Flat Out – British Sports Cars at the Jabbeke Highway

Then as now, the places available to drive a sports car flat out are few and far between. As automotive production resumed following the cessation of hostilities in 1945, manufacturers were keen to gain publicity that could be used to push sales (particularly in the increasingly important North American market). During the Thirties, the press was eager to report the results of high speed testing – typically conducted on the Salt Flats at Bonneville – but the trek to the hinterlands of Utah was expensive for the financially strapped companies to commit to mere advertising runs. The completion of the Jabbeke Highway in Belgium following the war would prove an expedient and inexpensive way to conduct these tests.

Long, straight and almost perfectly flat, it would prove a beacon to manufacturers Рespecially those from England Рseeking to test their products before the cameras of the assembled press. The first known attempt by a Brit was made by Donald Healey and his Elliott coupe in 1947 hoping to better the result recorded during an Italian road test for The Motor in 1946 when the car reached 104.65 mph. Running on better fuel Рpresumably British Рthan that used in Italy, the Elliott reached 110.8 mph to claim the title Рas temporary as it would prove to be Рof the fastest British production car available for sale.

Healey Elliott - 110.8 mph in 1947

Healey Elliott – 110.8 mph in 1947

Exactly one year later, in August 1948, the crew from Abingdon took a decidedly non-production car, EX 135, out to the Belgian highway for a crack at the 200-mph barrier. The highly streamlined car which had been built in 1938 and gained some success before World War II would place a halt on such activities for the duration, would later gain even greater fame on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the early Fifties. At Jabbeke, driven by Goldie Gardner, raced to 175 mph, pushing the very limits to what could be expected from an 1100-cc engine (it would go even faster in Utah).

MG EX 135 - 175 mph in 1948

MG EX 135 – 175 mph in 1948

In 1949, Jaguar crossed the Channel with a lightly modified XK120. Appearing in showroom kit except for the addition of a Brooklands windscreen and rear wheel spats, the Big Cat was driven by Ron Sutton to a production car record at 132 mph.


Jaguar XK120 – 132 mph in 1949

Donald Healey returned in 1952 just before the introduction of the iconic 100 at the London Motor Show at Earl’s Court. The lithesome roadster more than lived up to its name with a 110.9 mph over the flying mile.

Austin-Healey 100 - 110.9 mph in 1952

Austin-Healey 100 – 110.9 mph in 1952

In the Spring of 1953, Triumph appeared at Jabbeke with an early production version of the TR2. Eager to prove its mettle against the Sunbeam Alpine and the Healey 100, the TR2 was outfitted with a metal tonneau, undertray and a minimal windscreen. With Ken Richardson (Triumph’s engineer) behind the wheel the little TR went out and ran a disappointing 104.86 mph. Looking over the car, the testers realized that a spark plug lead was loose and the car was running on only 3 cylinders. With the lead attached it ran an impressive 124.889 out of the box.

Triumph TR2 - 124.889 mph in 1953

Triumph TR2 – 124.889 mph in 1953

Later that year, Jaguar sent the inimitable Norman Dewis (Jaguar’s test driver and engineer) to Belgium to try again with an even more streamlined XK120M that had a bubble canopy attached to the metal tonneau over the cockpit. With an undertray and spats, it shattered previous production car records when it hit the flying mile at 172.412 mph.


Jaguar XK120M – 172.412 mph in 1953

Traffic considerations and logistics made continued use of Jabbeke problematic and eventually high speed tests were returned to the UK with top speed runs usually being reserved for Bonneville (where MG and Healey would gain great success) but for almost five years the Jabbeke Highway was the place to run flat out.

Thanks to Steve McKelvie for the inspiration for this piece.

By Johnny Oversteer



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