Putting a plane engine between the four wheels of an automobile sounds like an activity of self-harm. No sane person would walk past a fully functioning passenger aircraft and think "I reckon one of those jet engines would be perfect in my Passat estate". Those crazy enough to try however, have been rewarded with some of the fastest machines to travel across land. Taking the engine out of an aeroplane and using it to motor across the ground as fast as humanly possible is not a new phenomenon, we've been at it for over a century. This article is a shallow dive into the deep waters that is the lunacy of aero-engined land speed record vehicles.
Not only have these vehicles become legends in speed terms, but have also left us with some of the most outlandish, exciting and extraordinary pieces of engineering in the past century. Everyone from global automotive manufacturers to back garden shed experts have had a stab, with varying levels of success. One thing cannot be denied though, you cannot put a lid on what the human mind is possible of, especially when it comes to making their car faster than the next guys.
Brutus's Bomber Heart
Can a Plane Engine Really Power a Car?
Essentially, yes it can, and very well indeed.
The engines in most early 20th century aeroplanes were actually similar in their design concept to the internal combustion engine used in everyday vehicles. They utilise fuel, air and spark to create combustion, force and motion. The main difference are the huge capacities, massive weight and tyre-shredding torque provided by these behemoth motors.
Harnessed correctly though, these gargantuan pieces of engineering can be used to astonishing affect due to the relatively low weight of the land-based vehicles that they are bolted to. The drama created some of these early vehicles has never and likely will never be matched, the noise, the power and the presence are just something that makes these machines of speed stand apart from the crowd.
They do have some downfalls however, the engines are often run on aviation fuel, not exactly something you can get at your local fuel station. Plane engines are also incredibly heavy, as well as being far too large to fit into a standard modern vehicle's footprint, leading to these extravagantly designed machines that you see blasting down Bonneville salt flats, thanks to jet propulsion. Modern jet engines are also hideously complicated, requiring more safety systems than you can shake a stick at, as well as requiring a huge amount of cooling and thrust control.
So no, you cannot simply walk down to the closest airfield, help yourself to the oddly-shaped cylinders draping from the side of that 747 and bolt it on top of your family hatchback. The machines that are capable of using these engines are generally designed specifically for the purpose (with the exception of early vehicles, due to reasons explained later) and cost in the millions. Plus, I really don't think your better half would approve when they see what you've done to their diesel Honda Civic.
The Beast in Action
How Did the Madness Start?
Back in the early days of the 20th century internal combustion engines were only just hitting their stride. They were relatively crude, inefficient items that were extremely limited in terms of performance, with the limiting factor being engine speed (no VTEC screamers to be found here). Engines generally could only muster less than 3000rpm, leading to an inability to create more performance without increasing the engines capacity. Engines were growing, but they were growing slower than the consumers demand for speed. Fiat were the first to land a successful blow in the public's imagination, with the S76 Record, also known as "The Beast of Turin".
To create the Beast, Fiat slotted a 28.4-litre airship engine into a 1907 Fiat chassis. The engine made around 300 horsepower, making it one of the most powerful automobiles ever at the time. The Model T, which debuted at a similar time, had just 20hp, to give you something to reference against. The Fiat was actually not particularly capable, with far too much power for the chassis and crude engineering used to shoehorn the huge motor in place, but it sparked the imagination and started the fire. Aero-engined cars were here to stay.
Long Ladder Chassis Gave Room for Huge Engines
Cars of the early 20th century were almost perfectly designed with huge engines in mind. Their simple and long ladder chassis layouts were perfectly shaped for the long and heavy engines, found in most aircraft of the time. All it took was a bit of strengthening and a stronger chain to harness the power and push it back to the rear wheels (which were still wooden in some cases). This was by no means a sound engineering solution, but it worked and that was all they needed. The trickle soon turned into a stream and eventually grew into a raging torrent. The race for the fastest land-lubber on Earth had begun.
Aircraft Design Cues Were Big in the 50's
The Love We Share
BMW, Rolls Royce, Fiat, Saab, Mitsubishi. Some of the world's biggest and most revered manufacturers and they all share one thing in common, aircraft. All of these companies have had heavy involvement in aircraft, whether it be the building of their own aircraft, jet engines or supplying and building the whole package. Some, such as BMW and Saab actually began as plane manufacturers, moving into the automotive sector in the early 20th century, thanks to an exploding interest in personal transportation.
Engineering has long been shared between the automotive and aerospace industries, which comes as no surprise when you realise that a lot of the engineering practices are fundamentally linked. Forward motion is overcoming resistance whether it is on land, through the air or even through the water. Design of the different disciplines has also been linked since the inception of both the car and the plane, with aerodynamics having a dramatic effect on both types of engineering.
Engineer in automotive and aerospace fields, studying at universities and colleges around the world are learning similar disciplines, the basics of engineering are shared through all industries. They may specialise and divert towards one particular sector or manufacturer but their learning is linked forever. The knowledge and design that is shared between aircraft and automobiles will continue to be linked, with technology continuing to pass between the two and advances made in both industries as a result. The use of aluminium in cars for example is a direct result of the use of the lightweight material in aircraft manufacturing, this is just one example that changed automotive manufacturing for the better.
