sixties to now soon
Men who lash themselves into barrels and go rolling over Niagara Falls are usually celebrated in the Sunday supplements, cheek by jowl with "The Strange Pygmy Tribes of Africa" and "Minnesota Farmer's Two-Headed Calf." They are mere freaks-men whose unquestioned bravery somehow became pitifully misdirected. Their goal was faintly idiotic, almost comic. After all, what possible relationship is there between the real world and the art of falling several hundred feet in' an old oil drum? Besides blind animal courage, what does such a stunt prove? Tsk-tsk, the poor flawed, deluded nutballs.
Conversely, men who strap themselves into machines and go tearing across the Bonneville Salt Flats in quest of the World Land Speed Record are generally celebrated on the front page of the sports section, right alongside "Packers Jolt Colts" and "Mantle Inks Pact." They are candidates for the Pantheon of American Folk Heroes-inspired, visionary men of courage, pioneers heading into the unknown.
Why do people make crackpots of the first group and demigods of the second? Identification. Hardly anybody today spends any time sitting around in barrels, but almost everybody spends time in automobiles. However remote the link between their "cars" and ours, we can vicariously tune in to the Breedloves and the Thompsons. Add the narcotic of wild, almost senseless speed for its own sake, and you've got every man and boy in the western hemisphere hooked to one degree or another.
It's certainly not as if attaining the World Land Speed Record requires an ounce more adrenalin or a watt more brainpower than dropping off Niagara Falls. In both cases, the chap involved climbs in, battens down the hatches, then holds on for dear life. Once underway he exerts only fleeting control over the events that immediately follow.
Nor is it as if the Niagara caper were a pointless stunt and the Land Speed Record some sort of scientific breakthrough, strewing benefits to all mankind. Barrels haven't been improved by being hurtled over cliffs, and passenger cars haven't felt the effect of ground-bound missiles hitting 200, 400 or 600 mph. Finally, it's not as if one were a Sunday pastime and the other a tough league with demanding standards that excluded dilettantes and crackpots. In both cases the rules are so lax, so unrestrictive, that almost anybody with sufficient time, money and inclination can join the fun. The W or ld Land Speed Record demands as little evidence of competence as any "sport" on earth; what's there to be competent at when wide-open speed is the only point? True, you need a valid driver's license. And the FIA can theoretically reject the more blatantly unsound designs. But otherwise it's carte blanche, no previous experience necessary.
Thus while some pretty wild people and contraptions have g<;me bouncing over Niagara Falls, they're no wilder than those who have sought the title (always solemnly, even reverently incanted among the faithful) of "The Fastest Man on Wheels."
Since 1898, this distinction has changed hands 81 times among British, American, French, Belgian, German and Italian machines powered by steam, electricity, gasoline and jet thrust. That figure doesn't record all those who tried and never made it-the failures, glorious and otherwise. They're too rich a crop to be sealed up forever in the past.
Take Max Valier for example. This German astronomer-turnedrocketeer was all set to reach the moon with a rocket-powered projectile back in 1928, derisive hoots from the press and public notwithstanding. Doctor Valier also envisaged a bright and fiery tomorrow where bikes, boats, planes and cars would all be shot along by rocket thrust. One susceptible listener was Kurt Volkhart, a consulting engineer to the Opel automobile firm. A second was Fritz Opel himself.
Opel may have tolerantly nodded as Valier expounded his dream of a rocket-powered world beater, but his true interest lay in the promotional value of such a vehicle and not its practical applications. Opel agreed to underwrite experiments with Valier's rockets.
The first Opel rocket car was ready by Easter of 1928-a more-orless standard passenger car, with twelve steel-clad rockets stuffed in its stern. The firing mechanism was simplicity itself, consisting of a converted phonograph turntable, powered by a clockwork motor wound up with a big key. The pilot, in the absence of any other willing candidates, was Kurt Volkhart himself.
Volkhart reached 62 mph in six seconds and a top speed of 125 mph, and since the test was run on Opel's banked factory track he almost reached free flight on the first corner. But the driver survived, so the first run was pronounced successful although it didn't break any records. A more ambitious car was next.
Twenty-four rockets got this second version with wings at its tapered nose for "aerodynamic stability" off the line. But it reached only 100 mph at the Avus track in May, 1928. Better rockets were ready by June, and this time the car was to run on rails.
At least, the new rockets were said to be better. Nobody seemed anxious to put his life on the line to find out; the Opel shot off empty on its 4 % -mile run, whistling down the tracks to a speed of 156 mph (the record was then 207.55 mph).
Nobody volunteered for the second trial either, so a stray tomcat was seized and installed. The feline pilot's meows of protest were drowned in the roar of blast-offshortly followed by an explosion that sent the cat, the car, and Dr. Valier's dreams to smithereens. When the debris had been cleaned up, the doctor returned to stargazing and Opel returned to more conventional motive power.
This ill-starred effort was the final deviation from more-or-Iess normal internal combustion engines until the advent of war-surplus jet power in the Sixties. In fact, all real opposition to gasoline had ended in 1907 with the demise of the Stanley brothers' steam-powered Wogglebug, alias Bug, alias Rocket.
The Rocket (a name added long afterward to help bolster its vivid legend) looked like an overturned canoe on wheels, and had set a new Land Speed Record of 127.66 mph at Daytona Beach in 1906. The Stanleys installed a new high-pressure boiler in hopes of even higher speeds. On January 15, 1907, the car arrived by train at Jacksonville en route to the Ormond Beach record attempt site. It arrived in several pieces, having been pulverized in transit. Not until a week later were the car and Fred Marriott, its driver, ready for their run.
First came the preliminary events. Two Stanley steamers built for the Vanderbilt Cup race ran, and both Stanley steamers blew sky-high. Thus encouraged, Marriott shoehorned himself into the red Wogglebug and wobbled off over a course that was anything but glassy smooth. Marriott barely got up to speed before slowing down again; the tail had fallen off, taking the engine with it.
Three days later he was back again. Down the sand came the Wogglebug in eerie silence, towing its rooster-tail of steam behind itself like a banner.
F. E. Stanley, timing the run with his own watch, had clocked about 150 mph when the Wogglebug hit some ripples in the sand, momentarily lifted its front wheels, landed
and flipped violently end-over-end. Marriott miraculously survived, but the challenge of steam was shattered along with the Wogglebug.
Marriott reckoned the speed higher as he grew older, claiming 197 mph at age 80. Like the name “Rocket," this was a cosmetic afterthought. (Among other things, the Wogglebug lacked a speedometer.)
Some cars, like Freddy Dixon's "Dart," were painstakingly designed and never built. Dixon's car may have been the only World Land Speed Record machine concocted in the privacy of a jail cell. The rambunctious, flamboyant, not-quite-all-there Dixon was a self-taught engineer of prodigious talent and highly skilled as a racing driver. He terrorized the pubs and race courses of England in the Twenties with huge zest, taking time out only for the occasional incarceration and a plane crash that left him mildly wall-eyed as a result of being conked on the head by a fuel tank. Dixon was a brilliant designer, much in demand among English motor manufacturers, and the spell in durance vile was put to use designing a wedge-shaped proj ectile complete down to its 10-liter wobble-plate type engine. Dixon was too imaginative to be single-minded, however. In the broad daylight of the outside world, the idea withered.
Across the Channel in France, the ambitious dream of a certain Monsieur Stapp to bring the Land Speed Record to his native country didn't wither. It exploded.
In 1932, French journalists Charles Faroux and George Fraichard hastened 'to the Parisian suburb of Chatou when they heard of a car being prepared to try for the record (then held by Malcolm Campbell at ' 253.97 mph).
What greeted them was a nonchalant figure in blue workman's coveralls, camioneur's cap and an ever present Gauloise dangling from. his lips: Monsieur Stapp. His record contender was a monstrous wheeled bomb replete with tail fin (adorned with a numeral "2" for no apparent reason), painted French racing blue, with registration plates front and back, a canvas flap for a door,. no visible 'windows for the driver, and a spare wheel thoughtfully hung on one side. The latter was a practical touch for which the French are justly famous. Monsieur Stapp would not let a mere blowout deter him during his record run. Forward vision was to be gained through a modified submarine periscope. Technical questions were fended off by explanations that details were secret - the jealous enemies of France were everywhere.
