Britain’s record breakers
The Triumph TR2 ducked the wind but hit the headlines at Jabbeke in 1953. We look at how this arrow-straight stretch of road enhanced the reputations of some of Britain’s most revered sporting cars
Triumph takes on Jabbeke
Britain, in case you need reminding, is a cramped place. We’re just that little bit pressed for space – or, at least, for usable space. And that can hinder progress when you’re a nation obsessed with motoring speed and competition.
True, Brooklands circuit opened in Surrey in 1907 as the world’s first purpose-built racetrack. But that was already becoming too restrictive by 1922 when Kenelm Lee Guinness broke the world land speed record there at 133mph in his Sunbeam.
The windswept beach at Pendine Sands in south Wales reached its limits four years later when Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird hit 171mph. Since then, speed freaks like George Eyston, John Cobb, Richard Noble and Andy Green have had to travel to the US or Australia to find anywhere with enough flat distance to achieve their goals.
Following World War II – with the engineering prowess of Germany and Italy temporarily in tatters – Britain’s carmakers scrambled to establish their exciting new products as the fastest you could buy. Theory was one thing but, as ever, with the best parts of our narrow and winding road system dating back to Roman times, proving such claims was challenging.
But just a short sea voyage away, Belgium came to the rescue. The country joined the motorway age by beginning construction of its A10 autoroute in 1937, but the outbreak of war two years later halted progress, and the road – which today is subsumed into the E40 pan-European route – only came into its own in the 1940s.
Starting in Ostend and leading ultimately to Brussels 65 miles away via Bruges, Ghent and Aalst, the road featured two lanes in either direction. Initially they were separated by a grass central reservation ( later robustly guarded with Armco barriers) and the concrete surface in the early days was, for its time, smooth and even.
It was Belgium’s first motorway and, by any standards, it was remarkably straight. But as it passed the town of Jabbeke in the Flanders region, just short of Bruges, its precious gift to the high-performance motoring world became gloriously evident – an eight-mile stretch that was not only completely flat, but also dead straight.
Army officers returning from the war were aware of the road’s potential as a test track. But it was diplomatic relations between the Royal Automobile Club Belgium and our own Royal Automobile Club that smoothed the way to having the Jabbeke Highway closed off for speed runs.
The first such event appears to have been ‘Goldie’ Gardner’s visit in 1946 with his dramatically streamlined MG EX 135. The 750cc car managed an astonishing 159mph and, although you couldn’t buy a replica, it encouraged Donald Healey to bring along his Healey 2.4-litre a year later. After he clocked 110mph, he could legitimately claim his car to be the fastest production saloon on sale.
There was simply nowhere else within easy reach of the UK where you could drive a car so far, so fast and in such relative safety. It was an essential testing ground for new sports cars such as the Triumph TR2, where high-speed capability could otherwise only be guessed at.
Today, the A10/E40 regularly jams with commuters in winter and tourists in summer. Traffic was so light back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, though, that closing the road wasn’t too troublesome, especially as record attempts often took place in the light of a weekday dawn. There were no direct junctions to impinge, just