Since the dawn of the automobile, people have been obsessed with pushing the limits when it comes to top speed. At first, this meant driving in excess of 50 mph on particularly smooth beaches. By the 1960s, though, jet-powered cars rewrote the record books again and again. And for over five decades now, jet and rocket-powered land speed record-breaking cars have impacted our culture and advanced our science. These are they.
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Using an engine straight out of a contemporary F86 fighter jet, the Spirit of America was so advanced that it originally wasn’t granted the record. A slower speed set later by a traditionally-powered car held the record until, eventually, the FIA realized the error of their ways. This car and its driver/pilot, Craig Breedlove, were both household names in the 1960s. The Beach Boys even made a documentary-like song about the car. Kind of hard to top that.
2. Wingfoot Express, 413.2 mph
In a sense, the Wingfoot Express is an American underdog story: the car’s designers had very little budget, so they went to Goodyear to plead their case for sponsorship. And $78,000 later, the car emerged, with Goodyear’s winged foot logo providing the inspiration for the name. One month prior to the record run, the car’s designer and main driver, Walt Arfons, experienced a heart attack after watching the other driver suffer a failed parachute. He saw the car head into a forest at 200 mph—saved only by 300 feet of wire fencing that caught the rear wheels. Nevertheless, chief engineer Tom Green (no, not him) managed 413.2 mph.
Note: There was a subsequent Wingfoot Express II that went an absolutely insane 605 mph, but it wasn’t for an official run, and thus it never set the land speed record.
3. The Green Monster, 434.03 mph
Just three days after Wingfoot Express’ record run, Arfons’ brother Art snatched the record by going 434 mph in the totally not phallic (or green!) Green Monster. This sparked an intense back-and-forth rivalry with Breedlove. After all was said and done, the F4 Phantom-powered Green Monster had done an average speed of just over 536 mph set during a run when Art had to slow down due to a blowout at over 600 mph.
4. Spirit of America Sonic 1, 600.601 mph
When Craig Breedlove came back to reclaim the record in 1965, he did it in style, becoming the first man to top 600 mph on the ground. Interestingly, his wife set the women’s land speed record by topping 308 mph in the car. Legend has it that she had never driven above 75 mph prior to her run.
Sponsored by the American Gas Association and the Institute of Gas Technology, Blue Flame was actually too fast for its own good. The tires, the engineers were told, would suffer catastrophic failure if the car went over 700 mph. Thus, the engine was designed to only run for half of the full mile required to set the record, with the car coasting the rest of the way. It hit a peak of 650 mph before coasting to the finish.
6. Thrust 2, 634.051 mph
Thrust 2 was a massive, Rolls-Royce jet-powered sled that actually got started with £175 ($300), the price project leader Richard Noble was able to get for the scrap remaining from Thrust 1 after a 500 mph crash. Their first attempts on the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats were ruined because the famed dry bed lake was somehow waterlogged. When all was said and done, though, the Thrust 2 had its record.
7. Thrust SSC, 763.035 mph
According to Guinness, the Budweiser Rocket Car, which used a NASA-like solid-state rocket with an Air Force-spec air-to-air missile as a booster, topped 739.666 mph in 1979. This was just a smidge over Mach 1.01—but the USAF refused to certify the time because the radar wasn’t properly calibrated. Thus, the twin jet-powered Thrust SSC, built by the same team behind Thrust and Thrust 2, is officially the first car to break the sound barrier, ultimately hitting 763.035, or Mach 1.02. For now, that’s where things stand...though the Bloodhound SSC, driven by the same guy who drove Thrust SSC, is looking to top 1000 mph. It’s kind of an impressive feat of engineering, which you can read up on right here.
Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor. The fastest he’s ever gone in a car is still less than 200 mph. He hopes to change that one day.