Sculptures, plaques, statues and artworks. These are just some of the things which haven’t been commissioned for what surely ranks as the most awe-inspiring spectacle in Southport’s history.
On this day 87 years ago the world land speed record was set on the town’s beach yet there’s barely anything in the resort in the way of pomp or ceremony to celebrate. In fact, the only lasting tribute to the day the seaside resort became the fastest place on Earth is The Henry Segrave, a JD Wetherspoon pub named in honour of the dashing chap who dared to push the edges of what’s possible at the driving seat of a car.
It seems hard to believe, all these years, that it’s physically possible to drive along the beach at 152mph, a speed that’s more than twice what you can legally do on the motorway. The fastest I’ve ever driven was 130mph on a banked racing circuit at the helm of a V8-powered Vauxhall, and even on smooth tarmac in a modern car designed to cope, it was mildly terrifying. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like going faster still on sand, driving a racing monster with no airbags, traction control or ABS – things which weren’t invented until decades later – and surviving to tell the tale.
In 1926, when most people’s experience of motoring was a bumble down the backroads in an Austin Seven, seeing Henry Segrave screaming down the sands in his Sunbeam Tiger must have been an epic sight. Record-breakingly epic, in fact.
Sir Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave was, to borrow the cliché, a chap cast of the right stuff. Eton-educated, a First World War fighter pilot and a Grand Prix winner, he was exactly the sort of stiff-upper-lip yet heroic character you’d likely encounter in a Biggles adventure story, and as such ideally qualified for the risky business of breaking land speed records. To this day he’s the only person who’s ever held the land and water speed records simultaneously, and was actually killed at just 33 setting his final water speed record on Lake Windermere. After hitting a log at 98mph and crashing, he was recovered from the lake while still unconscious, and awoke in hospital to ask of the state of “his men” who’d helped him in the attempt.
He stayed conscious just long enough to be informed he’d broken the record, dying of lung haemorrhages less than half an hour later. You couldn’t make it up.
Yet it’s always his first record, the one he set on March 16, 1926 that sticks out in the mind. It wasn’t an easy record to break – on his third run, Segrave hit a gulley, sending his Sunbeam into the air for 49 feet – but he managed to eake 152.33mph out of the V12-engined, twin-supercharged Tiger, which he’d christened Ladybird on account of its red paint. Despite it being the fastest anybody had ever driven, it was an event which attracted few spectators.
The car, which is now part of a private collection of classic cars owned by an American enthusiast, was also the last land speed record contender to also be a competitive machine on the nation’s racing circuits, and owed its speed not only to the driver but also the immense punch offered up by its 350bhp V12 engine.
Journalist Wille Green, one of the few lucky enough to drive the machine, said: “This is one of the gutsiest, most torquey and powerful engines I’ve ever sat behind and even when you throw in the Alfa P3 and the Napier Railton for comparison, with big superchargers, you can sometimes get surge in a corner but the Tiger’s throttle response is impeccable in this respect. There is just instant, solid, vast power on tap.”
Even though the Southport record was smashed a month later, when John Parry-Thomas pounded along Pendine Sands in Wales at 171mph, it took more than 60 years before someone was able to make the Sunbeam go any faster, when the late John Baker-Courtenay took it to 157.44mph on the runway at RAF Elvington in Yorkshire. It’s his run, which attracted the attention of the world’s press back in 1990, which is likely to remain the ultimate tribute to Segrave and his incredible antics in Southport.
It is one of the most daring things ever to be done in the north west, yet in 2011 the only reminder you’re likely to find of Sir Segrave’s speed record is in the name of The Henry Segrave, a pub on Lord Street. With no museum exhibits, statues or plaques to commemorate the resort’s brief claim to being the fastest place on Earth, it is a record that’s almost slipped from memory entirely.
As records go it’s one that deserves more recognition than it has right now, and it’s high time that we in the north west did something to remember this brief but brave, bold and ultimately successful attempt to nab the world land speed record on Southport beach.
A version of this feature originally appeared in the Autumn 2011 issue of GR8Life magazine. Life On Cars would like to thank Edwina Gibney, John Baker-Courtenay’s daughter, for her help with information on the Sunbeam Tiger and the Southport land speed record.