The Quest to be Quick

Ever since watches allowed us to measure time, the battle to break records has raged fiercely. What is it that urges us to keep driving faster? Charles Jennings straps in for a look at the daredevils who worship at the altar of speed

At some point in the next year or so, the Bloodhound SSC team will attempt to break the world land speed record by driving a kind of car/jet plane/rocket ship hybrid at something over the speed of sound. Assuming all goes well, this British outfit (sponsored by Rolex, among others) will then try to drive the Bloodhound at 1,000 miles per hour, on land, and come back in one piece. “If people ask what’s the biggest limit on the land speed record, it isn’t power; it’s slowing down, because you run out of land,” says Mark Chapman, the project’s chief engineer. Once it has hit 1,000mph, Bloodhound SSC will have five and a half miles of track left and about a minute to slow down—enough to make a U-turn before it reaches the end of the track. At which point it will have rather less than an hour in which to start all over again. For the bid to count, it will have to repeat the run in the opposite direction.

The Bloodhound project is an enterprise groaning under the weight of seeming impossibilities. But arguably the most surprising thing of all is the fact that when we hear about Bloodhound, we tend to say, “Oh yes, another attempt at the speed record!” It’s crazy, but it’s not abnormal—because that’s what people do: try to go really fast.

It has not always been this way. For thousands of years, a man’s top speed was the top speed of a galloping horse on which he happened to be mounted—something over 40mph. If he had to do the running himself, he might hit 20mph for a few seconds before dropping to less than half that. Earthbound, we longed to be like birds—swift, distance-annihilating creatures, inheritors of pure speed. The reality was that for most of us, most of the time, we were stuck at walking pace.

We needed technology in order to advance. And when that technology arrived, what form did it take? The railway locomotive. Robert Stephenson’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first properly modern train service in the world, opened in 1830 and offered the most democratically thrilling experience imaginable. All you needed was a ticket and you could hurtle through time and space—as Thomas Creevey MP found out. “The quickest motion is to me frightful: it is really flying and it is impossible to divest yourself of the notion of instant death to all upon the least accident happening,” he wrote. The fact that Creevey was doing, at best, 30mph is incidental. Speed is about perception as well as absolute velocity: 300mph in a modern aeroplane feels slow; 10 knots in a yacht feels pretty fast. For Creevey, seated in a shaking, bouncing, airless, teetering carriage, it was as if the world was about to end.

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Left to right: the Shepherd clock at Greenwich; a Liverpool and Manchester Railway ticket; the railway at Chat Moss, near Liverpool, 1831

Virtually the same journey could, however, be a sensual delight. Fanny Kemble—an offspring of the famous acting family—travelled the same route, but was seated outside, on the engine driver’s platform, courtesy of Stephenson himself. She was in ecstasies. “I stood up and with my bonnet off, ‘drank the air before me’. The wind … absolutely weighed my eyelids down … When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful and strange beyond description.”

Speed not only transforms space, it transforms time. Land journeys which used to take days were now measured in fractions of days. By the 1840s, it was possible to travel from London to Bristol in a mere five hours: Concorde for the third-class traveller. The only problem with this miracle was that it revealed how time itself was a malleable concept. You might leave London at midday, count five hours precisely on your pocket watch and get off at Bristol—only to find the station clock showing, not 5pm, but, quite correctly, ten to five, the local time: Bristol being west of London and therefore later in all things.

Everywhere was in a slightly different time zone from everywhere else. To help overcome the problem, Benjamin Vulliamy produced rather a nice pocket watch showing two local times: ideal for the pressed industrialist who commuted between cities in different parts of the country. Confusion reigned until, one by one, the railway companies adopted London time as the standard throughout their networks—London time being set by a magnificent Shepherd master clock in the Greenwich Royal Observatory and transmitted by electric telegraph along the train tracks. Which meant that everyone else fell in with the same system: by 1855, 98 per cent of public clocks in Britain were showing Greenwich Mean Time.

And so we entered the modern world, a world of technology-enhanced speed measured against a standardized timing network. And for decades, steam trains were the pace-setters over short distances. In 1904, a Great Western locomotive, City of Truro, claimed to be the first to beat 100mph, timed by stopwatch—possibly a railway-issue John Walker. Over a distance, the North Eastern Railway in 1888 had transported passengers from London to Edinburgh in nine and a half hours, timed by the standard telegraphic system. You couldn’t go any quicker than that.

