Speed has always been a drug, of sorts. It has captivated mankind for as long as he has stood on two legs and nowhere has the urge to see who is the fastest been stronger than in aviation. And at no time has that competition been more fierce than during the 1930s, the uncontested golden age of air racing. During a single decade, which theoretically should have seen technological progress grind to a halt because of the Depression, the aircraft industry blossomed and speeds rose astronomically. The National Air Races created super stars, both mechanical and human that were so well known that they rivaled baseball stars in their celebrity.
Above left: When Mark Lightsey replicated the C.460, plans were nonexistent so he relied on period photographs for details and engineered the remainder. Above right: The landing gear fully retracts and the articulated doors seal the wheel wells.
There were three primary races. The Bendix was a cross-country race usually run from Los Angeles to the site of the National Air races in Cleveland. The Greve was a pylon race limited to engines under 550 cubic inches and the Thompson was a free-for-all, run-what-you-got, unlimited race around the pylons where the only rule was that the winner had to cross the line first without cutting pylons.
Almost all of the aircraft in the pre-war races were purpose-built, hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind machines that were essentially three-dimensional hot rods. And, as with early hotrods, the formula for speed was simple: hang the biggest engine that’s allowed on the tiniest airframe that you can build. So, for the most part, the airplanes were backyard engineered and depended on brute force as much as finesse to win. With one notable exception: the French-built Caudron C.460.
Above: The pilot sits well back in the fuselage to balance the engine, which limits his visibility on takeoff and landing. The wings, fuselage and tail are all-wood construction.
Sponsored by aircraft manufacturer, Rene Caudron, and some rich, French aviation enthusiasts, the Caudron C.450 and C.460 were designed specifically to race in Europe’s Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe race of 1934. Which they won handily. In addition, with Raymond Delmotte at the controls, the airplane set a landplane world speed record of 314mph. Then, in 1936, the team set its sights on America and Cleveland was about to be invaded by an aircraft in which sophistication provided as much performance as power did.