The first recognized automotive speed record was set in 1898 by the French aristocrat Count Charles-François Gaston Louis Prosper de Chasseloup-Laubat. He entered an electric Jeantaud in a test organized by an early auto magazine and covered the flying kilometer in well under a minute. Like 57 seconds. Astounding. That’s 39.24 mph!
This story originally appeared in Volume 14 of Road & Track.
That was barely faster than a galloping horse and much slower than the speediest locomotives of the era. Yet the car would soon overwhelm the train. In 1904, an elegant 4-4-0 steamer belonging to England’s Great Western Railway became the first vehicle in the world to (disputably) break the 100-mph barrier, albeit briefly and on a falling gradient. Two months later, Louis Rigolly, another Frenchman, pushed the automotive record to 103.56 mph in a 13.5-liter Gobron-Brillié race car. From that point on, the land speed record has been held by loosely defined automobiles and the occasional rocket-propelled sled.
The bar soon jumped as increasingly powerful cars, and increasingly brave drivers, flung themselves at glory. Benchmarks fell quickly: 150 mph in 1925, 200 mph in 1927, and 300 mph in 1935, when Malcolm Campbell took his Blue Bird V, powered by a supercharged Rolls-Royce aero engine making a reputed 2300 hp, to the salt at Bonneville. But record setting also proved dangerous; onetime record holders J.G. Parry-Thomas, a Brit, in 1927 and Frank Lockhart, an American, in 1928 both died during failed attempts. Many other record setters were killed chasing ever further-out benchmarks before World War II.
Postwar, the jet age brought a new challenge: cars that exceeded what was possible with wheel-driven propulsion. But the French International Association of Recognized Automobile Clubs (AIACR), precursor to the FIA and arbiter of the record, insisted that vehicles setting the record be wheel driven. So when young Americans built jet-powered specials, they found themselves excluded from the “official” record. The generational clash was summed up when Craig Breedlove’s jet-propelled Spirit of America went 407.45 mph in 1963, but the official record skipped him and went to Donald Campbell’s wheel-driven gas-turbine Bluebird Proteus the following year, although it had “only” been timed at 403.10 mph. (Spirit was also a three-wheeler, and therefore not a car, contended the AIACR.)
Technology won, and the rules were straightened out as it became clear that wheel-powered cars couldn’t keep up with jets and rockets. A period of intense rivalry between the jet cars followed, as Breedlove’s Spirit and Art Arfons’s Green Monster traded times on the salt at Bonneville. No fewer than five new records were set during 1965 alone. The following year, Breedlove’s second Spirit, with a bigger engine and four wheels, moved the record past 600 mph. The figure seemed unbeatable until Gary Gabelich’s rocket-powered Blue Flame, surely the most beautiful record setter ever, managed 622.407 mph running on a cocktail of liquefied natural gas and high-test peroxide in 1970.
Half a century later, only two cars have gone faster. Teams led by Scotland’s Richard Noble created both. A record-obsessed adventurer, Noble produced his first challenger while still in his twenties. Thrust 1 (the juvenile name was part of the fun) combined a truck chassis with a military surplus jet engine. It was insane, and was written off when Noble crashed at 140 mph in 1977. He enlisted expert engineering help to create Thrust 2 and used his considerable charisma to raise the money to take it to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in 1983. There he drove it to 633.468 mph, beating Gabelich’s record.
Success triggered more interest, and Breedlove promised to build a challenger. Noble responded in kind with the Thrust SSC—as in “supersonic car”—wisely giving up driving duties to active-duty Royal Air Force fighter pilot Andy Green. The aim was to break the sound barrier, which they achieved at Black Rock in October 1997, less than a month after setting the last slower-than-sound record. By traveling at 763.04 mph, Green became the fastest human to travel on the planet’s surface. More than 25 years later, he still is.
But the costs of building and running the Thrust SSC, even with a volunteer staff, had nearly been too much. The $160,000 fuel bill for the record attempts was only paid after the car had reached the desert. So when Noble announced plans for an even more ambitious project in 2008, built to break the 1000-mph barrier using both jet and rocket power, the obvious question was where the money would come from.
Bloodhound SSC engineered its new project to utilize both a Rolls-Royce EJ200 jet engine and a secondary rocket motor produced by the Norwegian company Nammo. The pair provided the extra thrust required to reach four-figure speeds, with mind-blowing solutions throughout; the original proposal was to use a Formula 1–spec Cosworth 2.4-liter V-8 just as a fuel pump for this motor. The project’s slipping timeframes soon showed how hard all of this rocket science was. In 2012, Noble said the project needed $28 million and would run on a dry lake bed in South Africa in 2014. By 2015, the planned trip to Africa had slipped to 2016, and the budget had increased to $61 million, with much of that unsecured.
Eventually, Bloodhound ran at low speed on an airport runway in the U.K. to raise interest. Behind the scenes, Noble also tried to put together a sponsorship deal with the Chinese Geely Group. But it didn’t succeed in time. In 2018, the project went bankrupt.
Yet the Bloodhound story doesn’t end there. Having rescued Bloodhound from the junkyard, the wealthy British industrialist Ian Warhurst was persuaded to buy the whole outfit and fund the long-delayed trip to South Africa, although one where the car would run only on jet power. He reportedly spent more than $1 million, with the Bloodhound managing an impressive 628 mph. But it didn’t raise enough commercial interest to fund a full attempt. “I might have proved I’m a bit mad by paying what I’ve paid for, but I’m not mad enough to carry on,” Warhurst said after he bowed out.
