The World Land Speed Record (Part One)

I first became aware of the land speed record in 1947, when I was 15 years old. It was a magazine article in Life, or Popular Mechanics, or another magazine, that dealt with the attempt of John Cobb, the current Land Speed Record holder, to exceed 400 mph. His record, set in 1939 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, was 369.7 mph. I clearly remember an interview with the man who drove the pickup truck for the push start. “Those two big engines always started up with a huge cloud of smoke, and when it cleared the car had already disappeared over the horizon.” To this day, whenever the land speed record is mentioned, I see in my mind's eye the cloud of clearing smoke and the empty horizon.

Railton Mobil Special

This is the graceful Railton in 1/43 scale, by Western Models of England.

In 1939, John Cobb set a land speed of 369.7 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. His return, an attempt to beat 400 miles per hour, was in 1947; his first run was faster than 400 mph, making him the first to be timed at 400 mph+, but the record was set at 394.2 mph (the average of two runs).

Cobb’s car was designed by a young British engineer named Reid Railton, who also had worked with Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird Evolution. It was powered by a pair of Napier Lion W-12 aircraft engines of 26.9 liters displacement (1641 cid) producing 1,250 hp each; the car had a three speed gearbox and four wheel drive.

Gloster VI

I've included a picture of the British Gloster VI Schneider Trophy floatplane which failed to qualify for the 1929 event due to what sounds to me like carburetor problems. Direct your attention to the closely cowled cylinder banks and you'll understand the layout.

The Lion's three banks of 4 cylinders was referred to as a "Broad Arrow;" each Lion drove one pair of wheels independently of the other. The Lion had first appeared just after World War I, and saw its most public use as the powerplant of the British entrants in the Schneider Trophy racing series for seaplanes.

Napier Railton land speed record car

The body design was state of the art and I'm sure Dr. Kamm was delighted with the way Railton followed his teachings. The body shell of the car was one piece, lifted off for engine and chassis access. The underside was completely enclosed with a belly pan.

The car was a thing of beauty and grace and, at 6500 pounds, it was the lightest of all the aircraft engined monsters which appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. It was 28 feet long with a wheelbase of 13 1/2 feet, its height was a mere 42.8 inches, with a width of 97 1/2 inches. The body was shaped as an airfoil, and was quite similar in appearance to the German Auto Union streamlined record car which went airborne due to crosswinds in a 1937 record attempt, killing its driver, Bernd Rosemeyer.

railton and rekordwagen

The Auto Union Rekordwagen was designed for an unusual race course, the Avus circuit in Berlin, which consisted of two five mile straightaways separated by a median, leading to a high banking on one end and a flat 180 at the other end. It was in the heart of the city, serving as a public expressway in normal times. The annual racing event was known as the Avusrennen.

Auto U

In 1937, the Avus was the location of the German Grand Prix. Both Auto Union and Mercedes built new cars for the event. The Mercedes was a huge car, powered by the same Daimler-Benz inverted V-12 used in contemporary Luftwaffe fighter aircraft. The Auto Union was similar to the rekordwagen pictured here but with the fender skirts removed and, later, with holes in the bodywork to assist in tire cooling at the very high and continuous car speeds. The Auto Unions used the same 6 liter V-16 used in the Grand Prix car.

Auto Union Avus streamliner

The Avus Mercedes pictured below is a 1/32 scale slot racing car which was the very best I ever created. It [the slot racing car] was known as the "Great Silver Whale" and was nearly unbeatable!

1937 Avus Mercedes slot car

W169 F1 cars

As it turned out, none of the aerodynamic specials won. They suffered tire and brake problems and the race went to Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes W-125.

Mercedes W125

This literary effort was first conceived to be a discussion of the land speed record models I have collected. However, I'm too much a lover of automotive history to omit some interesting cars and their creators just because I don't have models of the cars. My oldest model (oldest car, actually) is known as a Blitzen Benz, made famous by Barney Oldfield driving it to victory in a lot of races here in the USA. We'll get back to it. After having started out in 1947, I don't plan to mess up the flow any more. Chronology will be the rule from here on.

See the next segment.

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