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The same batteries that took men to the moon helped the Silver Eagle set the EV land-speed record

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions.

In early August 1971, the Apollo 15 astronauts deployed the first moon buggy — technically the Lunar Roving Vehicle — on the surface of ol’ Luna, reaching blistering speeds of 6 to 8 mph. Just days later, and before the Apollo 15 astronauts even returned home, the same batteries that powered the LRV helped secure the world land-speed record for electric vehicles — at much higher speeds — for a spaceship-looking streamliner that will soon head to auction.

Silver-zinc batteries, with their high energy densities, became the battery of choice for a number of components of the Apollo space program, installed in Saturn rockets, lunar lander modules, and even the life-support backpacks that astronauts wore while exploring the surface of the moon. The company that supplied those batteries to NASA, Joplin, Missouri-based Eagle-Picher, might have started out as a lead-zinc mining giant but by the early Fifties had started to develop silver-zinc battery technology for aeronautical, military, and maritime use.

To publicize its work for the Apollo program, Eagle-Picher pulled together a team of employees to design and build a vehicle to chase the land-speed record for electric vehicles. Darryl Goade headed up the project; Fred Long designed the battery system; Les Daggett designed the speed controller, and Howard Corlett and John Denning also contributed.

They came up with an aluminum-bodied bellytank-like streamliner set back on a 111-inch wheelbase tubular spaceframe chassis. An array of 180 rechargeable silver-zinc cells good for 40 amp-hours at just 1.2 volts — reportedly the same specification as the Apollo program batteries — powered a 102-hp GE series-wound DC motor that ran through a Casale quick-change rear-axle.

The Eagle-Picher team chose driver Jack Reed of Huntington Beach, California, to shoe the streamliner — dubbed the Silver Eagle — and USAC to time the effort. Whether by design or happenstance, the date they chose to run the Silver Eagle at Bonneville — August 6 — coincided with the tail end of the Apollo 15 mission. With its weight hovering right around 1,100 pounds, the team could run the Silver Eagle in two different classes.

Chasing the electric land-speed record of 138.862 mph — which Jerry Kugel set in November 1968 at Bonneville in Autolite’s Lead Wedge streamliner — Reed in the Silver Eagle proceeded to set 21 national and international records, among them the EV land-speed record at 146.437 mph over the flying mile (146.147 mph over the flying kilometer), with a top speed of more than 152 mph.

In comparison, the world land-speed record at the time belonged to Gary Gabelich, who drove the Blue Flame hydrogen peroxide/natural gas rocket-powered streamliner to a speed of 622.407 mph over the flying mile (630.478 mph over the flying kilometer) less than a year prior.

At the time, Goade predicted that battery-electric vehicles would be in widespread use in urban and high-smog areas within five years. “Our biggest stumbling block is finding a substitute for silver in the silver-zinc combination battery,” Goade told the Salt Lake Tribune. Interestingly, while other battery technologies have come and gone in the ensuing years (the Buckeye Bullet 3 that currently holds the EV land-speed record runs on lithium-ion batteries), Eagle-Picher still offers silver-zinc batteries.

The Apollo 15 mission returned to Earth the day after the Silver Eagle set its record.

The Silver Eagle appears to have crossed the block once before, at Mecum’s 2012 Monterey sale, though results from that auction are not available. Mecum will offer the Silver Eagle again at its Kissimmee sale, the same auction at which the Mickey and Danny Thompson Challenger 2 streamliner will cross the block.

Mecum’s Kissimmee sale will take place January 2-12. For more information, visit Mecum.com.