More than 20 years after it became the first car to set the world land-speed record in excess of the speed of sound, ThrustSSC not only still holds the record, it’s also still racking up accolades after the Institution of Mechanical Engineers presented the jet car with its Engineering Heritage Award.
“The vehicle and the team behind it were working in completely unchartered territory and what they achieved was quite extraordinary,” said John Wood, the chair of the awards program, in a statement on Monday.
Conceived by Richard Noble in late 1990 as a response to news that Craig Breedlove intended to challenge the world land-speed record that he set with Thrust2 in 1983, ThrustSSC was designed from the start to exceed the speed of sound. Noble announced the project, which he convinced Castrol and Dunlop to sponsor, in May 1994.
Along with chief designer Glyn Bowsher and aerodynamicist Ron Ayers, Noble decided to upgrade from Thrust2’s single Rolls-Royce Avon axial flow jet engine configuration to one that made use of a pair of Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines from an F-4 Phantom, each good for as much as 20,500 pounds of thrust. Rather than place the cockpit to one side (as with the Thrust2) or ahead (as with Breedlove’s designs) of the engines, they elected to place it directly between the engines.
Ayers, tasked with shaping a vehicle that could not only provide the speed necessary to break the record but also do so while keeping all four wheels on the ground, first turned to computational fluid dynamics programs to ensure it could even be done. Data alone, however, wouldn’t be enough to prove the concept for him or Noble, so they created a 1:25-scale model, which they ran on a military rocket sled to test Ayers’s theories on how supersonic shock waves would interact with the ground beneath the vehicle. The CFD data and the real-world test data nearly matched, so construction proceeded on the fullsize racer.
With the two front wheels encased in the engines’ nacelles and thus limited in their steering capability, Bowsher decided to make the ThrustSSC’s two rear wheels steerable. To keep the nose of the vehicle from either turning into a javelin or a pole for vaulting, former Formula 1 active suspension engineer Jeremy Bliss designed a similar suspension that leveled out the nose at speed.
With Andy Green set as driver, the team first tried to make some runs on the Al Jafr Desert in Jordan. When that proved inhospitable to the car, the team reserved time on the playa at Black Rock Desert in Nevada — at the same time that Breedlove intended to make his record runs with his Sonic Arrow. Both teams tested through September and October, and Breedlove managed to run a top speed of 636 mph at one point. That would have conceivably put him within reach of the Thrust2 record, but as Samuel Hawley wrote in Ultimate Speed: The Fast Life and Extreme Caars of Racing Legend Craig Breedlove, a series of mishaps, including a destroyed engine, put Breedlove out of contention for the record.
Instead, Green first set the world land-speed record at a subsonic 714 mph on September 25, then aimed for a supersonic record to legitimize the car’s name. Their first run in excess of the speed of sound took place October 13, but the car overshot its staging area for the return run and missed the window to make that run by less than a minute. Undeterred, the team tried again two days later and set the first — and so far only — supersonic world land-speed record at 763.035 mph over the mile (760.343 over the kilometer).
Noble immediately retired ThrustSSC and has since placed it on display with the Coventry Transport Museum, which in 2015 placed both ThrustSSC and Thrust2 in their own exhibition space.
The London-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers established the Engineering Heritage Award program in 1984 — a year after Thrust2 set the world land-speed record — to “recognize pioneering engineering artefacts, locations, collections, and landmarks.” In the 35 years since, 125 awards have been handed out, largely to significant steam engines and locomotives, though the list of award winners also includes Alan Turing’s Bombe at Bletchley Park, the Concorde, and the Channel Tunnel.
Thrust SSC is only the third four-wheeled non-rail vehicle recognized by the awards program, following the Jaguar E-Type and the REPCO Brabham BT19.
“When it comes to individual artefacts, it’s not an easy decision to make and our aim is always to ensure that only the very best and unique are honoured by the award,” Wood said.
Similarly, in 2014, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers declared ThrustSSC an Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
For more information on the Engineering Heritage Award, visit IMechE.org.