In 1983 a car designed and built on the Isle of Wight on an extremely limited budget in primitive conditions, driven by Richard Noble, would break the World Land-Speed Record1, achieving an official speed of 633.468mph. This was a record it would hold until 1997.
The World Land-Speed Record is the official world-recognised high speed achieved by a car. To qualify for being the Land-Speed Record, rather than simply being the highest speed that the car achieves when driving, certain complex rules must be obeyed.
- The car must have four wheels, two of them capable of steering.
- The vehicle must make two runs, in opposite directions, over an officially measured mile and/or kilometre. The average speed of these two runs is what counts as the record attempt.
- The second run must take place within an hour of the first.
- To qualify as a new record, the speed achieved must be greater by over 1% than the previous record. This can be greater than either the previous record-holding measured mile or measured kilometre speed.
- This speed has to have been timed by a national racing authority recognised by the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile, the sport's governing body. Land-speed record attempts held in America, where all successful record attempts have been held since 1927, are monitored by the United States Auto Club (USAC).
Britain had last held the World Record in 1964, when Donald Campbell achieved a speed of 403.1mph in Bluebird CN72. Since then the hotly-contested title had been held by five different American drivers, the record-breaking nine times between October 1964 and November 1965 alone. From 1970 the record had been 622.407mph over a mile, held by Gary Gabelich in his rocket-powered car The Blue Flame.
A Noble Ambition
Since his youth, Richard Noble had a dream of breaking the World Land-Speed Record. At the age of 28 in 1974, with no experience and practically no money, he had a plan. He would pursue his ambition by firstly building a practice car, followed by a demonstration car to raise enough interest and funds to pay for a third car, which would hopefully break the record. As it happened the second car, Thrust2, was so well designed that it broke the record itself.
Richard Noble's first practice car, Thrust1, consisted of a second-hand Rolls-Royce Derwent engine3 attached to a vehicle looking like a cross between a go-kart and Meccano Formula 1 model. The car was built by 1976 at a cost of approximately £1,500.
After gaining publicity on BBC's Tomorrow's World programme, Noble decided to make an attempt at breaking the British Land-Speed record. The British record was still 174.883mph, set by Sir Malcolm Campbell in Bluebird in 1927. Sir Malcolm had of course achieved a World Land-Speed Record of 301mph in 1935 and his son Donald Campbell a speed of 403mph, but both of these took place at the Bonneville Salt Flats in America, not in Britain.
Thrust1's attempt took place on 7 March, 1977, on RAF Fairford's runway. However as the car reached 140mph, Noble lost control and Thrust1 rolled and crashed. Fortunately no-one was hurt, but there was nothing left to do but write the car off, sell it for £175 scrap value, head to the pub and begin planning Thrust2.
Thrust2: Lightning Strikes
Immediately after the disaster, Noble asked Air Commodore Sir Patrick Hine, Director of Public Relations for the RAF, for an engine from an English Electric Lightning. The Lightning jet-fighters had entered service with the RAF in 1959 and were renowned for their phenomenal speed, reaching Mach 2. By the late 1970s and early 1980s they were gradually being replaced, with the last one retiring from the RAF in 1988. Noble planned to use one of its Rolls-Royce turbojet engines as the main engine for his projected Thrust2.
The Thrust1 crash convinced Noble that he needed an experienced designer for the project to succeed. So he placed an ad in the Daily Telegraph: 'Wanted: 650mph car designer'. One of the applicants to respond to this was John 'Ackers' Ackroyd. Ackroyd had worked as an apprentice at the Isle of Wight firm of Saunders-Roe where he had helped develop the SR-53 rocket-propelled plane, an aircraft capable of reaching Mach 2. He later worked as a design engineer for the Island's Cushioncraft hovercraft company and had worked on designing the Island's Enfield 8000 electric cars4. A sought-after designer, he had also worked for such companies as Dornier, Audi and Porsche in West Germany.
At this stage of the project, Noble's quest to break the World Land-Speed Record had the following resources:
- No materials or components.
- No tools with which to work on the non-existent materials.
- No workshop, premises or location from which to work with the non-existent tools on the non-existent materials.
- No team to do the working.
- No actual Land-Speed Record-breaking experience5.
- No money.
- One second-hand Rolls-Royce Lightning engine, previously possessed by one careful airforce.
Ackroyd's job was to take every single one of all the assets listed above and combine them in such a way that breaking the World Land-Speed Record would be an inevitable outcome. 'Job', however, was to be a very loose description as there wasn't actually any money available to pay him.
Realising that offers like this don't happen every day, Ackroyd leapt at the opportunity.
