Tag Archives: Land Speed Record


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)

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)

Smith Enterprise tow

Fred H. Stewart Enterprise (Smith-Harkness) LSR Car

By William Pearce

In 1930, Australian driver Norman Leslie “Wizard” Smith attempted to set a Land Speed Record (LSR) on Ninety Mile Beach (which is actually 55 miles / 88 km long) in New Zealand. His car, the Anzac, was built by well-known race driver, engineer, and fellow Australian, Donald James Harkness. Harkness was also the riding mechanic for the Anzac record runs. Smith and Harkness knew the 360 hp (268 kW) Anzac was not capable of setting an absolute speed record for the flying mile (1.6 km), but they hoped to set national records for Australia and New Zealand as well as a 10-mile (16-km) world record. Technically they were successful, but the 10-mile (16-km) record was not verified on account of a single run being made without a return run in the opposite direction. The Anzac was also used to gain experience that would be applied to the design and construction of a much more powerful car capable of 300 mph (483 km/h).

Smith Enterprise Harkness

Norman “Wizard” Smith and Don Harkness pose with the nearly completed Fred H. Stewart Enterprise in 1931. Note how the body sloped up in front of the cockpit. This was done in an attempt to increase downforce at the center of the car to aid stability at high speeds.

Setting world speed records is an expensive endeavor. While Smith and a few friends funded most of the Anzac, the much larger and faster LSR car would need financial resources beyond that which Smith and his partners could provide. Fortunately, Smith was able to leverage his success with the Anzac and as a racer to gain the financial backing of Australian businessman and politician Frederick Harold Stewart. The one stipulation set by Stewart was that the new LSR car be named the Fred H. Stewart Enterprise. The car was originally to be named Anzac II, but at the time, Australian policy stated that ANZAC can only refer to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and cannot be used in any other fashion without prior permission. As a result, Smith had to take the name off his previous racer and select a different name for the new racer. The financing terms were agreed upon, and Smith and Harkness focused on building the LSR car, the Fred H. Stewart Enterprise (Enterprise).

To power the Enterprise, Smith and Harkness needed an engine much more powerful than anything they could obtain themselves. They sought a 1,600 hp (1,193 kW) Rolls-Royce R engine developed for the 1929 Schneider Trophy contest. The Enterprise team turned to the Australian government for assistance, and the Australian Prime Minister, James Scullin, reached out to the British government. Ultimately, the British Air Ministry loaned Smith the latest Napier Lion VIID W-12 engine, capable of 1,450 hp (1,081 kW) at 3,600 rpm. This was the same type of engine that Malcolm Campbell would soon install in his latest Blue Bird revision, the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird. At the time, the engine’s particulars were considered secret, and the Air Ministry stipulated that only Smith, Harkness, and two Enterprise crew members be allowed to work on it. Some reports indicate that a deposit of £5,000 was required, which was paid by Stewart, and that a Rolls-Royce engine was expected right up until the crate was opened to reveal the Napier. The taller and less-powerful Lion necessitated a slight redesign of the Enterprise, and the car’s estimated top speed decreased to 280 mph (451 km/h).

Smith Enterprise build

The Enterprise under construction at Harkness & Hillier Engineering Works. Smith is sitting, with Harkness at his right. In front of the Napier Lion engine is Smith’s wife, Harriet. Note the screw jacks at the rear of the car, the leaf-spring rear suspension, and the size of the frame rails.

The Fred H. Stewart Enterprise was designed by Harkness and built at the Harkness & Hillier Engineering Works in Five Dock, near Sydney. The car resembled the 930 hp (694 kW) Irving-Napier Golden Arrow, which Henry Segrave had used to set the then-current LSR at 231.362 mph (372.341 km/h) on 11 March 1929. Like the Golden Arrow, the Enterprise had a chisel-shaped front end leading to a tightly-cowled Lion engine. Its wheels were set outside of the bodywork, and the cockpit was positioned toward the rear and flanked by driveshafts connected to the rear axle. One major difference in appearance was that the Enterprise had two stabilizing tails, each extending back behind the rear wheels. With an additional 520 hp (388 kW) and 17-percent less frontal area, Smith and Harkness thought the Enterprise would go faster than the Golden Arrow.

The Enterprise’s chassis consisted of two large frame rails connected by various cross members. Each corner of the frame had provisions for a screw jack to easily raise the car. The Lion engine was nestled between the frame rails and connected to a three-speed transmission. Output from the transmission was split into two drive shafts that passed through armor-plated housings on both sides of the driver’s seat. Each drive shaft connected to a drive box that was connected to a rear wheel. The front wheels appear to have had very minimal suspension, and the rear wheels were supported by leaf springs positioned above the frame. The frame, powertrain, and suspension were all designed to minimize the Enterprise’s height.

Smith Enterprise debut

At its christening on 26 October 1931, the Enterprise was fitted with relatively small aerodynamic fairings behind the rear wheels. It is not clear if this was Harkness’ final vision for the car, as other photos show no front fairings at all.

Separate drag links extended from the steering box positioned in front of the cockpit to the front wheels. A tie rod connected the front wheels together. The steering system enabled 20 degrees of wheel movement. A close-fitting body covered the Enterprise. The body was designed to push the middle of the car down at high speeds. A hump on each side of the cockpit enclosed the suspension for the rear wheels. The humps tapered down to form a wedge at the rear of the car. The body surrounding the cockpit tapered back to a point. The stabilizing tail fins, built from steel tube frames and covered with fabric, extended behind the rear wheels. A flat-plate windscreen was mounted at an angle just before the cockpit, and the fuel tank was positioned behind the cockpit.

The Enterprise was 26 ft (7.92 m) long, 69 in (1.75 m) wide, 36 in (.91 m) tall in front of the cockpit, 42 in (1.07 m) tall at the top of the cockpit, and 48 in (1.22 m) tall at the tail fins. The car had 7.5 in (191 mm) of ground clearance and weighed around 6,700 lb (3,039 kg). Only the rear wheels had provisions for brakes. Smith purchased a set of special Dunlap slicks guaranteed to 310 mph (500 km/h) for the speed runs. These tires were 37 in (940 mm) tall and 7 in (178 mm) wide. Like Smith’s Anzac, the Enterprise was finished in a golden color and had Australian flags painted on its tails. While the Enterprise was being built, Campbell set a new flying-mile (1.6-km) LSR at 245.736 mph (395.474 km/h) on 5 February 1931.

Smith Enterprise tow

The Enterprise without any front wheel fairings and with Smith in the cockpit. As designed, the Enterprise was a rather sleek machine. Note the brake link extending from the cockpit back to the rear wheel and the lack of brakes on the front wheels.

The Enterprise was anticipated to be completed around February 1931. However, delays with the car’s construction along with separate business matters preoccupying Smith, Harkness, and everyone else involved with the car, resulted in the Enterprise not being completed until the end of 1931. During this time, the Auckland Automobile Association built a garage at Hukatere, near the mid-point of Ninety Mile Beach. The garage was constructed for Smith and for others who might pursue future record attempts, as Malcolm Campbell was considering using Ninety Mile Beach. A side effect of the new garage was that Smith would no longer use Star Garage in Kaitaia, and some locals saw this as a slight against the town. This issue, combined with the lengthy delays, made many on the northern tip of the North Island have a general disdain for Smith and his record runs.

The incomplete Enterprise made a few public appearances in April and August 1931. Part of the delay in finishing the car was caused by a disagreement between Harkness and Smith on how to cool the Napier Lion. Harkness had designed the Enterprise to use ethylene glycol chemically cooled in a heat exchanger by methyl chloride (Chloromethane or Refrigerant-40). This method would leave the car aerodynamically clean without incorporating any radiators. Because of the relatively untried nature of chemical cooling and its high cost, Smith wanted to employ conventional water cooling with a radiator housed in a streamlined fairing at the front of the car, which was the method used on the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird. It should also be considered that Napier may have demanded that water-cooling be used on the loaned engine. Frustrated and running out of time, Harkness designed and constructed a pair of conventional radiators that mounted just before the front tires. Fairings mounted behind the front tires would serve as water reservoirs for the cooling system. With the exception of bracing for the radiators, this left the front of the car aerodynamically clean, and the radiators probably did not create any more drag that the tires just behind them. However, the system looked cobbled-together and very unrefined. Smith felt Harkness’ design was totally inadequate.

Smith Enterprise radiator

The Enterprise most likely seen arriving in Hukatere. The truck in the background transported the car from Awanui to Hukatere. The large radiator at the front of the car has been shrouded in a canvas cover. The new reservoir fairings are attached behind the front wheels, but the tail fins are not installed.

When the Enterprise was christened on 26 October 1931, it still had no visible means of cooling the engine, and small fairings behind the front wheels were installed for aerodynamic purposes only. The strain of everything had become too much, and Harkness suffered a nervous breakdown at the beginning of November. The Enterprise was started for the first time on 18 November, and preparations were made to ship the car to New Zealand.

At the request of Smith, and without the knowledge of Harkness, Lawrence James Wackett, perhaps Australia’s foremost authority on aviation and aerodynamics at the time, had analyzed the Enterprise’s cooling system and submitted a report to Smith a few days before the trip to New Zealand. Wackett had noted that the radiators did not have sufficient capacity to cool the Lion engine and that their installation would likely fail at high speed. When the Enterprise arrived in Auckland, New Zealand on 8 December, the disagreement on engine cooling had yet to be resolved. The radiators were not installed, but they had been shipped with the car to be added once the Enterprise arrived in New Zealand.

