of the chassis. Having the simple jacks built into the car would decrease the time needed to change tires between record runs.

All tires were made by Dunlop, mounted to stamped-steel rims, and inflated to 120 psi (8.27 bar). An aerodynamic disc made of aluminum covered each rim. The front tires were 35 x 6 in (889 x 152 mm), and the rear tires were 37 x 6 in (940 x 152 mm). Each tire and rim weighed approximately 224 lb (102 kg) and was secured to the car by 10 lug nuts. The 18 in (457 mm) diameter and 1.625 in (41 mm) wide drum brakes with machined fins used on the previous Napier-Campbell Blue Bird were retained, but they were operated solely by a foot pedal and used a vacuum booster.

The body designed by Railton was tested and refined by Rex Pierson in the wind tunnel at Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd. The aluminum body was built by J Gurney Nutting & Co in 36 days. A new radiator was built to conform to the car’s new body. The radiator was mounted and cowled in its own housing at the front of the car. Air would pass through the radiator and be swept upward over the engine cowling. Having the radiator separate helped keep air out of the car’s body. The coolant tank was located in the main body of the car, just in front of the engine. The cooling system held 26 US gal (22 Imp gal / 100 L) of water. A 6 US gal (5 Imp gal / 23 L) oil tank was mounted next to the engine.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird build rear 1931

The body panels of the Campbell-Napier-Railton were removable, except for the tail fin. A screw jack can be seen supporting the car. Note the “Napier-Campbell” lettering on the fin.

Just forward of the engine was a tachometer mounted to the cowling and covered with a fairing. This was installed to enable the driver to keep his eyes on the course and see the engine speed at the same time. It could also be used as a sight when the vehicle was at speed. The car’s wheel fairings were so large that they would contact the ground if a tire went flat. As a result, the bottom of the fairing was made of thin aluminum and designed to crumple without damaging the rest of the fairing in the event of a flat tire.

A small scoop “ventilator” was installed in front of the cockpit. It drew air into the cockpit, increasing its relative air pressure. This was done to prevent exhaust gases from accumulating in the cockpit and to prevent a back draft working to lift the driver out of the cockpit. A headrest positioned behind the offset cockpit tapered back into a large tail fin, which was also offset to the left of the car’s center. Behind the cockpit was a 28 US gal (23 Imp gal / 105 L) fuel tank. The filler for the gas tank was accessed by removing the headrest pad in the cockpit.

The car was finished in early January 1931 and had “Napier-Campbell” written on the tail. The car is often called the Campbell-Napier-Railton to eliminate confusion with other Blue Bird versions, and it is occasionally referred to as the Blue Bird IV. However, some publications continued to credit the car as Blue Bird III, and the American press mistakenly referred to it as the Blue Bird II. Campbell and his team continued to simply call the car “Blue Bird,” as they had done with the previous versions. The Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird had a front track of 5 ft 4 in (1.63 m) and a rear track of 5 ft 2 in (1.57 m). The car had a wheelbase of 12 ft 2.75 in (3.73 m) and was over 25 ft (7.62 m) long. The top of the cowling was 45 in (1.14 m) from the ground, and the car had 5 in (127 mm) of ground clearance. It weighed around 7,950 lb (3,606 kg), which included approximately 1,450 lb (658 kg) of lead ballast by the rear axle intended to improve traction.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Daytona Beach 1931

Campbell sits in the Blue Bird on Daytona Beach in 1931. Note the cowl-mounted tachometer just in front of the engine. The aircraft (Stinson SM-2 Junior) in the background was hired by Campbell to fly Leo Villa from the start of the course to the turnaround after the first run. As the event played out, Villa watched the Blue Bird on the return run from the aircraft since Campbell did not stop between runs.

While the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird was being built, engine and gearbox issues caused the Sunbeam Silver Bullet to fall well short of its speed goal. But a new contender, an Australian named Wizard Smith, was working on the Fred H. Stewart Enterprise and intended to reach the 250 mph (400 km/h) mark. Smith planned to run his car on Ninety Mile Beach in New Zealand, which was of much interest to Campbell. However, after the trouble in Verneuk Pan, South Africa, Campbell was sticking with Daytona Beach in Florida until someone else found a better location. Campbell left for Daytona Beach in mid-January 1931 and arrived on the 29th, hoping to set a new LSR before anyone else could.

The car was quickly prepared, and Campbell’s first test run was on 31 January 1931. This was the first time the new Blue Bird got up to any serious speed, around 200 mph (322 km/h), as there was no reasonable way to test the car at high-power in England. During the run, in thick mist and haze, the spectating crowd had pushed onto the course and were nearly hit by Campbell making his return. On 2 February, Campbell hit 240 mph (386 km/h). The next day, he had reached around 260 mph (418 km/h) when the gearbox slipped out of third gear and the engine overrevved, potentially causing damage. A quick inspection found no issues with the engine, and the team decided against swapping it out for the spare Lion. Some images show the car with the tachometer on the cowling, while others show that it was removed and covered over. However, it is not clear if the tach was missing for the practice runs and added for the record attempt, or vice versa.

The car was ready for another run on 5 February 1931, which was another imperfect day with mist and fog and rough spots on the beach. With the Blue Bird pointed to the south, Campbell gained speed and shifted into second at 80 mph (129 km/h). He noted that the car did not accelerate as quickly as it had in the past, most likely a result of some engine damage from the over-rev. Once he hit 150 mph (241 km/h), Campbell shifted into third and kept his foot firmly on the accelerator, recording a speed of 246.575 mph (396.824 km/h) over the measured mile (1.6 km). Campbell immediately turned around and started the second pass without stopping. On his return trip north, the Blue Bird reached 244.897 mph (394.124 km/h). The average of the two runs over the flying mile (1.6 km) was 245.736 mph (395.474 km/h), a new LSR. Campbell bettered Segrave’s speed in the Golden Arrow by over 14 mph (22 km/h). Campbell also set a flying km (.6 mi) speed record of 246.086 mph (396.037 km/h).

