The layman looks in at Bonneville



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[The “layman” being Douglas Tubbs, to whom we are indebted for this most informative account of Eyston’s British long-distance and sprint records.—ed.]

The Bonneville Salt Flats aren’t at Bonneville at all, because Bonneville itself hasn’t been there for years. The settlement started up on the Salt Flats to produce nitrates from the salt during the last war was killed by the ensuing post war slump. All that remains there now is one shack. The rest of the village was moved by lorry ten miles down the road to the village of Wendover, which looks (and is) incredibly Wild West still, and groups itself round the “round-house ” or railroad depot; the first depot in the 130 miles of Union Pacific west of Salt Lake City. Besides the railway station the village has three filling-stations, two bars, a pool hall, a camp for tourists, a general store and about fifteen wooden houses.

Apart from the very Western locals, each of whom is more Zane Grey than the last, and Hi Pockets Eliott, the 6 ft. 4 in. sheriff, who will lend you his gun to shoot the street lights out with if you can’t hit one of them with your own, the town belongs alternately to Ab (David Abbot) Jenkins, mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, and to Messrs. Campbell., Eyston and Cobb.

The writer arrived, Ford-borne, in this outpost in the autumn of 1936, in time to catch Capt. George Edward Thomas Eyston and his boys attempting to beat Ab’s long-distance records, with the British front-wheel drive Rolls-Royce “Kestrel”-engined car “Speed of the Wind.”

At Wendover one’s day begins just after dawn, so that the sun shall not have had time to draw the moisture to the surface of the salt and make it soft. Very early in the morning everyone connected with the record drives the two miles or so to the Salt Flats, and heads for the large marquee which is used as a headquarters for the timekeepers, a store depot for tyres, etc., and also for pit-work. I soon learnt that Eyston’s pit-work is “quite something.”

Before starting on the record there was a little drill; mock fill-up, check bonnet-fastenings, change all four wheels; 42 seconds dead. Bert Denly then installed his special seat-cushion and squab, to bring his five foot-three up to “the skipper’s” six foot, the “Kestrel” was started-up by the little single-cylinder motorcycle rig, the car’s emergency compressed-air starting-tank was blown up, and “Speed of the Wind” was away for two warming-up laps.

As soon as she was warm, Bert brought her in again for Eyston to take first spell in the attempt upon Ab Jenkins’s 12- and 24-hour world’s records.

The car got away with a roar like a fighter-‘plane taking off—and as a matter of fact the “take-off” illusion held good all the way. The ground on the salt lake is so dazzlingly white that the eye is being continually tricked by mirages; as the car recedes into the distance it seems, owing to the mirage, to climb into the air and lose all contact with the ground, until finally, on the back-stretch, it seems to be using the distant mountains as banking. These mirage effects continue all the time the sun is out; lakes appear in the distance reflecting the mountains to perfection, and the oddest things happen. The car’s wheels seem to stretch downwards and to become oval, making it look like a huge scuttling roller-skate; but the strangest thing of all is the trains. As a train rolls across the middle of the “lake” on its nasty obstructive causeway, it is reflected in the white salt until across the horizon appears a hallow ellipse of smoke, like a cellophane sausage-skin trimmed with fur.

After the start there is no sitting back in the pits and taking it easy; the timekeepers get very busy taking standing lap times and spreading out their scoring-sheets, for on the sort of time returned for the first few laps a great deal may depend. If the first few rounds are very fast, and all seems well with the machine, the “skipper” may decide to go out for the coveted One Hour Record right away. This means a lot of changes for all hands. For the timekeepers it means a new bunch of charts showing speeds of 180 plus, instead of the 170 or so which will take the twelve- and twenty-four records; for “Mac” and the other Dunlop boys it means that tyres may be needed at the end of an hour instead of four hours as is the case at lower speeds; the petrol squad stands by for a larger refill at the end of the spell, and there is a general increase in the general tension. On this occasion the writer had no particular duty, so it seemed a good opportunity to go out and take a look at the track, made soft by the rains the night before, with one of the A.A. Press reporters.

