The Need for Speed

It just so happened that last night Yr. Humble Chronicler was presented with an opportunity to have dinner at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. Such exalted circles I move in. The RAC may be familiar to you as a breakdown service. In fact, this is a spin-off of the main organisation, which is a gentleman’s club started to campaign for motorists’ interests.

The dinner for which I managed to wangle an invite was ‘Land Speed Legends,’ themed – as you might guess – around the Land Speed Record. The guest speakers were Don Wales, of the Campbell record-breaking dynasty, and Richard Noble, responsible for the successful Thrust record attempts in the 1980s and 90s.

Despite not being much of a petrolhead myself, and not even remotely a follower of motorsport, I do take an interest in the Land Speed Record. I think it might be because it’s one of the last remnants of that spirit of exploration that died out some time in the second half of the 20th century. With the globe mapped out and with humanity having got as far as the moon, there seem to be so few boundaries left to cross.

I think it’s also one of the few areas of engineering in which Britain still excels – decades of underinvestment have left us with an engineering industry that’s great for cutting-edge, high-end, one-off-type stuff, but not so much on the mass production side. It’s quite heartening to know that there are certain areas in which we can still fly the flag.

So therefore, I was rather looking forward to the evening. The RAC is a rather old-school club, not the sort of scummy place I normally hang around in, but I think I managed to avoid making a fool out of myself. What helped was the fact that most of the members are petrolheads, and car folk tend to be very friendly in my experience.

The decor was rather sumptuous in an early-twentieth-century way with, predictably, lots of paintings depicting motor sport. To my surprise, the lobby featured the electric car Bluebird (the latest in a long line of vehicles by that name) in which Don Wales intends to go for the record for an electrically-powered vehicle. With environmentalism a hot topic as ever, the pursuit of excellence in alternatives to petrol propulsion is to be lauded. Wales currently holds the record for a steam-driven vehicle and, er, a lawnmower. Seeing the Bluebird parked inthe foyer of a gentlemen’s club took me particularly aback, given the fuss my flatmates make when I park my car in the living room.

Dinner was utterly exquisite – I’ve noticed that often these places fall down when it comes to the food itself, but I have never had such fine duck in all my born days. That’s not some sort of 18th century euphemism, but it sounds like it could be.

After indulging freely in food and wine, Messrs Wales and Noble gave their talks. Andy Green, driver of the supersonic Thrust SSC that took the record back in 1997,  was also supposed to be in attendance but was unable to make it due to being an actual fighter pilot. Nevertheless, the talk was very interesting indeed if you are into that sort of thing, and I am.

Noble explained the Bloodhound SSC project to build the first car to go at over 1000 miles per hour (concept picture seen right). He described the difficulties faced in its design and some of the interesting findings they’ve made concerning the behaviour of vehicles at those kinds of speeds. Despite the best computer simulations available, this really is virgin territory – the smallest of factors can have dramatic effects on the final run. The value of these projects, quite apart from the fact that they are excellent promotion for British engineering, lies in the practical applications of these findings – today’s pioneering technology is that which we take for granted tomorrow.

Speaking personally, I hope the Bloodhound succeeds because, well, it’s pretty cool. And I was drunk on free wine when they pitched it.

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Filed under 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Clubbing, Current events, History, London, Notable Londoners, Science, Transport, West End

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