Black Coun­try-built record breaker

Black Country Bugle - - NEWS - By DAN SHAW

THE pho­to­graph above is a fine ex­am­ple of the highly skilled en­gi­neer­ing that made the Black Coun­try fa­mous through­out the world. It shows staff at the Bean Works in Tip­ton con­struct­ing the world land speed record break­ing car Thun­der­bolt in 1937.

The car was built for Cap­tain Ge­orge Eys­ton a rac­ing driver whose early ca­reer as an en­gi­neer had been in­ter­rupted by the First World War. He served with the Royal Field Ar­tillery and was awarded the Mil­i­tary Cross, “for con­spic­u­ous gal­lantry and de­vo­tion to duty. He ren­dered most valu­able ser­vice when car­ry­ing out re­con­nais­sance un­der heavy fire. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions he went for­ward un­der heavy shell and ma­chine gun fire. He car­ried out his du­ties with great courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion, and was able to ob­tain most valu­able in­for­ma­tion.”

In 1936 Eys­ton set av­er­age speed records for 24 and 48 hours in a car of his own de­sign and the fol­low­ing year he set his sights on the land speed record.

His car was pow­ered by two aero­plane en­gines, a brace of Rolls-royce V-12 R-types. Su­per­charged with a ca­pac­ity of 36½ litres, they each had an out­put of 2,350 bhp. Only 19 of these en­gines were ever built and one of Thun­der­bolt’s en­gines had pre­vi­ously seen ser­vice in a Su­per­ma­rine S6 rac­ing sea­plane in the Sch­nei­der Tro­phy.


Get­ting the tremen­dous power of these en­gines safely trans­ferred to the drive axle of a car would be a tax­ing feat of en­gi­neer­ing. It was one that brought Cap­tain Eys­ton to the Black Coun­try, the birth­place of sev­eral record break­ing cars, most no­tably the 1000hp Sun­beam of 1926.

Eys­ton teamed up with Bean Cars, who took six weeks to build the chas­sis and body­work for the Thun­der­bolt. The car had three axles and eight tyres. The front two steer­ing axles were of dif­fer­ent track, so that the sec­ond wheels would not be run­ning the grooves gen­er­ated by the first. The body­work was made of Birmabright alu­minium al­loy.

Eys­ton took the 7-ton car to the Bon­neville Salt Flats in Utah and set his first record, 312mph on Novem­ber 19, 1937.

The car was brought back to Eng­land for aero­dy­namic mod­i­fi­ca­tions, most no­tably a smaller open­ing for the ra­di­a­tor in­take. The car also had black ar­row painted on the side to make it more vis­i­ble to the pho­to­elec­tric tim­ing equip­ment.

New record

Eys­ton and Thun­der­bolt set a new record on Au­gust 27, 1938 – 345.5mph.

Eys­ton was not the only record­breaker at Bon­neville. A few weeks later John Cobb, in his Reid-rail­ton, broke the record and then raised it again on Septem­ber 15 to 353.3mph. On Septem­ber 16, Eys­ton took the record back with 357.5mph.

There were fur­ther mod­i­fi­ca­tions to Thun­der­bolt for the 1939 sea­son. The ra­di­a­tor was re­moved and the car was cooled by melt­ing ice. The now su­per­flu­ous air in­take at the front was re­moved, as was the large tail fin, im­prov­ing the aero­dy­nam­ics.

John Cobb set a new record of 369.7mph on Au­gust 23, 1939, but the out­break of the Sec­ond World War meant that Eys­ton and Thun­der­bolt were un­able to wrest it back.

Dur­ing the war Eys­ton worked for the Min­istry of Pro­duc­tion and served on sev­eral bod­ies re­lated to the mo­tor in­dus­try.


Thun­der­bolt was shipped to New Zealand where it was dis­played as part of the coun­try cen­ten­nial ex­hi­bi­tion, 1939-40. It then toured New Zealand but was de­stroyed in a ware­house fire in 1946.

After the war Eys­ton re­mained in­volved in mo­tor sport as a mem­ber of the RAC Com­pe­ti­tions Com­mit­tee. He passed away in 1979, aged 83.

Land speed record car Thun­der­bolt un­der con­struc­tion at the Bean Works

Cap­tain Ge­orge Eys­ton in 1939

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