Craig Breedlove – Rocket Man
To this point in our exploration of Legends of Hot Rodding, our heroes have been powered by internal combustion engines, all those warmed-over Flatheads, tweaked small-blocks, and nitro-gulping Hemis. But this month’s subject – Craig Breedlove – took another tack. He eschewed petrol-driven piston power for jet propulsion, and in doing so rocketed into the Land Speed record books and the imaginations of speed aficionados across the globe.
Breedlove was born in 1937 in Los Angeles, his father a movie special effects designer, his mother a professional dancer. In school, he focused on shop classes, drafting and metal shop. He was also keen on designing and building model airplanes, a prescient choice of interests. On his 13th birthday his parents gifted him a ’34 Ford coupe.
Soon thereafter, friend Bill Adair lured Breedlove to the Saugus dragstrip. Adair campaigned an early lakester that ran a supercharged Flathead. One frustrating track day – the lakester was underperforming – Bill suggested that Breedlove make a pass. Wearing Adair’s ill-fitting helmet and trying to calm shaking knees, he blasted down the strip. That was Breedlove’s first taste of speed. It wouldn’t be his last.
After high school he scored a job at Douglas Aircraft, where he picked up knowledge of aerodynamics and rocketry. By this time, Breedlove had also visited Bonneville where the beautiful streamliners caught his eye. “I was at a place in my life where I was a trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do,” he told Car and Driver magazine. “And I wanted to try and do something significant”
The first significant thing he did was buy a jet engine for $500.
Breedlove was aware that the Land Speed Record (LSR) was set by Englishman John Cobb in 1947 at 394.19mph, and he decided that going after that record would be his motorsports challenge. He settled on a three-wheel design, with the initial construction taking place is his garage. After a test of the engine at LAX, it was transported to the shop of famed Indy car builder Quinn Epperly for bodywork fabrication.
Meanwhile Breedlove used his charm and movie-star good looks to sweet-talk Shell and Goodyear to pony up sponsorship. With funding in-hand, Breedlove dubbed the exotic, zoomy machine the “Spirit of America.”
The Spirit debuted at Bonneville in 1962, but teething problems – like stability and steering at speed – thwarted a record attempt. Undeterred, Breedlove hauled the car back to Southern California, where a team of aerodynamicists and engineers fine-tuned the design. A year later, Breedlove was back, determined to make history.
The revised Spirit included a 6-foot-high vertical tailfin for stability and a redesigned front wheel for directional control. The throttle moved from the steering wheel to the floor. Behind the cockpit roared a General Electric J47 engine from an F-86 Sabre, creating 4,500 pounds of thrust. On September 5, 1963 at Bonneville he became the first man to set an average speed of more than 400mph – 407.447 – wrestling the LSR title away from Cobb.
Not satisfied, a year later Breedlove was back at Bonneville looking for more. He first topped 468mph; two days later he went even faster – 526.277mph. But his return run ended with an unintended flourish worthy of a Hollywood screenplay.
At 500-plus mph the Spirit lost its parachute, then its brakes. Breedlove scrambled for control. The car skidded for five miles, splintering telephone poles along the way. It blew through a shallow stretch of brine-covered salt. It ascended up a small dike, flew up and touched down in a pond. Only the tailfin was visible. Luckily, Breedlove escaped drenched but uninjured. After he climbed out of the cockpit, he calmly declared, “And now for my next act, I’m going to set myself on fire.”
For all this drama, Breedlove’s record stood for only 12 days before Art Arfons and his Green Monster broke it, recording a two-run average of 536.71mph.
Like a speed junkie looking for another LSR fix, Breedlove built a new four-wheel car, named “Sonic I,” for 1965 – this time with an even more powerful J79 turbojet roaring behind the cockpit. Again, records were broken: Breedlove turned a mind-blowing speed of 608.201mph. He was now the first man to top 400, 500 and 600 miles per hour.
After this, Breedlove’s life went through a period of change: Building Trans-Am race cars for American motors; losing his shop in a flood; overcoming divorce and financial troubles; selling real estate. In the 1990s he even took another run at the LSR, before sponsorship dried up. “Sponsors thought if I offed myself it would be bad PR,” he explained to the Goodguys Gazette recently.
Now 84, Breedlove lives quietly in California. But the noise he made in the world of motorsports will live on. As AutoWeek West Coast Editor Mark Vaughn put it, “He really is an American hero. He fit that role perfectly, right down to those photos of him on the salt, helmet tucked under one arm, looking boldly to the future.”