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The World Land Speed Record (Part Two)

The first record that interests me is of merit due to where it took place and not the car, which was known as the Arrow, and which was driven by an American of some fame named Henry Ford. The place was Lake St. Clair, Michigan and the date was January 12th 1904. It is said that the reason for the timing was that the New York Auto Show was scheduled to open in a week and Mr. Ford wanted all the publicity he could get for his young company.

Old 999

The car was a sister to the “Old 999” campaigned by Barney Oldfield (the photo is of my model of 999 by Brumm of Italy). Its technical specs were remarkable. The chassis frame appears to have been formed with two floor joists of perhaps 2 x 8 lumber. It was steered by handlebars and only the front axle had springs. The engine had four cylinders of 7" x 7" bore and stroke totaling over 16.7 liters (1020 cid). The power train was minimal, without a transmission, merely a direct drive to open bevels at the rear axle. The clutch consisted of a wooden block bearing against the massive flywheel, which was 2 feet in diameter, 6 inches thick, and weighed 230 pounds.

There was no radiator; cooling was by water circulating through a cylindrical tank above the engine. The starting area of the ice was covered with cinders for a little traction at the start. For those of you who aren't old enough to understand cinders, they were the pinkish orange remains when your coal furnace had gotten all the heat it could out of a lump of bituminous coal. They were the ashes I spread on our pinkish orange driveway each Saturday when I got finished cleaning the furnace.

The Arrow had no body or windshield. Two bucket seats were the only accommodations for the driver and riding mechanic. It must have been uncomfortable in the winter temperatures.

There had been a 1 mile distance measured off on the lake. According to Mr. Ford, it was very rough with the car bouncing around, but he managed to maintain control, and when the run was completed the time was 39.4 seconds which translates to 91.37 mph, a 7 mph increase from the previous record. The run was timed by the AAA which was not recognized by the world sanctioning body in France, the A.C.F. However, Mr. Ford had his American record, which wasn't too bad for a days' work.

land speed records

After the quasi-official Ford record was set, the Land Speed Record (LSR) went back to Europe, where it crept up in small increments posted by Mercedes, Gobron-Brillie, Napier, and Darracq autos. The latter (the seventh record after Ford's) was recorded on 12/30/05 by Victor Hemery of France, with a speed of 109.65 mph.

The Darracq was a mirror image of the Ford record car of 1904, with absolutely no body and a 22.5L. V-8 (1372 cid) with bore and stroke of 160 x 140 mm and overhead valves making 200 hp. The gasoline (or was it petrol?) was carried by what looks like a 55 gallon oil drum hung on the back. The Darracq record was set on the French public road connecting Arles and Salon.

The next LSR was set less than a month later by a car which I would love to have a model of. It was the first to benefit significantly from the application of aerodynamics to body design. Its appearance was rather like an upside down canoe with a small two-cylinder power unit located behind the rear axle. The car had no transmission and no clutch, and weighed 1,500 pounds. Yes, you've figured it out. It is a Stanley steamer. Very American. And it was driven by American Fred Marriott at Daytona Beach, Florida, USA.

With boiler pressure of 1000 psi, its two cylinder double acting engine gave 120 hp. Its name was the Stanley Rocket. Further aerodynamic assist resulted from a full flat belly pan. The boiler was located behind the driver's compartment and the smoke stack (funnel?) was just aft of the driver, who sat very low in the car. The stack was the only component which protruded from the body, which was fabricated from thin cedar strips covered by canvas.

The Rocket did its record performance during the 1906 Florida Speed Week held in January on Ormond-Daytona Beach. First used for speed trials in 1902, the beach is a huge stretch of straight and level sand measuring 23 miles. This is interrupted by a river and a pier, so the longest unobstructed distance is about 15 miles. It is made up mostly of bits of white clamshells which become quite firm when the tide is out and other conditions are favorable.

speed record cars

The Rocket's only real opposition came from the same Darracq which held the current LSR of 109.65 mph. This time driven by Louis Chevrolet, the Darracq did the flying kilometer in 19.4 seconds. Marriott answered with 18.4 - 121.57 mph. In the flying mile the French car recorded 30.6 sec. Marriott replied with 28.2 sec. - 127.6 mph!

The French authorities refused to honor the mile clocking but did agree to recognize the slower Kilometer speed. Even so, the steamer's record went unchallenged for nearly four years. The Stanley brothers knew they had not reached the car's limits. They returned to Speed Week in 1907 with a boiler capable of 1300 psi. With modifications to the engine as well, Marriott started his practice runs and found the beach to be in very bad shape. Why the powers that ruled the festivities didn't do some grading I can't imagine. The worst problem was a pair of gullies, one each side of the measured mile.

