If man isn’t busy trying to smash land speed records in missile-shaped cars, then he’s probably being smashed up inside them. You know who I’m referring to. The ‘Hamster’ only just survived following his spectacular crash in the Vampire dragster back in 2006 while trying to break the British record of 483.3kph set by Colin Fallows six years earlier.
These sort of shenanigans have been going on for years. Records charting our pursuit of going quicker date as far back as 1898 when the Jeantaud, a French car driven by Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, reached the dizzying speeds of… 63kph.
Things got a little more serious during the Twenties in Britain with drivers such as
J.G. Parry Thomas (the first man to be killed while attempting to break the land speed record) and Malcolm Campbell battling each other on a regular basis for bragging rights.
The cars became faster and far more specialised, adding huge engines and aerodynamic bodies to make them quicker.
British carmaker Sunbeam was particularly active during this period. Cars such as the 1922 Sunbeam 350HP powered by an 18.3-litre V12 aircraft motor set the bar. Driven by Kenelm Lee Guinness, it broke the 150mph (241kph) barrier at Brooklands. The next target was the magical 200mph (321kph) mark.
In 1927, the Sunbeam 1,000HP Mystery was unveiled and it had one purpose — to break that target. Built by Louis Coatalen, the Sunbeam (which actually produced 900bhp — the extra 100 horses were ‘added’ by marketing bigwigs) had two 22.5-litre V12 aero engines. One was positioned at the front of the car and one at the back, and they were mated to a three-speed gearbox. The car was ready but a suitable (and long enough) track was required. Britain or indeed Europe had nothing to offer at the time and so the decision was made to take the car to the legendary track at Daytona Beach, Florida where it would be the first non-American car to attempt a land speed record.
And so it was on the morning of March 29, 1927 and in front of more than 35,000 spectators, that the courageous Henry Segrave took to the wheel of the bright red Mystery. He was allowed two attempts. His first looked quick, his second even quicker. But the brakes on the Sunbeam had melted and it couldn’t stop. However, the former First World War fighter pilot showed nerves of steel, dramatically driving his car into shallow water in order to slow it down.
Brave doesn’t come anywhere close to describing his actions but it was worth it for he’d averaged 203mph (327kph) and indeed set a new record.
That it was broken the following year matters little, for the Sunbeam 1,000HP Mystery will always be remembered as the first car to travel at over 200mph.
Manufacturer: Sunbeam Motor Company, Wolverhampton, UK
Engine: Two V12 Sunbeam Matabele aero engines
Capacity: 45-litres combined
Output: 900bhp at 2,000rpm
Top speed: 207mph (333kph)