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The search for Speed

Posted in Adventure, Cars, Technology on Saturday, 21 April 2007

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Bluebird, picture, image, illustration

Donald Campbell in Bluebird

Silent and tense, Donald Campbell was oblivious to the dazzling glare of the sun as he watched his father climb into the cockpit of the gleaming racing car, Bluebird. He had faith in his father’s ability. His confidence was well-founded. The name of Sir Malcolm Campbell was not one that was associated with defeat. Calm though he was, Sir Malcolm could not help remembering the deaths of some of the other drivers against whom he had competed in the past. Parry Thomas, Sir Henry Segrave, and Ray Keech had all been killed by their craving for speed. But, on this day, 3 September 1935, he knew he must set aside such thoughts, for he was now setting out to establish a new world land speed record, and to be the first to achieve 300 mph. It was the culminating point of a racing career that had started simply enough when, as a 21-year-old stockbroker, he had become a keen motor-cyclist and won his first race in the same year. That had been in 1906.

Suddenly, the savage roar of his engine shattered the hushed silence, and he shot off with an immediate burst of tremendous speed. The wind was screaming around his car like a demon, and his eyes were dazzled by the salt crystals which glinted on each side of the black line that had been marked out for him across the 21 kilometres of the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, USA. Towards the end of the run, he was going at such a speed that he was forced to shoot 10 kilometres beyond the measured distance. Before he finally came to a halt, something happened that almost turned the day into black tragedy for the watching boy. For suddenly the inner tube of one of his tyres burst and buckled his front wheel.

The crowd gasped with horror as the car swerved violently, its exhausts belching fire and smoke. But somehow, miraculously, Sir Malcolm got it under control again. Bringing it to a halt, he calmly stepped out, and ordered the wheels to be changed immediately for the second run.

On the second run, there was almost another disaster. As Sir Malcolm roared across the flats, steam from the car, mingled with salt, began to pour through the vents in the radiator, and for the last 500 metres he drove almost blind. But again he was able to keep sufficient control of the car to bring it to a halt without mishap. After that came the anxious time of waiting while the officials made their calculations. The result, when it came, was a bitter blow: just under 300 mph. Then late that night it was announced that there had been an error in the calculations. The official record of the run now stood at 301.13 mph (484.8 km/h). Sir Malcolm’s success drove him on relentlessly. He now turned his attention to water speed records, and by 1937 had built a Bluebird boat with which he broke the existing record by achieving a speed of 129,5 mph (208.48 km/h). In the years that followed, he worked constantly on improving his boat, until he was finally able to achieve what was then a phenomenal speed of 228.1 km/h.

Sir Malcolm’s desire for speed remained throughout his life. At the age of 63, and almost blind, he was still planning to become the first man to achieve a speed of 300 km/h on water. But at the end of that year (1948) the great record-breaker died in his sleep.

What of the boy who had watched his father on that memorable day, 3 September 1935? Donald Campbell earned a CBE for his exploits in the world of speed, culminating in achieving the highest speed attained by a wheel-driven car (429.3 mph – 690.9 km/h). This he gained on the salt flats at Lake Eyre in South Australia on 17 July 1964. In December of that same year, Donald also set up a new world water speed record of 276.33 mph (444.71 km/h). Sadly, his success turned to tragedy on 4 January 1967, when he was killed while trying to better his water speed record. He was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Commendation for bravery.

4 comments on “The search for Speed”

  1. 1. yucatec says:

    What happened to the water speed record that was supposed to be attempted on Coniston Water in January, the fortieth anniversary of Donald Campbell’s death? The project was called Quicksilver and the guy behind it was Nigel Macknight. Did they ever raise enough money to get the project off the ground? Presumably not or we would have heard something on the news.

  2. 2. Archivist says:

    No idea what happened about the Quicksilver project but I do know that Nigel MacKnight was a contributor to Look and Learn, writing a series of articles about the Land Speed Record in the late 1970s.

  3. 3. brianhluk says:

    The Quicksilver challenge is still forthcoming, according to the website. Interestingly enough, in MacKnight’s bio it mentions him having worked on Look & Learn.

  4. 4. Nigel Macknight says:

    The “Quicksilver” water-speed project is still moving steadily forwards, I’m pleased to say.

    Writing for “Look & Learn” was really the starting-block for my professional career. It was in February 1977, aged 21, that I left the normal world behind and entered the precarious realm of writing for a living. As a freelance: no salary, no holiday pay, no security – but the wonderful feeling of being able to steer one’s own course. Lots of good memories. Adrian Vincent and Jack Parker – the editors I answered to. Visits to King’s Reach Tower. Researching and writing across a broad range of subjects. All this provided an excellent grounding for the years of authorship and editorship which lay ahead.

    Best wishes to all “Look & Learn” fans!


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