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In 1985, Jeep surprised the motoring world by setting a land speed record with its new Comanche pickup. This is the inside story of how a small group of people, relatively underfunded, managed to successfully challenge General Motors’ hold on the title — and how one of the original team members is planning to do it again.
Records set include quarter-mile standing start, kilometer standing start, 1 mile standing start, 10 km standing start, flying kilometer (140.255 mph), and flying mile (141.381 mph).
by Peter Lechtanski
The Comanche has a long racing history, including the Baja 1000, the Walker Evans and Mike Leslie stadium trucks, the SCCA trucks (run by the Archer brothers), and various rock crawlers and desert racing trucks. Although Chrysler stopped production of the Comanche in 1992 in favor of the Dodge Dakota, the trucks are still raced today.
Way back in 1985, Jeep was going to introduce a new 4.0L engine. Some guys at Jeep-Truck Engineering (JTE) came up with the idea of setting a land speed record to show off the new motor. The project was put together over a few months and for a couple of hundred thousand dollars; the result was the LSR1. They took it to El Mirage to prove it out. They ended up blowing up the engine and had a lot of problems with the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA).
They returned to Detroit, and put a new motor into the truck, tuned to pump out an extra hundred horsepower. The truck was renamed “LSR-2,” and dispatched to the Bonneville Salt flats, with the US Auto Club on hand to sanction the runs. They set 14 different records; one still stands today , for a flying mile of 141 mph.
General Motors was not thrilled and came up with a response, but it took them 3 years and couple of million dollars in a program run by Gale Banks: the Syclone. The first Syclone (in 1989, I believe) had a 5-liter engine and went 191 mph as the highest speed. For some reason they also put a 4.3 into the 1989 truck and ran it with the SCTA and set a record of 183 mph. They also made production Syclones that were turbocharged, while the Bonneville truck was naturally aspirated. Because the production vehicles had aerodynamic components such as air dams, they could use them on the land speed truck.
In 1990 GMC returned with a new S15 Syclone truck. The fastest speed that this truck went was 210mph and it set the record at 204.
by Scott W. Schramm
I was the driver, team manager, primary facilitator, and “all other assignments as needed” person for the project.
At the time of the Comanche LSR Project, Owen was the Chief Engineer of the AMC Scientific Labs, Steve was Manager of the AMC Yuma, AZ Test Facility, Adrian was Manager of AMC Engine Electronics, I was Manager of the AMC Stress/Mechanical Test Lab, Larry was a Senior Technician reporting to me, and Gil was a Senior Engineer reporting to Adrian. The project was completed before the announcement that AMC was being acquired by Chrysler Corporation; so there’s very little other than the vehicle in the Chrysler archives. Most knowledge of the project is folklore passed on by those of us who worked at AMC. There was one feature article published about the project.
Larry and I donated our time for much of the vehicle build and development testing. We worked in my lab during the day then took the cover off the truck and worked on it evenings. I think Adrian and Gil donated a lot of their time to develop the engine including unique calibrations to optimize performance at Bonneville’s elevation.
If you’re new to Bonneville, it’s a difficult venue for many reasons. But be advised, the Comanche LSR is not as stock as it may appear to be in the pictures. Larry and I did a lot of developmental “tweaking” on the vehicle. We spent many hours of testing at Michigan International Speedway (MIS), which at the time was leased by AMC as an emissions test and general development facility. MIS was much closer to Detroit than hauling the vehicle to the AMC Proving Ground in Burlington, WI.
Larry was an experienced drag car builder/tuner and I have extensive experience in designing, developing, and driving road course vehicles. We put much of that experience into the Comanche Land Speed Record; we had only five weeks to convert the vehicle from a pre-production prototype that had completed a 50,000 emissions durability test before being handed over to us.
The LSR started life in ugly medium blue livery, with a monochromatic interior and exterior. Its first appearance was at the El Mirage (California) dry lake, where we suffered an engine failure, in July 1986. We had around three weeks to identify and resolve the engine issue before the rechristened “LSR-2” was loaded onto the transporter and driven to Salt Lake City by Yuma facility volunteers. From start to finish, the project duration was less than 100 days.
[After the runs,] we hand washed LSR-2 (leaving just the right amount of salt for visual affect) on the salt flats, then trailered it into Wendover to a hand wand car wash. We spent the better part of an hour cleaning the vehicle as best we could with it sitting on its wheels. When we returned to JTE, we put the vehicle on a lift in a wash rack for a more thorough cleaning. We removed approximately 270 pounds of salt during the second cleaning. There were several large chunks of salt on the transporter floor that were knocked loose during transit (the chucks were excluded from the 270 lbs of salt washed off while on the wash rack).
The issue is you never get all of the salt washed out from between the nooks and crannies (plus it goes into solution and then recrystalizes). In 1986, there were recurrent heavy rains in the Salt Lake City area; I recall Bonneville Speed Week was cancelled in 1986 because the salt was too wet. We just lucked out the week we reserved the LSR course (along with a crew filming a Kawasaki commercial). In fact, our records were limited because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could not groom 10 miles of salt, otherwise we would have established more records. The week preceding our arrival, the BLM grooming truck broke through the salt crust and had to be winched out. There was so much moisture in the salt crust that we had to time our runs coincident with the “tidal hydraulic pumping” of the water.
