White Triplex

Last updated
White Triplex
Also calledSpirit of Elkdom
Production one-off (1928)
Body and chassis
Body style minimal-bodywork racing car.
Engine Three Liberty L-12 V12 aero engines

The White Triplex (also known as the "Triplex Special" [1] and the "Spirit of Elkdom") was an American land speed record car built for J. H. White and driven by Ray Keech. It was powered by three 27-litre Liberty aero engines, for a total of 36 cylinders, 81 litres of displacement and a claimed 1500 bhp.

Land speed record the highest speed achieved by a person using a vehicle on land

The land speed record is the highest speed achieved by a person using a vehicle on land. There is no single body for validation and regulation; in practice the Category C flying start regulations are used, officiated by regional or national organizations under the auspices of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile. The land speed record (LSR) is standardized as the speed over a course of fixed length, averaged over two runs. Two runs are required in opposite directions within one hour, and a new record mark must exceed the previous one by at least one percent to be validated.

Ray Keech racecar driver

Charles Raymond Keech was a board track and brick track racer in the 1920s. He is best remembered for winning the 1929 Indianapolis 500, and for setting a land speed record.

Liberty L-12 V-12 piston aircraft engine

The Liberty L-12 was an American 27-litre water-cooled 45° V-12 aircraft engine of 400 hp (300 kW) designed for a high power-to-weight ratio and ease of mass production. It was succeeded by the Packard 1A-2500.


White, a wealthy American from Philadelphia (no connection to the White Motor Company), wanted to take the land speed record from the British, then shared in a duel between Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell. [2]

The White Motor Company was an American automobile, truck, bus and agricultural tractor manufacturer from 1900 until 1980. The company also produced bicycles, roller skates, automatic lathes, and sewing machines. Before World War II, the company was based in Cleveland, Ohio. White Diesel Engine Division in Springfield, Ohio, manufactured diesel engine generators, which powered U.S. military equipment and infrastructure, namely Army Nike and Air Force Bomarc launch complexes, and other guided missile installations and proving grounds, sections of SAGE and DEW Line stations, radars, combat direction centers and other ground facilities of the U.S. aerospace defense ring, such as the Texas Towers. During the Vietnam era, the company retained its position within the Top 100 Defense Contractors list. Its production facilities, such as the Lansing truck plant in Lansing, Michigan, and the main plant in Cleveland were engaged in production, inspection, engineering services and maintenance of thousands of military/utility cargo trucks M39, M44, M600, and M602 series trucks, as well as spare parts, such as cylinder heads, diesel and gasoline engines with accessories.

Henry Segrave racecar driver

Sir Henry O'Neal de Hane Segrave was an early British pioneer in land speed and water speed records. Segrave, who set three land and one water record, was the first person to hold both titles simultaneously and the first person to travel at over 200 miles per hour (320 km/h) in a land vehicle. He died in an accident in 1930 shortly after setting a new world water speed record on Windermere in the Lake District, England. The Segrave Trophy was established to commemorate his life.

Malcolm Campbell English racecar driver and speed record holder

Major Sir Malcolm Campbell was a British racing motorist and motoring journalist. He gained the world speed record on land and on water at various times during the 1920s and 1930s using vehicles called Blue Bird, including a 1921 Grand Prix Sunbeam. His son, Donald Campbell, carried on the family tradition by holding both land speed and water speed records.

Showing the three engines White Triplex n041953.jpg
Showing the three engines

No suitable engines were available to give a sufficient advantage over the British Napier Lion, so the simplest possible chassis was constructed and three war-surplus Liberty aero engines were squeezed into it. The vehicle was simple, with no clutch or gearbox and only a single fixed ratio. Once running by a push start, it had to keep rolling. Driver comforts were minimal: the forward engine was sheathed in a crude attempt at streamlining, the two side-by-side behind it were bare, with the driver perched between them and the one in front. [3]

Napier Lion W-12 piston aircraft engine family

The Napier Lion was a 12-cylinder 'broad arrow' W12 configuration aircraft engine built by D. Napier & Son from 1917 until the 1930s. A number of advanced features made it the most powerful engine of its day and kept it in production long after other contemporary designs had been superseded. It is particularly well known for its use in a number of racing designs, for aircraft, boats and cars.

Keech's record attempt

Triplex in 1928, driven by Ray Keech White Triplex n041942.jpg
Triplex in 1928, driven by Ray Keech

An established motor-racing driver, Ray Keech, was engaged to drive. Initial trial runs were hazardous, with Keech being injured by burns during both: first from a burst radiator hose, then by exhaust flames from the front engine.

The simplicity of the design also led to a farcical situation with the official scrutineers. The regulations required "means for reversing", which the White Triplex did not have. Mechanics first jury-rigged an electric motor and roller drive onto a tire, but this was unable to rotate against the compression of the three large engines, which could not be un-clutched. An even more complicated contrivance was tried, an entire separate rear axle was fitted, held above ground until dropped by a release lever and then driven by a separate driveshaft. The device is not believed to have been fitted during the record attempt itself, but it satisfied the scrutineers. [4]

On April 22, 1928, Keech set a new land speed record of 207.55 mph (334.02 km/h) at Daytona.

Death of Lee Bible

The Triplex Special in 1929, driven by Lee Bible White Triplex pr14150a.jpg
The Triplex Special in 1929, driven by Lee Bible

This record was raised to over 230 mph by Henry Segrave in Golden Arrow on March 11, 1929. Keech was asked by White to drive again, this time at Ormond Beach, and to re-break the record in the Triplex. Keech declined, considering the car to be too dangerous. White then hired their team mechanic Lee Bible, a garage owner with no experience driving at these speeds. [5]

On his first two runs, Bible was timed at first 186 mph (299 km/h) and then 202 mph (325 km/h), both below the Triplex Special's previous best and well short of Golden Arrow's standing record. At the end of this second pass, the Triplex ran off the track and into the sand dunes, causing it to roll over and finally come to a stop 200 ft (60 m) further on. Bible was thrown from the car, killing him instantly. A Pathé newsreel cinema photographer and spectator, Charles Traub, was also killed. [5] Some blame Bible's driving and excessively fast deceleration, others Triplex's lack of stability. There is controversy about both of those deaths, as it is also unclear whether the photographer was in an area expected to be safe, or if he approached the running line too closely in order to get more dramatic footage. [5]

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  1. Northey, Tom (1974). "Land Speed Record: The Fastest Men on Earth". In Tom Northey. World of Automobiles. Vol. 10 (London: Orbis), pp. 1164.
  2. Northey, pp. 1164–5.
  3. "White Triplex Special". ThrustSSC.
  4. "1928: White Triplex driven by Ray Keech". Unique Cars and Parts.
  5. 1 2 3 Motorsport Memorial