Time Capsule – When Jet Cars Roamed the Salt
There was a time in motorsport history when Jet Cars roamed the salt at the Bonneville salt flats. These archival images show the power and majesty of these jet-powered streamliners.
The years were 1963 and 1964, a time of political upheaval. A civil rights war raged in the states, a shooting war did likewise in Southeast Asia. A popular president had been assassinated. The space race was heating up. A cold war enveloped it all.
Hot rodders and speed junkies, though, focused on another fight, the honor of holding the land speed record – a challenge that had captivated motoring enthusiasts since the first internal combustion coughed into life at the turn of the century. And the Bonneville Salt Flats was the venue for the challenge.
Prior to the advent of the jet engine, wheel-driven racers were the LSR standard bearers, with the world record set by John Cobb in 1947, a brisk 394.196 mph. That record stood until 1963, when a brash 27-year-old American named Craig Breedlove built a stunning jet-engine-powered machine. Dubbed the Spirit of America, the “car” looked like a 3-wheeled wingless jet fighter cutting a dramatic profile that embodied the era’s Jetsons-Meet-The-Right-Stuff ethos.
The ‘Spirit first appeared at Bonneville in 1962, but teething problems —like stability and steering at speed — thwarted a record attempt. Undeterred, Breedlove hauled the car back to Southern California where a team of aerodynamicists and engineers fine-tuned the design. A year later, Breedlove was back, determined to make history.
The revised ‘Spirit added a six-foot-high vertical tail fin for stability and a redesigned front wheel for directional control. The throttle moved from the steering wheel to the floor. Behind the cockpit roared a General Electric J47 engine from an F-86 Sabre, creating 4,500 pounds of thrust. Wile E. Coyote would have been envious.
Breedlove’s effort to “catch” his personal roadrunner was a success. On September 5, 1963 at Bonneville he became the first man to set an average speed of more than 400mph — 407.447 — wrestling the LSR title away from Mr. Cobb. But challengers lurked.
Art and Walt Arfons were brothers from Akron, Ohio, who were well-known for setting 1/4-mile speed records in dragsters. In 1954, Art built the first successful aircraft-engined (not a jet) dragster — The Green Monster — that topped the 145 mph barrier. In 1961, he plugged in a small jet engine and broke the 200-mph mark in the 1/4-mile.
Art had experience at Bonneville, as well. In 1962, as Breedlove struggled with the Spirit, he quietly turned 342 mph in jet-powered streamliner. A year later as he watched Breedlove capture the LSR he decided to return in ’64 with a more powerful and aerodynamic machine. Not to be outdone, brother Walt was building his own jet car, the “Wingfoot Express.” The stage was set for a LSR battle royal.
The trio of rivals, Art, Walter, and Craig, descended on the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in October 1964. Walter’s Wingfoot, driven by Tom Green, struck first on October 2nd with a record run of 413 mph. Breedlove and his Spirit of America had been de-throned. But Walt’s record would be short lived when brother Art, in his dazzlingly sophisticated new Green Monster, grabbed the LSR throne with an eye-popping pass of 434 mph on October 5th.
Eight days later, Breedlove had his turn in the spotlight, first hitting 468 mph on October 13; two days later, he stunned the racing world with one of the most famous Bonneville runs of all time. Not only did he push the record to an unheard of speed of 526.277 mph, but at the end of his second run, the Spirit lost its parachute brakes. With Breedlove scrambling for control, the car skidded for five miles, splintered telephone poles, blew through a shallow stretch of brine-covered salt, before going up and over a small knoll finally landing in a pond. Breedlove escaped drenched but uninjured. Only the tail fin of the Spirit was visible. When Breedlove climbed out of the cockpit, he calmly declared “And now for my next act I’m going to set myself on fire”. Not only did Breedlove now hold the LSR, he also earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest skid marks.
But Art Arfons wasn’t done. On October 27, the man from Akron lit the fuse on the Green Monster and held on tight. The 17,000 horsepower Monster took off down the salt and flew through the timing traps an inconceivable speed of 536.710 mph for the flying mile and 544.130 for the flying kilometer. On his first run, he crossed the flying mile trap at 571.373 mph. If you’re wondering, crossing that one-mile took only 3.9 seconds.
In 1965, Arfons and Breedlove returned, Green Monster vs. Spirit of America-Sonic 1. Again, they swapped the record over a two week period, with Breedlove coming out on top, with a run of 594 mph.
This particular LSR rivalry captured the world’s attention, with international media coverage. The Beach Boys even wrote a song about it. And, of course, the motoring press was enthralled.
Fuel Curve was lucky to access Tom Medley and Don Francisco archives, including Firestone and Goodyear’s PR materials. The images presented in this story are rare and compelling. Enjoy.