Records are made to be broken, and the British have a habit of breaking World Land Speed Records more than anyone else. Last week, Don Wales, grandson of Sir Malcolm Campbell, opened a new multimedia exhibit entitled “Britain & For The Hell Of It” at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, Hampshire. Celebrating the golden age of British record breaking from the 1920s through the 1960s, it features four famous record-breaking cars as well as souvenirs and memorabilia, trophies and personal items belonging to the drivers.

The odd name of the exhibit comes from driver Richard Noble’s reply to why he did it just after he set a new World Land Speed Record of 633.468 mph (1,019.47 kmh) in the Thrust 2 in 1973; “For Britain and for the Hell of it.” Though the exhibit pays homage to the drivers, engineers, and mechanics behind the machines, its stars are cars that went faster than any that came before them.

The record breakers

The earliest is the 350 bhp Sunbeam, which was the first powered by an aero engine, and that Kenelm Lee Guinness used to break the world record in 1922. After it was remodelled a few times, Captain Malcolm Campbell used it again to break the record twice at Pendine Sands, Wales – first in 1924 at 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h), then in 1925 when he broke through to 150.76 mph (242.62 km/h).

The next featured car at the exhibit is the purpose-built 1,000 bhp Sunbeam. Using two 22.5-liter V-12 engines mounted front and rear, Major Henry Segrave reached an average speed of 203.792 mph (327.971 km/h) at Daytona Beach, Florida in March 1927. It actually only had 900 bhp, but the directors of the Sunbeam Motor Company liked the sound of 1,000 bhp, so that was its name.

The Irving Napier Special, Golden Arrow, also did its record run at Daytona because at the time there wasn’t a straightaway long enough in Europe for the job. Built by the KLG Robin Hood Works, Putney Vale, London, Major Seagrave was again the driver in 1929 when it did 231.446 mph (372.476 km/h) – breaking the record by an easy 24 mph (38 km/h), and setting Britain on a 20-year run of holding the World Land Speed Record.

The fourth featured car in the exhibit, the Bluebird CN7, was driven by Donald Campbell, son of Sir Malcolm Campbell. After a record attempt on the Bonneville Salt Flats that ended in a wind-induced somersault in 1960, a tailfin was added and Campbell had a second go in 1964 at Lake Eyre, Australia, where he topped out at 403.10 mph (648.72 km/h).

The alternatives

But the petrol-powered record breakers aren't the only ones on display at the exhibit. There’s also a collection of alternatively-powered record breakers. One is the Commuter Dragster that was fueled by nitromethane instead of gasoline as the first All American fuel Dragster built and run in Britain. In October 1970, it broke the British Land Speed Record when it did an average of 207.4 mph (333.7 km/h) at Elvington, York. This broke a record that had stood since Sir Malcolm Campbell reached 174.88 mph (281.44 km/h) in 1927.

There’s also a second Bluebird. In this case, it’s the Bluebird Electric that Don Wales used in August 2000 to set a British Speed Record for an electric car of 137.15 mph (220 km/h) at Pendine Sands. In addition, there’s the British steam car Inspiration, dubbed "the fastest kettle in the world," that in August 2009 pegged the speedometer at 139.843 mph (225 km/h) at Edwards Air Force base, California, with Charles Burnett III at the wheel – breaking a record for the fastest steam car set way back in 1906.

"The 116 year history of Land Speed Records has been dominated by the British," said Wales. "The record has been broken 57 times, 26 by a Briton and 8 by a Campbell. My uncle, Donald, broke the Land and Sea record in the same year – a unique double that has never been equaled. British Land Speed Record cars are an important part of our heritage and need to be on show for the public to see. It is also vital that the skills required to keep them going is kept alive.”

The video below introduces the exhibit.

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