Around 10 December 1931, the Enterprise was fully assembled with its twin radiators and underwent a safety inspection, which it failed. The mounting of the radiators was deemed insufficient and was predicted to collapse at high speeds. Harkness persisted with the twin radiator design, and the tremendous strain that Harkness was under really began to show—political maneuvering brought an end to his company’s main source of income; his other business ventures were failing, and he was experiencing issues in his personal relationships. With the failed safety inspection in hand, Smith made his move and served Harkness with a restraining order, ousting him from further involvement with the Enterprise. Smith was not happy about the situation, but he felt that his priority needed to be fixing the Enterprise so that he could proceed with record attempts. Harkness stayed in Auckland while the rest of the party moved north, and he left New Zealand around 8 January 1932.

Smith Enterprise AAA garage

The Enterprise being towed out of the newly-constructed garage at Hukatere. The large, odd radiator truly spoiled the car’s looks and aerodynamics. Note the Dunlop road tires.

Before leaving Australia, Smith had made arrangements to design, build, and mount a new radiator to the Enterprise. Since Smith now had control of the car and knew the twin radiator design was flawed, he moved the Enterprise to an Auckland garage to fabricate a conventional radiator. The radiator work was conducted somewhat secretly, and the changes to the Enterprise surprised many when the car arrived in Awanui by skiff on 3 January 1932. The massive rectangular radiator absolutely ruined the lines of the Enterprise, but the radiator was an emergency fix done with little time. Smith defended the cooling system, comparing it to the type then used by Campbell on the latest Blue Bird. While the configuration was similar, the implementation on the Enterprise was not as refined as the radiator installation on the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird. The large, flat-faced, three-core radiator was covered in a fairing that stretched from the front of the car back to the engine cowling. In addition, the large wheel fairings constructed as water reservoirs had been installed behind the front wheels in place of the original, smaller fairings. The radiator added around 300 lb (136 kg) of weight and almost 2 ft (.61 m) of length, making the Enterprise approximately 7,000 lb (3,175 kg) and 27 ft 11 in (8.51 m) long.

Bad weather and poor conditions kept the Enterprise in its garage at Hukatere and off Ninety Mile Beach until 11 January 1932, when Smith made his first practice run. A speed of 125 mph (201 km/h) was achieved, and this was basically the first time the Enterprise was driven at any speed. Smith was satisfied with the shakedown run and prepared for an attempt on the 10-mile (16-km) record. The bad weather and poor conditions persisted, and it was not until 26 January that Smith felt the still-mediocre conditions were acceptable enough for an attempt. As the Enterprise ripped southeast on the beach, the wet sand literally sandblasted Smith and the car. At a speed around 228 mph (367 km/h), the car went out of control as it hit a patch of wet sand. Smith had to slow to 90 mph (145 km/h) before recovering, and then he pressed on to finish the run in 3:59.945 with an average speed of 150.034 mph (241 km/h). The toheroa shells on the beach had ripped up the special Dunlop slick tires during the run, and Smith decided to install the treaded road tires for the return run. The road tires were 36 in (914 mm) tall and 6 in (152 mm) wide. Because of the tires and conditions, Smith kept the Enterprise at a more sedate and even pace on the northwest run, completing the distance in 3:22.097 with an average of 178.132 mph (286 km/h). The average speed over both 10-mile (16-km) runs was 164.084 mph (264.077 km/h), breaking the previous record of 137.206 mph (220.811 km/h) set by Gwenda Stewart on 13 February 1930. Of course, Smith had hoped for and anticipated much more.

Smith Enterprise slicks

Smith sits in the cockpit before making a 10-mile (16-km) record attempt on Ninety Mile Beach. The Enterprise is equipped with the Dunlop slicks. Note the fuel filler cap behind the cockpit and the fabric covering of the tail fins distorted by the steel frame.

Smith was battered and bruised from the run; wet sand covered everything, including his goggles and the Enterprise’s windscreen. Better conditions were an absolute necessity before further attempts could be made and higher speeds attained. Curiously, various news outlets reported that Smith and the Enterprise made an LSR attempt on 27 January 1932, with 224.945 mph (362.014 km/h) on the first run and 199.285 mph (320.718 km/h) on the second. The speeds averaged to 211.115 mph (339.757 km/h), more than 34 mph (55 km) short of Campbell’s record. However, Smith, Harkness, and New Zealand and Australian newspapers deny that such an attempt was ever made. Where the erroneous report originated is not known.

After the run on 26 January 1932, Smith and the Enterprise took some time off. A new, smaller radiator was fitted because the previous radiator had worked a bit too well. The new radiator was only about 10% smaller and did not improve the Enterprise’s looks. Smith took the Enterprise out for a test run on 24 February and confirmed the new radiator was working well. That same day and half a world away, Campbell increased the 5-km (3.1-mi) record to 241.569 mph (388.768 km/h), the flying mile (1.6 km) record to 253.968 mph (408.722 km/h), and the flying kilometer (.6 mi) record to 251.340 mph (404.493 km/h).

Smith Enterprise Beach

The Enterprise running along Ninety Mile Beach with Dunlop road tires. With its radiator slightly out of frame, the car does not appear too odd.

Smith and the Enterprise made ready for future attempts at the 5-mile (8-km) and absolute speed records on 25 February 1932, but the weather did not cooperate, and tensions were brought to an all-time high. A disagreement at the hotel resulted in Smith and his party checking out and returning to Auckland; the Enterprise stayed in the garage at Hukatere. The party returned to a different hotel around 19 March, hoping for improved conditions and a smooth beach. However, some of the worst weather in 30 years continued to prevent any record attempts. More bad luck came in early April with legal proceedings filed against Smith by Harkness. Harkness, who was in Sydney, was absolutely furious when he saw the radiator modifications applied to the Enterprise. In addition, Smith’s constantly-delayed attempts on the record caused many to question his abilities, but most of these individuals were far from Ninety Mile Beach and did not have a grasp on its unsuitable condition.

In the meantime, on 26 February 1932, Campbell at Daytona Beach set new records for 5 km (3.1 km), 5 miles (8 km), and 10 km (6.2 mi). The respective speeds achieved in the Blue Bird were 247.941 mph (399.023 km/h),  242.751 mph (390.670 km/h), and 238.669 mph (384.101 km/h).

On 5 April 1932, Smith took the Enterprise on a brief drive along the unsuitable beach. The following day, Smith packed up the Enterprise and started the journey back to Auckland. While in Auckland, a new windscreen that revolved to clean itself of sand was installed. By the end of April, Smith and the Enterprise had returned to Hukatere, where the wait continued as rough weather made the conditions unacceptable for a record run. Because so many delays had occurred with the car’s arrival in New Zealand and with the record runs, detractors coined a new nickname: “Windy” Smith, implying he talked a lot about his plans but failed to come through. Locals had long since grown tired of the spectacle and inconvenience Smith’s record runs had caused.

Smith Enterprise wet run

This photo of Smith in the Enterprise, on what is most likely one of the 10-mile (16-km) runs, gives a good impression of the wet and less-than-ideal conditions on Ninety Mile Beach. The heavy rain created a couple of shallow streams that ran across the course, making it very unsuitable for a car traveling at high-speeds.

After all of the waiting and associated drama, Smith was ready to make another run in the Enterprise on 1 May 1932. Ninety Mile Beach was wet and still not in a good condition, but something had to be done, and Smith targeted the 5-mile (8-km) record. As the Enterprise traveled northwest on Ninety Mile Beach and accelerated through 170 mph (274 km/h) toward the start of the course, the Napier engine began backfiring and caught fire. Saltwater spray had inundated the engine compartment and caused arcing from the magnetos. The sparks ignited fuel around the Lion’s carburetors. Smith slowed as fast as he could and jumped from the car as it was still moving. The fire was quickly brought under control, and the Enterprise was returned to the garage at Hukatere. The damage was judged as not too severe, but Smith had spent a rough five months in New Zealand and was not interested in staying any longer.

Smith vowed to return the next year to go after the record, but he never did. Smith, his entourage, and the Enterprise returned to Sydney, and the car was tucked away in the garage of Smith’s friend Ted Poole. The cost of the record attempts began to set in as Harkness and others accused Smith of being either afraid to make a record attempt or incapable of driving at the speeds needed. Neither of the accusations were true. The truth was that pursuit of the LSR had cost Smith much of his savings, some of his dignity, and a few of his friendships. Eventually, Smith prevailed in a slander suit he brought against an Australian newspaper, but the rift with Harkness was never closed. In mid-1933, Smith talked about racing the Enterprise on Lake George, but plans for the site never came to fruition. Smith’s 10-mile (16-km) record stood until 6 September 1935, when George Eyston in Speed of the Wind achieved an average of 167.09 mph (268.91 km/h), 3 mph (5 km) faster than Smith, at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Later in life, Smith was happy to talk about his racing exploits, with the exception of the LSR attempts. Smith stored the Enterprise for a time, but the car was ultimately disassembled, and the Lion engine was sold for use in a speedboat. The Enterprise’s frame sat outside of Smith’s shop until at least 1958, the year Smith passed away, but no part of the car is known to exist.

Smith Enterprise engine fire

The damage to the Enterprise after the Napier Lion caught fire during the 5-mile (8-km) attempt was fairly isolated. The coolant line to the radiator extended from the center of the cowling. The return lines ran outside of each frame rail.

