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Breaking An Almost 80-Year-Old Speed Record

Over 450kph... on public road.

| By Robin Nooy | 7 min read |

Pendine Sands in the UK, Daytona Beach and Bonneville Salt Flats in the US, Hakskeen Pan desert in South Africa and Ehra Lessien in Germany. All places where, throughout history, land speed records have been broken. Specifically selected and/or built tracks that provide near-perfect circumstances; very long, very straight, very flat. One of the most emblematic records, however, is the land speed record set on an albeit closed, but very public stretch of road. And quite recently this record, which stood for almost 80 years, was broken by the mad scientist from Koenigsegg.

Mankind has an unquenchable appetite for all things related to speed. This is also the reason why there are hundreds of different categories in racing or land speed records. In the latter category, you’ll find numerous regulated classes. The most prominent one is the absolute land speed record, currently in the hands of the Thrust SSC at 1227.986kph. Back in 1997, this was the first time a land vehicle broke the sound barrier and that achievement hasn’t been matched or surpassed since. The team of Bloodhound LSR (we covered it when still known as the Bloodhound SSC and partnered with Rolex) wants to have a crack at it, by setting a goal of 1,000mph or roughly 1,609kph. It has been in development for several years now with a top speed run scheduled for fall 2020.

Other than that, there is a land speed record set on public roads, which is considerably lower in terms of top speed, and thus you would imagine broken a bit easier perhaps. But, as we are about to disclose, it took almost 80 years of technical progress to break it!

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The record stems from one of the darkest periods in modern history as it was set by Nazi-backed Mercedes-Benz in 1938. On Friday the 28th of January 1938, Mercedes-Benz lined up its W125 Rekordwagen on a closed section of the German highway with Rudolph Caracciola behind the wheel. The car had a 5.6-litre V12 engine producing 736bhp, an insane amount of power for that time. The Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen was a sleek-looking machine, with enclosed wheels and a long, swooping body to reduce drag as much as possible. Opening up the bodywork for cooling was deemed as unwanted as it would potentially cause too much friction. As a solution, blocks of ice were put in front of the radiators. Eventually, Caracciola achieved a top speed of 432.7kph (268.9mph), a record that stood until November of 2017.

On that very same day in 1938, Auto Union attempted to break the record as well, only to be trumped by Mercedes-Benz. Bernd Rosemeyer, an equally legendary Grand Prix driver, was behind the wheel of the Auto Union Streamliner. Rosemeyer was warned by Caracciola about strong winds and was advised against attempting to break it. He went for it anyway, only to veer off track on his return run due to a sudden gust of wind, sending the car into a field, ultimately killing its driver. On his attempt though, he did achieve a higher top speed than his Mercedes-Benz competitor but since no return run was completed the record wasn’t valid. This tragically ended the career of one of the legendary drivers in the pre-war Grand Prix era.

Enter Koenigsegg. The Swedish manufacturer of hypercars, a term coined by founder Christian von Koenigsegg, is no strangers to records as it has several of these in their name. Producing some of the most powerful and fastest road cars on Earth, it pushes the envelope with every single car they develop. The first model, the CC prototype was already an unconventional machine, mostly due to the unique construction of the doors, with a sort of double scissoring motion when opening and closing them. Since its launch in 1994, the brand has continued in its pursuit of building the ultimate road car. One of the few brands to succeed in making a name for itself and finding a sustainable market of clientele, with astonishing models like the Agera, Agera RS, One:One, Regera and the latest Jesko, and Gemera hypercars. 

Alongside some incredible engineering and ground-breaking innovations, Koenigsegg broke several records with its cars. One of which is the record of 0-400-0 set by the Agera RS in a mind-boggling 36.44 seconds. Imagine that, accelerating from zero to 400 kilometres an hour and then slowing down to a dead stop in a little over half a minute! Here’s footage of that 0-400-0 record-breaking run:

But the topic of this article was about breaking that land speed record on a public road, the one held by Mercedes-Benz for almost 80 years. It just so happens that the same car (Agera RS) by the same brand (Koenigsegg) broke the record on a closed section of public road in the Nevada desert. The tricky thing is you need a road straight enough to be able to reach speeds like this, and wide enough to allow room to swerve, which is inevitable. It also needs to be flat enough to not have the car jump and skip over bumps and run the risk of losing control. Remember that at 250 miles per hour you are covering 110 metres every second! Any mistake at that speed is disastrous, to say the least. 

On the 4th of November 2017, Koenigsegg lined up its then top-tier Agera RS for a top speed run and a crack at the nearly 80-year-old record. Bear in mind the stipulation for this record being attempted on a public road. The current fastest production car in the world is a Bugatti but the record was set on the Volkswagen owned Ehra-Lessien testing grounds in Germany, so not a public road. Important detail! The Koenigsegg Agera RS was introduced in 2015 and packed an all-mighty twin-turbo 5.0 litre V8 punch; 1,160bhp. In markets where E85 fuel is available, the power output is even higher. Combine this with a curb weight of just 1,325 kilos and you end up with a very, VERY fast car. 

A closed section of a Nevada highway, just outside of Las Vegas was the stage for the attempt at the record. If you look at footage from the top speed run, you can see the surface is far from flat and smooth. A run like this, to be officially certified, requires a run in both ways within an hour. The combined average of the two is recorded as the official achieved speed. Despite being rear-wheel drive only Koenigsegg has made an impact on how good its cars launch off the line. Traction is pretty much key, especially on a dirty, bumpy stretch of a public road. Here’s the official video of the event:

In the end, Koenigsegg test-driver Niklas Lilja set off quite calmly, but eventually managed a top speed of 457.49kph (284.55mph) in the first run. What is both astounding and surprising in the footage is how stable the car is, despite the obvious weaving from left and right (follow the white stripes to see what I mean). On the return run, the top speed was a bit lower, at 436.44kph (271.19mph) due to a headwind. The two-way average for the attempt was an incredible 449.97kph (277.87mph). Again, looking at the footage of the run, just check out how fast the car accelerates from 200 to 300 kilometres for instance (only 7 seconds!) and how much ground the car covers at that kind of speeds. And what makes this achievement that little bit extra special is the fact that where the Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen was a purpose-built machine, the Koenigsegg Agera RS is a road-legal car. So, in theory, at least, you and I could attempt the same thing! We only need 7.7 million dollars to buy one!

All in all, Koenigsegg broke five records with its Agera RS during this attempt. Since then even faster, more powerful cars have been introduced, like the Jesko Absolut. No clue on whether it would be able to break the record or not, or even if Koenigsegg will attempt something like this again in the future.

Car and Driver explains the Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen and its 1938 record in detail and Top Gear has the details about the five records set by the Agera RS in 2017.

1 response

  1. I actually thought this was something new ”news” only to find out it was a 3 year old story, not “news”

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