I annually check on the date the records were set. I suspect they’ll stay for a considerable period because there’s a hefty fee to have the records certified and documented in the FIA records book. That’s one reason you see some records that go back to the 1930s or earlier.
The Comanche had a somewhat checkered history after the Bonneville runs. In 1987 it went on the national auto show tour used as the media focus for introduction of the PowerTec 6 High Output 4.0L engine. The number 40 was affixed to represent the 4.0L engine displacement. The "1" was added after the 144 mph runs to reflect the fact the vehicle was officially timed at more than 140 mph. It was a bit of PR “schtick.” There’s a trifold brochure documenting the records that was distributed at auto show displays. The truck and I also appeared in a photograph in Automotive News circa June ’86.
After LSR-2 completed its auto show tour, it was relegated to a Chrysler storage facility in an obscure building in Detroit. In November 1987, the Chrysler PR department was contacted by (I believe) Motor Trend to do a feature article on the project. Larry and I “found” the LSR-2, and took it to its “home” at JTE where we gave it a thorough check out. I rattled the windows performing screaming hard launches to confirm the performance before we loaded up and headed out to the Chrysler Chelsea Proving Ground (CPG) to meet the Motor Trend people.
It was a very cold (in the low 30s) and humid day at CPG. We started with still photography after which I warmed up the truck on the high speed oval and during which we recorded video. Then the Motor Trend reporter drove a few hot laps on the oval during which more video and stills were shot. After the Motor Trend people departed I got back into LSR-2 to give it one last hard ride to see what it would do on the long stretch of real estate occupied by the oval. Based upon the tach reading I got the LSR-2 up to a tick over 155 mph. The speed increase over the official records was due to a combination of colder/denser air and near sea-level elevation. It’s amazing how much engine performance decreases due to the elevation at Bonneville.
I lost track of the vehicle for several years, until I was notified that it had been donated to the Jeep House Museum in Toledo. When the Jeep House was razed to make room for the new Jeep production facility, it went into hiding again for a few years. Next I heard the LSR-2 was displayed in one of the connectors between buildings at the new Jeep Toledo production facility with a few other historic Jeep vehicles. In 2009, I was notified the Comanche was temporarily in a competition motorsports display at the WP Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills. Thereafter it went to storage in another obscure storage facility. The truck was sold at auction for $8,000 to a private collector in Michigan in June 2010; the proceeds went to the Chrysler Museum.
I have several artifacts from the project including the piston/connecting rod that destroyed the engine at El Mirage, video from the tech inspection at El Mirage (which is a hoot considering Larry and I were slightly more knowledgeable about the SCTA tech manual than the inspectors), and B-roll footage of the truck running warm-ups at El Mirage.
There are many anecdotes about the runs at El Mirage and Bonneville including running acceleration tests on the frontage road along I-5 in California, where we had an interesting discussion with a CHiP officer, the infamous dusk into dark run, and running at MIS while Penske Racing prepared for Rick Mears setting of the world closed-course speed record of 236+ mph in a Penske Pennzoil Indy Car.
Twenty years later, the LSR3 is coming to the salt to continue the battle. We don’t have Gale Banks or a couple of million dollars. We are just a Father-Son team trying to prove something, maybe technology will be on our side. This summer was a learning experience, we have pushed the envelope on Jeep engine development. We know where we have to go and what we have to do. We would like to continue the tradition of using the Comanche to showcase new Chrysler engines. Now if Chrysler would just give us a couple of the Pentastar V6 engines, we could probably beat the Syclone.
The Jeep Comanche pickup truck, only in its second year on the market, already has beaten the competition to the proverbial “quick.”
A specially-prepared 1987 two-wheel-drive Comanche powered by a modified version of American Motors’ new 4-liter, fuel-injected 6-cylinder engine set nine U.S. and four international records late in 1986 in time trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The highlight was the Comanche’s record average speed of 141.381 miles per hour in a two-way dash over a one-mile measured course at Bonneville. Its peak speed was 144.028 mph.
Timing ... was conducted by USAC Properties Inc., a subsidiary of the U. S. Auto Club, sanctioning body for the Indianapolis 500-mile race.
Not only did the Comanche set seven speed marks for trucks, it also established six national and international records for vehicles of any kind, including passenger cars.
The Comanche set its records in two divisions. The first was Category E, Group 2, Class 9 for trucks with non-supercharged gasoline-powered engines sized between 3 and 5 liters. The second category, also Group 2, Class 9, covered any type of vehicle with an engine of 3 to 5 liters.
USAC has officially certified Jeep’s national speed records and the international marks are expected to be recognized by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (PIA) as world standards.
Development work on the record-setting Comanche was performed at AMC’s engineering facilities in Detroit. Actual vehicle testing at speed was conducted at the Michigan International Speedway and at AMC’s vehicle testing facilities near Yuma, Arizona.
Also see the start of Pete Hagenbuch’s “land speed record” series...
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