There is one quest that man has spent over a century trying to achieve: the honor of being the fastest on the planet. Over 30 people have held the distinction, but a handful have also lost their lives in the process. Here we salute the heroes and the machines that have set pulses racing since the time trial was officially formalized in 1924 — when speeds were recorded as the average of two timed runs over a measured mile.
Here are some of history’s fastest speed machines.
British motorist Malcolm Campbell set a record of 174 mph in his Bluebird car in 1927 in Whales. He was running out of suitable space on the Welsh beaches, however, so switched his adventure to Ormond Beach near Daytona, Florida — and it was at this location that he broke the 200 mph barrier at an estimated cost of $100,000 a visit. Crowds flocked to witness the amazing sight and sound of the five ton Bluebird with its incredible engine. Campbell’s achievements led to him meeting the president and, after breaking the 300 mph barrier, being honored with a knighthood by King George V.
Another Brit, John Cobb, piloted a lighter car. In the Railton Special, powered by two Reid W12 engines and styled aerodynamically in its design, Cobb achieved a new record of 394 mph. This record stood for 13 years until Malcolm Campbell’s son Donald built a new Bluebird at a personal cost of more than $1 million and went on to break the 400 mph barrier at Lake Eyre in Australia. Donald was ultimately killed in 1967 trying to break the Water Speed record at Coniston Lake in Scotland.
Spirit of America & Sonic 1
California native Craig Breedlove came perilously close to losing his life when his “Spirit of America” machine was traveling at over 400 mph and the parachute to slow it down came loose. His vehicle went out of control over the miles of baron Bonneville desert before hitting a bank and landing in a lake of water. Breedlove emerged unscathed and went on with his “Sonic 1″ machines to break both the 500 mph and 600 mph records. These were the first cars to be jet-propelled rather than wheel-driven.
Green Monster & Golden Rod
Art Arfonds was a self-taught engineer who built his machine, Green Monster, in the backyard of his home in Ohio. He held the wheel-driven record until Bob Summers in his streamlined Golden Rod snatched it off him at a speed of 409 mph. There was a great fear about the machines built at this time. One pioneer said, ‘It’s like you’re working on constructing a coffin for yourself…’
Hollywood stuntman Stan Barrett was lucky enough to pilot the famous Budweiser Rocket car, which actually had a rocket that was positioned like a sidewinder missile an inch or so from the driver’s head. He said of the rocket car: “It felt as though it was about to explode at any second and blow up into a million pieces. Then I would activate the sidewinder and pull another G of acceleration!” The vehicle reached 739 mph, but only in one direction, so wasn’t officially recognized in the speed records.
In 1983, British businessman Richard Noble set a new speed record of 633 mph in his Thrust 2, which was essentially a trolley holding a jet engine. A modern road car at the time had 70 hp and weighed a ton, while the Thrust 2 had 30,000 horsepower and weighed five tons, so it had 7,000 horsepower per ton. It had twice the power to weight ratio of a fighter jet. And its awesome acceleration meant it could travel from 0-650 mph in 59 seconds.
Noble then returned over a decade later with the Thrust SSC. Driven by fighter pilot Andy Green on October 15, 1997, the machine with twin Rolls-Royce engines set a record of 763 mph, becoming the first car to officially break the sound barrier. Thrust SSC burned a phenomenal 18 liters of fuel a second; making the fuel economy work out about 0.4 miles to the gallon.
Cover Photo Credit: Georg Pahl – Wikimedia Commons