No sooner had we returned to the pits than the “Speed of the Wind” came howling past again—but with a difference. The lovely power-roar of the “Kestrel” was broken by a terrible clattering, and died off gradually to silence as the driver came to a stop at the three-mile post. All ears in the pit marquee immediately noticed the very first symptom of trouble. Someone yelled out “She’s missing!” and all the reporters, all the “me-toos” and all the mechanics (except for a skeleton staff left to look after the pit end in case the car started up again on the compressed-air tank and came in under its own steam) rushed for the touring cars and tore over to where the record had come unput.

After a bit the news came back. It was the worst sort of luck; for after running beautifully for almost an hour, one of the ball-joints in the front-wheel drive assembly had seized and queered the whole attempt until a new part could be made up and flown down from Detroit. The only consolation anyone could find was that the mishap had happened after one hour and not after twenty-three.

Sad though such a disappointment was, however, it was soon almost forgotten. News had just been sent up from the “railroad depot” that there was “parcel for Captain Eyston.” A large parcel. The six thousand mile journey was safely accomplished and the “Thunderbolt” was now in Wendover, all ready to be unpacked and attack the World Speed Record held by Campbell’s “Bluebird,” by beating 301 miles an hour on the salt.

Inside the enormous packing-case, “Thunderbolt” had travelled over complete, except for the great detachable tail fin and a few bits of cowling; in fact, when she was run out of the case, Eyston and the boys saw her complete for the first time. When they left England the car was not ready to come with them, and the record attempt was one of those miraculously bold ventures which do not always come off.

Designed around the two Rolls-Royce “R” engines used in the 1931 Schneider Trophy Race (one of which won the Trophy, and the other of which took the World’s Air Speed record in Stainforth’s Supermarine “S 6.B”) the car was originally sketched out by a man in Peugeot’s and modified by M. Andreau, the great French coachwork designer, who used to design those beautiful Delage “merveilleusement profilees” for the Paris Salon.

The whole job, chassis and all, was put together in six weeks’ time from the moment the first hole was drilled in the frame to when it was finally crated-up for dispatch to Utah. Such was the hurry that Bert Deny used to wait outside the foundry in his Hillman Minx, with the upholstery removed for fear of fire, to collect the still-hot castings and whistle them up to the Bean works, where “Thunderbolt” was taking shape.

Despite the trip and the rocking about they must have received on the sea and on the railway, the two Rolls-Royce engines started up as soon as they were tried. Compressed-air from the portable tank, a wind on the hand mags, and away they went, ticking over like a touring-car without a miss at a steady 900 r.p.m. Out on the salt all the people who were not busy in the garage were detailed to go up and down the fourteen mile straightaway oil-line to make sure that nothing was lying on the track which might conceivably damage the thin Dunlop treads at high speed. The collection of junk picked up was amazing. Odd nails, bits of metal and a hacksaw blade soon to hand and the best catch of all was made by the writer, who unearthed yards of rusty telephone wire buried in the salt, and evidently left over from Campbell’s record attempts of nearly two years before.

The first trials of “Thunderbolt” took place at dawn the next day, but the run had to be put off, because one engine was short of oil-pressure, and finally, when this was cured by fitting the spare pump, it was found that the gears would not mesh properly. This was the moment chosen by the local Broadcasting Station to say would Captain Eyston please arrange to get the record either this Saturday or next, as the B.B.C. and the Columbia system both wanted to broadcast it, and a Saturday was most convenient for them! Eyston gravely explained that he would do his best to see that all ensuing Saturdays were fine, but he could make no guarantee, as the car had not run at all as yet.

More trials soon showed that the clutch would have to be modified; accordingly Bert Denly, Alfie Poyser from Rolls and the other mechanics set about removing the two 2,000 horse-power motors from the chassis. A derrick was produced and the motors were out of chassis by seven o’clock in the evening—less than a day’s work. By nine that night the clutches were down, and the bits placed in the back of one of the team’s Plymouth saloons. Len Ainsley (who was Dixon’s mechanic when the Riley crashed in the T.T.) then drove it to Los Angeles over the Sierra Nevada, leaving Wendover at 9 p.m. and reaching Los Angeles at 2 p.m. the next afternoon. Not bad, after a very hard day’s work. The distance is 750 miles.

