Since the earliest days of the 20th century, the United States has been a car culture. And one of the primary reasons for the American love affair with automobiles has been speed.
The Spirit of America, on display at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.
The first automobiles, built in Germany by Karl Friedrich Benz and Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler in 1885, had top speeds of around 25 mph. By 1902, a number of French designers, using steam or electric engines, had pushed the speed record to 75 mph.
In 1904, on a frozen lake near Detroit, Henry Ford climbed into an open-seat automobile he called the “999”, with a specially-built supersized gasoline engine, and set a new land speed record, propelling his car across the landscape at the then-astounding speed of 91.3 miles per hour. In 1906, American Fred Marriott, in a steam-driven car called the “Stanley Rocket”, became the first driver to exceed 100 mph, hitting a top speed of 127 mph. The 200 mph mark was reached in 1927 by British driver Henry Segrave in the “Mystery”.
Over the next few decades, the land speed record climbed steadily: in 1933, the “Blue Bird”, with a supercharged Rolls-Royce V12 engine, hit 272 mph, then broke 300 mph two years later. In 1947, the “Railton Mobil Special”, which used two supercharged W-12 aircraft engines, set a new land speed record of 394.17 mph. This was about as fast as a piston engine could go (it exceeded the speed of many airplanes), and John Cobb’s record would stand for over 15 years.
By 1963, though, in the quest for ever-higher speed, designers abandoned the internal combustion piston engine and instead turned to the marriage of the automobile and the jet engine. One of these was Craig Breedlove, who built a narrow aerodynamically-shaped car with three wheels that he named the “Spirit of America”. The Spirit was 38.5 feet long and had a wheelbase of 19 feet 1 inch.
As a power plant, Breedlove used a military surplus General Electric J-47 turbojet engine, the engine previously used in the Air Force’s F-86 Sabre fighter. The J-47 produced 5,200 pounds of thrust.
Testing on the new car was begun in 1962 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah–the large flat surface of the dry lake bed was one of the few places suitable for high-speed ground travel. During testing, problems developed with controlling the car, and a new steering system was added. In 1963, the Spirit of America was ready for a run at the record.
On August 5, 1963, Breedlove made his attempt. The first run was made at 90% power, and reached 388.5 mph. The next run was made at 95% thrust, and reached 407.73 mph. The Spirit of America was the first car to break 400 mph.
Breedlove’s run produced controversy, however. While the International Federation of Motorcyclists accepted the speed record, the International Federation of Automobiles did not, on the grounds that the Spirit had only three wheels, and was not therefore a “car”. It was also argued by some that the record was invalid because the jet engine in the Spirit of America did not actually power the wheels. As a result, both federations agreed that they would both accept any record accepted by the other, and established a new category for jet and rocket propelled land vehicles.
Breedlove was also facing competition. Art Arfons had built a car using the General Electric J-79 turbojet engine, which was used in the F-104 Starfighter and produced 17,500 pounds of thrust. Although the J-79’s engine manuals were still classified, Arfons had bought a scrapped engine from a junk dealer after it had been wrecked by a bolt sucked into the air intake, and rebuilt it himself. Arfons named his jet car “The Green Monster”. On October 5, 1964, the Green Monster reached 434.03 mph.
Throughout 1964, Breedlove and Arfons traded records. In the Spirit of America, Breedlove reached 468.72 mph, then 526.28 — the first car to break 500 mph. During this run, one of the lines on the drogue parachute broke, and the Spirit of America skidded almost five miles before stopping in a pond. That record lasted only twelve days before the Green Monster broke it, hitting 536.71 mph. Shortly later, Breedlove pushed the Spirit of America to the highest speed it would ever reach–539.89 mph, but was quickly beaten by Arfors and the Green Monster at 576.6 mph.
After that, Breedlove retired the Spirit of America and built an entirely new car, which he named “Spirit of America Sonic 1”. This car used the same J-79 jet engine as the Green Monster. On November 15, 1965, Breedlove took the Spirit of America Sonic 1 to 600.6 mph, and became the first person to break 600 mph. He donated the original Spirit of America to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, where it remains on display.
Breedlove’s record lasted almost 5 years, until Gary Gebelich, in a rocket-powered car called the “Blue Flame”, reached 622.4 mph. In 1997, Andy Green, in the “Thrust SSC” (which used two turbofan jet engines from the F-4 Phantom fighter), became the first person to break 700 mph, and on October 15, 1997, set a new land speed record of 763.03 mph (in the process also becoming the first car to break the sound barrier). As of 2014, that record still stands.