In 1935, Malcolm Campbell became the first man on Earth to drive a vehicle at 300mph (483kph). It was the 39th time the land speed record had been broken since it was first set in 1898 and Campbell had reached nearly 10 times the speed of that inaugural run. The challenge had moved from provincial French roads to the vast, open salt flats of the United States. In the process it had evolved from a historical footnote to a prestigious international event that captured the public's imagination. Aircraft technology had propelled cars to speeds that took the breath away, and the quest for land speed records played a key part in making the 20th Century one of scientific progress.
As the speed increased, challengers were not so much competing against each other but against the obstacles of physics. While power supplied the means, it was aerodynamics and engineering ingenuity that were often the vital ingredients for a winning formula. The unquenchable thirst for speed saw designers rewrite the rulebook as they strove to turn seemingly impossible dreams into record-breaking realities. Their success was far more than personal glory; it was no less than a vindication of the philosophy of the modern age: that science and technology were the blueprints of progress. The record-breaking cars of the last 80 years read like a roll call of Marvel super heroes, but their deeds were not the stuff of juvenile fantasies. They were very real.
On the eve of the Second World War, the land speed record was held by the Englishman John Cobb and his turtle-shaped Railton Special, the first vehicle to feature four-wheel drive. It hit a speed of 369.79 mph (595kph), eclipsing both Campbell's Bluebird and George Eyston's Thunderbolt. Using superchargers and the latest aero engines, these cars generated over 4,000hp, but the era of the wheel-driven record was coming to an end. The next generation of challengers would dispense with conventional car configurations in the quest to conquer 500mph (805kph). Once again, it was war that would develop the technology to enable the land speed competitors to break the existing records.
By the end of the war, the turbine had been developed for the first generation of jet aircraft. In 1947, one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the modern era occurred - a feat that few had doubted was possible - when a jet plane broke the sound barrier. The gauntlet had been laid down and a new generation of challengers sought to become the first to go supersonic.
It was not until the early 1960s that jet-powered cars were developed to drive the land speed record into the modern era. Britain and the US once more vied for supremacy, although this time playing under different rules. The American challenger was the Spirit of America, a jet-propelled, three-wheel bullet-shaped car, powered by a Sabre jet engine. It was an ambitious project, with the jet itself costing US$650,000 ,and, in August 1963, Craig Breedlove recorded a speed of 407mph (655kph).
However, the record did not stand for very long as it fell foul of the regulations by not being wheel-driven or having the full complement of wheels. It had been an enormous investment to hold the record for the world's fastest tricycle. Instead the record went to a Briton, Donald Campbell, who emulated his father by claiming the land speed record. His Bluebird CN7 was powered by a turbine but in a traditional wheel-driven configuration. It was designed to reach 500mph (804kph) but in June 1964 only narrowly passed Cobb's record with an attained speed of 403mph (648kph).
Considerable pressure was brought upon motorsport's governing body, the FIA, who decided to create a separate record for wheel-driven cars. The Bluebird was to be the last wheel-driven holder of the overall record. The most fiercely contested years in land speed were in 1964 and 1965, with Campbell facing the American challenge of Breedlove and his compatriot Art Arfons. Arfons broke the record three times with his Green Monster, raising his top speed from 434mph (698kph) to 576mph (926kph) but a new, four-wheeled Sonic 1 version of the Spirit of America - with a more powerful jet engine from an F-4 fighter - saw Breedlove come out on top, hitting 600mph (965kph) in November 1965.
This record was now tantalisingly close to the holy grail of breaking the sound barrier, yet it would take a further 32 years for the ultimate accolade to be claimed. The first attempt came in 1970, in the guise of Gary Gabelich's liquefied natural gas-powered Blue Flame. Sponsored by the gas industry, it surpassed Breedlove's record and became the first car to travel faster than 1,000kph. Its record of 622.407mph (1,001.67kph) was to stand for 13 years and Gabelich was to be the last American holder of the record, for the British were on the charge once again.
The British "Thrust" project began in the early 1980s, led by the enigmatic Richard Noble. It had one simple purpose: Mach 1, the speed of sound. Named after the 19th-century Austrian physicist Ernst Mach, the speed of sound at sea level was discovered to be 761mph (1,225kph), while at an altitude of 20,000 feet (that's more than 6,000 metres), it's considerably less at 1,062kph. It was difficult enough to get a jet fighter to reach those speeds, so keeping a wheeled vehicle on the ground seemed utterly unfeasible.
Nevertheless, the quest to produce the first supersonic car had almost achieved mythical status in the international media, scientific community and the public's imagination. The jet-powered records of the 1960s had suggested it was possible but, until the sound of a sonic boom was heard, it remained only a theoretical possibility. There was no doubt that, if it were to be achieved, it would be the greatest scientific accomplishment since the Moon landings. Fame and fortune awaited the first person to achieve it.
In his jet-powered Thrust2 car, Noble had set a new record of 633.468mph (1,019.5kph) in 1983 but, as soon as he clambered out of the cockpit, he set his sights on the ultimate goal. Ironically, Thrust itself was not the challenge but rather aerodynamics and stability. In 1992, using a super-computer and simulations from the supersonic Bloodhound missile, the team began designing ThrustSSC. The challenge was considerable. For a start, at speeds above 750mph(1207kph), gravity could not be relied upon to keep the car on the ground, creating the very real threat of it simply taking off. The dynamics of air pressure and flow at transonic speeds also presented the risk of buffeting, which would limit speed and present an acute safety risk.
Twin Rolls-Royce Spey engines delivered 100,000 bhp that could propel ThrustSSC from 0-600mph (965.6kph) in 16 seconds and cover 11.3km from start to stop in only one minute. But despite this awesome power, it was stability and downforce that would ensure the claiming of the speed record. After five years of development, the fateful day came on October 18, 1997, when Andy Green of the RAF (Britain's air force) broke the sound barrier with a speed of 763mph (1,227.9kph). The sonic boom can be heard in footage of the run and aerial photographs show the ripple effect cascading across the desert as Mach 1 was achieved.
With Mach 1 in the bag, the benchmark is 1,000mph (1,609.34kph) - faster than the speed a bullet leaves a gun - and teams from Britain, US and Australia are busy developing cars, with each project costing up to $20m (Dh73.44m). The British attempt, once again led by Richard Noble, aims not only to claim a new record but also to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists. It is planned for 2013 but one of its challengers is the Aussie Invader, a 200,000hp car being prepared for an attempt at the record a year later. The first challenge, however, will come from the American Eagle project, which is currently carrying out high-speed runs in the Nevada desert.
Whether the record set by Noble's ThrustSSC will ever be beaten remains to be seen. But if the history of the land speed record teaches us anything, it is that science and ingenuity have always found answers to seemingly insurmountable obstacles to driving faster than ever before. As long as a desire for progress inspires scientific and technological breakthroughs, there will always be the will to win, to take world records and smash them into oblivion. This is one race that may never run its course.