A Study in Record Breaking

Motor car speed in the ultimate has always been represented by the prevailing position of what is conveniently called The Land Speed Record, but which is actually the current state of the officially timed world’s flying-start kilometre or mile record, which since 1909 has had to constitute the mean of runs over one or other of these measured distances in both directions. Thus we have seen the first tentative bid by Chasselop-Laubat on his Jeantaud electric car at Achéres in France in 1898 (39.24 mph) run through 64 successful attempts to that by Richard Nobel in Thrust 2 at Black Rock Desert, Nevada, in 1983 (633.468 mph).

Onslaughts on this ‘Land Speed Record’ have held the interest of both the public and enthusiasts along the years. They have been exciting, dramatic, tragic, impressive to the extent of knighthoods for drivers. However, all things are relative and it behoves us not to overlook some other very impressive records made with smaller engined racing cars. It is the high speeds attained by developments of Grand Prix cars which we are here about to recall. The first hint of such developments was seen in 1926, when Louis Coatalen set Major Henry Segrave the task of breaking the LSR with a V12 Sunbeam of a mere 3976cc, at a time when prevailing cars built for this purpose were monsters boasting of anything from 10 1/2 litres to 27 litres. This was the famous Sunbeam we now call the ‘Tiger’ but which was then nicknamed ‘Ladybird’. It has been very much in the news lately on account of its fine two-way kilometre run at Elvington at 157.48 mph, which I think, subject to official confirmation, must rank as a British Class-C record.

In 1926 this small Sunbeam looked almost like a normal GP car, compared to the giant cars then used for LSR attempts although, in fact, in 1925, when it was laid down, it would not have been eligible for GP racing, the maximum engine size for which was then 2 litres. However, Segrave’s 152.33 mph on Southport sands was impressive for a 4-litre racing car. But it was the advent of the German GP cars that was to put a much more significant seal on relative speeds.

With Hitler doing everything in his power to promote the Nazi regime in Germany, motor racing appealed to him as a powerful propaganda medium, and we know that he subsidised Auto-Union and Mercedes-Benz to build world defeating GP cars. The first inkling of how impressive these were to be came in March 1934, when Hans von Stuck in Professor Ferdinand Porsche’s revolutionary new 4360cc rear-engined V16 (whatever next?) Auto-Union the P-wagen relieved Bugatti of the covetted World and International Class-C hour records, averaging 134.85 mph. While this was below the maximum speed of conventional GP cars, it had been done at Avus, necessitating cutting out once a lap for the 180 deg. bends. It had, indeed, got up to 157 mph along the short straights and its full potential was quoted as 180 mph. A new era had dawned!

At the end of 1934 Stuck took a prototype 1935 Auto-Union back to the Avus course and with this 5-litre 375 bhp car attacked successfully standing start records and longer flying start records, leaving the World’s 100 km figure at 152.18 mph. It was obvious that Auto-Union and Mercedes-Benz realised that they were expected to produce effective Nazi propaganda not only on the race circuits but by breaking records at truly impressive speeds. Apparently large crowds of Berliners had watched Stuck’s hour record run at the Avus and before the year was out Porsche had set about preparing a streamlined, closed cockpit Auto-Union for further record bids.

This was just as well, if an inter-marque battle was to continue, as it seems Herr Hitler wished it to do, presumably estimating that it would maintain interest in what might otherwise appear a one-make German domination of motor sport. Because Mercedes had not been unaware of rivalry in the record field, before Stuck could bring out the new P-wagen record car, Caracciola had the use of a W25 Mercedes-Benz specially produced for record-breaking, front brakes removed, the radiator inlet reduced in size and a bonnet devoid of louvres fitted. The cockpit was enclosed with a faired, rather ugly `top-hat’ hinged cover and the straight-eight 3360cc supercharged M25B big-valve engine developed 430 bhp on special WW fuel. The car was taken, along with an open-cockpit Mercedes, to the new concrete road at Gyon, near Budapest, and after a stronger fastener for the roof had been devised, Rudi set World records for the kilometre and mile, respectively at 197.35 mph and 196.78 mph. That was in October 1934. In December Caracciola took an open Mercedes-Benz to Avus, establishing a record of 193.86 mph for a flying start five kilometres.