Constructing the Car
After initially having the engine stored in Noble's front garden (cut in half, to allow it to fit), the project moved to the Isle of Wight's Ranalagh Works in Fishbourne. Located on the banks of Wootton Creek, the Ranalagh Works was a grouping of small boat-building workshops. In order to keep costs as low as possible, the project's base was the derelict kitchen of a condemned house, rented for a mere £5 per week. There Ackroyd worked alone on designing the car, while Noble tried to find interested parties to sponsor the project.
The kitchen came equipped with few mod cons, but many cons. There wasn't even a telephone, so Ackroyd had to save coins in case he needed to use the nearest public telephone box located a quarter of a mile away. It did, however, have a working light bulb, chair and a drawing board. Ackroyd would later describe designing the car with the words:
There were certainly no mod cons down at Fishbourne. I used to tell my friends that my trusty old Hercules push-bike was my company car! If I wanted to get to the nearest pay phone I had to go by a devious route that took me across Wootton Creek. If I'd slipped it would have been a very wet walk. The nearest photocopier was a six-mile ride [to Ryde], and if I wanted drawings printed it was a 14-mile hike to East Cowes. They were interesting days, back then. I worked in that kitchen for the best part of the year, and in that time I hardly saw anybody else during the day. [...] It was good to be able to ride from home to work each day, but sometimes, when I was sitting alone at the drawing board, I did wonder if I wasn't turning into some sort of nutter.
Ackroyd spent the year alone at his desk drawing designs for the car. Working without the benefit of a computer, he used his experience and expertise to draw the design for a car that would be safely controllable at high speeds. The car was streamlined, the engine and fuel tanks' weight perfectly positioned to maximise speed, minimise lift and be perfectly balanced in order for the car to reach the intended speed.
When the car was designed, a frame was built by the project's first sponsor, Tube Investments Reynolds. TI Reynolds were a company that had made bicycle-frame tubing since the 1890s. TI Reynold's Ken Sprayson supervised and built the frame.
One advantage of being based on the Isle of Wight was the ability to make the most of the Island's proud engineering history. This involved hovercraft, an aircraft industry and the development of the Black Knight and Black Arrow rockets capable of launching satellites into space as well as the Blue Streak intercontinental ballistic missile. Many skilled people from the Island helped work on the car, including Eddie Elsom, who became the car's Operations Director. With Elsom in charge of the day-to-day running, Noble was able to concentrate on overseeing the entire project, pursuing sponsorship and driving the car.
With the car beginning to exist physically, a workshop was needed in addition to the kitchen, so in early 1979 part of a boat shed on the Ranalagh Works site was rented. Boat craftsman Ron Benton volunteered to make a structure around the frame. Benton had previously worked on various projects including the Queen Elizabeth II liner and hovercraft. Benton turned the car from looking like an engine on a scaffolding made out of bicycle frame parts into the sleek, streamlined work of art it became when attempting the World Record.
With the car beginning to exist and more than one person involved in its construction, the project moved from the kitchen to a Portakabin office. This came complete with luxuries including a heater and a telephone connection to the outside world.
'Please will you Sponsor me to Break the Land-Speed Record...?'
The biggest challenge faced in the project was perhaps not of designing or constructing a car capable of breaking the World Record, but that of raising enough money to be able to do so. Sponsorship began humbly enough; at the 1977 London Motorfair, Project Thrust Supporter's Club memberships were sold for £1 each. In late 1979, BP informed the team that they would give the project £75,000; however by early 1980 they changed their minds, and withdrew the money.
One of the most influential sponsors that never were was British Airways. Initially keen to sponsor the project, they soon stated that they could not sponsor the project because the Thrust2 car's rear tail fins were the wrong shape to fit the BA logo. In order to solve the problem, Ackroyd changed the shape of the tail fins to match a Boeing 747, upon which BA announced that they would love to sponsor the project, but would not be able to provide any money directly. They would, though, refund any British Airways tickets that the team sent to them. Noble, having previously worked for GKN, managed to persuade GKN staff to fly BA in exchange for used airline tickets, which BA refunded until a change of management occurred. This introduced a policy in which BA would no longer sponsor potentially-dangerous projects, as any accident could affect how the public perceived the airline. BA's new sponsorship policy was limited to risk-free ventures, especially orchestras.
The difficult task of not only finding sponsors but also retaining them continued as the project took years to see through to fruition.
Ackroyd and Noble were both partly inspired by the design of Green Monster, an American record-holding car which held the World Land-Speed Record for a year in 1964/5 at 536mph. There were two seats included, for a driver on the right-hand side and a passenger on the left, both located halfway along the car either side of the jet engine. The seats were deliberately positioned over the centre of gravity to aid in feeling the control of the car. The passenger seat was to be used to carry sponsors and journalists on demonstration runs in order to generate interest.
