March 9th, 1929, Daytona, FL — Original caption: J.W. White, famous American speed king, standing beside his Triplex machine which he will drive in an attempt to break the world’s automobile speed record. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Jim White was a wealthy Philadelphian who desperately wanted to snatch the land speed record from the hands of British racers Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell. Thus, the White Triplex was born. White decided that no single engine would do to challenge the British Napier Lion, so a straight-forward and solid chassis was built, onto which three war-surplus 27-liter Liberty airplane engines were mounted– giving it a total of 36 cylinders, 81 liter displacement, and a staggering 1,500 bhp in all.
The Triplex’s design was a brutish barebones approach– it had no clutch or gearbox, and only a single fixed ratio. Once started by a push start, it had to keep rolling. Driver comforts were minimal to say the least– the forward engine was sheathed in a modest attempt at streamlining, and the two mounted side-by-side in back were totally exposed. The courageous (or crazy) driver was then perched precariously in the middle.
Circa 1928-29– White Triplex land speed record car, showing the three engines. Image from the Florida Photographic Collection. Link
Ray Keech, an experienced Indianapolis racer, and imposing man with flaming red hair, was paid a handsome sum to drive the White Triplex in the first speed record attempt at Daytona Beach, FL. The first trial runs proved to be dangerous indeed– no one had ever been faced with so much massive power, and in such crude form. Keech suffered burns behind the wheel of both runs– first from a burst radiator hose, then by exhaust flames from the front engine.
The overly simplistic design of the White Triplex posed a particular problem for the officials governing the speed record attempt. The regulations required vehicles to have a “means for reversing”, which the White Triplex definitely didn’t. White’s Mechanics first jury-rigged an electric motor and roller drive onto a tire, but it was unable to rotate against the force of the three large engines, which could not be un-clutched. An even more elaborate “solution” was tried. An entire separate rear axle was fitted, held above ground until dropped by a release lever and then driven by a separate driveshaft. The device was ridiculous, and isn’t believed to have been utilized during the actual speed record attempt itself– but it was enough to successfully satisfy the official’s needs.
On April 22nd, 1928, Keech set a new speed record in the White Triplex of 207.55 mph at Daytona Beach.
Circa 1928 — Ray Keech is shown here on the day that he broke the speed record at Daytona Beach, FL. In this image you can clearly see the extra rear axle that was added for record qualification purposes. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS