What is it about speed that fascinates us? Since the first steam-powered cars in the late 1900s, people have been obsessed with how fast cars can go. The faster the better, apparently. Over the years, several innovative cars have broken land speed records that were considered near-impossible to break. Every one changed the automotive industry in the process.
Every time a new land speed record is reached, it sends engineers around the world running to their laboratories. The race to build a better, faster machine is a never-ending one.. Here are the ten most significant land speed records that helped to chart the course of automotive history as we know it.
10. Ford 999 (1904)
The first land speed record was set in 1904. It was none other than Henry Ford himself who set the record in his then-newly built Ford 999 prototype. Plenty of onlookers turned out to watch Ford drive the car across a frozen Lake St. Clair outside of Detroit. Many of them arrived at the frigid January event on horses or in horse-drawn carriages.
You can only imagine how startled those people would have been seeing Ford reach a then-record 91.37 mph. At the time, nobody had ever seen anything travel that fast, period. The first land speed record set by a young and daring Ford would only stand for one month. Not that it mattered to Ford, though. His goal was to attract publicity for his then fledgling start-up, the Ford Motor Company. Mission accomplished.
9. Blue Bird (1933)
The Blue Bird is a very unique vehicle in automotive history. Developed by race car driver and automotive journalist Malcolm Campbell, the Blue Bird set numerous speed records during the 1930s. Its achievements made for popular newspaper copy, as people suffering through the Great Depression delighted in each new milestone that was reached by the car.
Powered by a supercharged Rolls Royce V12 engine that produced an amazing 36 liters of displacement and more than 2,000 horsepower, the Blue Bird was the preeminent supercar of its day. In 1933, it reached 272 mph on Florida’s Daytona Beach. Then in 1935, the Blue Bird became the first car to break the 300 mph mark on the Bonneville Salt Flats. At the time, it was a speed that many people predicted would be impossible to reach. Campbell added dual rear wheels to increase Blue Bird’s traction on the salt flats, allowing it to shatter the 300 mph milestone.
8. Mercedes-Benz Rekordwagen (1938)
To be clear, the Mercedes-Benz Rekordwagen (pronounced “Record Wagon”) did not eclipse the speeds reached by Blue Bird in the 30s. This unusual looking aerodynamic vehicle reached a top speed of “only” 268 mph. It never cracked the 300 mph mark either.
However, what makes the Rekordwagen significant is that it clocked that 268 mph on Germany’s Autobahn. In the process, it set a land speed record for a public road. Originally a Mercedes-Benz W125 Grand Prix race car, the Rekordwagen was modified by engineers for the feat. They gave it smoother bodywork that enveloped the wheels and a 725 horsepower V12 engine. The 268 mph mark on the Autobahn showed incredible possibilities to car designers everywhere. Mercedes had set the stage for the increasingly powerful vehicles that appeared in the 1940s and 1950s.
7. Green Monster (1964)
The Green Monster is a land speed racing car legend. Developed by Art Arfons of rural Ohio, it set numerous land speed records in the 1960s, Arfons’ car design ushered in the modern era of land speed racing. A former drag racer, Arfons began developing Green Monster while still living on his family’s farm.
Arguably the most advanced jet-powered streamliner of its day, the Green Monster set the all-time land speed record several times during the early 1960s. The most memorable was on November 7, 1965, when the Monster, driven Arfons, reached 576.5 mph!
Adding to Arfons and the Green Monster’s legend were the battles they had with their biggest rival. Racer Craig Breedlove and his equally famous car, the Spirit of America, were constantly trying to one-up the Green Monster. Arfons and his ride would initially beat Spirit of America to the record books, it was the supersonic Spirit of American that would eventually win out.
6. Spirit of America (1965)
The Spirit of America Sonic 1 land speed racer burned its way into the American consciousness on November 15, 1965. That’s the date it became the first car in history to reach 600 mph, shattering the record set by Green Monster just a week earlier. Emblazoned with iconic Goodyear tires, the Spirit reached a blistering 600.6 mph with driver Craig Breedlove at the helm. The new record would last for five full years.
Breedlove had previously a then-speed record of 407.4 mph back in 1963. Two years later he drove nearly 200 mph faster. The key to surpassing 600 mph was outfitting the Sonic 1 with the same J79 engine found in F-104 fighter planes. That jet engine was enough to push the Spirit of America into the record books.
5. Budweiser Rocket Car (1979)
The Budweiser Rocket Car is believed to be the first car to have broken the sound barrier and gone supersonic. We say “believed,” because the whole event is shrouded in controversy. Construction of the Budweiser Rocket Car was financed by movie director Hal Needham. You may remember him as the guy who made the 1970s hit Smokey and the Bandit with actor Burt Reynolds.
The Rocket Car was driven by an ex-Air Force pilot named Stan Barret. It was reported in 1979 that the car had broken the sound barrier. Propelled by a liquid hydrogen peroxide jet engine and two solid-fuel booster engines, the Rocket Car allegedly broke the sound barrier while rocketing down Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force base. It was claimed that it reached 739.7 mph. Typically an airplane has to reach speeds of 770 mph to break the sound barrier.
However, no official sanctioning bodies were present for the event. The breaking of the sound barrier was apparently captured on data recorded at the Air Force base’s radar installation. A second, more “official” run with the Rocket Car was never attempted. That leaves the authenticity of this record open for debate.
4. Thrust SSC (1997)
The first car to have officially broken the sound barrier was the Thrust SCC. However, this milestone wasn’t reached until 1997 — almost 20 years after the Budweiser Rocket Car claimed to do it first. Of course, the whole thing was captured on video and can be seen on YouTube.
The Thrust SCC was powered by two Rolls Royce Spey turbofan engines. They combined to produce a staggering 50,000 pounds of thrust. The engines in the Thrust SCC were so powerful that they burned nearly five gallons of fuel per second. Driver Andy Green reached 763.04 mph over a one-mile stretch at Nevada’s Black Rock dry lake on October 15, 1997. The feat came 50 years after pilot Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier with an airplane, ushering in the age of supersonic flight. Now, thanks to the Thrust SCC, cars were also able to travel at supersonic speeds on land.
3. Vesco Turbinator (2001)
If ever there was a person obsessed with speed and breaking land speed records, it was Don Vesco. He was an American businessman who set 18 motorcycle and six automobile speed records during his lifetime. During his early 20s, Vesco went after speed records wherever he could. If he found one, he probably tried to break it.
His Vesco Turbinator racer broke the record for wheel-driven cars when it reached a record 458 mph in 2001. During its record run the same year, the car briefly crossed the 470 mph mark. Although Vesco passed away in 2002 at the age of 63, his legacy continues. He left money and instructions in his will for his automotive team to continue working towards breaking the 500 mph mark without rockets.
2. Buckeye Bullet (2004)
Named after the group of students at Ohio State University that built it, the Buckeye Bullet was an electric vehicle that could motor! It was powered by an astonishing 10,000 C-cell NiMH batteries. The battery pack used to power this car literally weighed a ton.
However, it also powered a 400 horsepower electric motor. In October 2004, the Buckeye Bullet set a land speed record for an electric-vehicle by reaching 314.96 mph. Once again, it sent engineers running for their laboratories to try and topple it. The Buckeye Bullet’s record still stands today. Now we are seeing more electric vehicles vying to set new land speed records at Bonneville and other racetracks around the world.
1. British Steam Car (2009)
Over a century ago, engineer Fred Marriot drove a Stanley Steamer to a record. The steam-powered vehicle reached a top speed of 127.66 mph. While that was an incredible feat for the time, the vehicle was basically powered only by evaporated water.
Steam-powered cars quickly died out and were replaced by vehicles powered with combustible engines. However, a British team of engineers took it upon themselves to see if they could break that 100-year-old record in 2009. They built a modern-looking land speed racer that was powered with steam.
On September 8, 2009, the British Steam Car broke the obscure record at Edwards Air Force Base. Despite the quantum leaps forward in technology, the British Steam Car was only able to reach a top speed of 139.84 mph. That was still enough to break the record though. However, it wasn’t very fast by modern standards. It’s obvious that steam powered engines have their limits.