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Daytona Pier 1931

Again in 1931, the cowl-mounted tachometer has been removed and covered. Note the opening between the radiator housing and the car’s body. The Daytona Beach pier is in the background, as is the Austin that Campbell drove to a Class H (under 750 cc / 45 cu in) record of 94.031 mph (151.328 km/h) on 6 February 1931.

Campbell and the rest of the team returned to England on 20 February 1931 and received many accolades. Campbell was knighted on 21 February by King George V, but Campbell knew that the Blue Bird could achieve faster speeds under better conditions. The Enterprise in New Zealand was still under construction and a possible contender for the absolute LSR. Although Campbell was the first person to exceed 240 mph (four miles per minute) on land, the 250 mph (400 km/h) mark was just a few mph away. After Daytona, the Blue Bird was sent on a brief trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina for a British Empire Exhibition. Once back in England, the Blue Bird was demonstrated at Brooklands on 24 May, and preparations were soon underway to return to Daytona Beach in 1932.

No significant changes were made to the Blue Bird for its LSR attempt in 1932. The radiator was slightly decreased in size and covered with a new cowling that had a smaller, extended opening. The cowl-mounted tachometer was removed, and the spare Lion engine was installed. However, some changes had occurred at Daytona Beach. The beach was a little over 23 miles (37 km) long, but a pier was positioned near its center, cutting the beach into two 10-mile (16-km) sections. Ten miles (16 km) had been enough room to set flying km (.6 mi) and mile (1.6 km) records, but it was a challenge to set 5-mile (8-km) records, and very difficult to set 10-km (6.2-km) records. As the absolute LSR was pushed higher, even the 10-mile (16 km) stretch of beach was becoming inadequate. To work toward a solution, some pilings were removed from the pier, creating a 50-ft (15-m) gap for LSR cars to speed through. However, even the most courageous of men, like Campbell, felt that trying to thread the 50-ft (15-m) needle at high-speeds was asking for trouble. The end result was that the course was extended beyond the pier, but not much. LSR cars would go under the pier at around 100 mph (160 km/h) while accelerating or under braking, depending on the direction of travel. No attempts were made to pass through the pier at top speed, and this left attempts on the 10-mile (16-km) record highly inadvisable for Daytona Beach.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Brooklands track 1931

Campbell demonstrates the Blue Bird at Brooklands on 24 May 1931. Note that the disc covering the rear wheel has been removed. The exhaust ports for the upper and left cylinder banks of the Napier Lion are visible.

Whenever possible, Campbell liked to set records on the same course and at the same time, with different sets of timing equipment recording the times for different distances. With the changes extending the course to 12 miles (19 km), Campbell and the Blue Bird would attempt LSRs up to the flying 10 km (6.2 mi). Campbell and team arrived at Daytona Beach on 10 February 1932—the Blue Bird was in perfect condition, but the beach was not. The pressure was on, as Wizard and the Enterprise were already in New Zealand and had set a 10-mile (16-km) record at 164.084 mph (264.077 km/h) on 26 January. The Enterprise was being prepared for an attempt on the absolute LSR as well as record attempts for longer distances.

After waiting for some time, the conditions on Daytona Beach had improved but were still far from perfect. On 20 February 1932, Campbell made a preliminary test run in the Blue Bird with rather rough results. On 24 February, while conditions were still improving, Campbell decided to make another test run south before a record attempt. Campbell liked what he saw and felt during the test run and decided to give the southbound leg all that he had. Aided by a 20-mph (32-km/h) tailwind, the Blue Bird covered the flying mile at 267.459 mph (430.434 km/h). The northbound return against the wind was at 241.773 mph (389.096 km/h), giving an average of 253.968 mph (408.722 km/h) over the flying mile (1.6 km). New records for the 1 km (.6 mi) and 5 km (3.1 mi) were set at 251.340 mph (404.493 km/h) and 241.569 mph (388.768 km/h) respectively. Speeds for the 5 mile (8 km) and 10 km (6.2 mi) were not recorded due to a malfunction with the timing equipment.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Daytona 1932

Campbell and the Blue Bird rocket north along Daytona Beach on 24 February 1932. The revised nose was somewhat sleeker and well-matched with the rest of the large car’s aerodynamic body.

Campbell was a little disappointed with the speeds, and decided to try again. Rain prevented any record attempts on 25 February 1932, and although the 26th was clear, the wind had kicked up, and the beach was deteriorating. Campbell decided to make a run for fear that the conditions would continue to get worse. The speeds for the km (.6 mi) and mile (1.6 km) were slower, but he set new records for 5 km (3.1 km) at 247.941 mph (399.023 km/h), 5 mile (8 km) at 242.751 mph (390.670 km/h), and 10 km (6.2 mi) at 238.669 mph (384.101 km/h).

Just after breaking the 250 mph (400 km/h) mark, and even before returning to England, Campbell was considering what it would take to reach 300 mph (483 km/h). If the Blue Bird could reach 250 mph (400 km/h) with the 1,450 hp (1,081 kW) Napier Lion, then surely 300 mph (483 km/h) would be possible with a 2,500 hp (1,864 kW) Rolls-Royce R engine. It was not long before Campbell acquired an R engine and work on fitting it into the car began. This led to the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Brooklands side 1932

Campbell sits in the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird at Brookland on 28 March 1932. Note the Thomson & Taylor sign in the background.

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

The Land Speed Record 1930-1939 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
The Record Breakers by Leo Villa (1969)
The Unobtainable: A Story of Blue by David de Lara (2014)
Napier: The First to Wear the Green by David Venables (1998)
My Thirty Years of Speed by Malcolm Campbell (1935)
Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1929

Blue Bird LSR Car Part 2: Napier-Campbell (1927-1929)

By William Pearce

When Malcolm Campbell set his first Land Speed Record (LSR) at 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h) on 25 September 1924, he knew the record would not stand for long. The Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird that he was driving was an old design, and faster cars, like the Djelmo, were in the works. Campbell decided to start designing a car capable of 180 mph (290 km/h). However, there was still a little speed left in the 350HP, and Campbell upped his own record to 150.869 mph (242.800 km/h) on 21 July 1925. The car was then sold, and work concentrated on the new LSR car.