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

Wizard of Oz by Clinton Walker (2012)
The Real Wizard Smith by Steve Simpson (1977)
The Land Speed Record 1930-1939 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
– “Australian Fails To Beat Campbell’s Auto Speed Record” The Syracuse Herald (27 January 1932)
– “Radiators On Racing Cars” The Sydney Morning Herald (2 February1932)
– “Did “Wizard” Smith Attempt Record?” Truth (3 April 1932)

Smith Harkness Anzac test

Smith-Harkness Anzac LSR Car

By William Pearce

Norman Leslie Smith was an Australian professional racing driver. In the 1920s, he began to dominate hill climb, endurance, and point-to-point speed events. The nickname “Wizard” was bestowed upon him in December 1922 after his uncanny abilities behind the wheel were demonstrated while he won a 1,000-mile (1,609-km) Alpine rally in Melbourne. Earle Croysdill was Smith’s riding mechanic, and more than 50 racers had entered the event. Smith drove his racer from his home in Sydney, completed the race, and then drove the 560 miles (900 km) back to Sydney.

Smith Harkness Anzac nearly complete

The nearly-finished Anzac LSR car sits outside of the Harkness & Hillier Engineering Works in Five Dock. The car is missing its windscreen, seats, and gold paint. An additional louver was added under each exhaust stack, and the Australian flag painted on the tail would later be moved higher with “Advance Australia” written under it. Don Harkness is on the extreme right; he is looking at Norman “Wizard” Smith, who is holding one of the two black shop cats that, for a time, made the Anzac their home.

During 13 and 14 March 1928, Smith captured the Australian records for distances covered in 6, 12, and 24 hours while driving a Studebaker Commander that was stock, with the exception of an additional fuel tank. The respective distances and speeds traveled for the records were 455 miles at 75.8 mph (732 km at 122.0 km/h), 857 miles at 71.4 mph (1,379 km at 114.9 km/h), and 1,701 miles at 70.9 mph (2,737 km at 114.1 km/h). Not quite done, Smith, with Ted Poole and Len Emerson, drove from the western coastal town of Fremantle (near Perth) to the eastern coastal town of Brisbane by way of Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney. Their 6-day, 5-hour, and 22-minute journey spanned from 31 March to 6 April and covered some 3,700 miles (5,955 km), including backtracking. The trip set new point-to-point records between all of the major Australian cities they visited.

In late 1928, Smith happened upon Jack Mostyn, former Mayor of Sydney, who was fixing a flat tire. It was during this impromptu roadside meeting that the idea of creating an Australian Land Speed Record (LSR) car was born. At the time, the speed record stood at 207.552 mph, set by Ray Keech in the White Triplex Special on 22 April 1928. Smith and Mostyn did not intend to go directly after this record. First, they would build a car that could achieve around 175 mph. This car would be capable of setting Australian speed records and records over longer distances. If everything went well, a second LSR car would be built with a top speed of 250 mph in mind. But to achieve such lofty goals, the men needed an engineer to design and construct the cars.

Smith Harkness Anzac test

Finished, the Anzac is taken on a test run by Smith and Harkness. The name “the Anzac” was not painted on the car until later. It is not clear when the name was assigned to the car. Note that both front tires are essentially off the ground.

Smith and Mostyn turned to Donald James Harkness, a well-known race driver and engineer. Being around the same age, from the same area, and competing in the same events, Smith and Harkness had known each other for some time. Harkness agreed to partner with Smith and Mostyn to design and build the LSR cars for just the cost of their parts. The first car was the Anzac, named as a tribute to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, which had fought in World War I. Smith had joined to fight in World War I, but rheumatic fever ended his service and returned him to Australia.

The Anzac was designed by Harkness and built at the Harkness & Hillier Engineering Works in Five Dock, near Sydney. The car was of a conventional layout and about 20 ft (6.1 m) long with an 11 ft (3.4 m) wheel base and a 4 ft 8 in (1.4 m) track. The Anzac was built on a heavily modified and strengthened Cadillac frame and powered by a 360 hp (268 kW) Rolls-Royce Eagle IX V-12 engine. The Eagle IX was the latest and last of the Eagle line, the first of which was designed in 1915. Purchased as surplus from the Royal Australian Air Force, it was the most powerful engine Smith and Harkness could acquire.

The three-speed transmission, originally from the Cadillac, and drivetrain of the Anzac had been configured for an engine with a clockwise rotating crankshaft. As installed in the Anzac, the engine’s crankshaft rotated counterclockwise. A special transfer case was built and installed to take the counterclockwise input from the engine and convert it to a clockwise output for the drivetrain. The transfer case added weight and complexity and consumed some engine power. However, the transfer case had a 2:1 overdrive gearing. Modifications to the engine enabled 2,800–3,000 rpm, which gave the Anzac a theoretical top speed of 175–188 mph (282–303 km/h).

Smith Harkness Anzac Mobil

Smith looks on as Harkness pours oil into the Anzac’s tank during this publicity shot. Note the Vacuum Oil Company’s Mobiloil BB (SAE 50) oil can with the gargoyle logo. The Vacuum Oil Company was one of the few sponsors of the Anzac. When Vacuum merged with the Standard Oil Company of New York (Socony) in 1931, the “Mobil” name was retained for the oil, but Socony’s red Pegasus was used as the logo.

Efforts were made to keep the Anzac relatively clean aerodynamically, but it was not very streamlined. The Eagle’s individual exhaust stacks protruded from the engine’s cowling, and a radiator cap with a temperature gauge sat proud at the front of the car. A large triangular opening at the front of the car brought in air to the radiator, and the air exited from louvers cut into the sides of the engine cowling. The cockpit accommodated a driver and a riding mechanic. A small windscreen protected the driver, but the riding mechanic was exposed to the slipstream. The fuel tank was positioned behind the cockpit, and an oil tank was located behind the rear axle. The car’s body tapered behind the cockpit, and a stabilizing tail was attached to its extreme rear. The Anzac was funded primarily by Smith, with few sponsors. When it was finished, the car was painted gold with an Australian flag on its tail.

When the Anzac was completed at the end of 1929, the LSR stood at 231.362 mph (372.341 km/h), set by Henry Segrave in the 930 hp (694 kW) Irving-Napier Golden Arrow on 11 March 1929. A number of other record contenders were preparing cars, including Kaye Don in the “4,000 hp” Sunbeam Silver Bullet and Malcolm Campbell, who was reworking his Blue Bird from 900 hp (671 kW) to 1,450 hp (1,081 kW)—both Don and Campbell were eyeing 250 mph (402 km/h). Smith and Harkness knew the 360 hp (268 kW) Anzac was at best capable of 175 mph (282 km/h) and would not be able to compete with the LSR monsters. The absolute LSR was far out of reach, but the Anzac was capable of setting local speed records and of setting records over longer distances. The Anzac also served to gain LSR experience that would be applied to the construction of a faster car.

Smith Harkness Anzac beach group

Smith and Harkness, both on the far left, pose with others and the Anzac on Ninety Mile Beach. Note the louvers added under the exhaust stacks. The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company provided the tires for the record runs.

Smith had spent some time searching for a suitable location to run the Anzac and had found Ninety Mile Beach, which is actually 55 miles (88 km) long. Ninety Mile Beach is situated just north of Kaitaia, at the north end of New Zealand. Apparently, Smith did not investigate Lake Eyre or Lake Gairdner, both in Australia and both the future sites of many speed runs. Before shipping the car off to New Zealand, test runs were conducted on Seven Mile Beach near Gerringong, about 80 miles (130 km) south of Sydney. The Eagle engine was started and warmed up using a set of “soft” spark plugs, which ran hotter to burn off deposits but were prone to heat damage. Once at temperature, the engine was shut down, and the 24 “soft” plugs were replaced with “hard” plugs, which ran cooler and better withstood the high temperatures inside the engine at power. On 1 December 1929, Smith, Harkness (as a riding mechanic), and the Anzac set a new Australian absolute speed record at 128.571 mph (206.915 km/h). The previous record stood at 107.14 mph (172.43 km/h) and was set by Harkness on 17 October 1925.

Smith and the Anzac had arrived in Auckland, New Zealand by 31 December 1929 and made their way to Kaitaia. On his previous visit, Smith had arranged with Fred Mitchell, owner of Star Garage in Kaitaia, to use the garage as his base of operations. In addition, the garage’s chief mechanic, Charlie Bowman, would assist Smith with maintaining the Anzac. With the car ready and the weather acceptable, Smith drove the Anzac around on public roads for a little extra publicity before the record attempts. While the large and loud Anzac certainly turned heads, this escapade also damaged the clutch. Repairs were subsequently completed at Star Garage, but the job was made much more difficult because of the added transfer case. Rather than fix the clutch and risk it failing again, the transmission was coupled directly to the transfer case. From then on, the Anzac was started and stopped in gear, and Smith shifted without the aid of a clutch.

Smith Harkness Anzac beach run

The Anzac in its final form makes a test run on Ninety Mile Beach in New Zealand. The filler cap for the fuel tank can be seen on the rear of the car.

A storm had made Ninety Mile Beach temporarily unsuitable for any record attempts, but the tides quickly repaired the damage and returned the beach to a near-perfect condition. However, sharp toheroa shells littered the beach and cut into tires. On 11 January 1930, Smith and Harkness pushed the Anzac and established a New Zealand flying mile (1.6 km) speed record. The southeast run was completed in 24.6 seconds for an average speed of 146.341 mph (235.513 km/h)—this speed is often mistakenly reported for the event. Rain slowed the northwest run, which was completed in 25.4 seconds at an average of 141.732 mph (228.096 km/h). The average of the two runs was 144.037 mph (231.805 km/h). Six days later on 17 January 1930, Smith and Harkness made an attempt on the 10-mile (16-km) World LSR, then held by Leon Duray* at 135.333 mph (217.798 km/h). The Anzac averaged 148.637 mph (239.208 km/h) on the southeast run, which took 242.2 seconds. Smith was told that because of the distance, no return run would be necessary and that a new 10-mile (16-km) world speed record had been established, breaking the existing record by over 13 mph (21 km/h).