It was not until February 1935 that the streamlined Auto-Union was able to reply to the M-B records. Stuck was to drive it, his win in the previous year’s German GP having made him a national hero — and he was reaping good propaganda for the Führer, of which his triumphal drive back from Berlin to Zwickau after the race, cheered by crowds lining the route, was a reminder. He, like Caracciola, went to Gyon for the record bid, but snow hampered proceedings and after a couple of trial runs the equipe moved on to the autostrada between Altopascio and Lucca. While it had never been possible to run racing cars on public roads in Great Britain and it still isn’t (except in Birmingham, which thus calls for full support in August), there had not been this restraint in Europe and after Hitler had put Korpsführer Huenlein in charge of German motor sport, there would certainly have been no problem about closing part of the new roads for high-speed runs. Whereas LSR contenders had, after 1924, found the cruder main roads then available unsuitable for their purpose and had had to resort to sea beaches here and in the USA, the very fast record cars of the later 1930s could use the much better surfaces of the autostrada and autobahnen, roads no doubt built with military developments in mind. Thus Stuck now had a 9.3-mile stretch on which to accelerate and stop after his mile runs, whereas in 1927, when Segrave attained 200 mph for the first time, the course at Daytona beach gave him only about this distance, with a far more ponderous car.

The Auto-Union had a closed cockpit, neater than that of the Mercedes, fairings behind the wheels, and the rear wheels partially faired-in. Stuck broke the Class-C mile record at 199.01 mph, reaching over 200 mph in one direction, but failed to crack the kilometre record, which suggests that the car was still accelerating over the timed distances. However, here was a significant landmark — whereas, admittedly eight years before, Segrave’s Sunbeam had needed twin engines totalling 44.8 litres to do 200 mph, Auto-Union had done this speed on 5-litres.

It was now the turn of Alfa Romeo. Bruno Mussolini was obviously not happy to let Adolf Hitler have it all his way. So Tazio Nuvolari was set to drive the twin engined 6.3-litre Bimotore Alfa at the same venue Stuck had used in 1935. Specially-prepared, this fearsome Alfa had been lightened by 250 kilos, the side fuel tanks removed, the rear oil tank likewise, and discs fitted over the back wheels. Nuvolari was ready, clad for once in business-like white overalls, by 8.30 am on the June morning. Fluctuating oil pressure caused a delay, then he was off, accelerating purposefully through the gears. The Auto-Union speeds were improved upon, the two-way kilometre timed at 199.73 mph, the mile at 200.8 mph. Britain had a share in the performance, because without Dunlop tyres (32″ x 6.5″ rears, 19″ x 6.0″ fronts) the Bimotore had proved an inveterate tread-slinger and would not have been able to run at such speeds. Nuvolari tried for more records the following day but the weather was against him.

It should be explained that these were Class-B records, so in theory Alfa Romeo had not taken Caracciola’s Class-C record, because the rules stated that even if a higher speed were achieved, a record could not be claimed in a class for which a car was not eligible, (although an absolute fastest speed ranked as a World as well as the appropriate Class record. Supercharged cars were in the same class for records as non-supercharged ones, which troubled Alvis in the early 1920s). At the time of Nuvolari’s attempt in 1935 in Class-B mile record stood at 137.61 mph. Done by Doré on the tree-flanked Arpajon road near Paris, in the 8-litre Panhard-Levassor. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the world, Nuvolari had beaten the Auto-Union’s record. That it was a brave attempt is without question. Alfa Romeo historian Peter Hull has reminded us that: “The car was not easy to control at 200 mph in a slight crosswind, and Nuvolari’s courage was shown by the fact that not long after leaving the depot the car passed under an archway, and on emerging from the other side it met a gust of wind which caused it to lurch across the narrow road. Nuvolari fought the car for nearly 200 yards, leaving great black marks on the surface of the autostrada. Despite this, his run back was even faster (roughly 210 mph), although he skidded again at the same spot . . .” It would be invidious, without knowing all the factors involved, to suggest that Nuvolari displayed quicker reactions than Rosemeyer, but with hindsight we know that similar circumstances killed the great Auto-Union driver on such a record attempt. Of course, Rosemeyer was going some 70 mph faster and maybe the ‘dumbell’ response of the Bimotore was better than that of a purely rear-engined car?