Napier-Campbell Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1927 no bodyBlue Bird 1929

View of the bodyless Napier-Campbell Blue Bird at Pendine Sands. Note the exhaust manifold for the center cylinder bank, the coolant (water) tank above the steering column, the size of the gearbox, and the oil and fuel tanks behind the rear axle.

Campbell had used his connections with the British Air Ministry to acquire a 450 hp (356 kW) Napier Lion VA aircraft engine, which resulted in the car often being referred to as the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird, but it was also called the Blue Bird II. The Lion had a “broad arrow” configuration made up of three cylinder banks, each with four cylinders. One cylinder bank was in the vertical position, and it was flanked on the left and right by the other cylinder banks at a 60 degree included angle. The W-12 engine had a 5.5 in (140 mm) bore and a 5.125 in (130 mm) stroke. Total displacement was 1,461 cu in (23.9 L), and the Lion produced 450 hp (356 kW) at 2,000 rpm and 502 hp (374 kW) at 2,200 rpm.

With the engine on hand, Campbell turned to Amherst Villiers, a well-respected British engineer, to design the Napier-Campbell LSR car around the Lion engine. However, the relationship soured, and Villers left the project after the frame was designed. Italian engineer Joseph Maina, a friend of Campbell’s head mechanic Leo Villa, took up the project and designed the rest of the future record-breaker.

The Napier-Campbell LSR car was of a fairly conventional layout. The car’s C-channel frame rails were made by Vickers Ltd using a special steel with three-percent nickel. The frame’s four cross members were machined from solid forgings. The engine was installed near the front of the vehicle and behind a custom-made radiator. The 12 US gal (10 Imp gal / 45 L) coolant reservoir tank was positioned behind the engine and around the steering column. The steering column led to a cross-shaft with two steering boxes, each operating a drag link that extended along the side of the car to a front wheel.

Napier-Campbell 1927 M-D Campbell

Malcolm Campbell sits in the cockpit of the newly-completed Napier-Campbell as a serious-looking Donald prepares for his own record-braking future. Note that the windscreen has not been installed.

The special three-speed epicyclic (planetary) gearbox was designed by Maina and Forster Brown. Part of Maina’s agreement with Campbell was that the Napier-Campbell LSR car would use his gearbox, as Maina and Brown were trying to market the design to the automotive industry. The forward speed gear ratios were a first gear of 3.0 to 1, a second gear of 1.5 to 1, and a third gear of 1 to 1. A reverse gear was also included. The shift lever extended from the right side of the gearbox. An enclosed drive shaft (torque tube) led from the gearbox to the rear axle. The rear axle was encased in an aluminum housing and driven at 1.27 to 1 via a bevel pinion and a crown gear. Behind the rear axle was a 12 US gal (10 Imp gal / 45 L) oil tank and a 24 US gal (20 Imp gal / 91 L) fuel tank.

The car was supported with half-elliptic spring suspension. The front tires were 33 x 5 in (838 x 127 mm), and the rear tires were 35 x 5 in (889 x 127 mm). The Dunlop tires ballooned to 5.85 in (149 mm) wide when filed with air. All four wheels used 18 in (457 mm) diameter drum brakes that were 1.625 in (41 mm) wide. The drums were machined with fins around their circumference to dissipate heat. The brakes could be operated by either a foot pedal or a hand lever. The Napier-Campbell had a front track of 5 ft 5.25 in (1.66 m) and a rear track of 4 ft 9 in (1.45 m). The car had a wheelbase of 12 ft 1.5 in (3.70 m) and was 15 ft (4.57 m) long. It weighed around 6,000 lb (2,722 kg).

The car’s Lion engine, Villers frame, and Maina gearbox were delivered to Robinhood Engineering Works, which was founded by Kenelm Lee Guinness. Here, the chassis was completed and made ready for the body. The car was then transported to Campbell’s Povey Cross estate where it could be completed under the watchful eye of Leo Villa.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1927 Pendine early

The Napier-Campbell at Pendine Sands in early January 1927. The engine cowling has no louvers. A small windscreen sits ahead of the cockpit, and there are no wind deflectors by the cockpit sides. Note the water on the sand.

The aluminum body of the Napier-Campbell was made by workers from Jarvis & Sons and fitted as close to the chassis as possible. A large opening at its front provided cooling air to the radiator. Individual exhaust stacks for the left and right cylinder banks protruded from bulges in the engine’s cowling. Exhaust for the center cylinder bank was collected in a manifold that split into two pipes behind the engine, with one pipe exiting the left side of the cowling and the other pipe exiting the right side. The cockpit was positioned above the drive shaft, and the driver’s legs straddled the gearbox and its shifter. Two large tachometers dominated the dashboard, with one indicating the engine rpm and the other the driveshaft rpm. A small windscreen was positioned in front of the cockpit, and an aerodynamic headrest extended behind the cockpit. Behind the rear wheels, the car’s body tapered into an extended tail. When Campbell went to sit in the nearly completed car, it was found that the steering wheel needed to be removed for him to get in and out of the cockpit.

While the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird was being constructed, Henry Segrave, driving a modified Sunbeam racer, slightly increased the LSR to 152.33 mph (245.15 km/h) on 16 March 1926. The record was then decisively smashed by John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in the Liberty V-12-powered Babs on 27 April 1926 at a speed of 168.074 mph (270.489 km/h). Parry-Thomas upped the record to 170.624 mph (274.593 km/h) the following day. Parry-Thomas was looking to push his car further, and others were quickly closing in on Napier-Campbell’s target speed of 180 mph (290 km/h). To make matters worse, Sunbeam was constructing a special 1,000 hp car designed to propel Segrave to over 200 mph (322 km/h). If an LSR was in his future, Campbell and his Blue Bird would need to act fast.

