Thunderbolt (car)

Last updated

Captain Eyston's Thunderbolt, 1938 (Our Generation, 1938).jpg
Manufacturer Bean Cars of Tipton
Body and chassis
Body style land speed record car
Layout twin steering front axles, single driven rear axle with twin-wheels
Engine Twin Rolls-Royce R V-12 aero engines
Transmission Coupled gearbox and single final drive
Kerb weight 7 tons

Thunderbolt was a British Land Speed Record holder of the 1930s, driven by Captain George E.T. Eyston.


Records held

Between 1937 and 1939, the competition for the Land Speed Record was between two Englishmen: Captain Eyston and John Cobb. Thunderbolt's first record was set at 312.00 mph (502.12 km/h) on 19 November 1937 on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Within a year Thunderbolt returned with improved aerodynamics and raised its record to 345.50 mph (556.03 km/h) on 27 August 1938. [1]

This record only stood for a matter of weeks before John Cobb's Reid-Railton broke the 350 mph (560 km/h) barrier and raised it to 353.30 mph (568.58 km/h) on 15 September 1938, as Eyston watched. This inspired him to take Thunderbolt to a new record of 357.50 mph (575.34 km/h). Cobb had held the record for less than 24 hours.

Eyston and Thunderbolt held the record for almost a year, until Cobb took it again at a speed of 369.70 mph (594.97 km/h) on 23 August 1939. This was the last record attempt before the outbreak of the Second World War. Although Cobb returned after the war and further developed his car to exceed 400 mph (640 km/h), Thunderbolt never attempted the record again.


The leading Land Speed Record cars of the period had taken two approaches to obtaining power; using either the latest and most sophisticated aero-engines available or combining multiple engines. Thunderbolt used both techniques to produce an unprecedentedly powerful car. In its day, terms like "leviathan" and "behemoth" were commonly used to describe the 7-ton car, over twice the weight of its competitors.

The engines were a pair of Rolls-Royce R-type V-12 aero engines, as previously used singly in Malcolm Campbell's Blue Bird of 1933. In fact, one of Eyston's spare engines for the record attempts was on loan from Campbell. There were so few of these engines built (around 20) that many of them had illustrious careers over several different records. One of the Thunderbolt's had already powered the Schneider Trophy winner. Each engine was of 36.5 litres capacity, supercharged, and had an individual output power of 2,350 bhp (1,752 kW; 2,383 PS). Handling all this power through a single driven axle required great innovation in metallurgy and in manufacturing the geartrain, as well as water-cooling the completed transmission.

The chassis and bodyshell were built at the Bean works in Tipton. [2] There were three axles and eight tyres. The two leading axles steered and were of different track, so that each tyre ran on a clean surface rather than following a rut. The driven rear axle used twin tyres to reduce the load on them, a technique already used by Bluebird. Separate panels of polished silver Birmabright, a new aluminium alloy, clad the chassis. The body never had the aerodynamic refinement of the Railton Special and was distinctly blocky in appearance. At the rear was a large triangular tailfin, flanked by a pair of hydraulically activated air brakes. [3]

Design changes

When first built there was a large eight-sided cooling air intake at the front, replaced by a smaller oval intake for the 1938 season. Another improvement for this second attempt was to paint a matt black arrow onto the side of the car. During the first attempts, the new photo-electric timing equipment had failed to detect the polished aluminium car body against the brilliant white salt. [4]

For the 1939 attempts, the streamlining was increased further. Cooling was now by a tank of melting ice rather than a radiator (as used first by Golden Arrow ). A rounded nose now filled the previous radiator air intake and the stabilising fin was removed, all leading to an appearance more like Cobb's Railton.

Fate of Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt was displayed in the British Pavilion at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in 1939-40, it also toured New Zealand during the Second World War, but is thought to have been destroyed by a fire in a Rongotai warehouse.

Another surviving engine can be seen in the Science Museum in London.

Related Research Articles

Donald Campbell English racecar driver and land & water speed record holder

Donald Malcolm Campbell, was a British speed record breaker who broke eight absolute world speed records on water and on land in the 1950s and 1960s. He remains the only person to set both world land and water speed records in the same year (1964). He died during a water speed record attempt at Coniston Water in the Lake District, England.

<i>Spirit of America</i> (automobile)

Spirit of America is the trademarked name used by Craig Breedlove for his land speed record-setting vehicles.

John Cobb (racing driver)

John Rhodes Cobb was an early to mid 20th Century English racing motorist. He was three times holder of the World Land Speed Record, in 1938, 1939 and 1947, set at Bonneville Speedway in Utah, US. He was awarded the Segrave Trophy in 1947. He was killed in 1952 whilst piloting a jet powered speedboat attempting to break the World Water Speed Record on Loch Ness water in Scotland.

The Wingfoot Express was Walt Arfons and Tom Green's jet-powered land speed record car, driven by Green to a record on October 2, 1964, after Walt suffered a heart attack just prior. The Express was powered by a Westinghouse J46 engine and hit the 413 mph record mark.