The outer shape of the car was designed to reduce drag and prevent the front from lifting, something which the underneath or undertray of the car was also designed to do. The rear of the car was dominated by the twin swept-back Boeing-shaped fins, fitted for directional stability.
Thrust2 weighed four tonnes and was 27 feet (8.2m) long. To stop, the car was equipped with parachutes. After spending £105,000 the car was ready for basic UK trials. It had been decided to build Thrust2 in two stages. First, the car was roughly finished for UK Trials and an attempt to break the British Land-Speed Record, before any attempt to break the World Record would be made. Breaking the UK record would gain valuable experience and hopefully interest enough sponsors to allow the car to be finished to the higher, and more expensive, standard required for it to be able to run at the speeds over 600mph needed to gain the World Record.
Equipped with just enough control to be able to go and stop, but without the final bodywork or high-speed wheels, Thrust2 was taken to various runways for trials. The car still appeared like a jet engine attached to a frame with two tails sticking up at the back, running on tyres that Dunlop stated should not be taken to speeds greater than 240mph. Yet on 25 September, 1980, Thrust2 managed to achieve a new British 'Flying Mile' record of 248.87mph before running out of the 10,000-foot (3km) long runway at RAF Greenham Common.
Thrust2 also broke many other ancillary British records, including the 1 Mile Standing Start, the 1 Kilo Standing Start, the Flying Quarter Mile, the Flying 500 Metres and Flying Kilo. For the Flying Quarter Mile, a speed of 259.74mph was recorded, although that did not count as the genuine British Land-Speed Record.
1981: Salt in the Wound
By September 1981 the car had been given aluminium bodywork, in order to protect the car from the windforce felt at speeds approaching 650mph. A newer, more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon 302 engine replaced the original Avon 210 and a fibreglass intake nacelle protected the front of the engine. The car was ready to be taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, America. As rubber tyres were incapable of withstanding the speed, experimental solid-aluminium wheels, nicknamed 'cart-wheel technology' by Ackroyd, were tested. Tests of the car resulted in it being unable to drive in a straight line, which driver Noble described with the words, 'driving Thrust2 on its aluminium wheels across salt was like trying to ride a bicycle without tyres across a frozen pond.' The problem was compounded by the solid wheels, which left ruts in the surface of the salt flats. When these ruts were hit on subsequent runs, the instability increased.
The team realised that to combat this, tracks needed to be prepared in the salt in order to keep the car straight. A new track was required for every single run. Using tracks, combined with testing the afterburner, allowed the car to reach a top speed of 447mph and gain a new British car and driver record of 418mph on 10 October, 1981. However on 11 October, with the car finally in a position to begin making serious attempts at the record, the rains set in and the Salt Flats flooded. It would not be possible to make any further attempts that year.
1982: Burning Rubber
In June 1982 the project began preparing for another year's racing, when on 16 June the car crashed at 300mph. The tyres expanded due to the centrifugal force at that speed, fouling the bodywork and, when the car veered on to a rough patch of grass, stones seriously damaged the front of the car and the engine. It was felt that the damage was so severe that the engine would be a write-off, but fortunately the engine experts at RAF Binbrook repaired it, under the supervision of John 'One-Take' Watkins. This accident had caused extensive damage that took 12 weeks to fully repair, but the time was spent in making modifications to the car, especially to the wheels. By September 1982 the car was ready to return the 6,000 miles to Bonneville.
The night before the car arrived, the Salt Flats had flooded. It was now impossible to attempt the World Land-Speed Record there, but could a suitable alternative venue be found? Any potential site would have to be accessible enough to get to, completely flat for at least 11 miles, dry, and devoid of all plant life. The only alternative that suited the conditions was Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
Black Rock Desert and Roll
After a recce, it was found that the area was perfect, with only brief preparation work needed to pick up any stray objects from the desert's surface to ensure there would be no possibility of anything damaging the car. The Black Rock Desert is 110 miles north of Reno in northwest Nevada, part of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan.
One week later a small nearby village called Gerlach, population only 350, became the team's base, with everyone staying in the Bruno Country Club motel/bar/restaurant. The club also provided a garage for the car, and the advantage of being remote meant that there were few onlookers getting in the way.
Before the car could run, a permit needed to be obtained by the Bureau of Land Management. It was granted following a petition signed by the people of both Gerlach and neighbouring village of Empire, which was presented to Nevada's Congressman, Jim Santini. The desert was flat, hard, smooth, dusty and surprisingly bouncy, and perfectly suited to Thrust2's metal wheels. In order to achieve maximum speed, Thrust2 required a six-mile run-up.