The Napier-Campbell Blue Bird was completed on 30 December 1926 and taken to Pedine Sands for its first test on 2 January 1927. Running on the very wet beach, the gearbox was hard to shift, the brakes were very inadequate, and the cockpit design resulted in wet sand flying into Campbell’s face and covering his goggles. The car was returned to Povey Cross where work was done on the gearbox and brakes. A larger windscreen was installed, and wind deflectors were added just in front of the cockpit sides. A significant amount of air had been blowing out of the cockpit, and the updraft made Campbell uncomfortable. To redirect the airflow, vents were added to the car’s tail, and louvres were added to the previously smooth engine cowling. Some sources indicate a new racing version of the Napier Lion VA was installed. This engine had a higher compression ratio and produced 585 hp (436 kW) at 2,350 rpm. It was built for the Gloster II floatplane intended for the 1924 Schneider Trophy Contest, which was postponed.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1927 Pendine Record

Campbell running at Pendine Sands in late January or early February 1927. The Napier-Campbell now has louvers on the cowling, a larger windscreen, wind deflectors by the cockpit, and vents on both sides of the tail. Note the single exhaust stack for the center bank protruding from the bulge in the cowling. Another stack is located on the other side of the car.

Later, in mid-January, Campbell returned to Pendine Sands but could only reach approximately 160 mph (257 km/h), not fast enough to set a record. The poor conditions caused part of the issue, but the car was still experiencing difficulties. Work continued on the Napier-Campbell while everyone waited for better weather. On 20 January, Campbell made a record attempt and achieved 166.38 mph (267.76 km/h) against the wind and 171.30 mph (275.68 km/h) with it. The average of 168.84 mph (271.72 km/h) was not sufficient for a new record. Campbell made two more attempts on the record, but the beach conditions prevented him from bettering his speed.

The Napier-Campbell was returned to Povey Cross for more work and in the hope that better conditions would soon prevail at the beach. Campbell and the car returned to Pendine Sands on 30 January 1927, but conditions were still far from ideal. On 3 February, Campbell had two furrows plowed along the beach to help drain water and make a strip of dry sand. The work was somewhat successful, and on 4 February, Campbell felt that the weather was tolerable and the beach sufficiently dry to attempt a record. On his first run, he covered the km (6 mi) at 179.157 mph (288.325 km/h). On the return, a bump lifted Campbell out of his seat, and his head hit the slipstream. The wind pushed Campbell’s goggles up his forehead, and he had to drive squinting and with one hand while he pulled them down. The mishap decreased Campbell’s speed to 169.291 mph (272.448 km/h). However, it was still enough to set new records, averaging 174.883 mph (281.447 km/h) in the flying km (.6 mi) and 174.224 mph (280.386 km/h) in the flying mile (1.6 km).

Although Parry-Thomas congratulated Campbell on the new record, he also wanted to win it back. On 3 March 1927, Parry-Thomas in Babs was trying to regain the record, when the car went out of control and crashed. Parry-Thomas was killed in the accident, becoming the first person to die while attempting a LSR. On 29 March 1927, Campbell’s record was obliterated when Segrave averaged 203.793 mph (327.973 km/h) over the flying mile (1.6 km) at Daytona Beach, Florida in the Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1928 Daytona

The Napier-Campbell Blue Bird at Daytona Beach. The angle gives a good view of the two surface radiators on each side of the car, the rear wheel fairings, and the steering links. The front wheel fairings are not installed.

Campbell was not pleased that he had been beaten to 180 mph (290 km/h) and 200 mph (322 km/h). He knew the Blue Bird in its then-current form would not be able to exceed Segrave’s record, but with so much invested and now having become completely obsessed with setting LSRs, Campbell decided to rebuild the Napier-Campbell to surpass the 200 mph (322 km/h) mark.

The results of the rebuild left the basic chassis unchanged, but a new Lion VIIA engine was installed at the Napier works in Acton Vale. The engine produced 900 hp (671 kW) at 3,300 rpm and was similar to the one used in the Supermarine S5 floatplane that won the 1927 Schneider Trophy Contest. The Lion VIIA engine was considered “Secret,” and Campbell had negotiated conditions with the British Air Ministry for its use. Other changes included updating the rear axle to a 1.5 to 1 drive ratio. A completely new body was designed by Rex Pierson, chief designer at Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd, and based on results achieved in their wind tunnel. The front radiator was discarded, and a set of two surface radiators were installed on each side of the car, just behind the cockpit. The radiators were built by Fairey Aviation, and each panel contained 122 cooling elements and was 4 ft 7 in (1.40 m) long and 1 ft 7 in (.48 m) tall. The four panels had a total of approximately 2,400 ft (732 m) of tubing. Water entered the radiators by the cockpit and exited the lower rear side.

The car’s new body was built of 18-gauge aluminum by Barkers Ltd. The nose of the body was rounded and enclosed. It extended back to completely encompass the engine, without the bulges of the previous body. Exhaust from the center cylinder bank was now expelled via individual stacks protruding through the right side of the cowling. The scuttle and cockpit sides were built up to limit the amount of air and sand entering to cockpit. The cockpit sides slid down for driver entry and exit. Fairings were added behind the front wheels, and the rear suspension was completely enclosed in fairings. Two different size tail fins were made that could be added behind the cockpit to improve directional stability. The larger fin rose to a height about 8 in (200 mm) above the headrest, and the smaller fin extended back from the headrest fairing at a slight decline. As a result of the changes, the car’s length was extended by 3 ft (.91 m) to 18 ft (5.49 m), and its weight was reduced by a couple hundred pounds to around 5,820 lb (2,640 kg). The updated car was sometimes referred to as Blue Bird III.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1928 Getty

Campbell demonstrating the Napier-Campbell at Brooklands on 9 April 1928, after returning from Daytona Beach. The front wheel fairings are installed, as is the smaller tail fin. Note the space under the cowling between the new updated Lion engine and the car’s new body. (Getty image)