It was learned, however, that the Stapp machine devolved from a cannibalized Voisiri chassis. In front was the original engine. In the rear, the constructor had mounted three well-used, 600-hp Jupiter radial aircraft engines. But not mere aircraft engines! Stapp had converted them from internal combustion to turbines. How, you ask? By removing the pistons.
Using the original Voisin powerplant as a starter for the "turbine" engines, Stapp commenced to demonstrate his apparition on a public road, fire belching from holes at the tail and the whole machine quaking and roaring.
"I have not heard such noise since the Great War," Fraichard wrote later. "The sight of the car on the road, trailing long streamers of orange-colored flame from the holes in the tail, and making a noise like an artillery barrage, was distinctly impressive."
The test was short-lived, Stapp achieving no more than 80 mph, so Fraichard returned later to witness another test, on the Saint Germaineto-Paris highway.
Stapp roared off with the thunder and jets of flame, as before. But this time the jets of flame were shooting out the front too, and the great beast skidded to a halt. Stapp was seen beating a hasty retreat and trying to douse a fire in the seat of his pants. Both his smoldering trousers and France's glorious hopes were forever extinguished.
Aside from Henry Ford's brief dash across Lake St. Clair in his 1904 "Arrow" (setting a record of 91.37 mph that stood for all of two weeks), few automobile makers have made attempts to capture the glory of being builders of the world's fastest wheels.
Staid Mercedes-Benz gave it a brief fling in the late Thirties, less as an automotive exercise than an other avenue of glorification for the Third Reich. The proposed record-breaker was known as the T-80, powered by a 3000-hp, V -12 aircraft engine enclosed in a lightweight metal streamlined body with vestigial horizontal stabilizer fins-a body that hardly seems dated today. Mercedes-Benz might have steamrollered the Land Speed Record as its cars had steamrollered Grand Prix racing in the Thirties. Mercedes' engineers designed the car for a staggering 400 mph, and to make it an all-German victory, a 25-mile road was to be built on German soil, exclusively for the T-80. Fortunately or unfortunately, the venture died stillborn with the outbreak of World War II. The T-80 was never fully operational, though the husk now sits in the Daimler-Benz Museum in Stuttgart - Untertilrkheim.
In the postwar era, Porsche held the patent on a radical design produced by Leopold Schmid (the same engineer who invented Porsche's widely used synchromesh) . This Buck Rogers-ish creation was designed around a British Bristol "Orpheus" turbine engine, which lay in a bullet-shaped fairing between twin outboard hulls carrying fancy, self-suspending wheels. In spite of the fact that this car represented one of the few highly scientific and rational designs ever formulated for the record, Porsche felt incapable of undertaking such an elaborate and expensive project. Attempts by Carlo Abarth and Pininfarina to negotiate an agreement whereby they would build and run the machine on their own failed. All that came of the project was a detailed scale model.
Louis Coatalen of the British Sunbeam firm managed to design and build several Land Speed Record cars during the Twenties. Yet his last such effort - and "the one for which he is best remembered-failed with a thud heard 'round the world.
If the moralists are right, it deserved to fail. The unwholesome motive was revenge. 'Henry Segrave had propelled a Coatalen-designed Sunbeam to the then-fantastic speed of 203.79 mph at Daytona in 1927. Soon afterward, a new Napier design promised even loftier velocity and Segrave bolted to the other side.
Coatalen fumed-then went back to the drawing board and emerged with a weapon sufficient to squash the ingrate and his bloody Napier: a 48-liter, supercharged and streamlined bolide whose two specially designed V -12 engines churned out 4000 horsepower, or should, if all went right. Segrave's Napier had been dubbed the "Golden Arrow." Coatalen volleyed back by calling his creation the "Silver Bullet';' and hiring the successful British racing driver Kaye Don as his pilot.