Despite the Anzac’s impressive performance, Smith and Harkness learned in April 1930 that their 10-mile (16-km) record was not officially recognized because of the one run and the outdated equipment used to time the event. Perhaps there was some disappointment, but before even leaving for New Zealand, Smith and Harkness had begun design work on the second car, a true LSR monster with a 300-mph (483-km/h) top speed intended to bring the absolute speed record Down Under. That LSR car would become the 1,450 hp (1,081 kW) Fred H. Stewart Enterprise. Smith had planned to use the Anzac for future record attempts, but preoccupation with the Fred H. Stewart Enterprise took all of Smith’s time, and the Anzac made no further record runs.

*Some sources state the then-current 10-mile speed record exceeded by Smith was held by Céasar Marchand (France) at 133.540 mph (214.912 km/h) and set on 12 January 1928. However, records indicate Leon Duray (USA) broke this record on 10 August 1929.

Smith Harkness Anzac model

Full of hope, Smith and Harkness celebrate as they sail from Australia to New Zealand. The men hold a floral model of the car with “Anzac” written behind the rear wheel.

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

Wizard of Oz by Clinton Walker (2012)
The Real Wizard Smith by Steve Simpson (1977)
The Land Speed Record 1930-1939 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
– “Wizard Smith’s Record Drive” The Mercury (28 April 1928)
– “Wizard Smith’s Story of New Record” The Referee (15 January 1930)
– “Record Breaking: Norman Smith’s Car” The Western Mail (13 February 1930)

Sunbeam Silver Bullet debut Kaye Don

Sunbeam Silver Bullet LSR Car

By William Pearce

During the 1920s, race cars built by the Sunbeam Motor Car Company in Wolverhampton, England captured the World Land Speed Record (LSR) five times. The last record for the company was set by the Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug, a specially-built LSR car designed by John Irving that Henry Segrave used to achieve 203.793 mph (327.973 km/h) on 29 March 1927. Segrave and Irving then parted ways with Sunbeam, and the record held by Sunbeam was broken in 1928. Segrave recovered the record on 11 March 1929, hitting 231.362 mph (372.341 km/h) in the Irving-Napier Golden Arrow. Wanting to recapture the record, Sunbeam went to work on a new LSR car to push the record up to 250 mph (402 km/h).

Sunbeam Silver Bullet debut Kaye Don

The Sunbeam Silver Bullet with Kaye Don in the cockpit during the car’s public debut in February 1930. Exhaust from the engines was collected in the long black manifold that ran along the side of the cockpit. The bulge along the lower side of the body covered the steering drag link.

Designed by Sunbeam’s chief engineer Louis Coatalen and chief designer Hugh Rose, the new Sunbeam LSR car was specially-built and powered by two engines. The car was named Silver Bullet, most likely a retort to Segrave and Irving’s Golden Arrow. Unlike the 1,000 hp Mystery Slug that was built using what was available at the Sunbeam factory, construction of the Silver Bullet was an entirely scratch-built affair. The car’s design was refined by model testing in the Vickers Aviation Department’s wind tunnel.

The Sunbeam Silver Bullet was composed of very stout steel frame rails that were 13.5 in (343 mm) in height at their tallest point. The frame rails were joined by various crossmembers and supports that arched from rail to rail. The body of the LSR car was made up of streamlined aluminum panels, and an underbody enclosed the bottom of the chassis. The wheels sat outside of the Silver Bullet’s body and were trailed by aerodynamic fairings. The Dunlap tires were 37 in (940 mm) tall and 6 in (152 mm) wide. Steering was achieved by separate drag links that extended from the cockpit at the rear of the car to the front wheels. A long bulge on each side of the body covered the drag link. Twin fins at the rear of the car helped stabilize the racer at high speeds. A horizontal member between the fins rotated down to act as an air brake. The car used water-cooled hydraulic brakes at all four wheels.

Sunbeam Silver Bullet no body

The incomplete Silver Bullet with engines installed. Note the routing of the induction pipe from the supercharger and around the rear (left) engine. The empty space in front of the forward (right) engine was for the ice tank. The steering drag link for the right wheel can be seen on the outside of the right frame rail.

The Silver Bullet was powered by two water-cooled V-12 engines built especially for the racer. To keep the engine and the car as narrow as possible, the engine’s bank angle was set at 50-degrees. The engine was made of aluminum and had four valves per cylinder. Two overhead camshafts actuated the valves for each cylinder bank. Each cylinder bank was composed of two three-cylinder blocks. The single spark plug per cylinder was positioned between the valves in the top of the combustion chamber. The two engines in the Silver Bullet were installed in tandem, with the front of both engines toward the rear of the racer. A secondary shaft integral with the crankcase and positioned under the crankshaft of each engine coupled the engines together and transferred their combined power to the transmission. Engine exhaust for each cylinder bank was collected in separate manifolds that extended back along both sides of the Silver Bullet and under the engine cowling. Just behind the rear engine, the exhaust manifolds on each side of the car joined into a single manifold and emerged from under the cowling. These large exhaust manifolds ran alongside the cockpit and extended back to just before the Silver Bullet’s tail.

Sunbeam Silver Bullet supercharger

Detail view of the Silver Bullet’s single supercharger. The two carburetors are on the left, with the steering box just below. Note the relatively sharp bends of the induction pipe.

The engine had a 5.51 in (140 mm) bore and a 5.12 in (130 mm) stroke. It displaced 1,465 cu in (24.01 L) and produced 490 hp at 2,400 rpm normally-aspirated, but a supercharger was incorporated into the Silver Bullet’s design. Initially, four Roots-type superchargers were to provide each engine with induction air, and this configuration was tested on one engine in November 1929. However, the final supercharging system was a single unit of the centrifugal type providing air to both engines. The supercharger was driven at up to 17,000 rpm by the rear engine and provided around 7 psi of boost. Separate induction pipes extended from the supercharger along both sides of the rear engine. The pipes connected to an induction manifold positioned in the Vee of the front and rear engines. Exactly how much power the engines produced with supercharging is not known. It is entirely possible that a true power test was never undertaken. Regardless, Coatalen had no problem claiming the engines would produce 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) each at 3,000 rpm, making the Silver Bullet a “4,000 hp car.” Both the peak engine output and rpm seem to be rather optimistic figures. Two carburetors fed fuel into the air as it was drawn into the supercharger.

The secondary shaft from the engines to the transmission spun at over twice engine rpm. The higher speed decreased torque and allowed the use of a smaller diameter shaft. At 2,600 rpm engine speed, the three-speed transmission had theoretical top speeds of 135 mph (217 km/h) in first gear, 180 mph (290 km/h) in second gear, and 266 mph (428 km/h) in third gear. While Sunbeam wanted to break the record of 231 mph (372 km/h) and planned to reach 250 mph (402 km/h), it was hoped that the car would ultimately hit 265 mph (426 km/h). The output of the transmission was in the form of two drive shafts that extended back on either side of the cockpit to the rear axle. The two-drive-shaft arrangement lowered the driver’s seat and the overall height of the Silver Bullet.

Sunbeam Silver Bullet test

The Silver Bullet chassis with both engines installed undergoing a test run. By all accounts, there was no time for any serious testing of the engines or the car before it was shipped to the United States. The reinforced structure on the right sits just before the cockpit.

An 11.5 cu ft (.33 m3) ice tank that held 616 lb (279 kg) of ice was installed in the nose of the Silver Bullet. Water from the engines was cooled by the ice and then returned to the engines. The 30-gallon (25-imp gal / 114 L) fuel tank was positioned in the streamlined fairing behind the cockpit. The cockpit was sized specifically for Kaye Don (Kaye Ernest Donsky), who raced for Sunbeam and had shown exceptional talent on the Brooklands race track, setting numerous records. The steering wheel was detachable for cockpit entry and exit. A fireproof bulkhead was positioned between the engines and the cockpit.

The Silver Bullet was 31 ft 1 in (9.47 m) long and 6 ft (1.83 m) across at its widest point. However, the body was under 3 ft (.91 m) wide. The car had a 4 ft 11 in (1.50 m) track, a 15 ft 5 in (4.70 m) wheel base, and 7.75 in (197 mm) of ground clearance. The top of the cowling over the engines was 44 in (1.12 m) tall, and the highest point of the car, just behind the cockpit, was around 53 in (1.35 m) above the ground. The Silver Bullet weighed around 6,000 lb (2,722 kg) dry and around 7,500 lb (3,402 kg) record-ready.

Sunbeam Silver Bullet rear air brake

Rear view of the Silver Bullet illustrates the air brake in the deployed position. It is interesting to consider how much drag the horizontal member created when it was in its normal position.

The engines were installed by 1 February 1930, and the Silver Bullet made its public debut on 21 February. Very little testing was done before the car left for Daytona Beach, Florida on 26 February. The Silver Bullet and crew arrived in Daytona on 8 March and immediately began work on the car. The Silver Bullet was started on 13 March and was ready for a run the next day. However, the timing equipment was not ready, and no run was made. The first test run was made on 15 March, and the Silver Bullet recorded an unofficial speed of around 150 mph (240 km/h).

An attempt was made on 17 March, but serious trouble was encountered when the air/fuel mixture self-ignited due to excessive heat in the long induction manifolds. This phenomenon created a backfire that routinely damaged the supercharger housing and its impeller. Part of the issue was that the induction pipes from the supercharger ran in close proximity to the exhaust manifolds, including a point where the intake crossed under the exhaust from the front engine. This created a localized area of high temperature in the induction system.