The rebuilt Napier-Campbell racer was completed in January 1928, and Campbell and the car arrived in Daytona Beach, Florida on 12 February. The smaller tail fin was fitted for the record runs. During a test run on 16 February, the car struck some bumps at speed and became airborne. Campbell was lifted out of his seat, and when the car came back down, the underpan caught on the sand and was ripped off. The suspension was also damaged. The car was repaired, and on 19 February 1928, Campbell ran with the wind and covered a mile at 214.797 mph (345.682 km/h). Campbell noted the steering as very heavy, and he lost control immediately after the end of the run as the car slewed to the side. Fortunately, a quick recovery was made, but Campbell was quite shaken from the experience. Campbell decided not to change tires during the turn around for fear that he would not get back into the car. His return leg against the wind was a bit smoother and run at 199.667 mph (321.333 km/h). The average of the runs gave Campbell a new record at 206.956 mph (333.064 km/h), but he was so exhausted after setting the record that he needed help getting out of the car.

Campbell felt the updated Blue Bird could achieve a higher speed if the beach were in a better condition—a top speed of 220 mph (354 km/h) had been anticipated. Campbell also knew that his record would not stand long, as others, like Ray Keech and Frank Lockhart, were at Daytona to set records of their own. Segrave was also having another car built, the Irving-Napier Golden Arrow, scheduled to run in early 1929. On 22 April 1928 Keech broke Campbell’s record when he averaged 207.553 mph (334.024 km/h) in the White Triplex—a brute force, three-engine monster. On 25 April 1928, Lockhart lost his life in the Stutz Black Hawk when a tire blew at over 200 mph (322 km/h).

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1928 Villa

Leo Villa, Malcolm Campbell, and the Napier-Campbell racer on the beach at Daytona. The sliding side of the cockpit can be seen in the down position. Note the Blue Bird logo on the car’s nose.

Campbell wanted to find a better course. The lack of traction in beach sand resulted in a lot of wheelspin, and a breeze always blew across beach courses, particularly at Daytona, that did nothing but cost speed. Among other places, there had been rumors of a large dry lake at Verneuk Pan, South Africa that would be ideal for LSRs. Campbell had searched various locales, even traveling to the Sahara Dessert, for an adequate speed record course, but he never found what he was looking for. An associate of Campbell’s had evaluated Verneuk Pan and believed it had potential.

During the search for a new course, Leo Villa had overseen work on another new body for the Naiper-Campbell racer. Again, wind tunnel test results were used to design the new body, which was built by Arrol-Aster and installed at their shop in Dumfries, Scotland. The surface radiators had proved not to be entirely effective and were removed. A new, conventional radiator was installed in the car’s nose. The front of the body was redesigned to incorporate a large opening for the radiator, which was later elongated and reduced in size. The front and rear wheel fairings were enlarged, as was the cockpit windscreen and cockpit opening. The sides of the cockpit were fixed, as was the tail fin, which was a redesign of the smaller fin used on the Daytona record runs. The revised car was called the Napier-Campbell-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird, but it is often just called the Napier-Arrol-Aster.

Once the Napier-Arrol-Aster was completed, the car, spare parts, and crew set off for South Africa. They soon discovered that Verneuk Pan was in the middle of nowhere, 400 miles (645 km) northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. The dry lake sat at 2,500 ft (760 m) above sea level, and there were no developed roads to the lakebed and no near-by workforce to build a course. But Campbell liked the huge, flat, open surface and the fact that the dominion of South Africa was part of the British Empire. Work on a 12-mile (19-km) course had started at the beginning of 1929, before Campbell arrived in South Africa (on 2 February). Once the course was prepared, small but sharp slivers of shale that would cut tires were found protruding from the surface. The top of the lake bed was scraped up, sifted to remove the sharp rocks, and then laid back down to dry into a hard surface under the scorching sun. As soon as the course was ready, massive rains came and flooded the area. It had not rained for five years, but suddenly there were 6 in (152 mm) of water covering the course.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1929

The Napier-Campbell with its third body fresh out of the Arrol-Aster shop. Note the revised wheel fairings, cockpit, and tail fin. The “bird cage” radiator opening was soon revised. The lettering on the tail reads “Napier-Arrol-Aster.”

On 11 March 1929, while a new course was being prepared at Verneuk Pan, Segrave in the Golden Arrow set a new LSR at 231.362 mph (372.341 km/h) on Daytona Beach. Campbell knew that he could not beat Segrave’s speed, but he was going to give a run all he had. The Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird was brought out to the course on 18 April, and a record run was attempted on 21 April 1929. Campbell recorded 224.58 mph (361.43 km/h) on the outbound leg and 212.51 mph (342.00 km/h) on the return. The average speed of the runs was 218.54 mph (351.71 km/h), well short of the absolute LSR record, but enough for a British speed record (top speed achieved on British Empire soil).

The heavy Blue Bird broke through the surface as it ran, resulting in the destruction of eight tires. After some course improvements were made, on 25 April, Campbell set a new flying 5-km (3.1-mi) record at 216.04 mph (347.68 km/h) and a new flying 5-mi (8.0 km) record at 211.49 mph (340.36 km/h). That was all Verneuk Pan and the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird had to offer. The team returned to England, and after a six-week tour of South Africa, so did Leo Villa and the car.

Campbell wanted the LSR back, and before the car had returned from South Africa, he had been considering whether a new car should be built or if the Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird could be rebuilt. The new speed goal was 240 mph (386 km/h) and beyond. At the end of 1929, Campbell enlisted Raid Railton to see what more could be done with the Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird. Railton had some ideas, which led to the car being rebuilt as the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird.

A tribute to the 1927 Napier-Campbell was built by Lorne Jacobs using a 1921 Napier chassis (No. 14097). The Lion was acquired in 1930 by Lorne’s grandfather Gordon, long before Lorne was born. The two-seat car is registered for street use.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1929 r-f

Views of the Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird before (left) and after (right) its adventure at Verneuk Pan. Note the then flag of South African on the car’s nose and the revised radiator opening, which has been damaged. Pictures from Verneuk Pan show the smaller opening undamaged. Most likely, the thin aluminum nose was damaged while the car was on tour in South Africa. The rod protruding from the nose was used as a sight while at speed on the large open lake bed.

