Riding a Thunderbolt

Mentioning New Zealand’s Centennial Exhibition in last Wednesday’s post reminded me of that prolific Land Speed Record breaker of the 1930s, Captain G.E.T. Eyston. It’s one of those word association things. The reason will become clear later.

George Eyston, a tall man with neatly trimmed moustache and round spectacles, didn’t fit the popular image of a daredevil race driver, yet his career encompassed every aspect of motorsport. In a set of fifty cigarette cards entitled ‘Speed’, produced in 1938, he was the only person to feature three times.

Eyston_speed

Speed of the Wind, unconventionally-designed car equipped with Rolls-Royce engine, has covered more miles in one round of the clock than any other. Manned by Captain Eyston and A. Denly, it achieved a distance of 1,964 miles at an average speed of 163.68 m.p.h. on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, although the track was soggy after an unusually rainy season. As the car sped round on the glistening salt, the track became softer and softer and driving became more difficult, but the two intrepid drivers carried on till the record was won.
Albert Denly (1900-1989) had broken numerous speed records on motorcycles and was Eyston’s chief mechanic and reserve driver.

Eyston_flyingCaptain Eyston is a great believer in the future of the heavy-oil engine and demonstrated on Flying Spray the potentialities of this type. In 1936 he beat the World speed record for Diesel-engined cars with a mean speed over the flying start kilometre of 159.1 m.p.h. and over the flying start mile at 158.87 m.p.h. His visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1937 was remarkable for the fact that he took two cars with him and successfully attacked different records with both of them, thus completing a speed “hat trick.” In appearance, the car is very like his famous long distance record breaker, “Speed of the Wind.”

The resemblance is understandable because it was, in fact, the same car with a different engine. The caption writer was a little confused. Eyston took two engines, not two cars, to Bonneville. As MotorSport magazine explained after an interview with Eyston in 1974 – front-wheel-drive was used for “Speed of the Wind”, Eyston’s very successful record car, which had a 21-litre Rolls-Royce Kestrel aero-engine and was also used with an ex-Air Ministry 19-litre Ricardo diesel engine. ….
Both engines were used at Utah, being changed out there, the c.i.-engined [diesel] set-up being named the “Flying Spray”.

Then came ‘Thunderbolt’ – and the connection to New Zealand.

Eyston_Thunder

Thunderbolt is the fastest car in the World. Captain G.E.T. Eyston drove this giant car at a speed of 357.53 m.p.h. on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, on September 16th, 1938, thus breaking John Cobb’s record of 350.2 m.p.h. which was set up the day before. Thunderbolt weighs over 7 tons and is more than 30 ft. long. It is fitted with two 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce engines set side-by-side behind the driving seat. The enormous power is transmitted through a three-speed gear box to a final bevel drive without differential.

Although Cobb regained the record soon afterwards, at 368 m.p.h., ‘Thunderbolt’ was taken to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and exhibited as a winning example of British engineering. It had a short stay before being shipped to Wellington for the Centennial Exhibition (despite the outbreak of war in Europe) where it went on display on 10th January 1940.

When that exhibition closed four months later, it was decided to keep ‘Thunderbolt’ in one of the buildings, which had been taken over by the Air Force, until the end of hostilities. By September 1946, Eyston’s record breaker had been joined in storage by several De Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft, surplus furniture, and £70,000 worth of baled wool due for export. At around 3 a.m. on the 25th the wool caught alight by spontaneous combustion, starting a fire that could be seen for miles and destroying the entire building. Thunderbolt’s charred remains lay rusting in the open into the 1950s before eventual burial in the Wellington landfill.

You can watch this newsreel of Eyston and Thunderbolt on Youtube.