THE HISTORY OF THE UK LAND SPEED RECORD FROM 1909

What exactly is the UK land speed record?

Andy Green and Richard Noble’s ThrustSSC set their sound barrier-smashing mark of 763.035 mph on October 15th 1997, on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

They are, of course, as British as they come. But theirs isn’t the UK land speed record. It’s the outright world land speed record as defined by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).

The UK land speed record is a national mark, the best speed set in the United Kingdom, as defined by the Motor Sports Association (MSA). It currently stands at 301.670 mph to Colin Fallows in the Vampire jet dragster after his runs over a flying 500 metre measured distance at RAF Fairford in July 2006.

To complicate things slightly, some of the earliest UK land speed records were also the outright world land speed record.

Frenchman Victor Hemery was the first man to break the land speed record on British soil, when he took a ‘Blitzen’ Benz to the outright mark of 125.947 mph over a kilometre during the course of a flat-out lap of the famed Brooklands ‘concrete saucer’ in Surrey on November 8th 1909.

Nearly five years later, in a similar car and on the same track, L.G. ‘Cupid’ Hornsted reset that on June 24th 1914. Though his speed was slower, at 124.100 mph, it represented the first time that such a performance had to be the average of two runs in different directions within one hour, which the regulations still require. Hornsted was subsequently credited with persuading the governing body of the day, the AIACR, to recognise the mile distance officially. The previous mile mark stood to Hemery at only 115.923 mph, and after a run in the track’s reverse direction of 120.28 mph, Hornsted’s second run in the normal anti-clockwise direction yielded a speed of 128.16 which would in any case have eclipsed Hemery’s best speed through the kilometre had single runs still been permitted.

Bequeathed the aero-engine by World War I, racers lost no time in harnessing its power for greater speed. On May 17th 1922, spark plug magnate Kenelm Lee Guinness took Louis Coatalen’s 350 hp Sunbeam to Brooklands and raised the world land speed record to 133.750 mph over a flying kilometre, and thereafter that car became the exclusive obsessive focus of racer Malcolm Campbell.

Never one to be deterred from his fixations, he badgered Coatalen until the Sunbeam boss finally relented and sold him the car. After a series of irritating and frustrating failures, Campbell finally succeeded on Pendine Sands in North Wales. The car had been given a sleek long tail and repainted in the colour that reflected Campbell rechristening it Bluebird. He attained a speed of 146.160 mph with it on September 25th 1924, which broke the world record of 146.01 mph that fellow countryman Ernest Eldridge had achieved in his Fiat ‘Mephistopheles’ at Arpajon, in France, that July. A year later, the Sunbeam Bluebird now modified further, Campbell raised his own record to 150.766 mph at Pendine on July 21st. Both efforts were the outright record, but also the national.

Campbell’s success triggered further interest in the land speed record. On March 16th 1926 his Grand Prix racing rival de Hane Segrave took Coatalen’s latest machine, a 4-litre supercharged Sunbeam, to 152.330 mph on the sands at Southport on the north west coast.

Barely a month later, Segrave lost that record to another Brooklands habitué, Welshman John Godfrey Parry Thomas. Less wealthy than either Campbell or Segrave, the Welshman bought the 400 bhp Liberty V12-engined Higham Special from Count Louis Zborowski and re-engineered it significantly. He renamed the monster Babs and on April 27th raised Segrave’s (outright and national) record to 169.300 mph at Pendine. He elevated that the following day to 171.020.

Campbell was back at Pendine in February 1927 when, despite poor conditions on the 4th, he took his all-new 450 bhp Campbell-Napier Bluebird to 174.883 mph over the flying kilometre. It was while trying to raise that, in a more streamlined version of Babs on March 3rd, that Thomas became record breaking’s first fatality as the white and blue car overturned at 180 mph.

Soon after Thomas’s death, Segrave broke through the 200 mph barrier with his 1000 hp Sunbeam on Daytona Beach in Florida, and Britain’s reign as the speed capital of the world was finally over. Thereafter all outright world land speed records were set at Daytona until the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah took over from 1935 (with the exception of Donald Campbell’s 403.1 mph mark on Australia’s Lake Eyre), and were in turn superseded by the Black Rock Desert in Nevada from October 1983.

Even once it had been superseded by Segrave, Campbell’s 174.883 mph remained the UK land speed record until 1969, when drag racer Tony Densham set a new mark of 207.600 mph over the flying kilometre at Elvington in his V8-engined dragster, Commuter. Densham also recorded 211.260 mph over the flying quarter mile, but back then the longer distance record was still taken as the outright speed mark.

Clothing magnate Robert Horne challenged Densham’s record at RAF Fairford in 1977 in his Ferrari 512M, after racing driver Derek Bell had set up the ex-Jose Juncadella car which had run at Le Mans and in the 1970/’71 World Sportscar Championship. Horne achieved a new mile record at 191.640 mph, but although that broke Campbell’s long-held mile mark of 174.224 mph it did not count as the UK land speed record because it hadn’t beaten Densham and Commuter’s speed over the kilometre.

On October 1st 1977 Barry Bowles took his innovative rocket-powered Blonde Bombshell to Elvington, where he broke Densham’s record with an average speed over a flying quarter mile of 218.710 mph. His faster run was timed at 231.86 mph. On April 23rd 1978 this great adventurer was fortunate to escape without injury after crashing at 280 mph in a fresh attempt on Pendine Sands.

