THUNDERBOLT LAND SPEED RECORD CAR DESTROYED IN NEW ZEALAND
The year is 1939 and in November the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition opened in Rongotai, Wellington. One of the main attractions was “Thunderbolt”, the Land Speed Record car driven by Captain George Eyston.
Let’s first back track a few years earlier to 1935. Malcolm Campbell had just become the Land Speed Record (LSR) holder and the first man ever to drive faster than 300mph. At Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah he achieved a speed of 301.129 mph.
Caption George E. T. Eyston up to this point had won many races and world long distant speed records but never held the ultimate, the world land speed record. With the challenge thrown out by Campbell, Eyston embarked on perhaps the biggest adventure of his life building a secret vehicle to challenge Campbell’s record.
The secret car, named Thunderbolt was built in just 6 weeks. Designed around 2 Rolls Royce “R” V12 aircraft engines mounted side by side, the car was originally sketched by a man who worked for Peugeot. The drawings were then modified by G Paulin, a French Coachwork designer famous for his beautifully crafted Paris Salon aerodynamic Delage D8 120 S Aero coupé belonging to Louis Delage.
The engines already had a racing history. They were used in the 1931 Schneider trophy race. One of the engines was used in the aircraft that won the Trophy, the other was used the following day in a Stainforth’s Supermarine S 6.B aircraft that won the world speed record of 407.5 mph. This was the first aircraft to break the 400 mph barrier!
The car was built in just 6 weeks at Bean Industries (formally Bean Motor Cars). Once finished, it was shipped to Utah without ever being tested. The car arrived at Wenover train depot, the nearest town to the salt flats, in a huge packing case. Just to give perspective, this car weighted around 7 ton and was 36 feet in length!
Thunderbolt was unpacked and tested. On the 19th November 1937 Captain George Eyston took Thunderbolt out and recorded 312.00 mph (502.12 km/h). He returned in August 1938 with a more aerodynamically modified Thunderbolt and recorded a LSR of 345.5mph (556.03 km/h).
About 3 weeks later, on the 15th September 1938 with George Eyston as a spectator, John Cobb ran his new Reid Railton car and raised the record to 353.30 mph. That night when everyone was celebrating Eyston took Cobb aside and told him he would take the record off him the next day!
Sure enough, Eyston took the LSR to 357.50 mph (575.34 km/h). This record stood for the best part of a year before John Cobb came back in August 1939 taking the LSR to 369.70 mph (594.97 km/h). This was the last LSR attempt before the Second World War.
Thunderbolt was placed on display at the British exhibition at the 1939 New York World Fair which opened in April 1939. Later in the year it was shipped to New Zealand for exhibiting at the British Pavilion of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington.
With the outbreak of World War 2, it was considered too risky to ship Thunderbolt back to the UK, so it was decided to take her on a tour throughout NZ exhibiting her in many different centres for the public to see. After this, Thunderbolt was returned to Rongotai in Wellington and stored in the Centennial Exhibition buildings which were now being used as military barracks and a training centre. The buildings were also used to store thousands of bales of wool as it was considered unsafe to ship the wool overseas.
In 1946, after the end of WW2, George Eyston was planning to travel to New Zealand to inspect Ninety Mile beach as a possible venue for another LSR attempt (it had been used in the early 1930’s by Australian Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith for his LSR attempts) and arrange to have Thunderbolt returned to the UK, but 3 week before he left the UK, on the 25th September 1946 around 3 am, the Rongotai buildings caught fire. Within hours, the fire ravaged the buildings, apparently destroying 27,000 bales of wool, 2 Tiger Moth aircraft, 1 Harvard air craft, 18 Gipsy aircraft engines, a 5 ton truck and a large amount of other military stores, along with the Thunderbolt LSR car.
It was claimed that the charred remains of Thunderbolt were left lying in the open near Turangi Rd adjacent to Rongotai College grounds in Wellington for many years after the fire. In the mid 1950’s when the new Wellington airport was being built, it is claimed that the remains were cut up and dumped in a nearby local landfill tip. There has also been some suggestion that the remains were used as landfill under the runways. In 1997 an attempt was made to find parts of Thunderbolt in the landfill tip using infrared technology. This attempt did not recover any parts of the car. Thunderbolt is the only LSR car that remains lost.