Ernest Eldridge: fearless thrill-seeker from land speed record's golden age

Land Speed Record News

The irrepressible Ernest Eldridge was an unstoppable force in matters of velocity, becoming the last man to set a land speed record on an open road in 1924


Land speed record breaker Ernest Eldridge – seen here on right shaking hands with JG Parry-Thomas – was "feisty and marched to the beat of his own drum"


His mood might be imagined.

Having dashed overnight directly from a Brooklands race meeting at the behest of the Moto-Cycle Club de France – docking at Dieppe at 6am on Sunday 6 July and arriving at the Arpajon venue, 20 miles south of Paris, six hours later – he had summoned courage and plunged immediately into action.

Spectators were taken aback as his aero-engined ‘monster’ gobbled every precious inch of the narrow road; allegedly they sought salvation in the ditches and behind the trees lining it.

A land speed record resulted: a whisker over 147mph, according to some reports.


Mephistopheles in 1924

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Until, that is, a pernickety rival pointed out that Fiat Mephistopheles – collector of eternally damned souls – possessed no reverse gear and therefore was ineligible.

Ernest Eldridge was feisty and marched to the beat of his own drum – to which several newspaper courtroom snippets attest: speeding; driving without headlights; swerving onto the pavement to evade a beckoning policeman; and discharging firearms by the roadside.

Much of this can be put down to youthful exuberance – Eldridge skipped Sixth Form at Harrow to drive ambulances on the Western Front. But he would be up to his old tricks even in the aftermath of the huge crash early in 1927 that rendered him comatose for days and cost him the (slowly recovering) sight in his right eye: no headlights; collision with a tramcar, etc.

From the archive

Born in July 1897 into Hampstead wealth and comfort, Eldridge had burst onto the speed scene in 1922 – the year in which he stepped from an aeroplane crash and also reportedly lost tens of thousands on the turn of a card – aboard a 1907 Isotta Fraschini, its chassis stretched to accommodate a six-cylinder 20.5-litre Maybach airship engine.

It was not fast enough for his liking.

So he bought for £25 the remains of the 1908 Fiat that, according to previous owner Captain John Duff, was “inclined to roguery”; its engine had blown up monumentally, almost decapitating the aforementioned.

Despite a capricious nature and lack of formal training, Eldridge was a talented engineer: the prototype garagiste in his Vauxhall Bridge Road workshop.

An extra 18 inches – using material reckoned supplied by the London General Omnibus Company – were spliced, this time to make space for a 21.7-litre Fiat A1.2 ‘six’ tweaked – four plugs per cylinder instead of two and compression raised by 0.5 to 5:1 – to give 350 horsepower at 1800rpm.

Fiat-Mephistopheles demonstrated at motor show

The fearsome Fiat Mephistopheles at a vintage motor show


Substantial by any measure – 16ft 8in long and almost 4000lb – the flywheel alone weighed 175lb, while its clutch comprised more than 50 plates.

The beast was encouragingly quicker – though gallingly beaten at Brooklands in April by the Isotta-Maybach handed a 20sec handicap – and the fearless Eldridge drove it like he stole it.

Thus, to be denied by a technicality went against his grain.

He returned to the 4.5-mile straight on the Paris-Orléans road six days after his knock-back. How Mephistopheles had been adapted to comply in that time has never been satisfactorily explained.

From the archive

But given that the 143.31mph mark to beat was that just set by French hero René Thomas in a V12 Delage, and given that hundreds of police had to be persuaded to patrol a road no longer officially closed, it’s clear that Eldridge – a Francophone who would spend much time in Paris after the opening of the nearby Montlhéry road circuit/speed bowl in October 1924 – was persuasive indeed. (His second wife was French, too. Not that he had divorced his first, English, spouse.)

With (the arguably braver) Donald Gedge, better accustomed to spindly GNs, hand-pumping fuel pressure from the passenger seat while also operating the oxygen bottle intended to generate more power, the bespectacled Eldridge – he was both younger and quicker than he looked – stepped once more unto the breach: a 145.89mph two-way average over the flying mile.

The last LSR set on a public road.

With more than a hint of devilment, he then parked the big red Fiat opposite Delage’s Paris showroom on the Champs-Élysées.


Stamp commemorating the 1924 land speed record


Eldridge, however, was much more than a speed nut with a sledgehammer: his next project would be a 1.5-litre built to the impending grand prix formula of 1926.

Mephistopheles would be sold after its honourable defeat in a £500 three-lap match race at Brooklands in July 1925 – Eldridge somehow steering low on the banking after holding a skid, so that the more modern and manageable Leyland-Thomas of JG Parry-Thomas might essay an overtake.

Eldridge’s low-slung new car featured an Amilcar chassis and supercharged DOHC conversion of Anzani’s side-valve ‘four’. He built two: a single- and a two-seater.

With no factory support, he had overstretched, bold attempts at the Italian and San Sebastián grands prix of September 1925 resulting in embarrassingly early retirements.

Undeterred, he sent both cars to the 1926 Indianapolis 500. They were no match for the specialist American track cars and again retired ignominiously.

Still he pressed on, entering the AAA Championship races on the banked board tracks of Altoona, Salem and Atlantic City. Eldridge admitted to “frightening himself silly” – each to their own! – but had at least seen the light, choosing to drive a Miller in the third of these outings.

He bought a ex-Harry Hartz version and shipped it to Europe where – in 2-litre form – he used it to set a new one-hour world record at Montlhéry on New Year’s Eve.

Eldridge wasn’t averse to attempting records on Christmas Eve either. Whatever it took.

His career, however, was soon to take a fearful twist: the Miller’s front axle broke, pitching the car into a somersault. Bold Eldridge was wearing neither seat belt nor crash helmet.

He would drive competitively again but in the main passed that baton to friend, near contemporary and fellow driver/engineer Captain George Eyston.

It was Eldridge who persuaded the latter that motor racing was a fool’s errand: good PR garnered by record-breaking not only lasted longer but also any failures tended to be swiftly forgotten.

As engineering consultant and team manager, ‘Uncle Ernest’ was fundamental to Eyston’s many successes in the Magic Midget and Magic Magnette MGs, plus the AEC diesel-powered – taken from a London bus – streamlined coupé, as well as more mundane Riley and Singer sports cars.

Their final project was the 21-litre 4wd ‘Speed of the Wind’ with which Eyston, co-driven by Bert Denly and Chris Staniland, set a new 24-hour record of 140.52mph on the flat salt of Bonneville in September 1935.


Captain George Eyston, who Eldridge would help engineer

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Eldridge and Eyston had arrived there in time to watch Malcolm Campbell to break the 300mph barrier in Bluebird.

Inspired, little doubt they would have discussed their LSR car – eventually named Thunderbolt – while waiting for the fish to bite on a downtime trip into the Utah/Nevada wilderness.

Eyston, however, would have to go it alone thereafter.

Eldridge caught a chill – some say he fell into an icy river – and pneumonia put him in a Kensington nursing home before claiming him on 27 October.

Thirty-eight years lived fast and into which he had poured heart and soul.