The next challenger stepped forward in September 1980 when Richard Noble, Bowles’ rival for outright world land speed record honours, took his still unfinished Thrust2 contender to RAF Greenham Common. Running with only vestigial bodywork on the longest runway available at that time, he took the mile record at 248.870 mph, and though the reheated Rolls-Royce Avon 210 turbojet engine also took it to 259.740 through the quarter mile, the convention remained to take the mile speed where records had been achieved over more than one distance since it was the longest. The attempt was an important one for Noble in publicity terms and helped to engender crucial further funding, but it was just one more step in the Thrust2 programme. Ultimately he set a new outright world land speed record of 633.468 mph with the finished car at Black Rock Desert in Nevada on October 4th 1983.

Noble’s UK record stood for 15 years, though on October 29th 1996 engineer Colin Fallows achieved 266.740 mph with his Rolls-Royce Orpheus-engined Vampire at Thurleigh in Bedfordshire. It was not an officially timed run, however, so he could not claim the record. He did that in style three years later, though, when he took Vampire to 269.090 mph through the quarter mile at Elvington, near York, then 269.310 over 500 metres. Just over a year later, on July 5th 2000, his Primetime team-mate and business partner Mark Newby took his Rolls-Royce Viper-engined Split Second jetcar to 272.930 mph through Elvington’s quarter mile. That new record lasted literally only a couple of hours, however, as Fallows took Vampire to 300.300 mph over the same distance.

In May 2006 the Primetime cars were out again, but this time they were unlucky. At Bruntingthorpe, Newby ran one-way through the quarter mile in 334.570 mph but handling problems prevented a return run.

On July 7th that same year, at Fairford, near Cirencester, Fallows ran 302.010 mph through the quarter mile in Vampire (which could not be claimed as a new record as it did not exceed the old quarter mile figure by more than one per cent) and 301.670 over 500 metres, which stands as the current mark. Once again Newby was unlucky, after a one-way run at 338.740 mph could not be backed up due to tyre problems.

Later that year, in September, Vampire was involved in a much-publicised accident at Elvington when a tyre burst during a televised run by Top Gear TV presenter Richard Hammond. The car was badly damaged, but Hammond recovered after sustaining head injuries. Primetime sold the wreckage and Split Second (which went to drag racer Julian Webb), and retired from the record breaking business.

David Tremayne and Team STAY GOLD now take aim at Fallows’ 301.670 mph UK land speed record, determined to do their best to add another chapter to a glorious story of human adventure.

However, there is an important distinction.

As we are not running under MSA sanction, we cannot claim the UK land speed record.

We are running under IOPD sanction, in which case we will, if successful, claim the UK fastest Car and Driver honours.

 

 

OUTRIGHT WORLD (AND UK) LAND SPEED RECORD – to 1927 (mph)

Date                           Driver                         Vehicle                      Venue                        Distance                    Speed

08.11.09                   Victor Hemery          Benz                           Brooklands               km                               125.947

24.06.14                   LG Hornsted             Benz                           Brooklands               –                                   124.100 *

17.05.22                   KL Guinness             Sunbeam                   Brooklands               km                               133.750

25.09.24                   Malcolm Campbell  Sunbeam                   Pendine Sands         km                               146.160

21.07.25                   Malcolm Campbell  Sunbeam                   Pendine Sands         mile                             150.766

16.03.26                   Henry Segrave           Sunbeam                   Southport Beach     km                               152.330

27.04.26                   JG Parry Thomas      Babs                           Pendine Sands         km                               169.300

28.04.26                   JG Parry Thomas      Babs                           Pendine Sands         km                               171.020

04.02.27                   Malcolm Campbell  Bluebird                     Pendine Sands         km                               174.883

 

UK LAND SPEED RECORD – 1927 to date (mph)

04.02.27                   Malcolm Campbell  Bluebird                     Pendine Sands         km                               174.883

03/04.10.70             Tony Densham         Commuter                 Elvington                   km                               207.600

01.10.77                   Barry Bowles             Blonde Bombshell   Elvington                   qtr mile                      218.710

24/25.09.80             Richard Noble          Thrust2                      Greenham                 mile                             248.870

02.06.99                   Colin Fallows            Vampire                     Elvington                   qtr mile                      269.090

02.06.99                   Colin Fallows            Vampire                     Elvington                   500 m                        269.310

05.07.00                   Mark Newby             Split Second              Elvington                   qtr mile                      272.930

05.07.00                   Colin Fallows            Vampire                     Elvington                   qtr mile                      300.300

07.07.06                   Colin Fallows            Vampire                     Fairford                      500 m                        301.670

 

* First official two-way run

 

 

CURRENT UK LAND SPEED RECORDS

Mile

24/25.09.80             Richard Noble          Thrust2                      Greenham                 mile                             248.870

Qtr mile

05.07.00                   Colin Fallows            Vampire                     Elvington                   qtr mile                      300.300

Kilometre

05.07.00                   Colin Fallows            Vampire                     Elvington                   km                               297.990

500 m

07.07.06                   Colin Fallows            Vampire                     Fairford                      500 m                        301.670 *

 

* UK land speed record