Amid fanfare usually restricted to the sendoff for a royal tour, the Silver Bullet sailed from England for Daytona in March, 1930. That it had never actually run before failed to dampen its sponsor's high hopes. On paper and on the test bench, the Silver Bullet was a world-beater (and a Segrave-squelcher, Coatalen might have gleefully added).
Alas, on the beach at Daytona, the Silver Bullet huffed and puffed and generally disgusted Don, who could never get both engines functioning well enough at the same time to move faster than 186 mph-relatively puny in view of the car's 250 mph goal. Initial failure turned into a full-scale rout when Coatalen abruptly quit Sunbeam and returned to his native France.
The .silver Bullet soon slunk back to England almost unnoticed. Segrave had set a new record the year before, and a year later Malcolm Campbell-in yet another Napier raised the mark to 246.09 mph.
In 1934 the car reappeared at Southport, England, in an attempt to break the British Class "A" record. Even this comedown proved beyond its balky powers. Finally, driver Jack Field decided to settle for a try at the British flying mile figure of 217.6 mph if a suitable course could be found.
Perhaps luckily, it never was. The tarnished Silver Bullet briefly passed through the hands of Freddy Dixon, but even the redoubtable Freddy admitted defeat. The scrap dealer, however, received it with open arms.
Meanwhile, down in Australia, Wizard Smith was preparing to bring World Land Speed Record glory to his native land. Smith had covered himself with a strangely Australian form of glory already, having flogged one hairy sedan or another to various records in wild, city-to-city runs that electrified the populace and terrified other motorists. When the cops-as the cops always do-finally clamped down on this form of fun, Smith promptly became a military courier, allowing him free travel on the public thoroughfares without so much as a finger shake from the fuzz. But intercity chases were, after all, a somewhat limited stage. Wizard looked for wider vistas.
He began his quest modestly enough with the "Anzac," a Cadillac chassis propelled by a World War I Rolls-Royce aero engine, 360-hp strong. First came the Australian land speed record of 146.7 mph. Next, the Australasian flying mile at 160 mph.
But these were mere warmups. A sponsoring cartel was formed and Smith's colleague, designer Don Harkness, soon unveiled the "Fred H. Stewart Enterprise" (named after one of its major backers). This ungainly contraption resembled an early Hoover vacuum cleaner laid lengthwise, but it sounded like an airplane-logically enough: Harkness had stuffed a Rolls-Royce Schneider Trophy aero engine under its bumpy bonnet. He had also added tail fins and the whole thing was painted gold, with the driver in his open cockpit looking like a man sitting up in bed.
Smith, his crew, and the Fred H. Stewart Enterprise landed at Ninety Mile Beach near Auckland, in New Zealand, during December, 1931, ready to try to beat Malcolm Campbell to a new world record (held by Campbell at 246.09 mph since the previous February).
Gentlemanly as always, Campbell sent Smith a cable expressing good wishes. He could have saved his money; no sooner had the Aussies encamped than the project dissolved into bad luck, bickering and rotten weather. All three persisted for weeks, hovered over by the malicious second-guessing for which newspapers are so famous.
While Smith and Harkness publicly questioned each other's intelligence, integrity and ancestry, the Fred H. Stewart Enterprise just sat there. When it finally got running, Smith broke the world 10-mile record of 164.084 mph as a preliminary to the all-important flying mile.
He never got a crack at it; the Enterprise caught fire and conked out in a run after the 5-mile mark. His patience finally snapped, Smith returned to Australia, engaged in a nasty legal wrangle with his detractors, and then disappeared forever from the scene. The Fred H. Stewart Enterprise disappeared along with him-leaving Fred H. Stewart, presumably, holding the bag.
The somewhat cooler-headed efforts of Englishmen Campbell, George Eyston and John Cobb prevailed from the middle Thirties untillate in the Forties. Cobb's Railton toppled Campbell's 1935 mark with a 350.2-mph run at Bonneville in 1938. Then, Eyston topped Cobb in his Thunderbolt' at 357.5 mph. Then, with World War II out of the way, things once again picked up as Cobb tore over the salt flats in his Napier aero-engined Railton.