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
The Record Breakers by Leo Villa (1969)
My Thirty Years of Speed by Malcolm Campbell (1935)
The Unobtainable: A Story of Blue by David de Lara (2014)
Napier: The First to Wear the Green by David Venables (1998)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 2015

Blue Bird LSR Car Part 1: 350HP Sunbeam (1923-1925)

By William Pearce

Louis Coatalen was the chief engineer of the Sunbeam Motor Car Company in Wolverhampton, England. In 1913, Coatalen was developing a new aircraft engine called the Mohawk. The engine’s V-12 layout was a first for Coatalen and Sunbeam, and both were eager to test the design. With the combination of a new engine design, unreliable aircraft, and poor weather, a better way to test the Mohawk was devised by installing it in a Sunbeam race car. After some teething trouble, the resulting car, named Toodles V, set eight world speed-over-distance records at the Brooklands track in England on 11 October 1913. The car was driven by Jean Chassagne, and it had a top speed of over 120 mph (193 km/h).

Sunbeam 350HP shop

The Sunbeam 350HP shortly after its completion. The engine cowling is bare of the “SUNBEAM” name later applied, and the car is supported on wooden wheels. Note the small windscreen on the scuttle panel. It does not appear that the car was ever run with this screen. The handbrake can be seen extending between the body and exhaust.

In 1919, Coatalen and Sunbeam sought to create a special race car and remembered the successful combination of a light chassis and a powerful aircraft engine. To power the special car, Coatalen took the basic 325 hp (242 kW) Manitou V-12 aircraft engine and combined it with cylinder blocks (with integral cylinder heads) that followed the design used on the 200 hp (149 kW) Arab V-8 aircraft engine. The output of the engine was 355 hp (265 kW), and the car became known as the Sunbeam 350HP.

The 350HP’s engine had the same layout as the Manitou, with two banks of six-cylinders separated by 60 degrees. Each cylinder bank consisted of two three-cylinder blocks made of aluminum and attached to the aluminum crankcase. The two spark plugs in each cylinder were fired by magnetos. Two carburetors were positioned between the cylinder banks, with one carburetor supplying the air/fuel mixture for the front six cylinders and the other supplying the rear six cylinders.

The engine differed from a standard Manitou engine in that the crankcase did not have any provisions for a gear reduction. The bore was increased .39 in (10 mm) to 4.72 in (120 mm), which is the same bore as the Arab. The Manitou’s four-valve per cylinder, dual-overhead camshaft arrangement was discarded in favor of a three valve (one intake and two exhaust) per cylinder, single-overhead design, similar to that used on the Arab. The camshaft acted on a follower that opened the intake valve. Two separate lobes controlled the exhaust valves via rocker arms. The camshafts were driven at the front of the engine (as it was installed in the car) by a train of 16 gears total.

Sunbeam 350HP Thomas

René Thomas in the 350HP at the Gaillon Hill Climb. Note that wire wheels have been fitted. The hill climb required the car to carry a passenger. The exhaust pipe was moved so that an additional seat with a fairing could be attached to the left side of the car. However, it appears that lead ballast took the place of a passenger for the actual run up the hill. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica image)

The engine had a 5.31 in (135 mm) stroke, but it is occasionally cited as 5.45 in (138.5 mm) or 5.59 in (142 mm). The discrepancy is on account of the master and articulated connecting rod arrangement. The master rod provided a stroke of 5.31 in (135 mm), but the articulated rods increased the stroke by .28 in (7 mm), to 142 mm. The 5.45 in (138.5 mm) figure is an average of the two strokes. To accommodate the slightly longer stroke, the cylinder blocks of the left bank were slightly taller than the right bank. The engine displacement if often cited as 1,118 cu in (18.32 L), which is calculated from the 5.31 in (135 mm) stroke. But the stroke difference resulted in the left bank displacing an additional 29 cu in (.48 L), giving the engine a calculated displacement of 1,147 cu in (18.80 L). A hand crank was used to start the engine. Tuned by Bill Perkins at Brooklands, the 350HP’s engine produced 355 hp (265 kW) at 2,200 rpm.

The engine was positioned in the car so that what would have been the propeller shaft faced the rear, and it was mounted to the car’s C-channel frame that was 4.75 in (121 mm) tall and 29.5 in (749 mm) wide. A radiator was positioned in front of the engine, and the four-speed transmission was mounted behind a 22 in (559 mm) flywheel attached to the back of the engine. An open driveshaft connected the transmission to the bevel-drive rear axle. The cockpit was positioned toward the rear of the car. A lever on the outer right side of the car controlled the cable-operated drum brakes on the rear wheels, and a foot pedal actuated a transmission brake. The front wheels had no brakes. Behind the cockpit were tanks for engine oil and fuel, and the car’s body was made of aluminum sheet. The front of the car’s body tapered down but was left open to supply cooling air to the radiator. Exhaust was collected in pipes that ran along both sides of the car and expelled behind the cockpit. A metal underpan attached to the bottom of the frame and helped improve the car’s aerodynamics.

Sunbeam 350HP Thomas front rear

Front and rear views of the 350HP with Thomas in the driver’s seat. The starting shaft can be seen below the radiator. Note the lack of a windscreen, the tapered front ends of the exhaust pipes, and the car’s narrow tail. The handbrake is now on the outside of the exhaust. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica image)

The Sunbeam 350HP had a wheelbase of 10 ft 7 in (3.23 m) and a track of 4 ft 6 in (1.37 m). The car was 3 ft 10 in (1.17 m) tall to the top of the engine cowling and was around 13 ft long (3.96 m). The tires were 34.6 in (880 mm) tall and 4.72 in (120 mm) wide and initially mounted on wooden wheels, but wire wheels were used later. The 350HP weighed approximately 3,417 lb (1,550 kg). The car’s body was finished with a dark green paint covering the nose and tail, and the bare aluminum cowling and cockpit area was polished.

