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THE LAND SPEED RECORD – ORIGINS

We’ve seen in the previous article how late in the 19th century the internal combustion engine powered car came to life. It was a time in which the horse was the main mean of transport and labor. The horse was so important that it was a way of measuring power and it is still used today. More than that, in some cases, the horse was used to measure distances. It was believed that, on average, a horse can ride 30 miles (or 48 kilometers) per day. There actually is a beach in New Zealand that is called “The ninety Mile Beach”. The beach is actually 55 miles long but the people that gave it its name travelled the beach in 3 days. They didn’t actually take into account that on sandy paths, the horse would travel slower.

Around the time in which Karl Benz brought to life the first internal combustion engine powered car, Amédée Bollée built steam-powered vehicles capable of carrying up to 12 passengers and reaching speeds up to 60 km/h (37 mph). The performance was light-years away from the puny 16 km/h (10mph) top speed of Karl Benz’s car.

The beginning of the First World War marked the beginning of the end for the steam engine powered car. The internal combustion engine powered car was more versatile and easy to operate with the introduction of the electrical starter.

As terrifying as it was, the First World War was an opportunity seized by the car manufacturers to prove that the internal combustion engine had a huge potential. Cadillac, Renault, Peugeot or Rolls Royce were just a few of the big names in the car industry today that built cars for the First World War. It was a moment in which, amongst other horrors,  the world saw that the horse and the sword will soon be a thing of the past.

Another great leap forward for internal combustion engine powered car was the introduction of Ford’s Model T in 1908, twenty years after Karl Benz’s first car. Henry Ford said about the Model T that it will be a car for the masses, designed for families, affordable for any man with a decent salary. The Model T was the first mass-produce internal combustion engine powered car and cost 890 USD when it appeared. The price dropped to as little as 360 USD. The performances were astonishing for that time: it had 20 horsepower and reached a top speed of 72 km/h. It was over 25 times more powerful and over 7 times faster than Karl Benz’s first car.

In 19 years, between 1908 and 1927, the Model T was sold in over 15 000 000 (that’s 15 million) units. There are a lot of affordable, mass-produced cars today that don’t reach 15 million units during their production.  By the end of 1927, half of the cars running in USA were Ford’s Model T.  Today, there are about 255 000 00 (255 million) cars in the USA. Imagine that half of them (around 125 million) were made by the same manufacturer.

The beginning of the 20th century was a turning point for the internal combustion engined car.  The performances showcased during the First World War, the refinement of the Otto and Diesel engines and the mass-production of the automobiles transformed the car from an exotic revolutionary invention into a trusty friend, whether you needed to travel to the country side, take your family to church or work the field.

One of man’s greatest qualities is his ambition, his need and desire to go further, faster. This being said, in the next article we’ll start to take a look at the land speed records broken over the time, now that we’ve seen how it all started.

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