Scott Holland Jun. 6, 2016, 11:01am

The first man in history to drive a car 600 miles per hour is trying to put the brakes on his relationship with Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, alleging in a lawsuit that a car he used in his attempts to break the land speed record and loaned to the museum suffered significant damage while in the museum’s care. 

Norman Craig Breedlove, a five-time holder of world land speed records, filed a complaint against MSI June 3 in federal court in Chicago, alleging the institution failed to adequately protect a car he loaned it in the 1960s. Currently a California resident, Breedlove said the Spirit of America automobile MSI displayed for years now is severely damaged, requiring nearly $400,000 in repairs and restoration. 

Breedlove’s complaint details his involvement in pursuing and establishing land speed records, including being motivated by John F. Kennedy’s speeches, partnerships with Shell Oil and Goodyear and how he inspired the Beach Boys to record the song “Spirit of America” on their car-themed 1963 album “Little Deuce Coupe.” 

In 1964, Breedlove was driving 539.89 mph when he crashed; an event the complaint notes “was highly publicized internationally.” The Spirit of America car from that crash was shipped to “to the legendary Quinn Epperly’s professional race car fabrication facility in Gardena, Calif., … for repairs and modifications.” 

Breedlove planned to attempt exceeding 600 mph in 1965, but instead Shell and Goodyear told him MSI was interested in having the car on loan for a Spirit of America exhibit. So the car was cleaned and repaired, but not restored to driving condition. Breedlove and MSI reached an oral agreement in August 1965 stipulating Breedlove’s written consent would be required for displaying the car anywhere aside from MSI, the car would remain available for motion picture filming requests and if the car were to go off display, it would be returned to Breedlove. 

The car stayed on display until October 2015. In a letter announcing plans end the exhibit, MSI wrote it had “endeavored to be good stewards of the Spirit — and (it) continues to be in mint condition even after 50 years of public display!” MSI offered to either return the Spirit of America, act as his agent in selling the car or accept permanent possession as a donation. Breedlove elected to have the car sent to him in Rio Vista, Calif., and it arrived Oct. 30. 

Earlier that month, Breedlove visited the car at MSI, at which time “he observed a significant amount of damage in the nature of exterior panels that were not fitting properly, stretched intake duct mountings for the jet engine, which appeared to have come from people putting their feet on or into the jet engine intake ducts and standing on them, and other cosmetic damage.” 

Breedlove alleges the museum allowed children to have “unimpeded physical access” to the car, and “many carved their names and miscellaneous graffiti on the vehicle’s historic hand-formed, aluminum skin panels and custom historic paint surfaces.” He further said MSI had the skin panels “repaired and repainted by incompetent and unqualified personnel, thereby resulting in further damage.” He also said at some point the “frame had been unprofessionally cut and re-welded” and that several parts and accessories were missing. A restoration shop pegged the cost to repair and recreate the missing parts at more than $395,000. 

Breedlove seeks at least $395,000, as well as punitive and exemplary damages and legal fees. His complaint alleges gross negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract and breach of implied covenant of good faith.  

Attorneys for Breedlove are Freeman, Freeman & Smiley, of Los Angeles; and Horwood Marcus & Berk Chartered, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Museum of Science and Industry
5700 S. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60637

Horwood Marcus & Berk, Chartered
500 W Madison St
Chicago, IL 60661

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