Britain vs America: Land Speed Records

Land speed records: a brief history of a mans obsession

Speed has always fascinated mankind to a point that this fascination has turned into an obsession. Humans have done crazy things to satisfy their ‘need for speed’, from attaching jet engines to cars, to putting massive superchargers on bikes to using the highest mountain in the world for the fastest descent. The list of insane ideas doesn’t seem to end!

It seems that the two countries take this matter very seriously. The two nations have gone head to head with each other for over a century to claim and reclaim the prestigious honor of holding the land speed record. We are talking about the USA and Britain, who are the only competitors in the competition as of now. But how did it all start? Who holds the most titles? Who is the current record holder? To answer that, let’s go back in history to the first-ever land speed record attempt.

The First Record

We have talked about America and Britain being the two hottest contenders in the record race but initially, that wasn’t the case. It was a Frenchman by the name of Gaston de Chasseloup Laubat who achieved a speed of 39.24 mph (63.15 km/h) driving a Jeantaud Duc electric car in Acheres, France. Yes, you heard that right! It was an electric car back in 1898 that was the fastest moving thing in the world.

Surprisingly, the five other records, after the first one, were all achieved in an electric car. It was not until 1902 that Leon Serpollet introduced the steam engine in the record books when he recorded a top speed of 75.06 mph (120.80 km/h) driving the Gardener – Serpollet Oeuf de Pacques.

From 1902 onwards, the Internal Combustion Engine dominated, and that is when the USA got its first land speed record.

USA’ First Land Speed Record

William K Vanderbilt was the first person from America to hold the record. He drove a Mors Z Paris-Vienne in Ablis, France, to a top speed of 76.60 mph (123.28 km/h). His record was broken by a Frenchman on the same day and then a few days later by another Frenchman. The first record was held very shortly, but it meant that more was yet to come.

It is interesting to note that the first American record did not come on U.S soil. If we count the first record held by America performed on its soil then the one by Henry Ford is counted as the first. In 1904, famous industrialist Henry Ford drove his Ford Arrow on frozen Lake St. Clair to achieve a speed of 91.37 mph (147.05 km/h). After Henry attempted the record, the U.S soil became a hotspot for land speed records, with many more to come in the future.

USA Dominates

By 1906 the USA had its third record title and one more a year later. However, it is important to note that both records were achieved in different kinds of vehicles. The one achieved in 1906 was done on a steam-powered Stanley Steamer, driven by Fred H. Marriott at Daytona Beach in the USA. This was also the first record on U.S soil to have broken the 100 mph barrier, which made it a great achievement.

The record in 1907 was made on a two-wheeler by Glenn Curtiss, who rode his V8 motorcycle to a top speed of 136.27 mph (219.57 km/h).     


Great Britain’s First Record

It was not until 1909 that the first record was attempted in Britain. It was sought out by Victor Hemery, who won it for France in his 200hp Benz No.1. Great Britain had to respond to that with a record attempt of their own, and so, L. G. Hornstead became the first person to hold the record for G.B in 1914. He did that in a 200hp Benz No.3 as he ripped through Brooklands, Great Britain, to get to a top speed of 124.09 mph (199.70 km/h).

British Domination and U.S Retaliation

The British drivers dominated the record books for decades after 1914. They left behind the French, who were once the top contenders. Great Britain won the title in 1922, which was broken by France two years later. However, the British reclaimed the honor the same year. From 1924 onwards, it seemed that no one could out-do the English when it came to speed.

U.S driver Ray Keech was successful in reclaiming the record for his country when he became the first American to break the 200 mph barrier. But the victory was short-lived as just a year later, Henry Seagrave snatched the record for Great Britain.

From 1929 to 1947 G.B held 11 land speed records, the last of which stayed intact for 16 years. Then came the U.S.A with Craig Breedlove, who drove the Spirit of America smashing the 400 mph barrier to reclaim the land speed record title. The U.S kept winning the record title for 16 years the most notable of them being the 1965 record by Craig Breedlove to break the 600 mph imaginary barrier.     

The Latter Years

Land speed record attempts have slowed down over the years as reaching high speeds has become more challenging. The engineering has become more challenging and perhaps the fascination has died down. But that has not stopped some adrenaline junkies from realizing their dreams. Certainly not for a man like Andy Greene, who is the current holder of the land speed record.

Andy Greene, from Great Britain, drove the turbofan-powered Thrust SSC twice to first get into the 700mph realm and then a second time where he achieved supersonic speed becoming the first person to do so. Andy’s achievement is so high up on the scale that his record has not been broken since his attempt in 1997.

Final Thoughts and Honorable Mention

The land speed record has not been broken for over 20 years because technology is currently very limited. We do not have the tyres that could withstand the forces exerted at such high speeds. However, it is not like no one has tried.  

Jessi Combs, a female racecar driver, attempted the land speed record in 2019 and reached speeds up to 522.78 mph. However, the driver met a tragic end as she crashed during the attempt and lost her life. The American driver received the honour posthumously in 2020.

