Salt Assault - Blackbourn 394

By: Rob Blackbourn

Presented by

It seems Rob’s still wedded to aluminium slugs whizzing up and down in cylinders. C’mon Rob. get with the program…

Salt Assault - Blackbourn 394
Challenger I

You need look no further than Unique Cars regular Glenn Torrens to hear the case for going flat out on the salt. His repeated long hauls to SA’s remote Lake Gairdner, on a quest for an extra few miles per hour from his hot VW Beetle argue it eloquently.

But way before Lake Gairdner saw high-octane action there was the holy grail salt-event – Speed Week at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Like many school-age Aussie rev-heads, while I was enthusiastically witnessing the fascinating circuit-racing antics of the then-young Norm Beechey and Bob Jane, and following the Brabham/ Moss rivalry in international open-wheeler competition, I also loved getting the yearly Bonneville results.

This year’s successful assault on the salt by American Danny Thompson in ‘Challenger II’, his late-father Mickey Thompson’s 1968 streamliner stirred my Bonneville memories.

Bonneville was mostly about hot rods. As a kid I loved hot rods because they were built by young blokes in backyards on shoestring budgets, helped by their mates, mixing and matching parts – using imagination, ingenuity and borrowed oxy-sets. Many of these home-built hybrids could shame pukka British and European performance cars, at least in traffic-light drags.

On the ‘pukka’ Brit stuff subject, the late-1950s saw ‘gentleman’ record-setter Donald Campbell, son of a knight of the realm, having 70 top British companies expend multi-millions designing and constructing the gas-turbine powered Bluebird to chase the existing land-speed record. It stood at 394mph, set at Bonneville in 1947 by British fur-broking executive John Cobb, in his aircraft-engined Railton Special streamliner.

How rapt was I, then, to learn that a Californian hot-rodder, Mickey Thompson, was chasing a 400mph-dream at the same time? Thompson, a press operator, and his mechanic mate Fritz Voight, were building the car in Thompson’s backyard garage.

Thompson’s growing competition track-record helped these ambitious battlers to coax support from various areas of the trade, including four freebie 389-cube Pontiac engines from Detroit-legend Bunkie Knudsen (Knudsen didn’t go overboard – the motors were well used).

With the motors placed in position in two pairs on wooden cradles Mickey and Fritz drew a tight outline in chalk on the concrete floor. This was the first step in designing the body of what would become ‘Challenger I’.

The streamliner that those begging-and-borrowing amateurs and their mates towed to Bonneville in 1959 on an open trailer behind a family car was stunning for the sheer beauty of its hand-built alloy body, the work of the talented Don Borth. And its performance wasn’t that shabby – despite clutch-slip issues it managed 367mph. As well as heading home to sort the clutch issues, Thompson realised he would also need more power from the modified motors next year.

Returning in 1960, Challenger I’s sleek lines were somewhat spoiled by twin canopies atop a quartet of big ugly 6-71 GM blowers. However, on September 6 Thompson’s supercharger-boosted Challenger I recorded a 406.6mph one-way run. On the mandatory return run as he changed up to second, at around 210mph, one of the four 1937 Cad-Lasalle gearboxes didn’t quite engage before he hit the throttle again. One engine over-revved to destruction...

So, no official land-speed record, but our backyard-builders had topped the magic ‘four-double-zero’. Geronimo!

One week later at Bonneville Donald Campbell survived a 360mph crash that destroyed the brand-new Bluebird.

Campbell didn’t return to Bonneville. His triumph in the rebuilt Bluebird came at Lake Eyre in July 1964 with a proper land-speed-record – a two-way average of 403.1mph.

While the brave efforts of Campbell and others since in non-piston-powered vehicles are hugely impressive, they don’t resonate with me like Mickey Thompson’s achievement. I don’t drive jet cars. So for me it’s ‘Piston-power rules. okay?'

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