La Babosa, the monstrous car that a century ago exceeded 300 km/h and shook the world

Daytona Beach, Tuesday March 27, 1927.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 August 2023 Friday 10:26
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La Babosa, the monstrous car that a century ago exceeded 300 km/h and shook the world

Daytona Beach, Tuesday March 27, 1927. The wind blows meters from the coast in Florida, USA. Some grains of sand hit me in the face. But nothing takes La Bosa out of focus, that monstrous vehicle that Major Segrave tries to put in the history of motorsports.

It is a new appointment to establish the land speed record, a competition that has been in existence for 29 years and already registers 28 milestones. In seconds, even the illustrious Henry Ford will be left behind. For the first time a car will cross the 300 km/h barrier. "The great red runner roared," reports The New York Times, "in a flash traveling a mile in 17 seconds."

Segrave was 31 years old. He was a fighter pilot in World War I, from which he emerged with some injuries. Retired from the military field, he went to the competition. He first tried himself in drag racing in Britain, the country his family had returned to after his birth in Baltimore. He then joined the ranks of the Sunbeam Grand Prix team, one of the biggest British brands at the time. The decline came later, with the repercussions of the Crack of 29 and the debts that ended up drowning the company.

Now is a happy time, in which everything seems possible. These are the crazy years, the prosperity of Europe after the Great War, as they defined the war of 1914-1918. It also remains for the horrors to escalate to another level, with Nazism and World War II.

In the 1920s, concerns are less: there is life ahead. And also fun. Running alongside Grand Prix dates touring Europe is a challenge that began as a French extravaganza but now includes Belgians, Americans and Brits.

The show brings together fans amazed with the technological developments applied on wheels. On the compact sand on the shores of the Atlantic, some 30,000 people are about to hallucinate with the 327.96 km/h that La Babosa will mark. They do not know that a century later the car will be sleeping in a museum, although a group of interested parties wants to revive it and return it to the stage where it made history.

The Land Speed ​​Record is a challenge that was launched in 1898 on the other side of the English Channel. The list of winners began with the local Gaston Chasseloup-Laubat, who marked 63.15 km/h. Before Segrave's turn, dozens of pilots had written his name in frantic succession. Even the British company had already been a protagonist with the direct predecessor of La Babosa: the Sunbeam 300 HP, equipped with a V12 engine for aircraft.

Between 1922 and 1925, that creation held three records. The first, with Kenelm Lee Guinness at the wheel; the other two, with Malcolm Campbell, Segrave's direct rival. All of them were central players in the circus of the Grand Prix, the prehistory of Formula 1. Campbell was the most obsessed with the speed record, both on land and in water. He propelled the Sunbeam up to 150 mph. And 50 days before Segrave's time, he returned to the throne aboard another brand, the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird that reached 281 km / h.

To recover the prize you had to double the bet. The solution was provided by Captain Jack Irving, another World War I veteran. More experienced, this engineer had a background in research on balloons and airplanes, before and after the conflict. In its desire to break the 200 mile (320 km/h) barrier, Sunbeam had to address two requirements: power and aerodynamics.

In the first aspect, Irving nearly tripled the potency of The Slug's younger brother. It did so by using two V12 aero-engines, one forward of the cockpit and the other just behind it. The result was a nickname that, while inaccurate, added to the hype in Daytona Beach: the Sunbeam 1,000 HP.

The aerodynamic section is responsible for the other name by which the car is known, a metal cylinder barely interrupted by two hills, one protecting the pilot and the other as the finish of a design that fought with beauty but twinned with technology. It will always be La Babosa.

Each of the engines had 22.5 liters of displacement, which adds up to an impressive capacity of 45 liters. The nickname of 1,000 HP is misleading, since the power of La Babosa -The Slug, its name in English- reached "barely" 900 horses.

Another striking aspect were the tires. Not any type of rubber could withstand 300 km/h. The danger was lethal: a break could spoil the attempt and could even threaten the life of its occupant. For this reason, the company stocked up on special tires that would tolerate the extremely high temperatures generated by friction with the ground. In any case, it was estimated that they would only last three and a half minutes of maximum effort before they began to disintegrate. The risk was still latent.

The car was built in Wolverhampton, a city located on the outskirts of Birmingham, 209 kilometers northwest of London. There was Sunbeam headquarters. "Make Britain a place fit for heroes to live," Prime Minister David Lloyd George had called for in 1918.

In line with the mandate, in 1927 houses were being built to give shelter to those who were left homeless by the bombardments that punished the area. The 1,000 HP vehicle generated a sensation in a city accustomed to other trots: it was the epicenter of the cycling industry in the country until the middle of the 20th century. However, the challenge would not take place there. Not even on national soil. For the test it was necessary to cross the Atlantic.

All the records of the previous special car of the brand had been established in Great Britain. What was coming needed other benefits. According to calculations, a 9-mile runway was needed to develop a speed above 200 miles per hour. The Daytona Beach beach circuit, on the eastern fringe of Florida, was the place chosen to launch. “The Mysterious Car Is Here,” headlined The New York Times on March 10, 1927.

The appointment was set for Tuesday the 29th, at 10 in the morning. There appeared the forceful red creature that carried the name of the brand and the intertwined flags of the United States and Great Britain on its trunk. On the side, the proud origin: Wolverhampton.

There was a first attempt frustrated by the wind, which made the car skid and forced the driver to put it in the sea water -on wet sand, a slower surface- to slow down. The second time was successful: he climbed to 327.96 kilometers per hour. "A damned great show" (Damn Good Show), Malcolm Campbell greeted Major Segrave through a telegram.

The Sunbeam 1,000 HP held the official record for just over a year: it was surpassed by the American Ray Keech, with his Triplex Special at 334 km/h, on April 22, 1928. In March 1929, Segrave returned to Daytona Beach in search of from the register. He did it already away from the Wolverhampton company, now with the Irving Napier Golden Arrow, also prepared by Captain Irving. He achieved his mission, at 372.5 km / h. In October 1929 he blew up the financial world and the following June, already knighted for his achievements, the pilot died in a boat accident minutes after setting a record in the water.

Since 1970, La Babosa has been in the National Motor Museum, in Beaulieu, in the south of the island. The company that built it was overwhelmed by debts and closed in 1935. The vehicle has been out of service for half a century, with a broken engine. The museum authorities have a utopia: the centenary project.

"To be able to take this iconic car back to Daytona, where it broke the record, would be incredible, especially 100 years after the record," they said. To fulfill this, they began a campaign with the objective of raising 370 thousand dollars, the amount necessary to resurrect the monster and make it work again.