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 travel. The faster the better, apparently. Over the years, several innovative cars have broken land speed records that had been considered impossible to break, and changed the automotive industry in the process. Each time a new land speed record is reached, it sends automotive engineers around the world running to their laboratories to begin examining new ways of configuring car engines and making the vehicles we drive faster. Here are the 10 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, and it was none other than Henry Ford himself who set the record in his then-newly built Ford 999 prototype. Onlookers who turned out to watch Ford drive the car across a frozen Lake St. Clair outside Detroit arrived at the frigid January event on horses or in horse-drawn carriages. One can only imagine how startled these people were to see Henry Ford reach a then-record setting 91.37 miles per hour. At that time, nobody had ever seen anything travel that fast, period. The first land speed record set by a young and daring Henry Ford would only stand for one month. But that didn’t matter to Henry Ford. His goal was to attract publicity for his then fledging start-up, the Ford Motor Company. Mission accomplished.
9. Blue Bird (1933)
The Blue Bird is a 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, and its achievements made for popular newspaper copy as people suffering through the Great Depression at the time 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 car of its day. In 1933, the Blue Bird reached 272 miles per hour on Florida’s Daytona Beach. However, in 1935, Blue Bird became the first car to break the 300 mile per hour mark on the Bonneville Salt Flats, a speed that many people predicted would be impossible to reach. Owner Malcolm Campbell added dual rear wheels to increase Blue Bird’s traction on the salt flats and propel the car over the 300 mile per hour barrier.
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 1930s. This unusual looking aerodynamic vehicle reached a top speed of “only” 268 miles per hour and never cracked the 300 mile per hour mark. However, what makes the Rekordwagen significant is that it clocked 268 miles per hour on Germany’s Autobahn, setting a land speed record on a public road. Originally a Mercedes-Benz W125 Grand Prix race car, the Rekordwagen was modified by engineers at Mercedes-Benz to give it smoother bodywork that enveloped the wheels, and a 725 horsepower V12 engine. The 268 miles per hour the car reached on Germany’s Autobahn showed incredible possibilities to automotive engineers, and set the stage for 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, the Green Monster set numerous land speed records in the 1960s, and his design for the car ushered in the modern era of land speed racing. A former drag racer, Art Arfons began developing Green Monster while still living on his family’s farm. Arguably the most advanced jet-powered streamliner of its day, Green Monster set the all-time land speed record several times during the early 1960s, none more memorable than on November 7, 1965, when Green Monster, driven by Art Arfons, reached 576.5 miles per hour. Adding to Art Arfons and Green Monster’s legend were the battles the driver and car had with rival land speed racer Craig Breedlove and his equally famous car, the Spirit of America. While Green Monster 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)
Emblazoned with the Goodyear tire moniker, the Spirit of America Sonic 1 land speed racer burned its way into the American consciousness on November 15, 1965, when it became the first car in history to reach 600 miles per hour, shattering the previous record set by Green Monster a week earlier, and establishing a record that would last for five full years. On that day in 1965, the Spirit of American went 600.6 miles per hour with driver Craig Breedlove at the helm. In 1963, Craig Breedlove had set a then-speed record of 407.4 miles per hour, and yet two years later he drove nearly 200 miles per hour faster. The key to surpassing 600 miles per hour was that the Spirit of America Sonic 1 was outfitted with the same J79 engine found in F-104 fighter jets. 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, who made the 1970s smash hit car movie Smokey and the Bandit with actor Burt Reynolds. The Rocket Car was driven by an ex-Air Force pilot named Stan Barret, and 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 Budweiser Rocket Car allegedly broke the sound barrier while rocketing down Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force base, where it purportedly reached 739.7 miles per hour. Typically an airplane has to reach speeds of 770 miles per hour to break the sound barrier. However, no 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. Another official run with the Budweiser Rocket Car was never attempted, and so the accomplishment is not officially recognized and continues to be controversial to this day.
4. Thrust SSC (1997)
The first car to have officially broken the sound barrier was the Thrust SCC, and this milestone was not reached until 1997. 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 that produced 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/pilot Andy Green reached 763.04 miles per hour over a mile stretch of track at Nevada’s Black Rock dry lake on October 15, 1997—50 years after pilot Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier with an airplane and ushered in the age of supersonic flight. Now, thanks to the Thrust SCC, cars are 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, an American businessman who set 18 motorcycle and six automobile speed records during his lifetime. Don Vesco died in 2002 at age 63 from prostate cancer. But from his early 20s on he went after speed records wherever he could find one that he thought he could break. His Vesco Turbinator racer in 2001 broke the record for wheel-driven cars when it reached a record 458 miles per hour. During its record run in 2001, the car briefly crossed 470 miles per hour. And although he died, Don Vesco left money and instructions in his will for his automotive team to continue working towards breaking the 500 miles per hour mark—continuing his legacy from the grave.
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 was, amazingly, powered by 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 of 314.96 miles per hour, again sending automotive engineers running for their laboratories. The Buckeye Bullet’s record still stands today, and now we are seeing more electric vehicles vying to set new land speed records at Bonneville and other racetracks around the United States.
1. British Steam Car (2009)
Over a century ago, engineer Fred Marriot drove a Stanley Steamer, a steam-powered vehicle, at a top speed of 127.66 miles per hour. That was an incredible feat for the time, and for a vehicle powered by evaporated water. Steam-powered cars quickly died out and were replaced by vehicles powered with combustible engines. However, a British team of automotive 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. Yet, surprisingly, despite the quantum leaps forward in technology, the British Steam Car was only able to reach a top speed of 139.84 miles per hour—enough to break the record, but not overly fast by today’s standards. We can only assume from this result that steam power has its limits.