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Henry Segrave broke the speed record in his Sunbeam ‘Slug’

Posted in Cars, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Thursday, 27 February 2014

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This edited article about motor racing first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Henry Segrave,  picture, image, illustration

Henry Segrave was the first man to break the 200mph barrier

“No car will ever reach 200 mph!”

That was a widely held belief in 1927. It was quite clear to so-called experts that wind resistance at that speed would make it impossible, even supposing tyres could stand up to the terrific strain imposed on them.

Two men at least thought differently, the Sunbeam’s chief designer, Louis Herve Coatalen, a mechanical genius who was also a great craftsman, and Henry Segrave – Henry O’Neal de Hane Segrave – an American-born adventurer, whose parents were Irish, and who had served Britain in the 1914-18 War, reaching the rank of major.

As Segrave sailed the Atlantic to race at Daytona Beach, Florida, his mind was doubtless on the job in hand, yet it must have also strayed to a very recent tragedy, the horrible death of another racing champion, J. G. Parry Thomas, a Briton like Segrave.

Thomas had got the land speed record up to 171.02 mph in April 1926, but the following March his car skidded at high speed and burst into flames. The off-side driving chain – not unlike a bicycle chain – had snapped and literally cut his head off. Only the valiant take up motor racing. It has always been so and it will always be so.

The Segrave racing story, which was to reach its climax in a knighthood for the driver, then a tragic death after winning a water, not a land, record, had begun seven years before that voyage to America in early 1927. Born in 1896, he was driving a 4 ½ litre Opel in 1920 on the famous Brooklands track, winning several times in his first racing season, and the next year his career really began when he became a member of the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq racing team. He had the right blend of dare devilry and technical knowhow without which a racing driver cannot succeed. And, on top of everything, he had the will to win.

In 1923, he won the French Grand Prix, and later in the year, won the Boulogne Grand Prix as well. He was now the equal of his two great British rivals, Malcolm Campbell and J. G. Parry Thomas. In 1926, he set a new speed record in his V-12 four-litre Sunbeam for the “flying kilometre” at 152.33 mph. “Flying” means a measured kilometre (or mile), not from a stationary start, but from a moving – flying – one.

Parry Thomas had improved the record that year, finally reaching 171.02 in April, the very day after he had broken the record with 170.624! Then he prepared to go even faster! This was when Segrave asked Coatalen to build him a 200 mph car. It became a frantic race against time to see who would break the 200 mph barrier first.

In February 1927, Malcolm Campbell in his streamlined Bluebird reached 174.88, but after that kept having mishaps. Both Parry Thomas’s and Segrave’s new cars had driving chains, and Thomas warned his rival against the danger of their snapping and killing the driver. He put an aluminium guard on his, but, tragically, as we have seen, it did not save him. His death would have made lesser men pause, or pull out of such a lethal sport, but racing drivers are not lesser men. However, Segrave chose a beach carefully to make his attempt. Daytona Beach had the right length and a really smooth surface.

Thirty-thousand Americans lined the sand dunes of Daytona on the great day, March 29, 1927. Segrave crouched down in his cockpit to lessen wind resistance, checked his 28 instruments, then set off. The first run in the 1,000 hp red Sunbeam was spoiled when a very strong wind blew the car 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 only guaranteed to stand the strain on them for 3 ½ minutes. The wind was behind him for this run and the great thing was to keep the car straight as the harsh wind started tearing against the side. The tyres survived the cruel pressure on them, his brakes did not let him down, then it was over and time to check his overall speed.

He had done it! He had achieved a two way flying mile speed of 203.792 mph. The experts had been proved wrong in the most spectacular way possible, for in a single bound 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 Campbell, but won it again in 1919 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, low, narrow and powered by an aircraft engine.

But now Henry Segrave’s time had almost run out. Like many racing drivers, he was also fascinated by motor boats, and on Like Windermere on June 13, 1930, he was killed after breaking the world speed record in his motor boat Miss England II. To commemorate his magnificent career the Segrave. Trophy was instituted for outstanding achievements by land, sea and air.

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