By the turn of the century, the only other record-breakers with an equivalent hold on the public imagination were the great transatlantic liners. These leviathans battled across the North Atlantic at 22, 28, 32 knots, a steady, incremental increase—in order to claim the Blue Riband for fastest scheduled crossing. Which was a magnificent thing in its own right, but which, as with train travel, had less and less to do with a perception of absolute velocity and more to do with sheer mechanical efficiency.

“All travel becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity,” John Ruskin once claimed. Yes, it was possible to sense the power of a great liner underway, but, as Harold Nicolson grumbled while travelling on the pre-war Normandie (a boat as big as the National Gallery which recorded a top speed of 37.1mph): “All this speed fuss is rather nonsense. An extra day makes very little difference and going at this pace has very definite disadvantages.” Such as? “In the first place, there is the vibration and in the second place, the wind … the rush of air on the sun deck is really terrible.” The visceral thrill of speed had been compromised by the technology which made it possible. Trains and ships may have become ridiculously quick, but their passengers were either being isolated from the experience or irritated by it.

What saved the dream of speed? What made it sexy again? The internal combustion engine.

The motor car, that most disruptive of innovations, was intimate, personal, as bare to the elements of experience as its owner wanted to make it. It was selfish; it was the opposite of the railway’s stuffy mediation of the sensual world. As one early motor-racing groupie declared, “The roar of the exhaust became a shriek and the song of the engine rose exultantly … The gale tore at my hair and my nose became blue, but I wanted to sing or shout or do something completely and gloriously mad.” This new kind of speed was captured in Jacques Henri Lartigue’s photographs; it was painted by Giacomo Marinetti, king of the Futurists, who announced that “The world’s wonder has been enriched by a fresh beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car with its trunk adorned by great exhaust pipes like snakes with an explosive breath … is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” 

This dawn was heralded by such monsters as the Renault 30, the Mors 70, the Mercedes 90—vehicles which weighed as much as a gun carriage and could reach 100mph on the open road. A British madman called Ernest Eldridge, driving the 21-litre Fiat Mephistofeles, went for the world land speed record at Arpajon in 1924. To do this, he had to cover a measured mile (twice) and survive. “The great red car”, an onlooker recorded, approached the starting line “at nearly 150 mph, skidding continuously and violently and taking the entire width of the road to skid. At this horrifying spectacle, the crowd left the rails as one man and took cover.” As it happened, Eldridge took the record at just over 145mph—and became the last person to do so on an open road. From then on, the record-breakers had to take to vast beaches at low tide; then inaccessible salt pans; then the remotest deserts; just to reach a number. The number had become everything.

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Posters for Seagrave and Campbell’s record-breaking attempts from 1927, 1929 and 1931

For much of the 1920s, that number was 200mph. People had died, trying and failing to reach that number. Dario Resta, attempting a whole set of speed records, was killed in a crash at Brooklands; John Parry-Thomas died in a spectacularly messy accident at Pendine Sands. No fighter plane then in service could get above 200mph—so attempting it on the ground was doubly suicidal. It was held that even if you could get a car to reach that speed and not crash, the human form would simply disintegrate under the stresses involved. There was something forbidden about it—the simplicity of the number concealed an occult menace. 

And then, in March 1927, the dashing Major Henry Segrave, Britain’s first great speed king, broke this barrier in a huge, red contrivance, a car as big as a railway locomotive, containing two Sunbeam Bomber aero-engines, a primitive chain drive to the back wheels, a seat, and Major Segrave himself. The venue was the beach at Daytona, Florida. With the tide out, this offered 10 miles of flat sand as well as plenty of room for the thousands of spectators who camped out on the dunes to watch. Despite the fact that he actually melted his brakes while slowing down from the first half of the record run and had the lenses stolen from his goggles by a souvenir-hunter, Segrave was relaxed after the event. While headlines yelled “Human Bullet Flashes over Sands in Blur”; and “USA Feels Pretty Slow”, he said, with sangfroid, “Honestly, these Americans are wonderful.”

