Tuesday, October 25

Faster than the speed of sound

The internet is a wonderful tool for pursuing one’s passions and interests, no matter how obscure or eclectic the subject matter. I vividly recall experiencing this capability for perhaps the first time in 1997. At the time ThrustSSC, a British built and funded venture, was attempting to break the land speed record. I logged on almost daily to follow its record breaking efforts at Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA. The SSC suffix stands for Supersonic Car, as its designer, Richard Noble, had set his sights on creating the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier.

On October 14, 1997, the jet-powered vehicle set a new land speed record, averaging a speed of 1,228 km/h or 763 mph. It also became the first car to officially break the sound barrier, a feat that it ultimately repeated twice. The 16.5 metre long car certainly looked the part, powered by two massive jet engines that sat on either side of the driver’s cockpit. The entire assembly weighed in a hefty 10.5 tons.

It came as no surprise to learn that the car’s engines had come from a Royal Air Force F-4 Phantom jet fighter. It was also surprise that its driver, Andy Green, was also a former RAF pilot. Incredibly the entire venture was the dream, Richard Noble, who at the time was also the current land speed record holder. He’d set his own record in 1983 in a car he’d designed called Thrust 2. This earlier vehicle was powered by only one jet engine, but still was able to reach a bone-jarring speed of 1,019.468 km/h or 633.468 mph. That’s right, fourteen years on, ThrustSSC broke the land speed record by more than 200 km/h.

Today, both record-breaking vehicles are on display in the Coventry Transport Museum, located just over an hour north of London. The museum’s location reflects the fact that Coventry was once home to Britain’s car industry. At one time almost every British motoring brand including Jaguar, Mini and Leyland was based here. It was also home to Sir Frank Wittle, a British jet engine pioneer whose acheivement include the invention of the rotary engine.  His statue stands gaxing skyward in the town centre.  Sadly, most of Coventry's assembly plants have long since closed, making thousands unemployed over several decades. The city is still strugging to recover from the swift deapture of its primary industry.

Last Saturday, I made a spontaneous decision to catch a train to Coventry and see ThrustSSC and Thrust 2 for myself. The journey north was relatively straight forward. The express train from Euston Station made only one stop before arriving in Coventry. Stepping out of the station it was immediately clear that I’d left London far behind and was now in the nation’s industrial heartland. The inner city’s architecture was rather austere and just a little dilapidated. I later learnt that it was heavy bombed during the war and thus reflected the limitations of a struggling post-war economy.

In fact, in the centre of town lie the ruins of Coventry’s once magnificent cathedral. On the night of 14 November 1940, the city was devastated by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. The 14th Century Cathedral burned along with the city, having been hit by several incendiary devices. Today, only it stone walls and the restored bell tower remain standing. The ruins stretch 425 feet from end to end, while bell tower’s spire rises an impressive 294 feet into the air.

Despite, its destruction the site is still inspiring, if only because it offers a unique sense an average cathedral’s massive scale. The scale is typically is lost in a complete building because the interior is always interrupted by internal pillars and walls. At Coventry, these impediments are missing and thus the building entire surface area is clearly visible. With your line of sight uninterrupted it’s hard not to stand in awe of the medieval builders responsible for its design and construction.

Should I confess I was almost more impressed by the cathedral’s ruins than by finally seeing Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC?

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