Land Speed Record Holders

15/10/1997763.035Andy GreenGBJetBlack RockThrust SSC
25/09/1997714.144Andy GreenGBJetBlack RockThrust SSC
04/10/1983633.468Richard NobleGBJetBlack RockThrust 2
23/10/1970622.407Gary GabelichUSARocketBonnevilleThe Blue Flame
15/11/1965600.601Craig BreedloveUSAJetBonnevilleS of A Sonic 1
07/11/1965576.553Art ArfonsUSAJetBonnevilleGreen Monster
02/11/1965555.485Craig BreedloveUSAJetBonnevilleS of A Sonic 1
27/10/1964536.710Art ArfonsUSAJetBonnevilleGreen Monster
15/10/1964526.277Craig BreedloveUSAJetBonnevilleSpirit Of America
13/10/1964468.719Craig BreedloveUSAJetBonnevilleSpirit Of America
05/10/1964434.022Art ArfonsUSAJetBonnevilleGreen Monster
02/10/1964413.199Tom GreenUSAJetBonnevilleWingfoot Express
17/07/1964403.135Donald CampbellGBJetLake EyreBluebird CN7
05/08/1963407.447*Craig BreedloveUSAJetBonnevilleSpirit Of America
16/09/1947394.196John CobbGBICEBonnevilleRailton Mobil Special
23/08/1939369.741John CobbGBICEBonnevilleRailton
16/09/1938357.497George EystonGBICEBonnevilleThunderbolt
15/09/1938350.194John CobbGBICEBonnevilleRailton
27/08/1938345.489George EystonGBICEBonnevilleThunderbolt
19/11/1937312.203George EystonGBICEBonnevilleThunderbolt
03/09/1935301.129Sir Malcolm CampbellGBICEBonnevilleBlue Bird
07/03/1935276.710Sir Malcolm CampbellGBICEDaytonaBlue Bird
22/02/1933272.465Sir Malcolm CampbellGBICEDaytonaBlue Bird
24/02/1932253.968Sir Malcolm CampbellGBICEDaytonaBlue Bird
05/02/1931246.088Malcolm CampbellGBICEDaytonaBlue Bird
11/03/1929231.362Henry SegraveGBICEDaytonaGolden Arrow
22/04/1928207.553Ray KeechUSAICEDaytonaTriplex
19/02/1928206.956Malcolm CampbellGBICEPendineBluebird
29/03/1927203.793Henry SegraveGBICEDaytonaSunbeam
04/02/1927174.883Malcolm CampbellGBICEPendineBluebird
28/04/1926171.019Parry ThomasGBICEPendineBabs
27/04/1926169.298Parry ThomasGBICEPendineBabs
16/03/1926152.307Henry SegraveGBICESouthportSunbeam
21/07/1925150.766Malcolm CampbellGBICEPendineSunbeam
25/09/1924146.163Malcolm CampbellGBICEPendineSunbeam
06/07/1924143.312René ThomasFRICEArpajonDelage
17/05/1922133.788Kenelm Lee GuinnessGBICEBrooklandsSunbeam
27/04/1920156.047Tommy MiltonUSAICEDaytonaDuesenburg
17/02/1919149.875*Ralph de PalmaUSAICEDaytonaPackard
24/06/1914124.095L.G HornstedGBICEBrooklandsBenz
23/04/1911141.732*Bob BurmanUSAICEDaytonaBenz
03/03/1910131.267*Barney OldfieldUSAICEDaytonaBenz
08/11/1909125.946Victor HéméryFRICEBrooklandsBenz
23/01/1906121.573Fred MarriotUSASteamDaytonaStanley
30/12/1905109.589Victor HéméryFRICEArles-SalonDarracq
25/01/1905104.651*Arthur MacdonaldGBICEDaytonaNapier
13/11/1904104.530Paul BarasFRICEOstendDarracq
21/07/1904103.561*Louis RigollyFRICEOstendGobron-Brillié
25/05/190497.258Baron Pierre de CatersFRICEOstendMercedes
31/03/190494.785Louis RigollyFRICENiceGobron-Brillié
27/01/190492.308*William K VanderbiltUSAICEDaytonaMercedes
12/01/190491.371*Henry FordUSAICELake St ClairFord
05/11/190384.732Arthur DurayBEICEDourdanGobron-Brilli
17/07/190383.468Arthur DurayBEICEOstendGobron-Brilli
05/08/190276.086William K VanderbiltUSAICEAblisMors
13/04/190275.065Leon SerpolletFRSteamNiceSerpollet
29/04/189965.792Camille JenatzyBEElectricAchèresJenatzy
04/03/189957.653Gaston Chasseloup-LaubatFRElectricAchèresJeantaud
27/01/189949.932Camille JenatzyBEElectricAchèresJenatzy
17/01/189943.690Gaston Chasseloup-LaubatFRElectricAchèresJeantaud
17/01/189941.425Camille JenatzyBEElectricAchèresJenatzy
18/12/189839.245Gaston Chasseloup-LaubatFRElectricAchèresJeantaud