Yes, there were equivalent air speed records—the famous Schneider Trophy keeping flight in the news (340mph was possible by 1930); and the water speed record was as keenly contested as the one on land (150mph in the same year, by Segrave himself—who died on Lake Windermere, trying to raise his own record). But a car, even a freakishly huge one-off, was something you could relate to, something whose mastery of the physical world you could understand. Boats and planes were things seen at a distance, in unfamiliar media. At Daytona Beach, on the other hand, it was a hypertrophied version of the tourer in your garage which thundered right by you at 200mph.

It was an increasingly professionalized undertaking, however. The record cars were no longer home-built specials or tuned-up racers, but were designed from scratch by specialist engineers; they were sponsored by the big oil and tyre com-panies; and they were recorded over the measured mile by a new breed of experts in high-speed timing (assisted by Longines for land speed records, Omega for track and field, Vacheron Constantin for water speed records, TAG Heuer for Formula One—they all had their own areas of interest). Indeed, in a variation of the broken-wire electrical timing system introduced earlier in the century by Longines, the timekeepers at Daytona laid contact wires in the ground—a set at the start of the measured mile and a set at the end—connected to fully automatic timing devices kept in a specially-built wooden eyrie at one side of the track. The only snag was the spectators who would wander across the sands for a better look, crossing and re-crossing the timing wires, creating clusters of false readings until the police banned them for their own safety, as well as for the sanity of the timekeepers.

And it was a Brits-only affair. The Americans had a few doomed tries, but all the way through to the 1960s, the land speed record went to Henry Segrave (again, at 231mph, in 1929), Sir Malcolm Campbell (301mph in 1935), George Eyston (357mph, in 1939), John Cobb (394mph, in 1947) and Donald Campbell (403mph, in 1964). Malcolm Campbell, the most financially driven and promotionally savvy of all the record-breakers, almost died in his attempt at the fabulously compelling 300mph—not in a crash, but of exasperation. He flogged the final, five-ton incarnation of his famous Bluebird across the baking salt flats at Bonneville, Utah, practically asphyxiating himself in the process—only to be told by the team that his average had come out at 299.9mph. “Can’t you make it flat 300?” he begged.

Well, no, they couldn’t. The state-of-the-art electronic-eye system they were using was temperamental, but when it worked it was accurate to within a hundredth of a second. The old wire system fromDaytona was neither swift enough in its responses for the latest record cars; nor was it suitable for the conditions at Bonneville, where it was physically impossible to lay the wires in the rock-hard salt. A beam of light, however, directed into a sensor on the far side of the track, only had to be interrupted by a moving vehicle—even one travelling at 300mph—to set the timing mechanism going. And while Omega had made great inroads in the world of athletics timing, it was Longines who would assist with the optical equipment that made ultra-fast land-speed timing possible. No, it wasn’t infallible: the electronic timers sometimes refused to co-operate; and the electronic beam could be flummoxed if the object it was watching for was the wrong colour.

In this case, though, everything had worked out. The timing devices had picked up Campbell’s deep cobalt Bluebird; and delivered their verdict. Just as Campbell was trudging back to the bar on the Nevada side of the state line, an official came up and explained that the correct time for the second measured mile was actually 12.08 seconds, rather than the 12.18 they had initially snatched from their instruments. In other words, Campbell had averaged 301mph. “To hell with it!” Campbell bellowed. “You have ruined what should have been my final and finest achievement!”

Once the dust had settled and Campbell’s temper restored, it became clear that not only was 301mph his finest achievement, but that it represented a high point for all land speed record-breakers. After that, public interest started to fizzle. Not only were the record attempts becoming increasingly abstract—situated in the middle of nowhere—they were using increasingly otherworldly machinery: vehicles such as John Cobb’s ultra-clever Railton Special, which looked like a flying saucer on the surface of the moon.

On top of which, there was a new, more beguiling speed to attain: the speed of sound. And for that, you had to have a jet plane.