Sunbeam Silver Bullet rear

On first glance, the Silver Bullet gives the impression of a sleek and powerful vehicle that is ready to set speed records. On closer inspection, one begins to wonder just how much drag was created by the complex drag link covers, elaborate exhaust ducting, irregular body panels, and exposed fasteners. At the time, the science of aerodynamics was in its infancy.

The single supercharger arrangement and its complex piping left no way to cure the issue without significant modifications. Regardless, the Silver Bullet team tried to fix what they could and strove for a decent run up and down the beach. Modifications were made to vent exhaust from the front engine out the cowling rather than collecting it in the manifolds, but induction issues persisted. To make matters worse, the course was rough, and Don had to fight the car the whole way. Don tried again on 18 March, recording an official and disappointing two-way average speed of 171.019 mph (275.229 km/h). However, the Silver Bullet did manage to set a new American record for the flying 5 miles (8 km), averaging 151.623 mph (244.014 km/h).

Bad weather, poor course conditions, underperforming engines, and other teething issues on the untested LSR car all combined to delay further record attempts. During this time, various modifications were applied to the Silver Bullet. Another attempt was finally made on 31 March. The speed recorded for one direction was 186.046 mph (299.412 km/h), but issues caused further runs to be aborted. More delays were encountered and modifications undertaken. The next significant run occurred on 10 April, with 175.72 mph (282.79 km/h) speed in one direction being recorded.

Sunbeam Silver Bullet Daytona 14-03-1930

Don sits in the Silver Bullet on Daytona Beach. The image was taken on 14 March 1930, before any real issues with the car had been encountered. Note the slight exhaust staining just before the tail fin. It is doubtful that the wheel fairings improved aerodynamics much, given their distance from the tires.

After over 18 record attempts, the Silver Bullet’s issues proved to be too much to overcome, and the timing crews could not stay on the beach indefinitely. Coatalen ordered a return to England on 13 April. Sunbeam was struggling financially, and little further effort or expense was expended on the Silver Bullet.

The Silver Bullet was sold to Jack Field, a hotel and garage owner and gentleman racer. Field modified the car to resolve its issues and improve its reliability. All of the modifications are not known, but the exhaust manifolds running along the car’s sides were completely discarded in favor of 12 individual exhaust stacks that protruded from the cowling. Incidentally, the eight Roots-type superchargers originally planned for the car were included with the spare parts sold to Field. On 21 March 1934, Field made an attempt to capture the British absolute speed record (top speed achieved on British Empire soil), which then stood at 218.54 mph / 351.71 km/h (set by Malcolm Campbell at Verneuk Pan, South Africa on 21 April 1929). Field averaged 174.09 mph (280.17 km/h) in one direction on Southport beach, but the Silver Bullet caught fire, and further attempts were abandoned. Field sold the damaged car to famed motorcycle racer Freddie Dixon. Reportedly, the sale price was only £10, and adult beverages were involved. Dixon later determined that the car possessed little that he could use, and the Silver Bullet was scrapped.

Sunbeam Silver Bullet Jack Field Getty

Jack Field campaigning the Silver Bullet on Southport beach in 1934. Note the individual exhaust stacks protruding from the engine cowling. Field did not have any better luck than Don, and the Silver Bullet soon caught fire. (Getty image)

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 Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)
Sunbeam Aero-Engines by Alec Brew (1998)

Irving-Napier Golden Arrow museum

Irving-Napier Golden Arrow LSR Car

By William Pearce

On 29 March 1927, Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave set a new Land Speed Record (LSR) in the Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug. Segrave achieved a speed of 203.793 mph (327.973 km/h) over the one mile course on Daytona Beach in Florida. Segrave was the first to travel over 200 mph (322 km/h) on land and returned to Britain a hero. However, he wanted to go faster.

Irving-Napier Golden Arrow model

John Samuel Irving holds a model of the Irving-Napier Special / Golden Arrow. Irving was responsible for the car’s design, as well as the previous car Henry Segrave used to break the 200 mph (322 km/h) mark, the Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug.

Shortly after his return to Britain, Segrave parted ways with the Sunbeam Motor Car Company and joined the Portland Cement Manufacturers as a high-profile salesman. Segrave worked quickly to get the financial backing of his employer and from some of the sponsors involved with his previous record attempt. With funding secured, Segrave turned to John Samuel Irving to design the new LSR car. Irving had designed the Sunbeam Slug and had also left the company shortly after the successful record runs.

Segrave’s 203.793 mph (327.973 km/h) record stood for less than a year before it was beaten by Malcolm Campbell. Driving his updated Blue Bird racer, Campbell averaged 206.956 mph (333.064 km/h) on 19 February 1928. Campbell’s record stood for only two months before it was slightly bettered by American Ray Keech driving the White Triplex at 207.553 mph (334.024 km/h) on 22 April 1928.

The new records did not worry Segrave; much higher speeds were planned with the car Irving had designed. Segrave’s new car was initially called the Irving Special. Once the Napier Lion VIIA aircraft engine was acquired to power the car, its name was updated to Irving-Napier Special. The direct drive Lion VIIA had powered the Supermarine S5 aircraft that finished second in the 1927 Schneider Trophy, while the geared Lion VIIB engine powered the S5 that won the trophy. Once the car was painted its gold finish, it was often referred to as the Golden Arrow.


This image of the Golden Arrow being built shows just how closely the cowling fit over the Napier Lion engine. The front two screw jacks can be seen passing through the car’s body. The holes and fins on the brake drums were to help dissipate heat. Note the stout frame rail.

The Napier Lion VIIA was a W-12 (or broad arrow) engine design with a 5.5 in (140 mm) bore and a 5.125 in (130 mm) stroke. The engine displaced 1,461 cu in (23.9 L) and produced 930 hp (694 kW) at 3,400 rpm. The Lion engine was installed in the Golden Arrow’s narrow frame, just behind the front wheels. The car’s frame rails were made of channel section steel 13 in (330 mm) tall and 4 in (102 mm) wide. Each corner of the frame had a threaded jacking point. The rest of the Golden Arrow’s structure was made from tubular steel and wood.

A three-speed transmission was mounted behind the Lion engine. Gear ratios and theoretical maximum speeds were 3.0 to 1 and 81 mph (130 km/h) for first gear, 1.54 to 1 and 166 mph (267 km/h) for second gear, and 1 to 1 and 246 mph (396 km/h) for third gear. The transmission took the engine’s power and distributed it to two drive shafts that rotated in opposite directions. The shafts passed along both sides of the cockpit and to the rear axle. This arrangement allowed the driver’s seat to be placed some 8 in (200 mm) lower than if the driveshaft passed under the seat.

Irving-Napier Golden Arrow crate

The Golden Arrow was carefully packed for its trip across the Atlantic. The covers over the surface radiators were regularly used when the car was not being run. Note the black “aiming” stripe on the upper engine cowling. The car’s narrow cockpit was designed especially for Segrave, and the cockpit side panels were attached after Segrave was in the driver’s seat.

The offset driver’s seat in the Sunbeam Slug had made driving the car at speed slightly more challenging. Irving decided to have the driver positioned right on the centerline of the Golden Arrow. Steel plating .25 in (6 mm) thick encased the cockpit to protect the driver. A telescopic sight was placed in front of the driver, and a sighting tab was located in front of the engine on the upper cowl. In addition, a black stripe was painted along the center of the car. This was all done to make driving the Golden Arrow as easy as possible at well over 200 mph (322 km/h). The steering gearbox was positioned on top of the transmission. A drag link extended from each side of the box to the front wheels. The wheels themselves were not linked together by a tie rod. The car’s drum brakes and clutch were vacuum assisted.

The Golden Arrow’s tires were specially made by the Dunlop Rubber Company. The tires were 37 x 7 in (940 x 178 mm) and filled with 125 psi (8.6 bar) of air. Dunlop had guaranteed the tires to last 25 seconds at 240 mph (386 km/h). At that speed, it would only take 15 seconds to travel the measured mile, and the tires would be changed after each run. A streamlined fairing extended back from each front wheel to each rear wheel. The fairing improved the aerodynamics of the car and was covered in surface radiators built by the Gloster Aircraft Company. Special covers were placed over the surface radiators to protect them when the car was not running.

The surface radiators served as the primary means to cool water for the Golden Arrow’s engine. However, if the engine temperature rose too high, a secondary cooling system was employed. This system consisted of an isolated chemical compound in a tank positioned in the front of the car. When the engine got too hot, thermostats allowed water from the engine to flow through the tank where it would be cooled by the chemical. Unfortunately, which chemical was used has not been found (perhaps dry ice or cardice). The header water tank was located behind the engine, and two oil tanks were located in the frame rails.

Irving-Napier Golden Arrow Segrave Daytona

Segrave poses in the Golden Arrow on Daytona Beach. The telescopic sight has been installed in front of the cockpit, and the fore sight has been installed on the front of the top cowling. These sights were removed after the car’s first practice run. Note the aerodynamic wheel covers.

With the use of a wind tunnel, Irving designed the Golden Arrow’s body to minimize frontal area and drag. The body sloped to a point in front of the engine, and the engine’s three cylinder banks were very closely cowled. The car’s streamlined body flowed back to the cockpit, located in front of the rear wheels. Behind the cockpit was a 24 gallon (91 L) fuel tank, and the body transitioned into a tail to provide directional stability at high speeds. The Golden Arrow’s main body was inspired by the Supermarine S5 Schneider racer, and the entire body was designed to provide downforce to keep the car on the ground. The car’s aluminum body was built by coachbuilders Thrupp & Maberly.