In the official run, Marriott was going at a high rate of speed when he hit the first gully. The front of the Rocket lifted, and rose 15 feet in the air, did a half role and smashed back onto the beach. The car broke up, flinging debris in all directions. Rescuers were amazed on finding Marriott unconscious but alive. He had four broken ribs and a fractured breastbone and his right eye was out of its socket. He recovered completely, including his vision, and lived to be 83. The Stanley brothers did not pursue the land speed record further.

The Stanley's performance was hard to equal in 1906 and it was nearly four years before a qualified challenge was made. This came from Benz, the oldest of the European car companies. It was known as the “Blitzen” Benz, which translates into “Lightning Benz.” Powered by a 4 cylinder engine with bore and stroke of 185 x 200mm, the Benz had a displacement of 21.5 L.(1311.5 cid). It incorporated overhead valves with pushrods and valve rockers out in the fresh air. All those liters generated 200 HP at the power peak of 1600 rpm! The Benz had a wheelbase of 112 inches and weighed in at 2980 lb. The four stub exhaust outlets must have been painful to the ears.

Blitzen Benz

The Benz record attempt was made at the Brooklands track, playground of the idle rich in England. It was driven by the Frenchman Victor Hemery. His record was only made for the flying kilometer, the Brooklands track didn't give him enough elbow room for the mile. Hemery's record was accepted by the A.I.A.C.R., successor to the A.C.F. (Automobile Club of France); the new acronym represents the "Association Internationale de Automobile Clubs Reconnus." That last word translates loosely as history.

brooklands courseAlong with the AIACR came new rules, particularly the requirement of two-way runs through the same timing zone to eliminate the effects of wind and grade. Since the AAA was still not recognized as the American ruling body, the Europeans, and particularly the French, would continue to be ignored by the USA.

After its success at Brooklands the Benz was shipped to New York city and put on display at the Benz showrooms there. The famous American race driver and barnstormer, Barney Oldfield, talked them into selling him the car. It is said he paid $10,000 for it, a huge amount of money for the time.

Oldfield immediately took the car to Daytona where he set a new American record of 131.28 mph. He made only one run. In 1911 the car was acquired by a promoter who had Bob Burman, another barnstorming race driver, campaign it for the season. In April Burman and the Benz were at Daytona and set a new American record at 141.37 mph, on another one-way run.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the two-way rule took effect in 1911. The first to set up a new land speed record was an Englishman named L.G.Hornsted who, in 1914, set a new LSR at the Brooklands track. His speed (average of 2 runs in opposite directions) was 124.10 mph, lower than that posted by Hemery in 1909 which was 125.95 mph! So now the "World Land Speed Record" had decreased by 1.85 mph in five years! Meanwhile, the American Landspeed Record proudly stood at 141.37 mph! Hornsted's car was a Benz with a bit more body work than the Blitzen and carried a similar 200 hp Blitzen engine.

Record setting stood idle during World War I but it restarted with a boom in the United States. In 1919 Ralph de Palma set a new American record driving a Packard Special with V-12 engine to a speed of 149.88 mph at Daytona. In 1920 race driver Tommy Milton drove a twin-engined Duesenberg special to a record speed of 156.03 mph, also at Daytona. These were not the last attempts to capture the LSR by Americans but they were the last successes.

In 1928, American Frank Lockhart was killed at Daytona attempting to set a new LSR with his twin-Miller 91 engined Stutz Blackhawk. Only one other attempt was made prior to 1965, by Mickey Thompson with his Challenger 1 with four Pontiac V-8s, in 1959. He was plagued with troubles and nearly died from inhaling noxious fumes when his oxygen line failed. His best run was 367.83 mph.

Thompson Buick powered Indy cars

Thompson returned to Bonneville in 1960 with General Motors Diesel Rootes-type superchargers on his Pontiacs. Again plagued with mechanical problems, he finally got it all together. His first run was clocked at 406.6 mph. On his return run a driveshaft broke and could not be replaced in his allotted time. He did become the second man to experience 400+ mph on the ground, after John Cobb.

Mickey went on participating in motor sports. In 1962, he came to Indianapolis with a mid-engined Buick V-8 which proved to be competitive. The following year he returned with an unusual car nicknamed "Pumpkin Seed," which used 12" wheels and wide tires. This car was so effective it prompted the Watson Roadster/Offy engined crowd to ban the tires, as they would later ban four wheel drive and gas turbine engines.

Pete meant to write more, but was not able to. The history ends in 1962.

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