In 1983, Richard Noble set the world land speed record of 633.468mph in his Thrust2 jet-propelled car. Three decades later he recalls that historic moment.
Richard Noble must be one of the few people allowed to sit on any of the exhibits at the Coventry Transport Museum. But in all fairness to the former holder of the World Land Speed Record – who famously took Thrust2 to an average of 633.468mph – it is his old car he's sitting on. And while technically speaking he's actually a 'previous owner', few would begrudge the Scottish entrepreneur a few minutes' wistful reflection.
Richard Noble wanted to be the fastest man on wheels "for Britain and the hell of it". Today, 30 years on from his historic drive in the Nevada desert, he's here at the retirement home of Noble's Thrust2 to celebrate one of the greatest of British record-breaking engineering achievements.
Noble starts at the end: "When you finish a project like Thrust2, it's over. So what do you do with a car that's only happy when it's doing 600mph?" At 27ft in length, Thrust2 is too big for his garage at home, and so Noble decided that it should spend its retirement in a museum. Not content with merely donating it to a worthy establishment, Noble set up a competition among the British motor museums. "We said that whoever came up with the best plans to display the car would get it for five years. This was unpopular with some museums. But the guys at Coventry said that they'd build a theatre and this is why we're here today." Some 400,000 people per year come to see the Thrust2.
'This is a wonderful car," says Noble, who despite being in his late 60s can barely contain his boyish enthusiasm for the vehicle. His obsession with speed began at the age of five when he recalls seeing John Cobb's Crusader jet-powered speedboat sitting at a jetty on Loch Ness.
"I thought... Wow! That is fantastic!" Noble says that this was the moment he realised that this was something he wanted to be involved in, and "once you get involved you can't let go. That's because it's the most exciting thing you can do. It really is. You're playing in a very big game, using the most advanced military engines; you've got a better power-to-weight ratio than a frontline jet fighter. It's a hell of a thing."
Noble started the Thrust2 project in 1979 with a paltry £175 in the bank. He also quickly came to realise that he was "quite incapable of building a car like this". To achieve the dream he needed a design engineer. Eventually, he found "a very clever guy called John Ackroyd" through a small article in the Daily Telegraph that read in part: "wanted – 650mph car designer".
Noble was immediately besieged by countless designers wanting a slice of the action, "but as soon as they realised I didn't have any money they all disappeared. The one guy who wasn't like that was John and we decided to build the car on the Isle of Wight." Noble recalls that there was so little cash that initially the team couldn't even afford a telephone. "We had to walk to the phone box at the end of the road with a stack of 10p pieces to make calls."
From start to finish Thrust2 took four years to build. During its first run – as a skeleton frame without bodywork – Noble set a new British land speed record, which was "really rather good although quite difficult to do". During the last weekend of September 1980, Noble broke the Flying Mile record at a speed of 248.87mph. A promising start led the team to cross the Atlantic for further trials. "We took the car to Bonneville Salt Flats in 1981 where we got it all wrong, trying to run a car with solid wheels on the salt. But what we did get was one 500mph run, which was good because it meant that we could demonstrate to the world that we really were in business."
But not for long. Flooding in the desert curtailed trials, with the team returning to the UK to consider its future and refurbish the car. A second trip to Bonneville in 1982 turned out to be a damp squib, the desert flooding before the car could be taken off its trailer. "It was hopeless."
Noble cast around for a different venue, eventually settling on "a wonderful place" called the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. He recalls how the surface differed from Bonneville. "Instead of being hard salt, it was more like a dried mud-lake. There were 400 square miles of it and it was very flat. We realised this was the ideal surface for the car. We got going and got the car up to 615mph and it was all going very well and we were all very excited." But then the rains came, bringing the season to a close.
Black Rock Desert was kinder the following year, when "we pushed it, and we pushed it, and we pushed it, until eventually we got up to our peak speed of 650.88mph and a new world land speed record of 633mph. We'd done it."
A day in the life
The date was 4 October 1983. The final accredited land speed record was 633.468mph (an average of two passes through a 'measured mile'). But behind these simple facts was a day of exhilaration that Noble relishes describing. "You've got to put it in the context of the team, really. Now, we'd be going out every morning at five o'clock and setting up in the dark, so that as soon as there was light we could make our run. And that's what we did most days. But John realised that aerodynamically we'd be better off running during a hotter part of the day. We changed to midday when it was fairly hot. You'd run the car down a 13.5-mile track, which is just 50ft wide. You're driving by eye with a marker track just to your right. You line this up with the horizon 2.5 miles ahead.'
