The 1930s was a highpoint for ocean-going liners. Crossing the Atlantic by boat was the only way to reach the US, and competition between the French and British shipyards was never less than fierce, a focus for patriotic pride. The British Queen Mary and French Normandie epitomised the golden age of the ocean liners. They were among the floating Art Deco palaces that competed intensely to win the Blue Riband - a prize for the fastest Atlantic crossing. A Holy Grail for the two countries, this prize was also a great bit of marketing.
Back in the 1930s, two giant airlines began to span the globe, flying firstly mail and then passengers around the world. Pan American flew to Latin America and eventually across the Pacific to Asia. Britain's Imperial Airways linked the empire from Europe through the the Middle East to Africa, India and beyond. But crossing the North Atlantic, although potentially one of the most lucrative routes, proved more difficult. The flying boats themselves were glorious glamour pusses, transporting a handful of lucky souls around the world in fabulous luxury, standard bearers of a now mythical golden age of flight. This episode tells the story of the rivalry between Pan Am and Imperial Airways to get the first commercial airline service flying across the Atlantic - a race won just weeks before the outbreak of World War Two.
The third episode in the series is set against the golden age of streamlined steam and the rivalry between the East and West Coast railway companies as they fought to transport passengers from London to Scotland in the shortest time possible. LMS on the West Coast produced the Coronation Scot, while on the East Coast, LNER retaliated with the legendary A4 Pacifics - sleek and powerful, they were the fastest trains in the world. Speed sold seats, and competition pushed machines to extremes. In 1938, LNER's Mallard reached 126 mph, a world record for steam that still holds today.
The fourth episode in the series visits the fast, furious and all-too-often deadly powerboat races of the 1920s and 30s. In the biggest spectator sport of the time, the fastest men on water competed in gladiatorial combats in front of crowds of up to a million spectators. The Harmsworth Challenge was the America's Cup of the powerboat world, with intense rivalry between Britain, who relied on technological ingenuity, and America, who put their trust in boats powered by immensely powerful aircraft engines. It was a David and Goliath confrontation, which was only put aside when World War II loomed. But the powerboat technology survived to be adopted by the military, spawning the Royal Navy's fleet of speedy Motor Torpedo Boats and the US Navy's legendary PT patrol boat. Using previously unseen archive footage and personal testimony from those who were there, Speed Machines tells the story of this golden age of powerboat racing.
The fifth episode in this incredible series explores one of the greatest contests of speed - the battle to break the sound barrier. Many people - scientists included - thought it could never be done. The test pilot's job was extremely dangerous and all too often deadly, in no small part due to compressibility, a scientific effect causing greatly reduced manoeuvrability when approaching the sound barrier. To combat this problem, the weird and wonderful aircraft that were designed to fly beyond the speed of sound boasted a great number of innovations, from ever-more powerful jet engines to moving tail-wings and razor-sharp wings. The race began during World War II when the British uncovered secret German plans for a 1,000mph aircraft and the Germans launched an extremely fast first-generation jet aircraft - the Messerschmitt 262. The British answer was to develop the M52, a revolutionary jet-powered, bullet-shaped plane designed to fly well in excess of the speed of sound, and the DH108 Swallow, a unique design sporting innovative swing-wings. The Americans entered the race towards the end of the war with the stunning Bell X1, which was powered by a combination of liquid oxygen and highly volatile alcohol: 'Like flying a streamlined bomb.' The race was characterised by controversy and extremely dangerous test flights. Speed Machines features stunning archive footage and talks to the men who designed and flew these incredible aircraft, including the first man to cause a sonic boom.
In the mid 19th century, the world's trade routes were dominated by clippers. These great cargo ships designed with one thing in mind - speed. Tea was very fashionable in Victorian society, and each clipper was desperate to win the race back to London, such was the premium on each season's first crop. The 15,000-mile race from China was beset with dangers, from pirates to typhoons, and the clippers were not designed with safety in mind. In 1866, the Great Tea Race was fought between 16 clippers and resulted in the eclipsing of the previous record time. Public imagination was fired to such an extent that vast wagers were placed on which ship would win, and two new, cutting-edge, super-fast clippers were commissioned: Thermopylae and, soon after, the Cutty Sark. Both boats made use of the latest Victorian technology and had very similar designs. Their similarity placed the onus on the skill and bravery of their respective captains and crews in the many exciting races they fought over the tea route, constantly breaking records, and, after the Suez Canal and steam ships rendered that route unprofitable, the wool route from Australia, crossing the infamous roaring forties, tackling Cape Horn and adding yet another major danger to the catalogue of risks that the clippers ran - icebergs. Speed Machines recaptures these great days of sail power, detailing the races, technology and characters involved, and features archive footage of, and first-hand testimony from those that sailed, the last of the square-riggers, which were still in operation in the middle of the 20th century.
Famous motoring dynasties Bentley and Mercedes played a key role in the evolution of sports cars and motor racing in the 1920s and 30s. Bentley was defined by historic successes at Le Mans and the playboy lifestyles of the 'Bentley Boy' drivers. These leisured gentlemen lived life in the fast lane off the track as well as on it, but still found time to win at Le Mans for three years running. But just as the glory years of Bentley were in full swing, a very different breed of racecar driver was emerging in Germany. To Hitler, motor racing was more than just a sport. He believed that victory on the racetrack was a sign of Germany's technological superiority. With the eventual backing of the Third Reich, Mercedes would be in pole position to challenge Bentley's invincibility and become the new power in motor racing.
The Land Speed Record recalls the titanic battle between Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave in the 1920s and 30s. Both Seagrave and Campbell came from a generation that had survived the First World War, and both found civilian life boring. They had both been fighter pilots, and for them the thrill of speed was everything. The vehicles they drove were beasts of engineering, taken to their absolute limits in desperate attempts to break the world record. As one man was successful, the gauntlet was thrown down and others risked - and often lost - their lives to become the fastest on earth. Malcom Campbell entered the record books in 1925 when, in the first of his legendary Bluebird cars, he managed to exceed 150mph (the first ever land-speed record was set by a Frenchman in 1898, who reached 39mph). In 1926, Henry Segrave, in his Sunbeam, beat Campbell's record. Then a Welshman, Parry Thomas, pushed the record up to 171mph at Pendine Sands, before tragically dying in his next attempt. In 1929, Segrave took the record up to 231mph, earning a knighthood and worldwide fame. But his luck was to run out when he was killed trying to beat the water speed record later that year. In 1935, with another streamlined Bluebird, Campbell became the first driver to break the 300mph barrier. Knighted, he broke the land speed record nine times in all. These men, and the machines they drove, became legends in the great era of speed.