On 21 October, the car broke the British car and driver record, achieving a speed of 463.683mph. By 3 November the car reached 575mph and by 4 November the car took the British car and driver record to 590.551mph. Yet by then the weather was changing, the desert was becoming damp and on 5 November it snowed in the Black Rock Desert. With the desert becoming too wet, forming a damp, sticky mud, all attempts to break the record would have to wait until the following summer.
1983: Third Time Lucky
By the end of August 1983 the car and team returned to the Black Rock Desert, with just enough money from the remaining sponsors to have a final attempt at the title. By late September the car began making runs of 606mph, 607mph and even 617mph, the fastest for a jet-powered car, but not quick enough to beat the World Land-Speed Record held by Gary Gabelich's rocket-propelled Blue Flame. The car seemed to be having engine problems, which only the engine experts at Rolls-Royce could resolve. Rolls-Royce, though, considered the car to be an unofficial installation of one of their engines for uses to which it had not been intended, and which the company disapproved of. They soon agreed to send over engine expert George Webb after a story was published in the Financial Times about the engine problems, which they felt could have adverse effects on Rolls-Royce's image.
After Webb solved the engine's problem in early October, the car only had enough money from the sponsors for one more week's run. On 4 October after a brief problem with a fuse in the ignition, the car achieved a remarkable first run of 624mph. The car was quickly turned around and prepared for the second run within the hour. On this, Thrust2 achieved a measured speed of 642.971mph. Over the kilometre, the average speed was 634.051mph, which being less than 1% over Blue Flame's measured kilometre record of 630mph did not qualify as a new record. However, over the mile, Blue Flame had averaged 622mph. Thrust2's average over the mile was the new World Land-Speed Record of 633.468mph!
When interviewed by a reporter as to why he had pursued the Record, Noble simply replied:
For Britain, and for the hell of it.
As the car reached speeds over 640mph, it is conceivable that, given the opportunity, the car could have set an even higher record. The sponsors, having paid for Noble to break the World Land-Speed Record, did not wish to spend any more money on further record attempts. The car was capable of running at speeds peaking around 650mph, although any faster than 657mph would have resulted in the car lifting uncontrollably.
Thrust2 is now on display at Coventry's Museum of British Road Transport. It was one of only four cars to hold the World Land-Speed Record for over a decade since the record began in 1898.
Richard Noble was awarded the OBE for his work in leading the project and driving the record-breaking car. Despite Noble's recommendation, John Ackroyd was not officially recognised for his role in designing the car capable of this.
Noble returned to the Isle of Wight and in December 1983 formed ARV (Air Recreational Vehicle) Aviation at Sandown Airport. ARV Aviation developed and manufactured the lightweight Super2 aircraft, a 2-seater aircraft powered by a 2-stroke engine. Sadly minor teething problems led to the bank withdrawing financial support.
Noble spent the early 1990s developing the ThrustSSC (SuperSonicCar), which in 1997 broke not only Thrust2's World Land-Speed Record but also became the first car to break the sound barrier, achieving a speed of Mach 1.03, or 763.303mph. In 1998 he published an autobiography entitled simply Thrust, which concentrated on his ThrustSSC project but also mentioned Thrust2.
Since then he has been involved in the JCB DieselMax 444 project, which broke the Diesel-Powered Land-Speed Record in 2006 at a speed of 350mph. At time of writing (October 2013) he is leading the BloodhoundSSC project, which aims to construct a car capable of reaching 1,000mph.
Although John Ackroyd spent much of the 1980s considering how to improve on Thrust2 and design a Thrust3, with no sponsors wishing to break an already-British record no opportunity to develop the car came around. Ackroyd has written books entitled Just For The Record and Jet Blast and the Hand of Fate about his design of the Thrust2 car.
His interests have developed into designing world record-breaking balloons, including the round-the-world Endeavour, built at East Cowes on the Isle of Wight in 1985, pressurised capsules for high altitude ocean crossings, and the world's largest inflatable balloon. His exploits with these can be read about in his book Pacific Flyer.
He has occasionally returned to fast cars. In the early 1990s, Ackroyd helped Australian drag-racer Roso McGlashan develop Aussie Invader II, a car similar to Thrust2 that attempted to break Thrust2's record. Sadly this car crashed after reaching a top speed of 600mph. He also assisted in designing both ThrustSSC in 1995 and Spirit of America Supersonic Arrow in 1996/7. His main passion remains designing record balloons.