Bloodhound SSC is now parked at the Coventry Transport Museum alongside Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC. Its jet engine has been removed and sent back to Rolls-Royce. But hope of another rebirth hasn’t died. Stuart Edmondson, formerly Bloodhound’s head of engineering and another former RAF officer, has taken over as CEO and is committed to a new attempt based around a switch to synthetic fuel for the jet engine, with an electric motor serving as fuel pump.
“I think land speed records have an association with the car world of the past—fossil-fuel-breathing machines tearing across the desert,” Edmondson says. “I know from discussions we’ve had, that has put people off, and the world is changing massively. That’s why we should be pushing boundaries in terms of sustainability, not just records.”
Edmondson admits that the earliest a full attempt in South Africa could happen is 2024 and is commendably forthright on the question of cost. “The figure is $10 million to get a land speed record,” he says. “We’ve been to the desert, we’ve proved the logistics, and we got a huge amount of aerodynamic data back from the previous run. We’ve got a car that can break the land speed record.”
Will it ever get the chance to break the record? Will anyone still care if they do?
The Land Speed Record is run to an agreed standard, one that has remained largely unchanged for more than a century. The lesser, unofficial record for the fastest production car is not. Over the years, the title has been claimed on the basis of manufacturers’ own figures and car-magazine test sessions. Road & Track even drove the Porsche 959 to its credited 198-mph vMax in 1987. But the lack of a level playing field has created endless arguments about the rules and methodologies used. It’s also created some outright cheating.
The biggest cause of controversy is whether, as with the LSR, a production car must have its speed averaged in two directions or peak speed is the goal. Either philosophy produces a different champion.
When Bugatti’s works daredevil, Andy Wallace, drove the Chiron to an astonishing 304.77 mph in 2019, he did so at Volkswagen’s vast Ehra-Lessien test track in Germany, with that speed recorded as only a transient peak and in a single direction. For Bugatti that was good enough, especially as telemetry later proved the Chiron had actually left the ground over a seemingly innocuous transition between two different sections of asphalt while traveling at 278 mph. But many said the record hadn’t been broken and that the Koenigsegg Agera RS’s 277.87 mph, set on a closed 11-mile stretch of Nevada highway in 2017, still stood.
Guinness World Records, the self-appointed arbiter of records, used to have a Fastest Production Car category. The most recent award of this title was in 2010, when French sports-car veteran Pierre-Henri Raphanel drove the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport to 267.85 mph. That was also at Ehra-Lessien, but it was set as a two-way average, despite the fact the track’s protection barriers were designed to work in only one direction. Guinness later canceled that record since the car’s speed limiter, with which it was sold to customers, was de-energized. Then Guinness reversed the decision and reinstated the achievement. To add to the confusion, some previous Guinness production-car speed records had been one-way and based on manufacturer claims, while both the Jaguar XJ220’s 217.10 mph and the McLaren F1’s 240.10 mph had been achieved with factory rev limiters raised.
Probably sensibly, Guinness World Records has since bowed out of this one, confirming last year that there is no holder of its Fastest Production Car title. Instead, it arbitrates on such important matters as the world’s fastest motorized toilet, currently a bowel-loosening 70.55 mph.
Having broken 300 mph, Bugatti opted to drop the mic on record setting, saying when it announced the Chiron’s peak that the company won’t seek to defend its title. But that doesn’t mean others aren’t trying to go faster, as ludicrous as the idea of a road car capable of covering five miles a minute may be.
But all of those resources, all of that money spent chasing ultimate speed—whether jet-powered desert sled or million-dollar hypercar—what does it mean in 2022? When R&T ripped up to 190 mph in the Ruf Yellow Bird decades ago, the pursuit of 200 mph in a production vehicle felt vital. That level of performance proved a point beyond bench racing. After Ferrari crested the 200-mph mark with its road-legal F40, McLaren’s legendary F1 took the crown and held on tight. Cars became faster, easier to drive, more reliable. Then Bugatti’s Veyron swooped in and settled the bet for another generation.
Few companies were capable of challenging Bugatti’s masterclass, a vehicle built to showcase the engineering might of the entire Volkswagen Group by virtue of superior speed. With the 300-mph mark now broken, and major manufacturers out of the game, what’s left to prove to consumers and enthusiasts? Now the four-door BMW M5 can brush up against 200 mph without breaking a sweat, and 300 mph can only be chased by oligarchs with hypercar bank accounts. High speed has become so democratized as to become uninteresting. Hyperspeed is unattainable by mere mortals, even if the engineering remains fascinating. The land speed record feels similarly tenuous—millions spent for an incremental achievement.
With the move to pure electric propulsion, the window on ultraspeed seems to be closing even faster. EVs can do huge acceleration but struggle to carry the energy required for sustained velocity. Also consider that the Chiron consumes gas at the rate of nearly four gallons per minute at peak speed and the societal implications of such performance art.
The world has instead turned its eyes to new boundaries: acceleration, range, efficiency. Boutique vehicles from Hennessey, Koenigsegg, and Bloodhound may yet smash their respective speed records. But no matter how fast they travel, the world may have already left them behind.