It’s hardly surprising that Donald Campbell ended up setting a new land-speed record. After all, his father, Malcolm, had made a habit of doing the same thing.
Campbell Sr was a prolific racing champion, twice winning France’s Grand Prix de Boulogne, both times in a Bugatti T37A. He was also a shareholder in Brooklands, a famous racing track (for years, it was the only one on the British mainland) where he claimed many victories. He even designed another famous track there, the Campbell Circuit.
Malcolm Campbell set the benchmark very high for his son, breaking the world land-speed record an astonishing nine times between 1924 and 1935. He became an icon in the public eye, his daredevil image enhanced by the sleek, futuristic cars – all of which he named “Blue Bird” – that were designed by engineering whiz Reid Railton and produced by Thomson & Taylor, a car engineering and production firm based at Brooklands itself. For good measure, Malcolm Campbell also broke the water-speed record. Four times. And what were his speedboats called? You guessed it: “Blue Bird”.
A hard act to follow. And Donald Campbell didn’t do too badly at all…
He started off on water, attempting to set new speed records in his father’s Blue Bird K4, but never mastered it and endured a 170-mph (273-km/h) crash in 1951. That wipe-out proved the turning point, though. Donald came up with his own design, a hydroplane that he named the Bluebird K7 (“Bluebird” spelled as one word, to distinguish it from his father’s craft), and used it to break the world water-speed record seven times in nine years, starting in 1955. This is how British Pathé news reported that event at the time:
Naturally enough, Donald wanted a crack at the land-speed record too, though his start was anything but promising. He had a serious crash in 1960 while travelling in excess of 360 mph (579 km/h) during an attempt at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, very nearly writing off both his Bluebird-Proteus CN7 car and himself.
It took some time for him to recuperate, but two years later he was ready to try again, with a rebuilt and improved CN7, at Lake Eyre salt flats in Australia. Fate had other ideas, however: after nine years of drought, the rains came to Lake Eyre just after Donald had started on some trial runs. The attempt was postponed. To add insult to injury, back in the States on 5 August 1963, Craig Breedlove drove his jet-car Spirt of America to an unprecedented 407.44 mph (655.722 km/h). A breath-taking achievement – but not officially recognised at the time, as Spirit of America only had three wheels and owing to its jet engine it wasn’t, technically speaking, wheel driven. In the eyes of governing body the Fédération International de l’Automobile (FIA), therefore, it wasn’t a car at all – though, belatedly, the feat was acknowledged.
By 1964, Donald Campbell was ready to give it another go. Despite unfavourable damp conditions, on 17 July he recorded an average speed of 648.73 km/h (403.10 mph) and secured that elusive world record. Again, British Pathé had the fanfare-laden low-down.
Perhaps surprisingly, Donald felt the result to be something of a let-down: the CN7 had been designed to get closer to 500 mph (800 km/h). Moreover, his speed was actually less than that attained by Craig Breedlove the previous year. Still, he now held the official land-speed record! And there was more to come.
Later that year, Donald travelled to Lake Dumbleyung, near Perth in Western Australia, his mind set on the water-speed record. He was plagued by a host of setbacks – everything from unfavourable easterly winds to moulting ducks that were unable to fly from the lake and leaving him without a clear path. But in a narrow window of opportunity on the very last day of 1964, he pushed his Bluebird to an unprecedented speed of 276.33 mph (444.71 km/h), shattering the existing record of 260.35 mph (418.99 km/h) that he himself had set in 1959 on Lake Coniston in Cumbria, UK. In so doing, he became, and still remains, the only person ever to have set both the land- and water-speed world record in the same year.
Malcolm and Donald Campbell lived for the thrill and challenge of record-breaking. And tragically, Donald died for it. As he attempted to break his own water-speed record once more, on 4 January 1967 on Lake Coniston, his Bluebird K7 flipped up as it approached 530km/h (853 km/h), during a return run. The vehicle somersaulted and crashed, killing him instantly.
It was an abrupt and wholly unexpected end. But those eight world speed records provide a truly remarkable legacy.