Increased speeds have since served to weed out most of the more eccentric would-be contenders. Also, it costs a lot of money to move at over 400 mph and there have been fewer attempts. Yet some have persisted in spite of the odds-singleminded types like Mickey Thompson, Glenn Leasher and Athol Graham.
Thompson-that automotive Diogenes with the burned-out lantern came to Bonneville in 1959 with Challenger I-four Pontiac V -8s, working through a 1948 Cadillac 3speed transmission, in a sleek, streamlined body. In pursuit of John Cobb's 1947 record of 394.20 mph, Thompson set a U.S. flying-mile figure of 363.67 mph before technical bugs and the advent of bad weather cancelled his efforts. He was back the next year, with GMC superchargers added to the Pontiac engines. Bad weather and gremlins again. Then a one-way run at 406.60 mph, followed by a snapped transmission shaft. Without a two-way run, the achievement lacked status or meaning. Thompson left and never returned.
Graham had been hammering away at the record for two years in Salt Lake City. His was a backyard concoction cobbled together from a war-surplus Allison aircraft engine and a converted B-47 jet fuel tank. By 1960 the self-taught mechanic felt himself and his car ready to improve on his 344.761 speed posted in 1959. Evidently they weren't; the car screamed over the flats, gathering speed, then abruptly flipped and slithered to a stop. Graham died from his injuries.
Glenn Leasher's machine, ironically christened "Infinity," was a jet-powered vehicle that reached the same fate two years later - exploding at over 200 mph in the middle of a warm-up run.
Donald Campbell trekked to the haunted Australian outback in 1964 where, besieged by enough travails to fill a Bible, he finally managed to haul his 'Bluebird jet car to a new high of 403.1 mph.
It was all for naught, however, because Craig Breedlove (called Brave Speedlove by some) had arrived.
Breedlove's "Spirit of America" hit 468.73 mph in October of 1964. True, the FIA classified the jetpowered, 3-wheeled beast as a motorcycle and not a car. But the public made no such fine distinctions. The boyishly-profiled Californian, abetted by the tire and oil companies' propaganda mills, had become the fastest man on wheels. Campbell, who had taken pains to abide by the stricture that at least two wheels must be driven by the engine, was immediately and forever eclipsed.
Donald Campbell's career was one of consistent tragedy. For over a decade, Sir Malcolm's loyal son doggedly tried to keep the family name in the record books-despite the lack of his father's natural aptitudes. Failure far outweighed success. Before the Australian fiasco there had been a hair-raising 1960 crash at Bonneville. The end came in January of this year when Campbell's jet-powered, water-borne Bluebird flipped and exploded on Lake Coniston, in England.
But even in the Jet Age there proved to be room for the maverick, the oddball, the determinedly independent type: Art Arfons. Arfons thundered into the spotlight from Pickle Road in Akron, Ohio, in an improbable homebuilt-the Green Monster-that consisted largely of a General Electric J -79 jet engine with wheels and a driver. Improbable-but it worked, surpassing Breedlove's sleek "Spirit of America" by 10 mph for a new world record of 536.71 mph on October 27,1964.
Breedlove won it back within a month, but a blow had been struck. One of those who also felt it was Walt Arfons, Art's estranged brother, who was hardly any more conventional than the author of the Green Monster.
Alas, Walt had chosen as his weapon the spectacular but seldom successful rocket principle, added to the thrust of a jet engine with afterburner. With driver Ted Green aboard, the Wingfoot Express had briefly held the record at 413.20 mph, but FIA officials refused to recognize the rocket addition. By the end of 1964, Walt Arfons had been ploughed under by his brother and the Breedlove machine.
Breedlove enjoys a firm grip on the record today at a hair over 600 mph, and may for some time to come.
Art Arfons' last challenge came in late 1966 and ended in a crash that destroyed the Green Monster but, miraculously, not Arfons. He has vowed to try again some day. In the overshadowed wheel-driven category, California's Summers brothers copped-and still hold-the record at 409.69 mph with a Chrysler-powered machine, built and run on a shoestring.
But things won't stand still long. When the first batch of Project Mercury rocket engines are declared aerospace surplus, Bonneville will resound again. And the annals of glorious failure will once more be enriched.
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