Emphasising the previous comments about road closure, in March 1936 Stuck took one of the new Type-C Auto-Unions with faired open cockpit and wheel discs to the Frankfurt-Heidelberg autobahn where 10,000 troops closed a 70-mile straight stretch of road, so that Class-B records of up to 100 miles could be attempted. The speed of these cars is shown by the fact that Stuck was confident even though he would have to turn round in the course of the 100-mile record bid. The engine was the enlarged 6-litre V16, and running therefore in Class-B and a number of records fell, including the 100 miles at 166.04 mph and the flying start 5 km at 194.13 mph.

These high-speed records with non-LSR cars continued. Mercedes used a V12 car with curved windscreen, open cockpit and 7.00″ x 19″ tyres to lift Class-B records to 228 mph in 1936, the fastest in Europe. Rosemeyer replied, with his Eifel GP engine in the Auto-Union streamliner, over a closed part of the southbound Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn, in June 1937, doing the mile at 242.09 mph. The drivers had about a two mile run into the timed distances. The ploy developed into a whole record-week on the closed autobahn in October 1937, for both the German teams, under the command of Korpsführer Huenlein, with 15 1/2 miles of road closed, allowing a ten mile high speed stretch. M-B ran into trouble, including ‘aviating’ at the front-end of their streamliner, but Rosemeyer in the ice-cooled 6.3-litre 545 bhp Auto-Union set 252.46 mph for the mile — the first time 250 mph had been exceeded on a road. Six years previously the LSR itself had stood at around this speed (253.97 mph) but Campbell had used a 24-litre 1450 bhp racing Napier ‘Lion’ engine in ‘Bluebird’ to attain it. By pulling strings in the Reich Chancellory Daimler-Benz were permitted to use the Frankfurt road in January 1938, to gain publicity prior to the Berlin Motor Show. Caracciola now found the Mercedes record car, which had swastikas adorning its tail, very stable and he clocked 268.712 mph for the two-way kilometre, 268.496 for the mile, aided by the special all-enveloping bodywork and ice-cooling that reduced the drag-factor to 0.157. However, that was just over 100 mph slower than the LSR. Then, tragedy! Rosemeyer took the Auto-Union out later that morning, the wind had risen, and a gust from behind a line of trees pushed the car off the autobahn and he was killed instantly. A difficult-to-find memorial marked the spot — and I hope still does.

Rosemeyer’s death and the advancing war effort stopped such runs, but not before the new Dassau-Bitterfield autobahn in northern Germany had had its centre reservation paved with smooth concrete to give a 100-ft. wide, five-mile course for record runs. M-B took a 3-litre V12 all-enveloping car there in February 1938, which did 248.3 mph over a mile. The six-wheeled 3000 bhp D-B LSR contender was not finished in time to use this special section of road. Meanwhile, from England and America enormous and very special cars contested this pinnacle of motor car speed — Sir Malcolm Campbell using a s/c 2300 bhp Rolls-Royce R-type racing engine to get ‘Bluebird’ to over 301 mph, Capt. GET Eyston two such engines in his 73.2-litre eight-wheeled seven-ton ‘Thunderbolt’, John Cobb a couple of supercharged Napier ‘Lion’ engines in his Railton to leave the LSR at nearly 370 mph by the time war actually broke out.

LSR history is enthralling, but we have to accept that the smaller-engined record cars were more scientific and very quick for their engine capacities. Apart from flying start records, they took some impressive ones from a standing-start, Rosemeyer, for example, setting a flying start mile-record of 138.7 mph, with a 5-litre Auto-Union, compared to Cobb’s 102.5 mph with the 24-litre Napier-Railton. Nor was it only the Hitler-sponsored German cars which were so very fast for their engine capacities. Major AT `Goldie’ Gardner’s 203.5 mph with the 1100cc-engined MG in 1939, when a 1.5-litre engine gave him 204.2 mph and after the war a 750cc power unit 159.15 mph and one of 500cc 154.86 mph, at Jabbeke, where the 350cc MG ran at up to 121.09 mph, should be noted. Nor must we overlook the Utah records by the MG EX 181 with supercharged twin-cam 1.5-litre engine which Stirling Moss drove at up to 245.64 mph at Utah in 1957, Phil Hill at 254.91 mph in 2-litre form there, two years later. A turtle-like body fully-faired closed cockpit contributed to this pace. Sports cars, too, if we include Donald Healey’s blown 100S Austin-Healey streamliner that did 203.11 mph at Utah in 1956. WB