Noble is almost blasé as he explains the next phase: "And then you go." From a standing start up to 300mph Thrust2 was "all over the place. It's got big fins at the back, but they don't really work until you get up to 300mph. Then it starts to settle down. From 300-550mph it's really boring – just more of the same, only faster. But then as you start getting up to 600mph something happens and you start to see the shockwave build, as the airflow locally at the top of the air intake goes supersonic. On one day, the whole car was clouded in a mist generated by the changing pressure caused by the shockwaves."
Noble explains what driving at such speeds is like. "I've been doing this for a long, long time and one of the results of that is your mental processes speed right up." What this means is that paradoxically everything happens in what he describes as "very, very slow motion. It's all a very relaxed drive. At 650mph you can see every detail on that track come up and go under the car. For instance, where the timekeeper had driven across the track to service the timing lights, he'd left two wheel tracks. I remember seeing them come up and go under the car."
Once through the 'measured mile' section of the track (the timed sector that counts as the record attempt) the most important thing to do is stop the car safely. Noble explains that this is easier said than done. "What we did with Thrust2 was come back on the throttle to cancel the afterburn. Then you've got to give the engine three seconds to cool. You've got to be really careful with this because at this point we are really abusing the engine.
"So you count – one, two, three – which seems like an eternity at these speeds. At that point you can shut the fuel off from the engine, which you do with your right foot and with a finger on your right hand you press a button on the steering wheel that releases the parachute. Then there's an explosion at the back and there is 6-g of deceleration. When you're slowing down by something like 130mph per second it upsets your inner ear, giving you the impression that you are driving vertically straight down into the middle of the earth. But the car is safe because the parachute is at the end of 100ft of line acting like a huge sea anchor.'
By the time the car has slowed down to 400mph it feels as though it is going backwards and there is a strong temptation to open the hatch to get out and walk. But there is still plenty to do. "At 200mph, you bring the wheel brakes in and bring it to a halt. And then what you do – immediately – is get your notebook out and write down everything you can possibly remember. Of course, there's a video camera in the cockpit to record all the instruments. But you must write down your impressions."
Battle for Britain
Today, Noble is involved in another record-breaking attempt, spearheading the Bloodhound supersonic car project that, if successful, will produce the first 1,000mph land surface vehicle (see last month's issue of E&T at http://bit.ly/eandt-1000mph). I ask Noble to put into words why he has spent his life chasing speed.
"First of all, for any civilisation to succeed, it must advance. You've got to stand up to challenges like this, otherwise you're going backwards." But it is also the opportunity to create what Noble calls an engineering masterpiece. "You get an enormous buzz out of putting something together like this from scratch. With Bloodhound we are creating a car that will out-accelerate any frontline jet fighter. It goes 200mph faster than Eurofighter at 3,000ft. And so with cars faster than aeroplanes we are really pushing the boundaries.'
Bloodhound will also return the World Land Speed Record to Britain, which, for all its technical and engineering challenges, is what Bloodhound is really about. "It's a huge battle to get Britain's confidence back. I'm very upset about Britain's current position in the world. This is an amazing country with amazing capability. But we don't seem to use it. We don't have any confidence, and that is one of the reasons why it's been so difficult to get Bloodhound together.'
Noble goes on to comment on the extraordinary success of the London 2012 Olympics, "which has gone some way to raising the nation's confidence. But where we need to succeed is in areas where we were once accepted as being the best." And that, says Noble, is in engineering, breaking records, pushing back technical boundaries and living with impossible frontiers.
"Evolution is supposed to go forward," says Noble, before explaining how distressing he finds it that nearly half a century ago the world was perfectly capable of regularly putting men on the Moon, while today it seems almost a quaint thing of the past. Warming to his theme of how the UK has let its engineering heritage slip, Noble describes with more than a hint of nostalgia how in the 1950s and 1960s Britain had "a fantastic aerospace industry. During the Cold War we built Vulcans and Lightnings and Harriers and so on. And the kids would see these things flying over. But as soon as the Cold War ended the aeroplanes went back to their bases and today you very seldom see a military aeroplane flying. So now kids have got no inspiration. There really isn't anything very special going on to the degree that Bloodhound is. Bloodhound has an incredible effect on schools."
He may be a bit old-fashioned, and it's tempting to think that he has a weakness for seeing the past through rose-tinted spectacles, but for all that Noble is a man with a passionate belief. He truly believes that engineering can make Britain great again, while along the way having "one hell of an adventure. When you look back at Concorde or the TSR-2 strike and reconnaissance aircraft, you can see that we were capable of some truly amazing stuff. And I think there is an absolute obligation to keep that legacy going."