Each year the Americans hold a Speed Week on the Bonneville Salt Flats where cars of all makes and sizes are timed for sheer maximum speed. There are categories for all manner of machines, and such is the atmosphere at Bonneville that if anyone was to arrive with a new machine that did not fit into any of the known categories a new class would be formed on the spot and class records begun. Naturally all this high speed activity is essentially national and of particular interest to the Hot-Rodders and Tuners, but even so there is always a big entry of standard cars, including many European sports cars.
When these Speed meetings first began and we heard of blown Ford V8 Hot-Rods doing 150 m.p.h. we were rather sceptical, until one of the Bonneville enthusiasts pointed to a picture of a blown 750-c.c. record-breaking M.G. that had done more than 150 m.p.h., and said “Why should we believe the speed of that thing, when you won’t believe the speed of our own blown 4-litre V8’s?” To that we could only feebly reply that the M.G. was timed by F.I.A. timing. For a long time now the National Hot-Rod Association has been using a very accurate timing apparatus designed by one Otto Crocker, who also claims to measure distances to a greater degree of accuracy than the F.I.A. officials. Now in its 11th season the National Speed Week has condescendingly been recognised by the F.I.A., not that it worried the Americans very much that it has been unrecognised for the last 10 years. They have their own list of record speeds and classes and quite happily self-contained, but now that the F.I.A. have not only admitted to the existence of the Bonneville Speed Week, but also given it International status, it makes the speeds recorded of even greater interest in Europe. With a slight smile on their faces, having inspected the official F.I.A. timing mechanism for record runs, the Hot-Rod boys submitted the Crocker apparatus to the United States Bureau of Standards for checking and it was proclaimed to be of a higher degree of accuracy than requirements called for by the F.I.A.! So now, once and for all, the speeds at Bonneville week must be accepted by even the most cynical.
Thanks to an informative article by Griff Borgeson in an American contemporary we are able to glean a cross-section of what went on at Bonneville last August. To keep a sense of proportion we see that a Borgward TS clocked 93.560 m.p.h., a 300SL Roadster did 143.51 m.p.h. and a Ford Thunderbird did 134.930 m.p.h. A Vignale-bodied 4.9 Ferrari clocked 151.770 m.p.h. and an American journalist borrowed a Twin-Cam M.G.-A from a dealer’s showroom to see just how fast these things are without receiving attention, and clocked 101.010 m.p.h.! A Corvette did 153.327 m.p.h. and a supercharged Corvette, using an enormous GMC blower, did 172.410 m.p.h., and a 5-litre V8 Chevrolet sports car Special (like a Lister) eventually did 191.136 m.p.h. after much detailed tuning. In 1957 there was a man with a 300SL coupe that clocked 150.647 m.p.h. and he came back this year with the Mercedes-Benz engine replaced by a 6½-litre V8 Chrysler engine, suitably souped, and clocked 180.000 m.p.h. In the Specials, or Streamliner category, and many of these cars are as well designed as the M.G. record-breakers, a supercharged Morris Minor-engined car did 111.145 m.p.h. in one direction, records having to be established in two directions. A 4-litre Plymouth-engined streamliner did 258.249 m.p.h., which heralded the appearance of the really serious Bonneville contenders. Last year the Shadoff Special with three Chevrolet V8 engines, fuel injection, free-fuel and every other known tuning device was timed at 272.930 m.p.h. This year it was in new hands and the three Chevrolet motors had been replaced by two supercharged Chrysler engines enlarged to over seven litres each; It was a bit temperamental but on one run was timed at 289.150 m.p.h., and then there was a big bang.
The climax of the week was undoubtedly the tests made by Mickey Thompson with his Land Speed Record car, “Challenger I.” Although this car is often described as a back-yard Hot-Rod, with its four Pontiac V8 engines, and four-wheel drive, it is actually a seriously constructed Land Speed Record car. Capt. G. E. T. Eyston, who held the World’s Record at one time with his twin-engined Thunderbolt, saw the car and praised its construction and design most highly. Unlike Eyston and Cobb, who sat in front of their engines, Thompson sits well behind his, in what is termed a sling-shot cockpit well behind the rear axle, in the streamlined tail-fin. In a preliminary canter across the Speed Week course he clocked 266 m.p.h., and then he was timed on a long course, and the speeds were as follows: — The first flying ¼-mile: 274; first mile: 286; second mile: 313; and the third flying mile: 332 m.p.h. At the end of the Speed Week he ran again and set the Open record for the Bonneville Nationals to 330.512 m.p.h. and in one direction he recorded a highest speed of 362.318 m.p.h. In September, while B.M.C. were breaking records with their streamliners, Thompson made a try on the Land Speed Record and approached very closely to 370 m.p.h., but could not reach anywhere near his hoped-for 400 m.p.h., that is if you can honestly say that 370 does not approach 400. It seems that all he lacked is sheer b.h.p. and once again Capt. Eyston, who was at Bonneville looking after Castrol oil interests for B.M.C., confirmed that Thompson was no wild Hot-Rodder as depicted in the dailies, but a serious-minded man, and if he can find some more powerful engines for his “Challenger I” then Cobb’s record of 394 m.p.h. might well be broken. — D. S. J.