The 350HP made its debut at Brooklands on 19 June 1920 and was driven by Harry Hawker, Sopwith Aviation test pilot and future co-founder of Hawker Aircraft. During a practice session, a front tire blew out, and Hawker lost control of the car. It smashed through some fencing and was not able to compete in the race. The car was repaired and back at Brooklands in August. Again, the 350HP’s potential was not realized when the car stalled, and Hawker was unable to start the race.

The Sunbeam racer was shipped to France where Frenchman René Thomas drove the 350HP in the Gaillon Hill Climb on 10 October 1920. Despite the car being geared for Brooklands, Thomas had better luck in the car than Hawker and set a record by averaging 108.3 mph (174.3 km/h) over the course. This speed broke the old record set in 1912 by German Fritz Erle in the 200 hp (149 kW) Blitzen Benz at 101.7 mph (163.6 km/h).

Sunbeam 350HP Guinness

Kenelm Lee Guinness sits in the 350HP at Brooklands in 1921 or 1922. A flat windscreen has now been added in front of the cockpit. Fillers for the oil and fuel tanks in the tail can easily be seen.

Hawker made an unsuccessful attempt on the Land Speed Record (LSR) in bad weather at Brooklands on 11 December 1920. He recorded a speed of 124 mph (200 km/h) covering a half mile (.8 km) and 121 mph 195 km/h) covering a mile (1.6 km). Over the next 1.5 years, the 350HP was driven by a number of different drivers and achieved some success at Brooklands, with Kenelm Lee Guinness setting a lap record of 120.4 mph (193.8 km/h) on 28 March 1921. Guinness also covered the Railway Straight half mile stretch at 135 mph (217 km/h) on 24 September 1921.

On 17 May 1922, Guinness and the 350HP set a world LSR at Brooklands, averaging 133.75 mph (215.25 km/h) over the flying km (.6 mi) and 129.17 mph (207.88 km/h) over the flying mile (1.6 km). This was the first LSR for Sunbeam and the last absolute LSR established at Brooklands. The curved track was not able to provide the acceleration distance needed as LSR speeds increased. Guinness also set flying half mile (136.05 mph / 218.96 km/h) and flying two mile (122.11 mph / 196.51 km/h) records. With a substantial amount of wheelspin, Guinness set standing start records covering a half mile in 23.460 seconds (76.73 mph 123.48 km/h), one km in 26.785 seconds (83.51 mph / 134.40 km/h), and one mile in 37.255 seconds (96.63 mph / 155.51 km/h). Guinness continued to campaign the 350 HP throughout 1922 and placed well in various handicapped events.

Like Guinness, Malcolm Campbell was a Brooklands racer and had become interested in setting world LSRs. Campbell was present when the Sunbeam 350HP made its public debut and had seen the car many times at Brooklands. Campbell became infatuated with the 350HP and pushing the record over 150 mph (241 km/h). After some persuasion, Coatalen let Campbell run the car during the speed trials at Saltburn Beach. On 17 June 1922, Campbell recorded six runs along the beach with the fastest timed at 138.08 mph (222.22 km/h), and he averaged 134.07 mph (215.76 km/h) for the flying km (.6 mi). While faster than Guinness, unofficial timing equipment was used, and the speed was not recognized by the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) as a world record. Still, Campbell had proven that the 350HP had more speed available and that he could handle the car. Campbell negotiated with Coatalen and Sunbeam and eventually purchased the 350HP in April 1923.

Sunbeam 350HP Campbell

Malcolm Campbell in the 350HP on Saltburn Beach in June 1922. The car appears to be in the same configuration as when it was run by Guinness at Brooklands.

Once in Campbell’s possession, the 350HP was painted blue, but it retained the polished aluminum cowling. The car was also named Blue Bird, a name applied to all but the earliest of Campbell’s cars. The 350HP was probably the fourth “Blue Bird,” but it was the first LSR car to carry the name—although, it was most often referred to as the 350HP. A few other modifications and repairs to put the car in running order were made by Campbell’s mechanics Leo Villa and Harry Leech.

Campbell’s first run in the 350HP Blue Bird was along the beach on Fanoe (Fanø) Island in Denmark. On 23 June 1923, Campbell recorded a record speed of 136.32 mph (219.39 km/h) over the flying km (.6 mi). On 24 June, Campbell focused on the flying mile (1.6 km) and averaged a record pace of 137.72 mph (221.64 km/h), with 146.40 mph (235.61 km/h) being recorded on the outbound run with the wind. Campbell and the 350HP then participated in a few races at Fanoe and won them all. However, the timing equipment used for the record runs was again not certified by the AIACR, and the records were not accepted.

Sunbeam 350HP frame

The 350HP became Campbell’s first “Blue Bird” LSR car. Most likely, the image is from 1924, when the 350HP was heavily modified. Note the separate cylinder blocks making up each bank and the fairing on the handbrake. The car’s body is leaning up against the wall on the left, and the cockpit section is leaning on the windows.

Campbell knew the 350HP Blue Bird had the speed to set a world record, but he also knew that others were trying to break the existing record. To improve the 350HP’s speed, Campbell turned to Boulton & Paul to improve the car’s aerodynamics through wind tunnel tests. In the first part of 1924, the 350HP’s body was modified with an elongated tail that fit over the existing fuel tank, fairings covering the rear suspension, a streamlined headrest behind the cockpit, a fairing added to the handbrake, and a redesigned scuttle panel just before the cockpit to direct air over the cockpit. The tail added about 3 ft (.91 m), making the car 16 ft (4.88 m) long. The modifications were performed by Jarvis & Sons in South Wimbledon. In addition, new pistons were installed that raised the engine’s compression.

