This edited article about Henry Segrave originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 689 published on 29 March 1975.
“Bring in exhibit number one.” The voice of the coroner’s officer sounded polite and reverent. Everybody in the little court room, packed with reporters from the world’s newspapers, instinctively turned their eyes to a door at the side of the court.
Through it walked a man carrying a vital clue to the cause of a tragedy that had shocked the world when it had occurred a fortnight earlier on Lake Windermere in Westmorland. For it was then that Henry Segrave had been fatally injured when his boat, Miss England II, had leapt into the air and overturned, dragging Segrave and his two crew members into the lake.
It was Friday, 13th June, 1930 when, in warm, sunny weather, Segrave had shot through the water at 98.76 mph to gain the world water speed record.
Segrave and one of his crew died, but the other, Michael Wilcocks, survived to describe the disaster. “The bows were rising up,” he said. Then everything had gone yellow as the waters of the lake had engulfed him.
Five minutes after the boat had disappeared under the surface, an engineer took from the lake a waterlogged branch about a metre long. It seemed to have laid in the direct path of Miss England II.
And it was this which was placed before the coroner at the enquiry into the death of Segrave. As the witnesses told their story, the hearers lived again the last moments of the man who succeeded in becoming the fastest man on land and water.
One expert picked up exhibit number one, the tree branch, and pointed to three marks upon it. These coincided with the three layers of mahogany of which part of the boat had been made. With the aid of a model of Miss England II, the expert demonstrated how he thought the accident had occurred. It seemed quite clear that the branch had smashed a hole in the side of the boat, causing the boat to overturn at nearly a hundred miles an hour.
The coroner’s verdict was that Segrave had died from an accident for which nobody was to blame.
It was a sad end to a racing career that had begun in 1920 on the Brooklands racing track in Surrey when Segrave won several races in a 4.5 litre Opel. He was then 24 and at the start of a career which really blossomed when he joined the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq racing team. He had the right blend of dare-devilry and technical knowledge to bring him victories.
In 1923, he won the French Grand Prix and, later in the year, he won the Boulogne Grand Prix as well. During 1926 he set up a new speed record in his V-12 four-litre Sunbeam for a kilometre of 152.33 mph.
After a rival had raised the record to 170.624, Segrave determined to be the first man to travel at more than 200 miles an hour. He asked Sunbeam’s chief designer, Louis Coatalen, to design him a car that would reach this speed. The record stood at 174.88 when Segrave arrived at Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.A. on 29th March, 1927 with this car, a twin-engined Sunbeam with a power of 870 hp.
Thirty-thousand Americans lined the sand dunes on the great day. Segrave crouched down in his cockpit to lessen the wind resistance and then set off, after checking his 28 instruments.
The first run in the car was spoiled when a very strong wind blew the Sunbeam sideways. Then the brakes failed and Segrave had to choose between going into sand dunes, a river or the sea. He chose the sea.
Quickly, the brakes were put right and he started off again. His tyres were guaranteed to stand the strain on them for only three-and-a-half minutes. The wind was behind him for this run, and Segrave knew that the main thing was to keep the car straight.
The tyres survived the cruel pressure upon them and Segrave’s brakes did not let him down. Then, it was over and it was time to check his overall speed.
Segrave had done it. He had achieved a two-way flying mile speed of 203.792 mph. “Flying” means that a car is already travelling at speed when it approaches the measured mile or kilometre over which its speed is to be tested.
Before Segrave had proved them wrong, the “experts” had confidently predicted that no car would ever travel at 200 miles an hour. Segrave had not only confounded them, but he had added 28.91 mph to the world speed record, and his feat was acclaimed far beyond racing circles.
As is the way with records, Segrave lost his title the next year to Sir Malcolm Campbell, but won it again in 1929 after an American, Ray Keech, had beaten Campbell. Segrave’s new speed was 231.21 mph, and he was knighted for his achievement and his racing career in general. His car was an Irving-Napier called Golden Arrow and powered by an aircraft engine.
By now, Sir Henry Segrave’s time had nearly run out. The scene switched to Lake Windermere on unlucky Friday the Thirteenth of June, 1930 when Miss England II struck a branch and caused Segrave’s death.
To commemorate his career, the Segrave Trophy was instituted to “demonstrate how the display of courage, initiative and skill – the spirit of adventure itself – can assist progress in mechanical development.”
It has been awarded to flyers, motor drivers and water record breakers, especially those who achieve their success in British machines.
Some weeks before his death, Segrave had written that the point of racing fast machines was to enable technical improvements to be made.
“So when an accident happens,” he said. “It is no use saying ‘what’s the use?’ There is a use. It has taught someone something and the lesson learned may be worth all the risk and all the loss.”
Segrave certainly did not fear death. It had been said that he and his crew in Miss England II would wear special armoured life-jackets. But by the day of the speed attempt, only one had arrived. Segrave decided not to wear it because he thought that it would be unfair for him to do so while leaving his two crew members unprotected.
Every time he rode in a motor race or attempted to break a speed record, Segrave risked his life, knowingly. He won 26 motor races and seven motor boat races. And he gained the land speed record three times and the water record twice. One of his achievements was to win the French Grand Prix in 1923 – the only British driver to have done so until 1960.
All of these made Segrave a man-in-a-million who lived for speed and, finally, died for it. His thirst for thrills on wheels had begun when, as a child, his father’s chauffeur had allowed him to drive the family car. He went so fast, that the chauffeur swiftly switched off the ignition.
When, in later years, Segrave repeated his performance, there was nobody to switch off the ignition or prevent the records falling successfully into his lap.
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