Thrust Project

Wanted 650mph Car Designer

Jet Blast Book Cover The Islander aircraft ski design job lasted through the winter and finished in the early Summer of '77. I drifted back into the deckchair profession, but this year the weather was inclement, and the social life subdued. One dismal day I sat down in a deck chair, surveyed the empty beach and picked up a copy of 'Car and Car Conversions' magazine. Scanning through the pages a press release caught my eye. 'Wanted 650mph car designer' it read. It was a bolt out of the blue and I was mesmerised. Tales I had read of Land Speed Record holders John Cobb, Donald Campbell and Craig Breedlove, and designers Reid Railton and Ken Norris went buzzing through my head. I had experience in aerodynamics, aircraft and car design, and practice in turning design dreams into working vehicles from Austin 7 to Electric cars. I also had a web of contacts with all sorts of practical skills.

It all added up! The hand of fate was dealing the cards. 'Contact Richard Noble' said the release and gave a Twickenham phone number. Several calls and a week or two later I got Richard, who said he was off on urgent business again, but would make an appointment for me to meet Ken Norris who was vetting the applicants. Ken had been the chief designer on Donald Campbell's Bluebird car and boat and with brother Lou was now running Norris Brothers Engineering in Haywards Heath. I found Ken's number and gave him a ring.

We agreed to meet the next day at Ford Airfield in West Sussex, where Ken had a hangar and was hoping to set up an aviation business. We immediately hit a common chord. Ken told me Richard had got hold of an afterburning Avon jet engine from a supersonic Lightning fighter and wanted to put it in a car, hence the press release — a clever alternative to an advert. Several hours later our deep discussion over the ins and outs of record cars was interrupted by a telephone call. It was Noble calling to make an appointment for me. Ken told Richard he was too late, I was already there and he thought I was the man for the job.

I met Richard when he returned and was immediately impressed by his exuberant enthusiasm. He had caught the speed bug as a child, and like me had followed the exploits of Cobb and Campbell, who turned from land to water speed, and were killed in their boats. Now Richard was determined to push ahead and bring the World Land Speed Record back to Britain.

Donald Campbell had set the last British Land Speed Record of 403mph in his wheel driven, Proteus turbine powered Bluebird car, designed by the Norris brothers. The record was set in 1964 on the vast salt flats of Lake Eyre in the Australian outback, where he had to overcome serious setbacks with a soggy salt surface.

Since Campbell's last shot the LSR had been held by the Americans in a series of jet and rocket powered cars. Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons had battled it out on the Bonneville Salt Flats with their Spirit of America and Green Monster jet cars, pushing the speed up in turns through the sixties. The duel ended with Breedlove's Spirit of America, Sonic 1, powered by a J79 engine from a Starfighter, setting a record of 600mph in 1965. Above 600 the Spirit's nose started to lift, so Craig wisely called it a day.

The next challenge came from a sleek missile shaped rocket car that was to break the jet car domination. Gary Gabelich driving Blue Flame claimed the LSR crown with a speed of 622mph in 1970, once again on the Bonneville Salt Flats, west of Salt Lake City in Utah. Bonneville had become the Mecca of the speed freaks since the thirties when Malcolm Campbell, Eyston and Cobb had ruled the salt.

It was Gabelich's record that Noble would have to beat. Richard had already built and crashed Britain's first jet car Thrust 1, and was determined to take the next step up the Land Speed ladder, hence the widely published press release and our meeting.

Richard and I discussed his ambition to win back the LSR, and the car that was needed to achieve it. He favoured the layout used by Art Arfons for his Green Monsters. This arrangement consisted of a jet engine running down the middle from nose to tail, with cockpits, fuel tanks, and wheels spaced out on either side of the engine. I agreed with this philosophy because it put the wheels in the corners for a steady platform, the driver in the middle for safety, and the engine weight up front for stability. It would also be comparatively straightforward to build and service. At the end of our enthusiastic meeting Richard offered me the job with a carte blanche to design and build the car. I accepted. Three essential elements were needed to get the project started, an engine, a designer, and funds. Richard now had the first two but not the funds. He could not pay me. I had to earn a living so I could not start full time. We agreed that I would have to get a 'fill in' job and work on the new Thrust 2 car in my spare time. When Richard had raised sufficient funds I would come on board permanently.

It was an enormous act of faith. Richard and I had only briefly met, yet we had staked everything on each other's ability to produce the goods. I had to trust that Richard could raise the publicity and funds, and he had to trust that I could design and build a safe 650mph jet car. Richard was based in London where the finance was, and I was based on the Isle of Wight where the skills were. To achieve our goal we had to leapfrog American progress made since 1964 with a succession of eight different jet or rocket powered record contenders.

To our credit was one Rolls Royce Jet engine. On the debit side we had no funding, no land speed credentials, no team, no premises, no materials, components or tools. At least we were starting with a clean sheet.

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