The bold quest to be the fastest Speed: The National Motor Museum in England pays tribute to speed pioneers. Drivers still race to break the sound barrier on land.


BEAULIEU, England -- They sure don't make insurance underwriters like Malcolm Campbell anymore.

Campbell pioneered British libel insurance for newspapers, searched for treasure in Africa and the Pacific, survived three plane crashes and spent the years between world wars pursuing the most hair-raising record on four wheels.

He was the fastest driver on Earth, holder of the land speed record.

The world inhabited by Campbell and the other speed pioneers is on display here at the National Motor Museum, where four gigantic vehicles -- more like torpedoes on tires -- used by Campbell and others to establish their records are displayed.

The showpiece is a 1920 Sunbeam with hand brake, hood tied down by leather straps and open cockpit. Campbell drove it to two records.

Asked constantly why he drove so fast, Campbell, a cold-blooded competitor who earned a knighthood for his record-breaking and who cracked 300 miles per hour in 1935, wrote: "Ambition."

For the past few months, the race has been to break the sound barrier on land, 741.07 miles per hour.

The rules require consecutive mile runs -- one in each direction within an hour. Teams from the United States, Britain and Australia have taken to salt flats and deserts and spent millions ,, of dollars. Among those vying for the prize is current record-holder Richard Noble, the British businessman who clocked 633.47 miles an hour in 1983.

The speeds may sound ridiculous to someone stuck in traffic. But the record is kind of quaint in an age of routine jet travel and space exploration.

"You can't see the speed of space travel," says author David Tremayne, who has followed the speed quest for two decades. "But on land, you really can see people go fast.

"There is a thread all the way through the land speed record history. These guys are all adventurers. They're all usually pretty colorful people. There's a sort of arrogance about it, but a nice arrogance of, 'I want to be the quickest.' For these people, it's their mountain. It must be the most exhilarating thing to do."

You want characters? This record has them all.

There's Art Arfons of Ohio, who paid $5,000 for a damaged Air Force jet engine and rebuilt it without a manual. When he ignited the 17,500 horsepower engine in his back yard, Arfons incinerated his shed, trees, shrubs and fence and terrified almost everyone within a half-mile.

But he had the vital piece for his Green Monster -- a missile that clocked more than 500 mph in the 1960s.

Now 70, Arfons is still in the transportation business. He is a star on the tractor pull circuit.

Another old-timer who should know better is Craig Breedlove, a 59-year-old grandfather and former land speed record holder, who recently survived a crash at more than 600 miles per hour in his car Spirit of America.

But that crash was nothing like the one he endured in the 1960s, when his brakes burned out at more than 500 mph. Breedlove and car smashed into a telephone pole, did a few rolls and landed in a lake. After swimming ashore, he reportedly said: "And for my next trick I'll set myself afire."

Compared to the two Americans, Noble is dispassionate and coolly scientific. He finished off his 1983 record run by waving the Union Jack and declaring he had done it "for Britain and for the hell of it."

When this quest for speed began, people could cycle faster than they could drive cars.

On Dec. 18, 1898, Compte Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat bent low over the steering wheel of his electric car and ambled on a two- kilometer course outside Paris at an average speed of 39.24 miles an hour. A record was born.

Among the early speed merchants were automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, who slipped and slid 91.37 miles an hour across a frozen Lake St. Clair in Michigan, and millionaire William Vanderbilt, who hit 92.30 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

But the golden age of auto speed was between world wars, when people hungered for heroes who overcame seemingly larger-than-life obstacles. At a time when there were few paved roads, and virtually no speed limits, the speed demons boosted the record from 156.03 miles an hour in 1920 to 369.70 in 1939.

Of course, there was plenty of danger.

A heavily built Welshman named Parry Thomas became the first fatality in 1927, when the steering chain snapped on his car named Babs, and he rolled end over end on the Pendine Sands in Wales. Babs was buried on the beach. Forty-two years later, the smashed car was exhumed along with Thomas' coat and driving helmet.

Another British racing legend who died young was Henry Seagrave. He set his land speed records in two remarkable cars that are at the museum: a blood red 1927 Sunbeam and a futuristic 1929 Golden Arrow. Seagrave didn't die on land, though. He was killed just after setting a water speed record on Lake Windermere.

But the greatest driver of them all was able to leave the sport alive. Malcolm Campbell, born into wealth, lived as fast as he raced. As a child, he was fined for riding a bicycle at 27 miles an hour while his hands were in his pockets. In World War I, he was a dispatch rider and later a member of the Royal Flying Corps. During the early 1920s, he built an airplane but kept crashing it into the Kent countryside.

He found his niche racing -- first motorcycles, then cars. In 1923, he joined the race for the land speed record by buying a record-breaking car, the 1920 Sunbeam. Five times he set records, developing and modifying new cars he christened with the name Bluebird. His exploits earned him fame and cash as a pitchman for an oil company. After beating the 300 mile per hour barrier, he tired of the chase on land and took to the water, where he set three speed marks.

After Campbell's death in 1948, his son Donald took up the family quest to be the fastest on the planet. He, too, named his cars Bluebird.

Unlike his father, who was jaunty and charismatic, Donald Campbell was slight and studious, the head of a small engineering company. He was also behind the times, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars developing an 8,000-pound turbine car, just as jets were about to alter the speed landscape.

In July 1964, Donald Campbell got his land speed record by streaking through a dry lake bed in Australia, hitting 403.10 miles per hour.

Yet even that moment of glory was somewhat tarnished. The world hardly noticed. Breedlove and the other American hot rodders already were proving that jet cars would run faster than the old-fashioned Bluebird, which now sits like a dinosaur inside the National Motor Museum.

Donald Campbell would turn his attention to the water speed record, setting one mark. His pursuit of speed eventually killed him. On Jan. 3, 1967, he died on a second run on Lake Coniston as he tried to break the 300 mph barrier. Frogmen recovered his helmet, the steering wheel, the seat belt, even his lucky mascot doll. But they never recovered his body.

His death served as a symbol of a bygone age. The Daily Mail of London wrote: "Some people considered him an anachronism trying to break speed records on an English lake when spacemen were circling the Earth. But for Campbell this was his life. And his death."

Pub Date: 12/23/96


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