Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Land Speed Record, Part 5; Untried and Unsuccessful

Stutz Blackhawk before its first runs
Any account of the Land Speed Record would be incomplete without acknowledging the efforts of those men who tried and failed to take the record or the cars that never made it further than a drawing board or scale model. Indeed, the stories of these men are sometimes more entertaining than of they who succeeded.

It is inevitable that, hidden behind the lists of those men who became legends and heroes, is a whole army of hopefuls who, by sheer bad fortune or bad design, were not destined to share in the limelight. Not for the want of trying, that is.

These attempts can be divided into several categories; those that were unrecognised by the governing body in Paris; those that were plainly unsuccessful or unconfirmed and those that never got off the drawing board. While the successful attempts naturally garnered all the press column inches, the failures can tell as much of an interesting story.

A good case in point is the story of Frank Lockhart and the Stutz Black Hawk. While his rivals were building aero-engined monsters with cylinder capacities of 24-litres and more, Lockhart, 25 years old and already an Indianapolis 500 winner, took the high-efficiency scientific route. He took two straight-eight cylinder Miller engines and mated them on a common crankcase to make a 3-litre sixteen cylinder engine, producing 385bhp. This he installed in a light and fully streamlined chassis which again owed as much to clever scientific thinking as brute force.

On his first runs at Daytona Beach in Florida, the car showed promise, although a gust of wind threw the car out of control and into soft sand, which flipped it over into the sea. Lockhart escaped relatively unhurt and the car went back to Stutz for repairs.

Stutz Blackhawk after its first crash at Ormond Beach in Daytona.
At this time the record stood at 207mph and, with the Black hawk rebuilt, Lockhart worked up to 203mph, again at Daytona. On the return run, however, the right rear tyre collapsed, sending the car into a series of rolls along the sand that smashed it to pieces and killed its driver.

But Lockhart’s ‘less is more’ approach was a lone island in a sea of brute force. From Thomas’ Babs, through Segrave’s 1000hp Sunbeam and Golden Arrow, Campbell’s Bluebirds, and the preposterous American Triplex Special (3 Liberty V12 engines, about 80litres capacity in total!), aero engines ruled the waves.

Thus, when Sunbeam’s latest contender, the Silver Bullet, powered by two Sunbeam-Coatalen V12 engines of 24-litres each and giving 4000hp in total, housed in an enormous sleek silver body, was announced, the company looked set to regain the record they had taken three times.

Sunbeam Silver Bullet
But the car was an unmitigated disaster. Due to the exhaust manifolds being too close to the inlet galleries from the supercharger to the cylinders, heat build-up was a massive problem and things grew so hot that the fuel-air mixture ignited before it even reached the cylinders, the resultant impact running back to the blower, shattering its blades and causing fires. The car reached 186mph, but this was at a time when the record stood to Segrave at 231mph. The car never did run properly and this was the end of Sunbeam as a force in record breaking.

Fast forward to 1958 and Mickey Thompson’s Challenger 1. While rivals Breedlove and Campbell were experimenting with jet and gas turbine power respectively, Thompson stuck to the spirit of the LSR and used four 6.7litre Pontiac car engines, two driving the front wheels and two the rear. Both the engines and most of the material used to construct the car had been sourced from scrap yards.

Each of the four engines had its own clutch and three-speed pre-war La Salle gearbox but the car was operated with two pedals. By comparison with the average LSR monster, Challenger 1 was commendably small but, thanks to the heavy American iron under the bonnet, it was heavy. It was also the first LSR car to use parachutes to help slow it down.

Challenger 1
But fate was to play cruel tricks on Thompson. Mechanical failures played a large part in preventing him beating Cobb’s record of 394mph in the beginning and then, when running a potent mixture of petrol and nitromethane, his oxygen supply failed and he breathed in toxic fumes. He managed to brake but was in a coma by the time he was rescued from the car.

By 1960, the engines were supercharged and Thompson tried again. This time the car was running fine and on his first run, he reached an amazing 406mph. But it was not to be as, on the return run, a driveshaft broke and that was it. He tried again two years later but a bumpy course and a back injury prevented him from taking the record. By 1964, the jet-age had arrived and the cars of Breedlove and Arfons were to push the record out of reach of piston-engined cars.

Some cars never progressed off the drawing board or, if they did, never turned a wheel in anger. Possibly the most fantastic of these was the 1932 Stapp Jupiter. In fact, it was so outrageously improbable that one can’t help wondering what exactly Rene Stapp was thinking.

In a vast cylindrical body, built on a Voisin car chassis and retaining the original engine, Stapp mounted three 800hp Bristol Jupiter radial aero engines, converted into ‘internal combustion turbines,’ whatever they may be! The only detail of the engines that was divulged was that the pistons had been removed! Drive to all four wheels was claimed to be by ‘electric transmission.’

Stapp Jupiter
Accommodation for driver and mechanic was utterly bizarre, as it seems they had to stand amidships like a railway engine driver and fireman on the footplate, the driver having to peer out of a hatch cut in the bodywork with no protective windshield.

It was demonstrated on the streets of Paris (!) and then taken to the sands of Brittany for testing, where the Stapp Jupiter burst into flames and, perhaps thankfully for all involved, destroyed itself.

Possibly the most infamous ‘failure’ in LSR history – although its driver and owner would argue the point vociferously – was that of the Budweiser Rocket. It is a long and involved tale encompassing name and driver changes but, in short the car was designed to break the sound barrier (+/-750mph, depending on altitude and prevailing air temperature) at a time when the LSR stood at 630mph to Gary Gabelich in The Blue Flame.

Budweiser Rocket
The only problem was that the team chose to completely ignore all the rules governing the setting of a new LSR. According to the military radar system that measured the speed, the car did indeed travel at 739.66mph, a mach figure of 1.0106. However, the car was measured in one direction only over a distance of 52.8ft (1/100th of a mile). Opinion is divided as to what precisely they did achieve, but it very definitely wasn’t the world LSR.

Daimler Benz T80, sitting alongside Grand Prix W196
Then there was the pre-war Daimler Benz T80, which used an inverted 44.5litre V12 engine and ran on 6 wheels, four of them driven. This astonishing machine was only prevented from running by the German invasion of Poland and start of the Second World War. And not all of Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebirds were successful; his 1929 version that ran on Verneuk Pan in 1929 failed to take a record, Campbell receiving a telegram while there that Segrave had run 231mph at Daytona in the Golden Arrow, forcing Campbell to return home to lick his wounds and rebuild Bluebird yet again.

The history of the LSR could look so different if it hadn’t been for bad fortune, bad timing, over-optimism or plain ineffective design scuppering chances. Names such as the Fred H Stewart Enterprise, Infinity, Green Monster No.14 ‘Cyclops’, Valkyrie 1, Blonde Bombshell, Pea Soup Monster, Vanishing Point or Gyronaut X2, to name but a few, would have added colour to an already kaleidoscopic roll-call of successful attempts.

But it is the existence of the failures that makes the achievements of the successful stand out and we would be foolish to ignore them just because their names appear on no lists. It could be argued that all these men – successful or not – were made of something special and that they all deserve a place in history for the simple reason that all of them set out with success as their primary goal and stopped at nothing to try and make it reality.

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