The Irving-Napier Golden Arrow was 27 ft 6 in (8.38 m) long, 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m) wide, and 3 ft 8 in (1.12 m) tall. The car had a 14 ft (4.27 m) wheelbase, a 5 ft (1.52 m) track, and 7 in (178 mm) of ground clearance. The Golden Arrow weighed around 7,694 lb (3,490 kg) loaded. Irving and Segrave wanted to set the LSR at over four miles per minute—240 mph (386 km/h).

The Golden Arrow was built in 1928 at Kenelm Lee Guinness’ Robinhood Engineering Works. The car made its public debut at the end of January 1929. Virtually no testing occurred before the car, Segrave, and team left for Daytona Beach, Florida on 31 January 1929. Upon arrival, weather conditions were poor, and it was not until 20 February that Segrave took the car out for it first practice run. This was actually the first time Segrave drove the car. He went up and down the beach once, hitting a top speed of over 180 mph. Segrave then drove the Golden Arrow on public streets the short distance back to the garage. A few modifications were made, such as the removal of the telescopic sight and installing a smaller front sight. Segrave now thought the car was perfect and that it was time to make an attempt on the record.

Irving-Napier Golden Arrow Segrave radiator

A close-up of Segrave in the Golden Arrow shows details of the surface radiators, the telescopic sight, and Segrave’s rudimentary crash helmet. The cockpit side panels are not attached. Note that “Irving Napier Special” is painted behind the cockpit.

On 11 March 1929, the weather and beach conditions were acceptable to make a LSR attempt. Around 100,000 spectators turned out to watch, and large arc lights were strung at both ends of the measured mile. Segrave lined up the sights on the Golden Arrow as he rocketed north along the beach, shifting gears at 3,200 rpm. Fighting a cross wind, he passed through the measured mile in 15.55 seconds, averaging 231.511 mph (372.581 km/h). Suddenly, a radiator hose loosened, spraying hot water over Segrave, but he managed to maintain control. After the run, the water line was fixed, tires were changed, and water and fuel were replenished.

Segrave now made his run southward, still battling the crosswind. After using 4 miles to come up to speed, the Golden Arrow ran through the measured mile in 15.57 seconds, averaging 231.214 mph (372.103 km/h). The average of his two runs gave Segrave a new LSR of 231.362 mph (372.341 km/h)—23.809 mph (38.317 km/h) faster than the previous record set by Ray Keech in the Triplex. Some sources list the speed as 231.446 mph (372.478 km/h), which was Segrave’s speed for the flying kilometer, not the mile. At the end of the run, Segrave hit a gulley in the sand, and the Golden Arrow twisted sideways, damaging the right surface radiator.

Irving-Napier Golden Arrow Segrave front

Front view of the Golden Arrow as the car and Segrave pose for photographers. The exhaust stacks for the Lion’s side banks were on the bottom of the cowling. Segrave did not have any issues with exhaust fumes entering the cockpit.

The record had come easy. Segrave felt the Golden Arrow had more speed left, and the car was repaired for another run. However, Segrave decided that he would only make another record attempt if the White Triplex beat his speed. Driven by Lee Bible, the White Triplex took to the course on 13 March 1929. Bible’s first run was at 186 mph (299 km/h) and his second was at 202 mph (325 km/h). However, something happened at the end of the second run that caused Bible to lose control of the Triplex. The car crashed, killing Bible and Charles Traub, a British Pathé cameraman who was filming the record run. The accident put an end to the 1929 record season at Daytona.

Segrave returned to Britain and was knighted on 27 April 1929. A short time later, Segrave declared that he was done with LSRs. He found Water Speed Records more of a challenge and focused his efforts there. On 13 June 1930, Segrave made two good runs on Windermere lake in his Miss England II motorboat powered by two 1,800 hp (1,342 kW) Rolls-Royce R engines. Accompanying him were mechanic Michael Willcocks and Rolls-Royce engineer Victor Halliwell. Although Segrave did not know it at the time, the runs established a new water speed record at 98.76 mph (158.94 km/h).

Irving-Napier Golden Arrow run south

Segrave and the Golden Arrow making their south run on Daytona Beach at 231.214 mph (372.103 km/h). Few images of the car at speed exist despite numerous photographers attending the record attempt. At the time, photographers had little experience capturing high-speed subjects. Note that the original sights have been removed.

Segrave had made the first two runs at less than full throttle and knew that he could do better. Without coming to shore, he immediately set out for another two runs. On his third run of the day, Miss England II was traveling around 120 mph when the boat hit some debris and violently capsized. Segrave, Halliwell and Wilcocks were all thrown into the water. Willcocks was pulled from the water alive. Halliwell was killed in the crash; his body was recovered two days later, still clutching his pencil and notepad. Segrave was found unconscious and taken to a shore-side house where he was treated by doctors. Segrave regained consciousness, asked about Willcocks and Halliwell, asked about the record, and then passed away from his injuries.

Segrave was the first person to simultaneously hold the World Land Speed Record and the World Water Speed Record. The Irving-Napier Golden Arrow was never raced again after its record run, and the car has been driven under its own power fewer than 40 miles (64 km). The Golden Arrow was preserved and is currently on display at the British National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire, United Kingdom.

Irving-Napier Golden Arrow museum

A fantastic image of the Golden Arrow as it sits in the British National Motor Museum. The holes for the front screw jacks can be seen as well as the separate drag links for the front wheels. (Brian Snelson image via flickr.com)

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 Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)
Leap into Legend by Steve Holter (2003)
Napier: The First to Wear the Green by David Vebables (1998)

Sunbeam 1000 hp Mystery Slug top

Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug LSR Car

By William Pearce

On 16 March 1926, Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave blasted down Ainsdale Beach at Southport, England and set a new Land Speed Record (LSR) at 152.33 mph* (245.15 km/h). The speed was only 1.57 mph (2.53 km/h) faster than the previous record, set by Malcolm Campbell on 21 July 1925, and Segrave knew his record would not stand for long. What Segrave needed to achieve a truly impressive speed was a car designed especially for the LSR.

Sunbeam 1000 hp Mystery Slug top

The Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug as it appears today. Note the side exhaust for the front engine and the individual stacks for the rear engine. (FavCars.com image)

Segrave was born in the United States (US) to an American mother and an Irish father. He was raised in Ireland and England, and was a pilot in the First World War. He became a race car driver after the war and drove Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq autos to many victories. The Sunbeam Motor Car Company found Grand Prix racing too expensive and quit competing in 1926. By 1927, Segrave had left auto racing completely to focus solely on setting land speed records.

Sunbeam had previously provided Campbell and Segrave’s LSR cars. These machines were little more than modified Grand Prix racers. Louis Hervé Coatalen was the managing director of Sunbeam and understood how speed records would translate into auto sales. Coatalen knew that a specially-designed LSR car would be able to achieve much higher speeds than the current record. Coatalen also knew that such a car could be built fairly inexpensively by utilizing many of the unused parts at the Sunbeam factory. Coatalen agreed to build a special LSR car for Segrave, and their target was 200 mph (322 km/h).

Sunbeam 1000 hp Mystery Slug test

The Slug being tested at the Sunbeam works. The steel guards over the tires and chain can be seen. Many pipes were needed to bring in cool water and take away hot water and exhaust. The front engine’s four magnetos can be seen between the front tires.

The new LSR car was designed by John Samuel Irving in 1926 and built by the Sunbeam works in Wolverhampton. Its frame and crossmembers were made of channel-steel. Two Sunbeam Matabele aircraft engines would be used to push the car to 200 mph (322 km/h). Coatalen had originally designed the V-12 Matabele engine around 1917. The engine had a 4.80 in (122 mm) bore and a 6.30 in (160 mm) stroke. Total displacement was 1,370 cu in (22.4 L), and the engine produced around 450 hp (336 kW) at 2,000 rpm but could be overrevved to 2,200 rpm. The two engines in the car had actually been salvaged from the four used in the Maple Leaf VII powerboat, which sunk during the 1921 Harmsworth Trophy Race on the Detroit River in the United States.

Although each of the two engines produced only 450 hp (336 kW), the racer was officially called the 1,000 HP Sunbeam. As the car was constructed, the workmen dubbed it The Slug due to the shape of its body. When the car arrived in the US, the American newspapers called it the Mystery S. Perhaps it is most appropriate to combine all the names and call it the Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug.

The driver sat in the middle of the car and was offset to the right. One engine was installed in front of the driver and the other behind. The front engine had a single radiator in the car’s nose, and its exhaust was expelled through a single stack on each side of the car. Louvers covered the front of the car to let the heat from the front engine escape. The rear engine had two radiators, one on each side of the car, positioned behind the driver. Cooling air was brought in through ducts on both sides of the car and escaped out an opening in the car’s tail. The rear engine’s exhaust was expelled through 12 stacks that protruded behind the driver.

Sunbeam 1000 hp Mystery Slug debut

When first shown to the press, the Slug had wheel covers over its rear tires. These were removed for the record run. Note the louvered scoop for the rear radiator. Airflow proved inadequate, and a larger scoop was fitted. Segrave is looking into the car.

The engines were installed back-to-back and were linked by a common shaft. The rear engine was started with compressed air. Once the rear engine was running, it was clutched to the front engine via the common shaft, which started the front engine. With both engines running, the common shaft locked the engines together to keep them at the same rpm. A three-speed transmission took power from the common shaft and drove a cross shaft. A sprocket and chain on each end of the cross shaft delivered power to the rear axle. The transmission actually stepped up the speed of the cross shaft over the speed of the common shaft, but the chain drive acted as a gear reduction, bringing the final drive ratio to 1.02:1. The Slug had a theoretical top speed of 212.5 mph (342.0 km/h) with the engines turning at 2,000 rpm.

