To this day, Art Arfons holds one rather inglorious record: After crashing his Green Monster land-speed-record car in November 1966, he became the only person to survive a 600-mph-plus car wreck. That car only exists in memories and scraps now, but the replica of it that Arfons built remains and will anchor a display dedicated to land-speed-record holders at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.
Arfons’ land-speed-record ambitions date to the Fall of 1962, when he hit upon the idea of building a jet-powered car in the vein of the Cyclops and Green Monster jet drag cars he’d been campaigning across the country. Except Arfons believed he could take the record with a far more powerful engine, the afterburner-equipped J-79 from the F-104 Starfighter, good for about 17,000 pounds of thrust, or about 10,000 more than other jet-powered land-speed racers were harnessing at the time from their J-46s and J-47s.
Rather than worry about streamlining, Arfons built a basic fairing around the engine and attached two narrow cockpits to either side of it and a tailfin to the back of it. According to Samuel Hawley‘s Speed Duel, Arfons reasoned that because the intake of a jet engine doesn’t technically contribute to frontal drag, it made little sense to cover it with a nosecone and then try to duct sufficient air to the engine. The chassis consisted of whatever Arfons could find around his yard: an axle from a Dodge truck, a steering assembly from a Packard, the instrument panel from one of his old airplanes.
On the urging from Firestone’s Humpy Wheeler, Arfons added some Firestone red to the green paint. In October 1963, Art Arfons’ land-speed Green Monster first hit the salt at Bonneville, and it almost immediately clocked off a new world land-speed record at 434.02 mph, followed by the first of multiple high-speed tire blowouts that plagued the car.
He returned in 1964 to secure another record — at 536.71 mph — at the same time he suffered a second blowout. He then leapfrogged Craig Breedlove again in 1965 with another record of 576.55 mph while blowing yet another tire. And then in 1966, with Breedlove’s 601-mph record in sight and with a Green Monster heavily modified to take the stress, a seized wheel bearing sent the Green Monster rolling and end-over-end at an estimated 610 mph. Arfons emerged from the wreckage conscious, temporarily blinded from salt spray in his face, but not permanently injured.
According to Hawley, there was nothing to salvage from the wreckage, so Arfons cut up what was left of the Green Monster and eventually sold the remains to a scrap dealer, keeping only the tailfin as a memento. But, not long after, he got the itch to build another Green Monster land-speed car.
“The vehicle, completed in 1968, was similar in outward appearance to its pulped predecessor and equipped with another J-79 engine, but it was lighter and more streamlined, and had a better power to weight,” Hawley wrote. “With it, Art was confident he could reclaim the record, maybe even go supersonic.”
Firestone officials, however, no longer had any desire to back land-speed-record attempts. So, without a sponsor or a source of high-speed tires, Arfons relegated the successor Green Monster to drag-strip exhibitions and eventually sold it for $100,000 to Slick Gardner. Gardner made one attempt at the land-speed record in 1978, but failed, and the car eventually made its way to the Petersen Automotive Museum, where it remains today.
But, not on display. So, when officials at the San Diego Air and Space Museum were requesting vehicles from the Petersen for their year-long “SPEED: Science in Motion” exhibit, the museum’s first exhibit to include cars, they jumped at the chance to include the Green Monster. Joining it during the month of February will be a number of other record-holding vehicles, including Ack Attack, the world’s fastest motorcycle; the Paramount Forge streamliner; and a standing-mile record holding 1963 Studebaker Avanti.
Every month through the rest of the year, the exhibit will include a new lineup of cars focused on a specific theme.
For more information about the exhibit, visit SanDiegoAirandSpace.org.