To test the improved 350HP, Campbell ran the car at speed trials along Skegness Beach on 19 June 1924 and at Saltburn Beach on 24 June 1924, where Campbell was unofficially timed at 145.26 mph (233.77 km/h). Everything was ready for the 350HP to make another LSR attempt, but the record was pushed higher before Campbell could try again. On 6 July 1924, René Thomas raised the speed record to 143.312 mph (230.638 km/h) driving a Delage in the speed trials at Arpajon, France. The record was further increased by Ernest Eldridge in the aero-engined FIAT Mephistopheles. Eldridge reached 146.01 mph (234.98 km/h) during an extension of the Arpajon speed trials on 12 July 1924.

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 1924

The 350HP Blue Bird on Pendine Sands in September 1924. Note the elongated tail, large fairing by the rear wheel, absence of the exhaust pipe, and new paint job. The rear hood strap is unfastened. The new windscreen was later removed.

Campbell made his next attempt on 24 August 1924 at Fanoe. The state of the beach was far from ideal, and Campbell had complained about a lack of crowd control. Near the completion of the first run, the 350HP’s back tires separated from the rims, but Campbell managed to maintain control. Shaken, Campbell had new tires fitted to the back wheels for the return run. During the run, tragedy struck when the front right tire separated from the rim and stuck a young boy spectator, who subsequently died of his injuries. Campbell was cleared of any wrongdoing, but speed trials were never held again at Fanoe.

Back in Great Britain and at Pendine Sands on 25 September 1924, Campbell and the 350HP Blue Bird made another attempt on the LSR. For this run, the side pipes had been removed, and the engine’s exhaust stacks protruding from the cowling were left bare. In addition, a new wind deflector has been added to the scuttle. On a soggy beach, Campbell averaged a record speed of 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h) over the two runs covering the flying km (.6 mi). This was the fourth time Campbell had recorded a speed in excess of the existing LSR, but it was the first time his speed was recognized by the AIACR. Malcolm Campbell was now officially the world’s fastest man on land.

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird 1925

Back on Pendine Sands in July 1925, the 350HP Blue Bird has a longer, more tapered nose, no windscreen, refitted exhaust pipes, and discs installed on the rear wheels. The engine’s two vertical intake pipes can be seen under the cowling. Campbell looks on as work is being performed by Harry Leech. A happy looking Leo Villa is standing behind the car.

However, others, like Tommy Milton in the twin-engine Duesenberg, had gone faster during attempts that were not recognized by the AIACR, and Campbell knew his international record would soon be broken. Campbell put the 350HP Blue Bird up for sale and planned to focus on creating a faster car. But he quickly changed his mind after hearing of other LSR contenders, notably John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in Babs. Campbell felt the 350HP Blue Bird had a little more speed left. The 150 mph (241 km/h) mark was tantalizingly close, and he wanted to get there before anyone else.

The 350HP was again modified—the side pipes were reinstalled; the new wind deflector was removed along with the spring fairings; a longer nose was installed with an increased taper that decreased the size of the opening to the radiator; and the cowling was painted blue. The car was tested on 8 June 1925 at Skegness Beach with favorable results. On 21 July 1925 at Pendine Sands, Campbell improved his own record by averaging 150.869 mph (242.800 km/h) over the flying km and 150.766 mph (242.634 km/h) over the flying mile. The km runs were 151.482 mph (243.787 km/h) and 150.261 mph (241.821 km/h), and the mile runs were 152.834 mph (245.962 km/h) and 148.754 mph (239.397 km/h).

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 1925

With no leather head covering, Campbell was most likely driving for the press and not making an actual run. Even so, intense concentration can be seen on his face. The shape of the new nose is shown to advantage. Note the small fairing by the rear wheel and that the engine cowling has been painted blue.

Campbell was the first to be internationally recognized for achieving over 150 mph (241 km/h) on land, but he had already set his sights on surpassing 180 mph (290 km/h). Campbell knew the 350HP had reached its limit and had already planned his next LSR car—the Lion-powered Napier-Campbell Blue Bird. In 1925, the 350HP was sold to Ralph Aspden, who sold it to Jack Field in July 1934. The car may have been sold to Bill Cotton in 1936, but it was acquired by G. A. Tuchet-Jesson in June 1941. By this time, a fin had been added to the long tail. In 1944, Harold Pratley purchased the 350HP, which was in a sorry state. The car was cosmetically restored to the Brooklands trim (short tail with green paint) in 1946 by Roots Limited, the company that purchased Sunbeam in 1935.

In 1957, Lord Montagu purchased the Sunbeam 350HP, and it went through an extensive rebuild during 1958–1959. The car was in bad shape, but it was brought back to working order. The original gearbox was gone, but another (although inadequate) transmission had been substituted. The 350HP was put on display in the Montagu / National Motor Museum at Beaulieu and also run under its own power at a few outings. Donald Campbell, Malcolm’s son, drove the 350HP on 14 July 1962 at the Goodwood Circuit.

In 1987, 350HP was rebuilt to Campbell’s 1924 Blue Bird standards. On 2 April 1993, the engine was started for the first time since 1962. A blocked oil passage caused a master rod bearing to overheat, breaking the rod and piston and damaging the crankcase. Starting around 2007, the National Motor Museum worked to restore the engine and car to operating condition. The restoration was completed in January 2014, although the transmission still needs to be replaced, and the museum continues to work toward that goal. The Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird is on display at the British National Motor Museum and is occasionally run for special events.

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 2015

On 21 July 2015, the restored Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird returned to Pendine Sands to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Campbell breaking the 150 mph (241 km/h) mark. The car was driven by Don Wales, Malcolm Campbell’s grandson, and is very close to its 1924 appearance. The 350HP is displayed at the British National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. (National Motor Museum image)

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

Brooklands Giants by Bill Boddy (2006)
Sunbeam Aero-Engines by Alec Brew (1998)
The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
The Record Breakers by Leo Villa (1969)
The Unobtainable: A Story of Blue by David de Lara (2014)
My Thirty Years of Speed by Malcolm Campbell (1935)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)