The Slug’s innards were covered by a streamlined aluminum body developed after wind tunnel tests at the Vickers Aviation Department. To keep the driver safe, the frame was reinforced around the cockpit, and thick steel guards were installed around the drive chains and tires. A .25 in (6 mm) thick steel underbody was installed that allowed the Slug to slide along the ground if a tire failed. Covers were originally fitted over the rear wheels, but these were removed for the record runs. The 35 x 6 in (635 x 152 mm) tires were specially designed by the Dunlop Rubber Company and guaranteed to last 3.5 minutes at 200 mph (322 km/h). The tires would be changed after each record run. In the tail of the car, behind the rear engine, was a 28 gallon (106 L) fuel tank. The 1,000 HP Sunbeam had a wheelbase of 11 ft 9 in (3.58 m) and a track of 5 ft 2 in (1.57 m). The car was 3 ft 7 in (1.09 m) tall and over 23 ft (7.01 m) long. The Slug had 7 in (178 mm) of ground clearance and weighed around 7,790 lb (3,533 kg) empty.

Segrave sits in the 1,000 HP Sunbeam. The louvers on the front of the car allowed heat to escape the front engine bay. The “Co” painted on the side of the racer was changed to “CAR.” With the rear wheel cover removed, both “CAR” and “ENGLAND” were cut off. (Getty Images)

Once assembled, the car was run on a special test rig for six hours to resolve any issues. The 1,000 HP Sunbeam made its official debut on 21 February 1927. Segrave realized there was no place in Europe to safely run the car and made plans for a record attempt at Daytona Beach, Florida. Some of the car’s backers were unhappy about the runs being planned outside of Britain and forced Segrave to personally make his own arrangements to ship the car and travel overseas. Segrave rose to the challenge and got the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) to recognize the attempts which would be overseen by the American Automobile Association (AAA). This required much negotiation between the AIACR and the AAA.

Segrave, his crew, and the Slug left for the US in February 1927. Segrave’s earlier LSR has been beat on 28 April 1926** by John Godfrey Parry-Thomas at 170.624 mph (274.593 km/h) in his racer Babs. Campbell regained the record on 4 February 1927 with a speed of 174.224 mph (280.387 km/h) in his new Napier-powered Blue Bird racer. While attempting to win back the record, Parry-Thomas was killed on 3 March 1927. At the time, a chain was thought to have broken free and killed Parry-Thomas. As a result, Segrave decided to thoroughly inspect his chains throughout his record runs.

Sunbeam 1000 hp Mystery Slug Seagrave beach

Segrave stands by the Slug on Daytona Beach. The larger scoops for the rear radiator have been installed. The rear wheel covers have been removed, and wheel discs cover the spokes on the rear wheels. The removed cover behind the rear engine gave access to the fuel tank. At the front of the car, part of the underbody is visible.

Segrave and the Slug’s first test run was on 21 March 1927. The Daytona Beach course featured four miles (6.4 km) to accelerate, one measured mile (1.6 km), and four miles (6.4 km) to slow the car. This was the first time the car was driven for any real distance. Other than being difficult to steer and the rear engine getting hot, the car performed well on its rather sedate trips along the beach. A new steering box was installed, which required some modifications to the car. Larger scoops were added to the Slug’s sides to draw more air into the radiators for the rear engine. The biggest issue Segrave encountered was with the thousands of spectators who turned out to watch and got in the way of the car and the time measuring equipment. The car’s next run was on 24 March, and higher speeds were attained. More police were present to help control the crowds, but they were still an issue.

With increased crowd control and no technical issues to overcome, the decision was made to make a serious attempt at the record. On 29 March 1927, Segrave set off to the north, determined to get every bit of speed he could out of the Slug. Reportedly, 30,000 spectators were on the beach that day. Fighting against the wind, Segrave hit some marker flags that lined the prepared course, but he pushed on and flew through the measured mile (1.6 km) in 17.94 seconds, averaging 200.669 mph (322.945 km/h). Letting off the throttle, Segrave found that the Slug did not decelerate as quickly as he had anticipated. Nearing the end of the course, he hit the brakes hard only to have them melt. Segrave then drove the car into the sea along the shore to slow it down and regain control.

Sunbeam 1000 hp Mystery Slug beach

Given the cleanliness of the car, this image was probably taken before the record run. Note how the removal of the wheel covers chopped off “CAR” and “ENGLAND.” The large rear radiator scoops must have created a fair amount of drag.

The car was prepared for its second run: tires were changed, new brakes were installed, and fuel and water were replenished. A short time later, Segrave ran the Slug with the wind to the south. With the engines hitting 2,200 rpm, Segrave blasted through the measured mile (1.6 km) in 17.39 seconds, averaging 207.016 mph (333.160 km/h). With a little more control that in his previous run, he brought the car to a safe stop at the end of the course. Segrave and the Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug had set a new LSR of 203.793 mph (327.973 km/h)—an astounding 29.569 mph (47.587 km/h) faster than the previous record (Campbell’s).

Segrave and the Slug’s record run represented the first time the 200 mph (322 km/h) mark was exceeded. Segrave was the first non-US citizen to make a record attempt at Daytona Beach. Likewise, the 1,000 HP Sunbeam was the first non-US car to make a record attempt at Daytona Beach. The Slug ushered in a new era of large, streamlined machines designed solely to break the LSR.

Sunbeam 1000 hp Mystery Slug run

Segrave and the Slug are seen racing down Daytona Beach on the second (south) record run. The marker flag is similar to those that Segrave hit on his first pass. The relative positions between the photographer and the flag give a sense of how narrow the course was.

Segrave’s record stood for less than a year before Campbell bettered the speed by only 3.163 mph (5.090 km/h). At the time, Segrave was busy working on a new LSR car, the Golden Arrow. The Slug’s one outing in Florida had gained the record but had also shown that the car’s chain-drive was antiquated and that its second-hand engines could be improved upon. The Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug was preserved and eventually made its way to the British National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire, United Kingdom, where it is currently on display. The car has been driven approximately 75 miles (120 km) under its own power.

*Segrave’s 152.33 mph (245.15 km/h) record was over 1 km (not 1 mile) and was officially recognized by the AIACR. The speed had already been exceeded by Tommy Milton, who drove his twin-engine Duesenberg-Milton racer to a recorded speed of 156.046 mph (251.132 km/h) on 27 April 1920. Milton’s car caught fire during the first run, and he was unable to make a return pass. Milton’s speed was recognized by the AAA as a US record, but it was not recognized by the AIACR as an international record.

** Parry-Thomas actually broke Segrave’s record on 27 April 1926 at a speed of 168.074 mph (270.489 km/h). Parry-Thomas then set a new record the following day.

Sunbeam 1000 hp Mystery Slug display

The Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug on display in the British National Motor Museum. While the car has been preserved, the rear radiator scoops and rear tire covers seem to have been lost. Note the bulge in front of the cockpit meant to deflect some air away from the driver’s face. Segrave had much trouble with the wind trying to rip his goggles and helmet off. (David Chief image via Wikimedia Commons)

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 Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)
Sunbeam Aero-Engines by Alec Brew (1998)

Duesenberg Milton LSR Beverly Hills Murphy

Duesenberg-Milton Land Speed Record Car

By William Pearce

After winning the Elgin National Road Race, held in Elgin, Illinois on 23 August 1919, Duesenberg race car driver Tommy Milton began to focus on one of his top goals: establishing a new land speed record at Daytona Beach, Florida. The current record was held by Milton’s rival Ralph De Palma at 149.875 mph (241.001 km/h). Milton had been contemplating a land speed record (LSR) car for a long time. In December 1916, he and Fred Duesenberg entered into an agreement* to build a car to Milton’s specifications provided Milton would partially fund the vehicle. With his share of the Eglin winnings, Milton was one step closer to building the LSR car.

Duesenberg Milton LSR Indy

Tommy Milton sits in the Duesenberg-Milton LSR car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (most likely in May 1920). The burnt paint on the engine cowl was a result of a fire during its speed runs in April 1920. (RacingOne image via Getty Images)

Milton was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on 14 November 1893. From birth, he was blind in his right eye, but he never let that slow him down. At the age of 19, in 1913, Milton was given his family’s old car, and he quickly set to work to make it a faster. He began entering the car in local races and stood out with obvious potential. Milton’s natural abilities were noticed by race promoter Alex Sloan, who offered Milton a job. Sloan ended up firing Milton in 1915 for winning staged races he was supposed to lose. Milton did not mind; he had already made arrangements to race for Duesenberg during the 1916 season.

Even without any victories, Milton did well enough through the 1916 season to finish in seventh place in the AAA national points standings. A world at war interrupted the 1917 and 1918 seasons, but Milton was back behind the wheel of a Duesenberg for 1919. After the Elgin, Milton headed to Uniontown, Pennsylvania for the next race.

It was at Uniontown on 1 September 1919 where Milton met disaster while hunting for his fourth win in a row. In first place and with only 10 laps to go, fuel from a ruptured line ignited, causing an intense fire. The car ablaze, Milton expertly spun the car 180 degrees, putting the flames away from himself and his riding mechanic, Dwight Kessler. Driving backward, Milton headed toward the inner guard rail and help. Milton was able to extricate himself from the car but required hospitalization for his badly burned right leg. Kessler, also burned, escaped with less severe injuries.

