A Brief History
On December 18, 1898, French race car driver Gaston de Chassaloup-Laubat set the first recognized World Record for Land Speed at an unimpressive 63.13 kilometers per hour (39.25 mph). (Note: For Land Speed Record we are referring to human steered vehicles powered by a motor of some type, and not considering bicycles or horseback riding.)
Gaston was driving a Jeantaud electric car for his record run, and at that time when automobiles were in their infancy it was not yet clear which means of propulsion would become preeminent, whether gasoline, electric, steam or diesel powered motors.
Over the next couple years Gaston and his arch rival Camille Janatzy would trade the record status back and forth in an ever increasing raising of the bar. When Janatzy set a new record in 1899 as the first man to drive a car over 100 kph (62 mph) the record stood for a whopping 3 years (105 kph/65 mph). Also in 1899, “Mile a Minute” Murphy rode a human powered bicycle over a 1 mile course in 57 seconds, over 60mph! (The current bicycle speed record is 167 mph.)
The record setting Jeantaud electric car was a chain drive primitive affair that produced only 36 horsepower. Steering was done with a vertical stick that was attached to history‘s first known steering wheel, when other cars were steered with a tiller. The car was rebuilt and won back the land speed record 2 more times, for a distinguished career of having set the Land Speed Record 3 times in all. In fact, the first 5 times the record was set it would be in electric cars, before steam powered cars eclipsed the electrics and finally gasoline powered cars became king of the hill.
The record attempt would first come to the United States in 1904 when Henry Ford drove one of his early creations to the record setting performance, this time on frozen Lake St. Clair near Detroit. By 1927, almost every Land Speed World Record set was accomplished in the United States, though not always by Americans. The current record is held by the Thrust SSC, a jet powered car, at a supersonic 763 mph, set in 1997. (Note: The Ford 999 was powered by an 18.9 liter/ 1150 cubic inch 4 cylinder engine!)
Question for students (and subscribers): What is the fastest you have ever driven a car? The fastest you have ever been in a car driven by someone else? Feel free to share your high speed stories in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Clarke, R.M. The Land Speed Record 1898-1919. Brooklands Books Ltd, 2000.