Now that both the record cars were so unfortunately out of commission, there was time to look round. Salt Lake City is only two hours or less away by car, since the distance is 127 miles and the road for the most part straight and not very busy. Ab Jenkins, holder of so many records, held the fastest time for the trip in 1 hour and 18 minutes in the blown Cord sedan, in which the A.A.A. once timed him at 101 for the twenty-four hours on the salt. This record was never homologated, as the car failed to qualify as a stock car because Ab had fitted Rudge type wheels and hubs for quicker pitwork. Otherwise the car was a completely standard job. Quite something, for a saloon car in 1937.

Wendover has little distraction to offer, but as all the locals possess guns of one sort or another, there was always a lot of fun to be had shooting at tin cans, bottles, or the lesser desert fauna. At night parties would go out and try and shoot coyotes by the light of motor-car spotlights. This was considered a fairly safe sport from the coyote’s point of view.

After a longish interval, when Eyston disappeared to shoot elk with some American friends, and the boys ate venison as a result, “Speed of the Wind’s” front axle-bits arrived. All went once more to the flats, the electric light was turned on in the marquee, Art Pilsbury and the other Three A’s officials came down from Los Angeles again (and threw a tread on the way, by cruising their Auburn Twelve at 85 for miles and miles) and enough tyres were produced by Mac to get the 24-hours’ Record.

Eyston put on the odd face mask which makes people who drive at Bonneville look so much like characters from the Insect Play, climbed aboard, and the motor soon warmed up. We all envied it, for the nights on the salt are cold and cheerless in October. The first two laps showed that the 155 m.p.h. standing lap and the second lap at 180 had been too much for the tyres. The car came in for more tyres, and started again. A few laps more and it was the same story, but, keyed up for the run, Eyston decided to carry on after the pit-stop, take it slower, and concentrate upon the twelve-hour and twenty-four hour records. Driving magnificently in the cold and the dark, aided in sticking to the correct course by the trimming fin which was carried in a sort of whip-socket at the front of the car, Eyston and Denly marked off the laps.

As nine minutes past one came round again, meaning that the car had been lapping for twelve hours, the tension grew terrific. Everyone knew it would be a mighty close thing if Ab’s records fell. Unwilling to rely on the battery of stopwatches, for split-second accuracy after twelve hours’ running, Basil Eyston rang up Pilsbury in the Chronograph Villa, to ask what the chances were.

Back came the most depressing of answers. Slowly Pilsbury’s voice drawled back: “Well, he’s got thirteen seconds left to do two miles, and we don’t think he can do it!”

As though to make certain of upsetting all the wretched Englishman’s plans, the weather now turned on him. It came on to rain. And not just rain either. The Three A’s humidity-recording device showed an enormous jump. Bert Denly took over, but shortly threw a tread on the far side of the course and came in slowly. The track too was going to bits, and a move was made on to the smallest of the three alternative circles, which made conditions even worse.

Despite these setbacks, Eyston’s temper never seemed to vary. He’d lost the twelve-hour record by only thirteen one-hundredths of one mile an hour, and it was quite possible that the twenty-four hour record had gone the same way. In addition, “Thunderbolt ” was sick, and the whole enormous expense of coming to Utah might have brought nothing but disappointment. It was twenty seconds before a pit-stop that the Newsreel man asked him to “say a few words” into the mike. “Certainly I will, in two hours’ time, when I come in from this spell,” he promised. A disgusted announcer wandered off disconsolately to explain to his colleagues that these Englishmen just had no idea of their responsibility to their Radio Public. He guessed Some People would just never Learn!

During Denly’s spells the rest of the boys amused themselves by writing him rude messages and comic pit signals on the blackboard; these mostly took the form of “Come on, Little Albert,” and other Stanley Holloway remarks, but although both Bert and the “Skipper” did their best, conditions got steadily worse. The rain-softened track was going rapidly to bits, and the tail of the car was sliding about all the time. Consistent lap times became impossible, despite the valuable stabilising effect of the steamlined “flag.”

At 4 p.m. the writer went off to get an hour or two’s sleep in a tent. An hour later he was woken up and told that if he didn’t stand up quickly he’d be drowned! Outside the tent, the dry salt lake was dry no longer; there seemed as much salt water at Bonneville as at Brighton, and “Speed of the Wind” only needed a “step” to take Campbell’s motor-boat record from him. Defeated at length by the first rain the Flats had had for three weeks, the car was called in and the run was over. Of all the records which, but for such rotten luck, she might have got, all that she could take home was the 2,000 kilometres. That, after all, was better than nothing, and Mac found that there were still enough tyres for a second try at the twenty-four hours. The car and its engine were still going as well as ever and there is no doubt that only the weather stopped her.

