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History of the Bonneville Salt Flats

Hot Rod At Bonneville

What is Bonneville? You may have heard or seen this name a few times before. You probably seen the name on a Pontiac and just thought it was some fancy name for a Sedan. Maybe you have heard the name Bonneville on the History Channel, and because of this you learned that Bonneville is the name of the Salt Flats in Utah where scenes from Independence Day, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

Little did you know that the Bonneville Salt Flats are Americans Ultimate Proving ground, a place where machines built as wild as you can imagine are tested, a place where you can run anything to see how fast it will go as long as you have the guts to stay in it!

Having the Dreams to build it is one thing but do you have the guts to stay in it?

The Bonneville Salt Flats are the remains of what was the prehistoric lake Bonneville. Thousands of Years ago, the lake dried up and has been the Salt Flats. The flats are named after Benjamin Bonneville, who was an Army Officer that explored the Oregon Trail.

Since 1914 Bonneville has been a proving ground for top speed and who can ever build the fastest things on wheels. The First Bonneville Land Speed record was set in this year by race car driver Teddy Tetzlaff.

Teddy Tetzlaff Bonneville

In the 30s Bonneville gained nationwide attention when American racer Ab Jenkins and British racer Sir Malcolm Campbell went out to compete for speed records. This got the worldest attention and by 1949 an official track and annual events where now being held at Bonneville.

Sir Malcolm Campbell at Bonneville 1935

By this time, the Famed So-Cal Speed Shop had started building Coupes and Roadsters just for Bonneville.  In 1948 So-Cal Speed Shop built the first bellytanker meant for top speed, it was a Belly Tank from a P-38 fighter aircraft and powered by a Mercury V8.

The 50s came and bonneville was now full of  Hot Rodders and many of which built cars just meant for the Salt Flats, usually 32 Ford Coupes and Roadsters.Guys like the Pierson Brothers would run there record breaking 34 Ford Coupe out on the Salt Flats which the 34 Ford Coupe would become an icon to the Bonneville salt flats, being rebuilt by different owners and breaking records over the years.

1951 So-Cal Speed Shop purchased a 34 Ford Coupe from the Pierson Brothers to be used as a Bonneville car and a Marketing tool for So-Cal Speed Shop. The Car was built and modified as wild as it could get by a guy named Tom Cobbs. The 34 Ford ended up becoming the other iconic car of Bonneville.

Tom Cobbs

Racing at the salt flats was becoming more and more popular that in the early 50s the company MOONEYES even made a wheel that is designed for Bonneville and Top Speed in general. The Wheel in their MOON Disc, the MOON Disc is made to help increase top speed.  The MOON Disc is still a popular wheel used today in Bonneville. By the end of the 50s cars were approaching the 400 MPH barrier, slowly but sure  man would break this barrier.

Mooneyes 32 Ford equiped with Moon Discs

In the 60s the envelopes where pushed even further and more barriers were broken and man was going faster on land then it had ever dreamed! Guys like Mike Thompson had broken the 400MPH Barrier using a Streamliner powered by 4 Pontiac Motors. However Man wanted to go even faster and soon Jet and Turbine powered cars were appearing in the 60s at Bonneville.

Art Arfons Green Monster

From 1964-1965 Guys like Art Art Arfons, Craig Breedlove, and Art’s Brother Walt to break 500 MPH, and 600 MPH Barriers using there Green Monster, Spirit of America and Wingfoot Express cars respectively. Craig Breedlove ending breaking the 600 MPH Barrier using Turbine powered 3 Wheeled vehicles known as Spirit of America.

Craig Breedlove and the Spirit of America Crew 1963


600 MPH soon wasn’t fast enough for man and this record had to be broken as well! This record was then broken by Gary Gabelich in 1970 with his Rocket Powered vehicle Blue Flame. Blue Flame would go 630 MPH and the record would stand or 27 years!(It still stands at Bonneville) .

Blue Flame making its Historic Run

In 1997 a team of British engineers built a vehicle known as Thrust SSC which was powered by two Afterburner Rolls-Royce Spey engines broke the sound barrier on land, but this was done in the Nevada Black Rock Desert.

The Fastest Car on Land, the only vehicle to brake the sound barrier on land.


Today Bonneville still exists and everything from Jet Cars, to Streamliners to traditional style roadsters to even diesel trucks, still make runs at Bonneville. Once a year the Southern California Timing Association still hosts the 6 day long event know as the Bonneville Speed Week.

Bonneville Coupe at Speed Week

There is a lot more History to the Bonneville Salt Flats. From Motorcycles like Burt Munro’s Indian, to generations of Hot Rodders and Cars that have made passes on them. There is just so much about the Bonneville Salt Flats that it is Hard to fit it all in one article!

I know some of you DIY guys and home garage guys don’t like to see the big budget record breaking Salt Flat Cars but you got to admit it is amazing seeing those cars go as fast as the person who built them dream it.  There are some home built guys like Al Teague who still holds the Land Speed Record for piston driven Vehicle with his Spirit of 76 streamliner.

The Spirit of 76 all home built

Bonneville is a name known by every Hot Rodder. It is a Historic Land Mark and is part of mans desire to go faster than before. It was a place where the Imagination can run wild with Ideas and dreams can true.

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