Speed. It’s a term, a concept that is well known to anyone with even a passing interest in cars, motorbikes or motorsport in general. It’s something we’ve all personally felt at one point in our lives, be it riding in a car, riding a motorcycle or even going on an airplane or a rollercoaster.
While today’s cars and bikes that you see in Formula One, MotoGP or the FIA World Endurance Championship are undeniably fast, there’s one category that trumps them all: land speed records.
The quest for unimaginable speeds in land vehicles is something that has been covered before in our review of Richard Noble’s Take Risk earlier this year. But while Noble shined a light on his endeavous and projects in the hunt for records with Thrust2, ThrustSSC and BloodhoundSSC, the history of hunting for record speeds on land stretches back much, much longer.
That history is laid out in great detail in Quest for Speed: The Epic Saga of Record-Breaking on Land, written and illustrated by Barry John and published by Evro Publishing in October.
John, based in Kent, is a retired former graphic designer who has had a fascination with record-breaking on land ever since his teenage years. The passion for the subject is on full display in the 184-page book.
Not only did John write it himself, he also took care of both the illustrations and design of the book, which explores the extensive history of land speed records in painstaking detail.
The love for the subject is on full display, as each record has been given its own chapter, complete with a written history, illustration of car and driver, location, specifications of the vehicle and any other relevant facts, such as certain technological innovations.
It starts out all the way at the very first record attempt, set by a French count with 36 horsepower electric car in 1898, setting a record of a mindblowing 39 miles per hour. These days, that’s something the average Earthling covers on his morning commute, but with the automobile in its infancy, it must have felt like flying.
From there on out, John covers each consecutive new record in great detail, which provides a fascinating insight into the world of early record setting. You’ll be surprised to learn, for example, that the combustion engine played little part in the early record attempts. It was mostly done with either electric motors or steam-powered engines, with the first combustion engine-powered record car not coming until 1902.
After that, speeds steadily begin to build and cars become more and more complicated. The book covers some of history’s most impressive cars, including the fearsome Beast of Turin, the astonishing 28-litre four-cylinder Fiat that has become something of a fixture at Goodwood in recent years.
The great benefit of this layout is that you learn about some truly absurd creations that have set records throughout the years. There is, for example the Opel Rak 2 from 1928, a project from the German manufacturer that resembled more of a plane on wheels than a car – complete with wings and powered by 24 rockets.
Or the Triplex from 1928, which set its 207.55 mph Daytona record by using three(!) V12 engines, creating a car with an 81 litre engine capacity and 1500 horsepower, something you would see from a modern roadgoing hypercar these days.
As John expertly illustrated, the peculiar idea of using multiple large engines in record cars was something of a fixture in the post-war era, like with the creatively names Stutz Black Hawk from 1928, which unfortunately killed its driver in a crash at 220 miles per hour.
After these terrifying multi-engined monstrosities, rockets, or more specifically, jet engines, would become something of a fixture of record hunting in the decades to come, something explained in great detail by John. This is arguably where land speed records really hit their peak.
Starting with Craig Breedlove and Spirit of America, this is the point where speed record cars began to resemble spacecraft on wheels rather than cars.
This is arguably where the book also shines brightest, with the exploits of the likes of Breedlove, the Arfons brothers and, of course, Richard Noble.
Noble’s Thrust2 and ThrustSSC, featured in Take Risk and the latter of which still holds the record today, are displayed in great detail, in addition to other record breakers, like gas turbined powered cars and even motorcycles.
After that, John take a look at what he calls ‘the last frontier’: the race to break the 1000 mph barrier, taking a look at some of the candidates and posing the question: who will get there first?
The love and passion John has for the subject is clearly on display, but his skill as a graphic designer only works to boost the end product. Each car is greatly illustrated and scrolling through the book, it gives a great sense of the leaps and bounds that the pursuit of land speed records have taken since that first attempt all the way back in 1898.
If, like John, you have a great passion for the subject, or like me, you’re interested in the topic and want to learn more about it, or just want check out the rest of the illustrations of these boundary-pushing machines, The Quest for Speed is definitely worth picking up for a fascinating glimpse into a world of unbelievable speed the vast majority of us can only dream about.
All images provided to MotorsportWeek.com by Evro Publishing