15 October 1997: Britain’s Thrust supersonic car breaks the sound barrier

On this day in 1997, the Thrust supersonic car propelled RAF pilot Andy Green through the sound barrier to set a new World Land Speed Record.

Thrust SSC in the Nevada desert © David Madison/Getty Images
Thrust SSC in the Nevada desert
(Image credit: © David Madison/Getty Images)

If you're after a car with environmental credentials, the Thrust supersonic car (SSC) isn't for you. Burning around 18 litres of fuel a second, it makes a Volkswagen look like a Prius. What it is, though, is fast. So fast in fact, that it's even faster than sound.

On 15 October 1997, in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, the British-designed and built Thrust SSC smashed through the sound barrier, reaching a top speed of 763mph to set a new (and as yet unbroken) World Land Speed Record. The record-breaking attempt came 50 years and a day since Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier in his Bell X-1 rocket plane in 1947.

But of course, unlike the Bell X-1, the Thrust SCC kept its wheels on the 14-mile track. Two hulking great Rolls Royce Spey turbofan engines straight off a Phantom jet fighter shouldered a slender 16.5-metre long dart-like body, producing over 110,000 BHP of power. That, for those who have ever wondered, is the equivalent of a thousand Ford Escorts, the team's website tells us.

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Who'd be mad enough to put himself at the epicentre of all this brute power? Well, a surprising number of people, actually. Thirty-two applications to drive the supersonic car were received, but only one man emerged from the gruelling six-month selection process: RAF wing commander Andy Green.

In true British fashion, the project headed by Richard Noble had an extremely modest budget, compared to the £25m the McLaren F1 team was prepared to chuck at its supersonic attempt. The Thrust SSC programme got underway with just £40,000 from sponsor Castrol.

Convincing big-name sponsors to take part proved to be a headache, while the insurance companies only gave the Thrust SSC the same rates as for a domestic car. However, in the end, over £500,000 was raised from sponsors and donations, and the Thrust SSC was able to make its record-breaking run.

Yet the engines from the Phantom were already pretty obsolete by the time they propelled Andy Green through the sound barrier. What would happen if you used the modern engines from a Eurofighter Typhoon and a next generation space rocket? Andy Green is hoping to find out.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.

Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.

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