Comparative speeds — car v. aeroplane

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Having devoted considerable space to the Air Speed Record and having made the point in connection therewith that it was a fallacy that, for some time in the between-war years, racing cars or Land Speed Record cars were faster than aeroplanes, a few further observations seem called for. Writing of the first post-WWI “Aerial Derby” in Motor Sport for May 1981, I concluded the article with a little table comparing the speeds of those racing aeroplanes of 1919 to 1923 with the fastest Brooklands racing cars and the LSR speeds from 1929-1965, compared to those for the ASR. In all cases, the advantage of pace was with the flying machines. . . . 

However, another aspect of this subject emerges, that of how the top Service aircraft compared to the racing motor-car. Confining ourselves to the fastest of the RAF fighters and the Brooklands lap-record seems a fair way of resolving things, in discovering whether or not those young fighter-pilots of peacetime had the edge over those who disported themselves round and round Brooklands’ concrete when it came to claims of sheer speed. 

Before we embark on this comparison, let it be remembered that whereas motor racing was on the upsurge after the war, the RAF was in a very different plight. The war-strength was 188 Operational Squadrons with 3,300 first-line aeroplanes at their disposal, and another 18,500 in reserve. To administer to these machines there were 291,000 officers and airmen. However, by the end of 1919 all that had changed. There were but two Home Operational Squadrons, and personnel had been drastically reduced, by a total of 259,500. 

Certainly by early 1920 the total of 12 RAF Squadrons (ten of which had been serving abroad) had risen to 25 and by the autumn of 1924 another 18 Squadrons had been formed. But the reduction by 145 Operational Squadrons in six years hardly encouraged the depleted Aircraft Industry to experiment with new types, and existing Service machines were long retained as our means of defence and attack. This must have retarded development, against the efforts of even amateur racing-motorists to go ever quicker than before. 

The years 1918 to 1936 were those of the biplanes. The Armistice saw the Sopwith Snipe, a wood and fabric single-seater powered by a 230 h.p. Bentley rotary engine and armed with two Vickers machine-guns, as the replacement for the war-time Sopwith Camel. The Snipe remained in service until 1926. It had a top speed of 121 m.p.h. at 21,000 feet. Its companion at the time was the famous Bristol Fighter, and although this was a two-seater used then not as a fighter but as an Army Co-operation machine or as a trainer, its 280 h.p. Rolls-Royce Falcon III engine pushed it along at up to 125 m.p.h. at sea-level. So at this time such aeroplanes, loaded with Service equipment, held their own with racing cars, the best lap at Brooklands by the 300 h.p. aero-engine Fiat being at 123.39 m.p.h. in 1922. 

In 1924 the splendid Gloster Grebe single-seater fighter entered RAF service. Although still of wood and fabric construction, it could be flown at 152 m.p.h. at sea-level and at 145 m.p.h. at 10,000 feet if the 400 h.p. Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar IV radial engine was opened right up. The Armstrong Whitworth Siskin III that entered Squadron service at the same time as the Grebe was much slower. But a year later, in 1925, the all-metal but fabric-covered Siskin IIIA was a few m.p.h. quicker than a Grebe at sea-level, if rather slower at 10,000 feet. So already the racing cars were being out-paced. In 1925 the Brooklands lap-record was under 130 m.p.h., and even Campbell’s big aero-engined LSR Sunbeam was at that time officially some five m.p.h. slower than a Siskin. 

By 1925, when the 4-litre V12 Sunbeam had put the LSR to 152.33 m.p.h. for Segrave, the revolutionary Fairey Fox day-bomber was than the fighters, which, embarrassingly, could not catch this sleek two-seater bi-plane with its neatly-cowled 480 h.p. Curtiss D12 engine. 

First flown in January 1925, the Fairey Fox went into service at Andover, the envy of other Squadrons, in the summer of 1925 and proved able to fly at 156½ m.p.h., losing only 6½ m.p.h at 10,000 feet. This opened wide the eyes of Service chiefs and, with the growing threat of war, led to the development of really fast interceptor-fighters. However, it was 1931 before the Hawker Fury biplane became the first RAF fighter to exceed 200 m.p.h. (207 m.p.h. at 14,000 feet), using a 525 h.p. Rolls-Royce Kestrel 11S engine. As Segrave and the crude twin-engined Sunbeam had officially exceeded 200 m.p.h. in 1927, Service aeroplanes were now behind LSR cars in speed, but far faster than other racing cars confined to tracks, as would be expected. 

It took until 1939 for RAF monoplane fighters to exceed 300 m.p.h. for the first time, the Hawker Hurricane I doing 316 m.p.h. at 17,500 feet on 1,030 R-R h.p. and the Supermarine Spitfire I 355 m.p.h. at 19,000 feet with the same power R-R Merlin engine. Whereas Campbell had exceeded 300 m.p.h. on land by 1935. 

At Brooklands, when Cobb and the Napier-Railton put the ultimate lap-record to 143.44 m.p.h. in 1935, young service pilots were going very much quicker, over the Track and elsewhere, in their Bristol Bulldogs and various types of Hawker biplanes. 

By then the training was in earnest and I am told that the more carefree days of RAF flying were nearly over. Perhaps this is why, regrettably, no one remains to tell me of the earlier days, when life in the RAF or RAFVR must have been sheer bliss, with aerobatics over the girl-friends’ houses, the excitement of the occasional forced-landing, the illicit flights to favourite places of relaxation, often with very unusual and interesting cars and motorcycles at the aerodromes as ground-transport. If anyone does recall these days, we would like very much to hear from them. — W.B.