Fifty years ago today, just before 9.00am, Britain lost a unique individual, a man whose patriotism, courage, superstition, determination and insecurities made him one of the most complex, remarkable characters ever to attempt to do what no man had done before. His name was Donald Campbell.
He was, of course, the son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, the serial Land Speed Record breaker of the 1920s and 1930s and it is said Donald went to his watery grave on Lake Coniston trying to live up to memory of the Old Man. But Leo Villa, the long-serving engineer to both generations of Campbell and the man who perhaps understood him best, saw it another way. As soon as the young Donald started toying with the idea of record-breaking, Villa told him: ‘Once you start this, there’s no end to it. When it’s in your blood, it’ll be there for good.’
I hope there’s a magazine called Autoboat or something that is marking this sad anniversary too, for whatever Donald Campbell achieved on land, it pales compared to his achievements on water. His father had set a world water speed record in 1939 at 142mph and Donald’s first outings were in the same boat, Bluebird K4, which he eventually coaxed up to 170mph before wrecking it. But by then the record was far beyond the reach of K4, so he designed an all new jet-powered hydroplane, Bluebird K7 and went to work.
Between 1955 and 1964, K7 set seven water speed records, raising unopposed the record by almost 100mph from 178mph to 276mph. In the 53 years since, the mark has been raised just 43mph more. No one broke the record more times, no one raised it by more than half as much as Campbell. Though others achieved more on land, in the realm of the water speed record, Donald Campbell was, is and will almost certainly remain the undisputed, unapproached king.