The Blitzen Benz, the Car That Fought Against the Aero-Engined Beasts
Fiat's "Beast of Turin" may have captured the world's imagination but it was no match for the Blitzen Benz of the same year. Built by the Benz & Cie Company (which would go on to become Daimler and eventually Mercedes Benz). The Benz used the same ideals as the Fiat, namely bolt a huge engine into an existing chassis and go for broke. Benz however, used a car-derived combustion engine, that was also massive in size was not pulled from a plane, instead being removed from one of it's racing cars.
Other manufacturers such as Rolls Royce and Sunbeam made similar attempts to create cars that could harness the power of their aircraft engines but suffered similarly to the Beast. The technology was just not there yet, their ideas were ahead of the time and the cars could just support the weight and huge power of these engines.
This all changed after WW1 however, availability of the engines and chassis allowed engineers to begin dreaming up and experimenting. It wasn't long after WW1, with the Sunbeam 350HP that the land speed record was taken by a car propelled with an aircraft engine, that started the ball rolling, leading to the fight for the world land speed record for the next century.
The Sunbeam 350HP
The Race for the Land Speed Record
Sunbeam used their 350HP model to set the land speed record at 133.75mph at Brooklands race circuit in 1922. The record would then alternate between the Sunbeam and various (non aero-engined) rivals until 1926. 1926 was a turning point for everyone competing for the title of fastest person on land when Parry Thomas piloted a vehicle named "Babs" to 170mph at Pendine Sands in Wales. Babs used a 27-litre V12, American made aircraft engine producing 450hp and was developed from one of Louis Zborowski's chitty-bang-bang series of vehicles (yes the one from the film).
Since that record was set back in 1926, all vehicles to take the record have been powered by an aircraft-derived engine.
Seagrave in the Sunbeam 1000HP
Records were soon being broken year after year. The 200mph barrier was the first to fall, at the hands of Henry Segrave in the Sunbeam 1000hp, a twin aero-engined car that took the record back to the Wolverhampton firm (for the last time) in March 1927.
At this point, the Campbell family stepped into the fray. No other name holds such prestige in the sport of land speed record setting than theirs. Malcolm Campbell has his record robbed by Henry Segrave and the 1000HP Sunbeam and would not let that stand. Over the next decade he dedicated his time to becoming the fastest-man on land, working with designer Reid Railton. They eventually broke the 300mph barrier in 1935. The car they nicknamed the "Blue Bird" used a supercharged V12 Rolls Royce aeroplane engine for propulsion and enabled them to fend off their rivals to claim the 300mph record.
Malcolm's son Donald Campbell also held the land speed record (as well as the record on water), being the first man to achieve 400mph in his Bluebird CN7. This car was the first to use a turboshaft engine and the last to use a conventional wheel-driven layout. Donald was unfortunately lost in a tragic accident at Coniston, attempting to break the record for speed on water. His legacy on land though was cemented back in 1964 in Australia. It was the first time the record had been broken since 1947. It was a record that was surrounded with controversy, as jet-engined cars had already travelled faster in 1963. These vehicles however, had not put their power to the ground using the vehicles wheels, instead relying on jet propulsion in the same way as an aircraft (outside of land speed record rules at the time).
The rules were altered at the end of 1964 and the 60's race for speed was on, we were back racing again. The battle over the next two years between Craig Bleedlove (with his Spirit of America) and Art Arfons (piloting the Green Monster) is well documented for pushing the boundaries of engineering and technology. It came to a head in 1965 with Craig Bleedlove the victor after Arfons suffered a huge 600mph crash. The Spirit of America used its Turbojet engine to reach and break the 600mph barrier, meaning in just over one year the record had jumped up nearly 200mph. The speeds were pushing the technology of the time and also putting the drivers at massive risk.
The record was increased a couple of times during the 1970's but was then completely obliterated by Andy Green and the British-built Thrust SSC in 1997. The Thrust SSC was an intensive build, combining the power of two Rolls-Royce turbofan engines for the equivalent of over 100,000 horsepower (I believe slightly more than a remapped Golf R?). The car was the first to break the sound barrier and achieved 760mph.
The Bloodhound, With 1000mph Intentions
Why We Haven't Stopped Yet
The record set by Andy Green stands to this day, though the team behind the current Bloodhound project are again attempting to take land-speed to new heights. They are again using Rolls-Royce jet engines, with the aim of hitting over 1000mph, on the ground. It gives me a huge sense of pride that the UK is still pioneering and pushing the boundaries despite the cost and risk. The madness may end one day, but it seems that we aren't quite done just yet.
My personal belief of why we haven't stopped yet is that we are always wanting to understand and learn what is over the next hill. Humans are not simply complacent with standing back and admiring the view, there could be a better one just after that next valley.
We are a constantly evolving species and one that needs advances in technology and design to keep evolving and improving on all aspects of life. Some of the developments that we achieve in these outlandish projects can be passed down to everyday activities, they filter down into your humdrum hatchback and maybe even into the device you have in your hand. Projects like the Bloodhound are signs that we still want to go further, be better and go faster than even before. I for one, hope this never stops.