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.
But this is Autocar and the clue is in the title. And the truth is Donald Campbell never achieved his goals on land, and while undisputedly though briefly the holder of the Land Speed Record, he was never the fastest man on earth.
I’ll explain. Campbell had already broken the Water Speed Record many times before he turned his attention to land and believed the massive, turbine powered Bluebird-Proteus CN7 he’d had designed would enable him not only to beat the 394mph mark set by John Cobb in 1947, but smash it to smithereens. Indeed it was designed to do 500mph. But when it was ready in 1960, Campbell chose to drive it at Bonneville, the site of his father’s last Land Speed Record, and rolled it into a ball at over 350mph. Luck and the car’s inherent strength allowed him to escape alive, but suffering severe concussion and a fractured skull. It was four years before the car could make its next attempt, at Lake Eyre in Australia.
On a shortened, partly flooded course – prior to Campbell’s arrival no rain had fallen on the dried up lake bed for almost a decade – he slithered Bluebird up to 403mph to break Cobb’s record. But back at Bonneville, Craig Breedlove had already driven his jet-powered Spirit of America at 407mph and the only reason Campbell held the Land Speed Record is that in 1964 the rules stipulated cars had to be wheel driven. But he wasn’t the fastest and he knew it. Consolation came in busting the Water Speed Record, giving him both land and water records in the same year. He had done the double, another unique achievement that will likely stand forever.
But Villa’s prophecy was coming true. Campbell could not stop. He put a more powerful engine in his jet boat that would enable it to reach 300mph, a speed never imagined for a boat designed when the record stood at little more than half that speed. After endless delays waiting for the right weather on Coniston, he went for it early on the morning of January 4th 1967.
His first run was at 297mph, and were such records allowed to be logged in just one direction, perhaps he’d have lived a whole lot longer. But he was required to return and, without waiting to refuel despite being allowed an hour between runs, headed back down the lake, losing control perhaps as a result of hitting his own wash, at 328mph. The impact was unsurvivable.
Even if he’d lived, Campbell would not have stopped. We know this because his next Land Speed Record car had already been announced. Unlike any record breaker before, it was to be powered by neither internal combustion engine nor jet, but a rocket, which provided not only for a simple, lightweight design, but also enormous thrust coupled with minimal frontal area.
It was a revolution, intended to elevate the Land Speed Record to a hitherto unimagined place. It was called Bluebird Mach 1.1. If you do the maths you will discover that Mach 1.1 equates to 844mph at sea level, over 80mph faster even than the current Land Speed Record.
So spare a thought today for Donald Campbell. To consider him a man who spent a lifetime struggling to emerge from his father’s considerable shadow is to sell him and his achievements woefully short. The truth is he was one of the bravest, most remarkable men from anywhere in the world, ever to try to go faster than anyone else had been. Fifty years on, I think that is a fact that should be more widely recognised than it is.