Black Country-built record breaker
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.
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