<i>Railton Special</i> Motor vehicle

The Railton Special, later rebuilt as the Railton Mobil Special, is a one-off motor vehicle designed by Reid Railton and built for John Cobb's successful attempts at the land speed record in 1938.

Napier-Railton Motor vehicle

The Napier-Railton is an aero-engined race car built in 1933, designed by Reid Railton to a commission by John Cobb, and built by Thomson & Taylor. It was driven by Cobb, mainly at the Brooklands race track where it holds the all-time lap record which was set in 1935. The circuit was appropriated for military purposes during the Second World War, and never reopened in that form for racing. It has a W12 engine with 3 different exhaust systems.

Reid Railton

Reid A. Railton (1895–1977) was a British automotive engineer, and designer of land and water speed record vehicles.

Rolls-Royce R 1929 British aero engine

The Rolls-Royce R was a British aero engine designed and built specifically for air racing purposes by Rolls-Royce Limited. Nineteen R engines were assembled in a limited production run between 1929 and 1931. Developed from the Rolls-Royce Buzzard, it was a 37-litre capacity, supercharged V-12 capable of producing just under 2,800 horsepower (2,090 kW), and weighed 1,640 pounds (770 kg). Intensive factory testing revealed mechanical failures which were remedied by redesigning the components, greatly improving reliability.

Mercedes-Benz T80 Motor vehicle

The Mercedes-Benz T80 was a six-wheeled vehicle built by Mercedes-Benz, developed and designed by Ferdinand Porsche. It was intended to break the world land speed record, but never made the attempt, the project having been overtaken by the outbreak of World War II.

Golden Arrow (car) Motor vehicle

Golden Arrow was a land speed record racer built in Britain to regain the world land speed record from the USA. Henry Segrave drove the car at 231.45 mph (372.46 km/h) in March 1929 on Daytona Beach, exceeding the previous record by 24 mph.

Ab Jenkins

David Abbott "Ab" Jenkins was the 24th mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah from 1940 to 1944 and was a professional race car driver. Jenkins' interest in motorsports began with racing motorcycles on dirt tracks and cross country. He then became interested in land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He was instrumental in establishing Bonneville as a location for such events, and in attracting overseas drivers such as George Eyston and Sir Malcolm Campbell to compete there.

Ernest Eldridge British racing car driver

Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge was a British racing car driver who broke the world land speed record in 1924. His was the last land speed record set on an open road.

George Eyston

Captain George Edward Thomas Eyston MC OBE was a British engineer, inventor, and racing driver best known for breaking the land speed record three times between 1937 and 1939.

Bluebird-Proteus CN7 Gas-turbine powered vehicle used to set a world land speed record

The Bluebird-Proteus CN7 is a gas turbine-powered vehicle that was driven by Donald Campbell and achieved the world land speed record on Lake Eyre in Australia on 17 July 1964. The vehicle set the FIA world record for the flying mile at 403.1 mph (648.7 km/h).

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird Motor vehicle

The Napier-Campbell Blue Bird was a land speed record car driven by Malcolm Campbell. Its designer was C. Amherst Villiers and Campbell's regular mechanic Leo Villa supervised its construction.

Campbell-Railton Blue Bird Motor vehicle

The Campbell-Railton Blue Bird was Sir Malcolm Campbell's final land speed record car.

Speed of the Wind Motor vehicle

Speed of the Wind was a record-breaking car of the 1930s, built for and driven by Captain George Eyston.

The Magic Midgets were a number of record-breaking 750cc "midget" MG cars of the 1930s. They were most notably, but not always, driven by George Eyston.

<i>Mormon Meteor</i> Motor vehicle

The Mormon Meteor I and III were two land speed record cars built in the 1930s by Ab Jenkins.

Aero-engined car

An aero-engined car is an automobile powered by an engine designed for aircraft use. Most such cars have been built for racing, and many have attempted to set world land speed records. While the practice of fitting cars with aircraft engines predates World War I by a few years, it was most popular in the interwar period between the world wars when military-surplus aircraft engines were readily available and used to power numerous high-performance racing cars. Initially powered by piston aircraft engines, a number of post-World War II aero-engined cars have been powered by aviation turbine and jet engines instead. Piston-engined, turbine-engined, and jet-engined cars have all set world land speed records. There have also been some non-racing automotive applications for aircraft engines, including production vehicles such as the Tucker 48 and prototypes such as the Chrysler Turbine Car, Fiat Turbina, and General Motors Firebirds. In the late 20th century and into the 21st century, there has also been a revival of interest in piston-powered aero-engined racing cars.


  1. Holthusen, Peter J.R. (1986). The Land Speed Record. ISBN   0-85429-499-6.
  2. "Captain George Eyston's 'Thunderbolt' car, 1937". (commercial photo gallery)
  3. "George Eyston: The Empire Club of Canada Speeches 1938-1939". includes some images of Thunderbolt
  4. "Wolverhampton History and Heritage". The Bean. Retrieved 10 March 2014.

See also