Part of me absolutely hates museums. Line after line of immaculately presented mechanical corpses sit there, mute, waiting without hope of ever seeing action like they did in the days before they were embalmed and roped off with velvet.
You need to visit Goodwood, Duxford, or dozens of the other gatherings around the world to see vintage aircraft and race cars being given a proper work-out. At Goodwood this year, on the same day that a Mercedes W196 Racer was being thrapped up the hillclimb, a Hawker Hunter and English Electric Canberra were dancing an intricate, noisy routine in the skies above. Of course, there are certain awesome artefacts from time that can never be demonstrated in public, though, which is a shame. There is unlikely, for instance, to ever be a Saturn V rocket display.
Which brings me to where I’m stood right now. Inches from machines which have been the fastest wheel-driven vehicles of their time. Absolute power, silenced.
Craig Breedlove set a land speed record of 407 mph in 1963 with the Spirit Of America jet propelled car, and all of a sudden a word was redefined. “Car”. Even if a term as loose as “personal transportation device” is applied as a definition, Spirit Of America struggles to fit into that category. Spirit, Blue Flame, Thrust 2, Thrust SSC and the upcoming Bloodhound SSC are wheeled, ground-roving projectiles, differing from fighter aircraft only by the fact that leaving the ground is absolutely the last thing you want them to do.
“Fastest car in the world” was a term which used to be applied to vehicles that you could still recognise as such. Right from the beginning there was a quest to see whose contraption was the quickest, although the first official internal combustion Land Speed Record wasn’t recorded until 1902, set by a bloke called William K. Vanderbilt in a vehicle which was very recognisable as being derived from the cars of the time.
Then, in 21 July 1925, this record was raised to 150.766 at Pendine Sands, Wales by this vehicle, the 350hp Sunbeam, later named Bluebird by Malcolm Campbell. It still conformed to the basic layout adopted by sporting cars of the period; long bonnet, short tail, driver in the middle and drive to the rear wheels
Of course, the body was more wildly contoured and streamlined (yet still without much in the way of meaningful aerodynamic research) than even the grand prix racers of the time.
200mph in 1927 was an impressive speed for an aeroplane to achieve, but the “1000hp” (more like 900hp in real money) Mystery of 1927, being driven by two Sunbeam Aero engines made it possible. Henry Seagrave set this record at Daytona (the birthplace of speed, of course), but wouldn’t leave it at that.
He was back with the Irving-designed Napier Lion powered Golden Arrow two years later, at Daytona again, and lifted the record once more to 231mph.
This was quite a machine, cooling for its 912hp V12 being provided by water being pumped through ice chests built into the sides of the body, or fuselage. The Golden Arrow made a quick practice run, then set the record with a minimum of fuss and bother, and then never turned a wheel in anger again.
The definition of car was stretched to breaking point by the time that the very wonderful Bluebird Proteus CN7 turned up in 1960. This was a vehicle whose formidable mechanical arsenal was hidden beneath the most fabulously undulating sculptural piece of automotive bodywork to have ever been stitched together, and the man behind it? Our friend Campbell again.
The four-ton, aluminium honeycomb marvel was powered by a Bristol Siddeley Proteus gas turbine, geared to drive both axles and the 52 inch wheels fitted to them. This astonishing machine brought the “official” land speed record home at 403mph, way below its theoretical design potential.
It was largely academic, though, because at that time the pure-jet brigade were starting to take over. Spirit of America had already run faster than Bluebird a year earlier, and after that was eventually recognised as a land speed record, the age of wheel-driven absolute speed record holders was over.
Standing here, surrounded by all four of these behemoths, I feel rather humbled. All four machines were, for their respective years, absolutely towering technical achievements, and the fact that all the way through the twenties and thirties fresh records came in thick and fast, makes me wish for an age where such drive and determination was prevalent.
Wheel-driven speed records continue to be set, most recently (and ironically) using a very turbocharged Chevy small-block. And that quite nicely ties it back to the whole “being a car” thing. The four machines in this room, even the thirty foot long turboprop driven one, are definitely cars. And are definitely awesome.
(Images copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2014)