Duesenberg Milton LSR build

The Duesenberg-Milton LSR car under construction at The Duesenberg factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey in late 1919 or early 1920. (Eddie Miller image via King of the Boards: The Life and Times of Jimmy Murphy)

While in the hospital, a semi-conscious Milton interrupted the doctors who were discussing the need to amputate his burned leg. Before he fell back into unconsciousness, Milton made it very clear that he wanted to keep his leg. The doctors were able to avoid amputation, but Milton needed months of hospitalization to recover. Jimmy Murphy often visited Milton in the hospital. Murphy was also a driver for Duesenberg, and the two had become good friends. Murphy had been Milton’s riding mechanic for the Elgin race, and Milton, who was the Duesenberg team captain, continued to encourage the novice Murphy.

As Milton lay in his hospital bed, he had a lot of time to think of his land speed record ambitions. As World War I was drawing to a close, Fred and Augie Duesenberg designed a new straight, eight-cylinder engine for when racing resumed. This new engine was a departure from previous Duesenberg designs; gone were the long rocker arms and horizontal valves of their previous engines. In their place was a single overhead camshaft that actuated two exhaust valves and one intake valve positioned at the top of each cylinder. The engine’s camshaft was driven from the crankshaft via a vertical shaft at the front of the engine.

The crankcase and cylinders were a single casting to which the cylinder head was attached. All castings were iron. Two intake manifolds were positioned on the left side of the engine, and each manifold fed the air/fuel mixture to four cylinders from a single Miller updraft carburetor. On the right side of the engine, the exhaust gases were collected in a common manifold. The engine had a 3.0 in (76 mm) bore and 5.25 in (133 mm) stroke. It displaced 297 cu in (4.86 L) to conform to the 300 cu in (4.91 L) limit imposed on race engines at the time. The engine produced around 92 hp (69 kW) at 3,800 rpm.

Duesenberg Milton LSR Daytona Chassis

Picture taken in Daytona Beach, Florida showing the bodiless Duesenberg-Milton LSR car. Each eight-cylinder engine drove its own drive shaft which led back to the rear axle. Note the hollow steering column and the position of the exhaust manifold for the left engine.

Unfortunately for Duesenberg, this new “300 cu in” engine was soon made obsolete by a rule change that stipulated a 183 cu in (3.0 L) displacement limit for the 1920 Indianapolis race. With no other application for the 300 cu in engines, Milton envisioned using them for his LSR car. Over his two months of hospitalization, Milton solidified the LSR car design to include two completely separate 300 cu in engines positioned side by side at the front of the racer. Via a cone clutch, each engine directly drove a drive shaft. At the end of each drive shaft was a pinion that engaged a ring gear on the special, solid, live axle.

The chassis for the Duesenberg LSR car was encased by a sheet-metal body, including an undertray. The front of the car was slanted and had a large opening for the radiator. A long tail tapered back beyond the rear wheels to form the rear of the car. The exhaust pipe from the left engine passed through the cockpit on its way to the outside of the car.

In November 1919, Milton was out of the hospital and, although still recovering, was back behind the wheel of a race car; he continued to win races and break records. Milton also worked on the LSR car whenever he could at Duesenberg’s shop in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Duesenberg Milton LSR Daytona Engines

Another view of the twin-engine set up in the Duesenberg-Milton LSR car. Just below the steering column is a reversing gear that was quickly added to the racer at Daytona to comply with Automobile Association of America rules.

The first race of the 1920 season was the inaugural race at the Los Angles Speedway in Beverly Hills, California. Since this race would be the last for the 300 cu in engines, the LSR car was shipped with the other racers to Beverly Hills. Once the races were over, the 300 cu in engines could be installed in the LSR car and tested at the track.

The race was held on 28 February 1920, and it was Murphy’s first victory. Milton had dropped out with engine trouble. Another race was run a month later on 28 March. Milton and Murphy both won separate sprint races. As planned, the 300 cu in engines were removed from Milton and Murphy’s cars and installed in the LSR car. The LSR car, sometimes referred to as the “Double Duesy,” was tested around the track, where Milton reportedly covered the one mile (1.6 km) circuit in 37 seconds—a speed of over 97 mph (156 km/h).

The Duesenberg LSR car still needed many finishing touches. Murphy, Harry Hartz, and the LSR car were sent to Daytona Beach, Florida to be prepped for a record attempt in April. Milton went to Havana, Cuba to participate in an “all-star” race in which he hoped to earn some much needed winnings, as the LSR car had drained his finances. Before he left, Milton gave explicit instructions that the LSR car was not to make any high-speed runs without him behind the wheel.

Duesenberg Milton LSR Beverly Hills Murphy

The completed Duesenberg-Milton LSR car at the Los Angles Speedway in Beverly Hills, CA. Jimmy Murphy sits behind the wheel ready to take the car out on the track. The picture was taken before the car was sent to Daytona Beach in April 1920.

When Milton arrived in Florida from Cuba on 18 April 1920, he read in a newspaper that Murphy had driven the Duesenberg LSR car to 153 mph (246 km/h), unofficially surpassing De Palma’s speed of 149.875 mph (241.201 km/h). Milton’s outrage with Murphy’s speed run was obvious to everyone once he arrived at Daytona Beach. Fred Duesenberg attempted to take the blame for putting Murphy in the LSR car, but Milton was beyond being reasoned with, and Murphy left the beach. This event marked the end of Milton and Murphy’s close friendship, and Milton would also be done with Duesenberg when he got the chance. The issue was not that Murphy tested the car, but that a record speed had been run. The recording of a record speed was not Murphy or Duesenberg’s fault; an intrepid reporter with a stopwatch was most likely the catalyst for all the turmoil.

Milton was determined to go faster in the LSR car for the official runs. Milton and Fred Duesenberg believed the car was capable of 180 mph (290 km/h). However, Milton ran into trouble with mechanical issues, bad sand, bad weather, and the wrong gear ratio. Despite his best efforts, Milton was not able to better Murphy’s speed. On the beach, Milton and Hartz worked on the car to clear it of sand that had gotten everywhere during previous runs.

Duesenberg Milton LSR Daytona Engines

The Duesenberg-Milton LSR car under power on Daytona Beach. Many sources indicate Milton was driving the car at the time, but it was very likely Murphy behind the wheel.

With the Duesenberg LSR car back together and with favorable conditions, Milton made progressively faster runs down Daytona Beach. On 25 April 1920, Milton set seven new speed records, for everything from 0.5 to 5.0 miles (0.8 to 8.0 km). Milton covered a mile at 153.846 mph (247.593 km/h), but he felt the LSR car could go even faster. On 27 April 1920, Milton rocketed atop the sand when suddenly the car caught fire. Perhaps the extreme heat generated by the twin engines (especially the exhaust of the left engine) ignited fuel and oil that had pooled on the undertray. Heat and fumes traveled through the hollow steering column situated between the two engines and blew into Milton’s face. With the burns of his Uniontown fire still healing, Milton knew his situation was not a good one. He pressed on to finish the run but thought about driving the car into the ocean to extinguish the flames. Fortunately, that was not necessary. Milton and onlookers were able to put out the fire out using sand once he came to a stop at the end of the course. Milton’s speed on that run was recorded at 156.046 mph (251.131 km/h).

Milton suffered burns and impaired vision and again needed time to recover. The Duesenberg LSR car was in need of repair, and the period of good weather was over. It was time to leave the beach. Because Milton’s record run was only one way, it would not be an officially recognized international record. However, the 156.046 mph (251.132 km/h) speed would stand as a United States record, and the speed would not be surpassed internationally until 1926.

Duesenberg Milton LSR Daytona Beach

The Duesenberg-Milton LSR car with Milton in the cockpit. This picture was taken at Daytona Beach, most likely after Milton’s speed run. The paint on the engine cowling has been burned off, but the car appears to be in otherwise good condition, similar to how it looks in the picture from Indianapolis. Note the fabric wheel covers that Milton added to improve the vehicle’s aerodynamics and increase its speed.

Milton left the Duesenberg team at the end of the 1920 season. Murphy was killed in a race on 15 September 1924. Despite whatever friction may have existed between the two men, Milton always respected and thought highly of Murphy. Milton helped get Murphy’s affairs in order after his death, even signing Murphy’s death certificate. The LSR car was retained by Duesenberg and later repainted and displayed in their Indianapolis factory showroom. However, it is not clear what happened to the car after the 1926 merger with the Cord Company.

*Milton and Duesenberg’s agreement specified the use of a V-12 aircraft engine. The intended engine could very well have been the 1,568 cu in (25.7 L) V-12 Duesenberg aircraft engine of 350 hp (261 kW) first run that same year (1916).

Note: Many sources present conflicting information regarding the history of the Duesenberg LSR car, the record runs, and the perceived conflict between Milton and Murphy. This article is an attempt to present the story without magnifying or ignoring its primary details.

Duesenberg Milton LSR 1924

The Duesenberg-Milton LSR car at the Duesenberg Indianapolis plant in 1921. Note that the LSR car has been repainted and branded the “Duesenberg World Record Car.” In the foreground are some of the cars Duesenberg sent to France to participate in the Grand Prix at Le Mans, which Murphy won (Murphy’s number 12 racer is not pictured).

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

King of the Boards: The Life and Times of Jimmy Murphy by Gary Doyle (2002)
The Golden Age of the American Racing Car by Griffith Borgeson (1966/1998)
– “The Incomparable Milton” by Al Bloemker Automobile Quarterly Vol. 8 No. 2 (Fall 1969)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)
– “Papa Time Gets Trimmed Again Down on Daytona Beach” Touring Topics (May 1920)
Duesenberg Aircraft Engines by William Pearce (2012)