Speed had made the imaginative leap into the skies. It had always been there, of course, but only for a select few—pioneers such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote, back in the earliest days of aviation, of being “pulled up to 3,000 feet in two minutes by the 500-horsepower motor. It danced, it pushed, it tossed … Ah! Là là!” Or Nevil Shute—designer of the R100 Airship and bestselling novelist—who wrote besottedly about his WW1 Sopwith Camel Clerget: “She would climb at nearly a thousand feet a minute … She would do 110 miles an hour. She would be faster, I thought, than anything on the Western Front … ” This kind of air speed was an experience confined to the freemasonry of pilots—not their passengers, for whom any early flight was a punishment involving deafening noise, cramped conditions and vomit-inducing turbulence.

And in 1947, Chuck Yeager (famously wearing a Rolex) broke the sound barrier in the superb-looking Bell X-1—a rocket with sawn-off wings and a dazzling orange paint job. From then on, a new imagery took hold, helped along by movies such as Jet Pilot and, more significantly, The Sound Barrier—which enshrined the mis-conceptions that a) a Brit first broke the sound barrier and b) in order to get out of fatal transonic instability, you had to push the controls forward.

On the other hand, The Sound Barrier was a great advertisement for the power and danger of the new jets, a world of sensations which Tom Wolfe summed up as hurtling “twenty-five thousand feet up into the sky so suddenly that you felt not like a bird but like a trajectory, yet with full control, full control of five tons of thrust, all of which flowed from your will”.

This became the speed of the late 20th century, its embodiment—more so than cars, more even than space rockets. It had taken no more than 37 years to advance from a 100mph Sopwith Camel to a Super Sabre which could fly at close to 900mph; and then on to the Lockheed Blackbird, which could do better than three times the speed of sound. All the action took place miles above our heads, only an occasional sonic boom suggesting what was going on; but, as an apotheosis of man’s ability to be the fastest thing alive, it was hard to beat. The car, stuck for decades at 400mph on a piece of dried salt, was starting to look the way the trains had in 1910.

And yet. The genius of technology once again brought diminishing returns. By the 1980s, Concorde could carry 100 passengers in supreme comfort at twice the speed of sound: where was the thrill in that? The TGV and the bullet trains were just as bad, while four people seated in a Bentley Mulsanne would swear that 130mph was actually 70mph. Motorcycle sales accordingly went up, as people tried to reconnect with the true meaning of speed. The Golf GTI was everywhere. And in 1983, Richard Noble, entrepreneur and all-round British daredevil, brought the land speed record back to life in a 10-ton jet-propelled car capable of 650mph—the same Richard Noble who is now project director of the Bloodhound SSC team, and one of the people to ask that question: what would it take to reaffirm, once and for all, man’s right to travel inhumanly fast across the surface of the globe? Which is where we came in.

The Bloodhound project has been going for nine years now—“A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” according to Noble, “to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.” The team has overcome everything from the most advanced technological and construction difficulties to identifying a place big enough to run the car (after a two-year search, they found it in South Africa), to working out the world’s most reliable timing system. After all, Bloodhound will cover the measured mile—the patch of land which counts towards the record—in a handful of seconds. There will be precious few opportunities for a re-take. The timing set-up on the ground will use the latest high-speed light sensors and some very bespoke software. In the car itself, Rolex has built an incredibly tough, reliable, on-board timing and speed-keeping system which will draw information from GPS satellites (at a rate of 50 readings a second) as well as from the car’s own sensors—and display it back to Andy Green, the driver, using high-tech versions of old-fashioned dials: the kind that Segrave or Campbell would have recognized. “Analogue displays are just easier to read. It’s a fact,” says Green.

You might wonder: what’s in it for Rolex, apart from the technical satisfaction of creating something that works in the outrageous conditions Bloodhound will encounter? Well, there’s a bit of history—dare one say it, a tiny bit of sentiment, too. What was Sir Malcolm Campbell wearing on his wrist when he finally broke the 300mph barrier in 1935? A Rolex Oyster—“Still keeping perfect time”, as he cabled from Utah. Rolex has form, in other words; and, as Green notes, Campbell was “the most successful world-land-speed-record-setting individual of all time”. So there’s a fit.

After reaching his 300mph goal, what did Campbell do? “I have promised my wife, I would give it up once and for all,” he announced. Which he did. Back in the 21st century, we shall have to see what happens once Bloodhound has done the business and reached yet another magic number. Go for something even bigger? It’s a reasonable bet.   

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Photograph by Jamie McGregor Smith

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