A week of duck-shooting and hanging around followed, while the track dried off enough for “Thunderbolt” to be tried. A trial run at 280 m.p.h. was followed by a timed trip down the course at a speed of 309.0 m.p.h. Alas, the old clutch trouble cropped up in another form. More waiting. . . .

Finally, on Friday, the 19th of November, all was set for a final try. The three A’s came from Los Angeles yet again, pickets were planted all round the course at every possible way on to the salt bed to keep out the public and “Thunderbolt” was once more towed out.

Standing at the mid-point of the fourteen-mile straight, it was difficult to get any news of what was going on at the far end. The mechanics were busy filling the tanks with a mixture of B.P. and alcohol (not dope, as the Schneider boost had been cut down) and putting in the thirty gallons of cooling water. All would soon be ready, it was hoped. Particularly by the radio commentator, who had been padding for half-an-hour already and showed signs of getting feverish . . . . There were several false alarms, when various touring cars came running down the course with messages for the far end of the straight.

As it was going flat out, making perhaps eighty-five or ninety, some thought at first that an Auburn Supercharger was the “Thunderbolt” and a cheer went up, which tailed off rather self-consciously. Then, over the microphone, we heard the two Rolls engines start up, and tick over regularly despite their lack of a flywheel. The noise got louder and faded. He was away. . . !

The timekeeping stand was set back from the actual track by about a quarter of a mile, so much eye-stretching was needed to get the first glimpse of the car. Unlike an aeroplane, a motor-car going very fast on a dead flat track is visible only for a very few seconds. On a flat place like the dry lake an object as low as a record-breaking car is “hull-down” until it is about two miles off. “Thunderbolt” was painted silver all over and was almost invisible until even nearer than this. Suddenly, it seemed, there was a faint blur on the track in the far distance. Almost as soon as it appeared the blur grew more definite, travelling at an enormous speed, but making at that distance less noise than the “Speed of the Wind” as it passed the pit marquee. Pips, like the Greenwich time signal, rang out from the timing tent. Those in the know pressed their stop-watches as Eyston crossed the first of the timing-beams into the measured mile. If he did the mile, and the next pips sounded in under twelve seconds, it meant 300 miles an hour. The hurrying blob resolved itself into the familiar shape of “Thunderbolt” as it swished past the mid-point of its run, looking like a long grey fish. It was gone almost at once, hotly pursued by the roar of its engines. From the timing-stand came more pips. All the stopwatches showed less than twelve seconds! Eyston had still to return in the reverse direction at the same speed to get the record from Campbell.

The wheels had to be changed and tanks filled again for the return run. This time the oil-pressure was all right. And the American-made clutches, which were installed within eight hours of their arrival from Los Angeles, had proved themselves. With no fuss at all, Eyston was able to motor back at a speed much better than three hundred. Asked afterwards what he had thought during the drive, he remarked that he was too busy, really, to do much thinking, but he did think he was going faster than usual. British reserve, pointed out the man at the microphone. . . .

The Bonneville Salt Flats are the almost perfect place for this sort of motoring. Only almost, because of their distance from the large industrial centres, and their extremes of climate. The summer is altogether too hot and the glare from the white surface is almost too much for a man’s eyes. The autumn is good, but as the history of this trip of Eyston’s shows, the weather can put paid to the whole effort if the driver is out of luck.

For the long-distance records, the chief disadvantage of the salt is the ease with which it gets cut up. The railway which runs across the centre of the lake makes it impossible to get a circle of hard salt greater than twelve miles in circumference; even this huge track soon gets torn up by a heavy car going round without any banking, at speeds of 180 m.p.h. or more. The solution which the locals have invented, and which it was hoped at one time that the rich Chamber of Commerce at Salt Lake City would sponsor, is to make, as it were, a vast trough, by boarding in the edges of the twelve-mile circle, making a track 200 feet wide, which could be flooded at will like a skating-rink. Then all traces of roughness could be removed in a few days by flooding with water, which the sun would dry out, leaving a beautiful smooth, virgin surface for future attempts.

Let’s hope it gets done in time for the post-war outbreak of records. After all, Ab Jenkins is now Mayor of Salt Lake City. . . .