The upstairs workspace of the Bloodhound SSC project, outside Bristol, England, could be mistaken for the set of The Office. In a small warren of cubicles, a few dozen employees quietly type away on their computers, beside oversized coffee cups and calendars with pictures of palm trees. You might think the folks here are selling insurance or paper products, but take a closer look at a few of their computer screens and you'll see wire frame CAD drawings of a car of the likes the world has never seen.
In 2016, the narrow, rocket-shaped 135,000-horsepower Bloodhound SSC (super sonic car) will attempt to break the world land speed record on a 12-mile-long dried mud track in South South Africa; a full-size, non-operational model takes up one side of a lofty warehouse-like lab downstairs, while on the other side, engineers build, test and tune parts of the real car, including the largest carbon fiber monocoque ever produced.
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The program is, in a word, unique; partially sponsored by the British government, Bloodhound SSC began in 2008; the one-off project currently employs 75 people, 46 alone to build the car. The supersonic machine will be driven by Andy Green, an ex-RAF pilot who holds the current record, from a 1997 attempt that hit 763 miles per hour; he was recruited for that project, called the Thrust SSC, by Richard Noble, now the Bloodhound's Project Director, who himself broke the record at 633 miles per hour in 1983.
As Green led us through the factory, he explained how the Bloodhound SSC will be propelled, pointing to a EJ 200 engine that will take the car to 350 miles per hour. At that point rockets and a 700hp racing engine will help propel the Bloodhound past 1000 miles per hour — faster, literally, than a speeding bullet — with Green inside. We asked him what that will feel like. "A bit like a car crash," he said. "Your mental processes slow. During our trial runs, which will begin in 2015, we'll likely just get to two in in a day; the mental energy expended is just exhausting."
As Green continued the tour, he explained that building a supersonic sports car is more than just providing power — precision is even more important, since errors have the potential to prove fatal. The Bloodhound's workshop is situated close to the River Avon, which has the second largest tidal range in the world, at 15 meters. The ground on which the workshop is built on actually raises and lowers by a few millimeters with every tide, so the Bloodhound team uses 3D laser trackers to compensate during the build to ensure that its components fit together just right.
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That level exactitude carries over to the car's instrumentation, too; inside the cockpit, a digital readout will indicate speed, letting Green know when to fire the rocket system and when to put on the brakes, and another readout will display the brake pressure, temperature, and fuel level. Should those instruments fail at 1000 mph in the desert heat, Green will use two fail-safes: analog instruments specially designed for the conditions by Rolex. One is a chronograph with a stopwatch, which will help Green time startup and cool down; another is a speedometer that reads up to 1,100mph, which he'll use to indicate when to stop should the digital aids shut down. "The analog stuff's just easier to read," said Green.
But why spend upwards of 70 million dollars to beat the land speed record? Beyond breaking records, Green hopes that the Bloodhound SSC project will get school kids stoked than etching his name in the history books — again. "Our target audience for the project are ages ten to twelve. We expect millions to watch online. The world needs more engineers, and we hope the Bloodhound inspires them."