Donald Campbell: Faster than his Father

Posted in Cars on Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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This edited article about Donald Campbell’s land speed record originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 923 published on 29 September 1979.

John Cobb’s land speed record (LSR) of 634·267 km/h (394·2 mph) established in September, 1947, stood for no less than 16 years. It was eventually broken by Britain’s Donald Campbell, son of the illustrious Sir Malcolm Campbell, who had so dominated the speed scene in the 1920s and the 1930s. In true Campbell tradition, Donald’s new LSR vehicle bore the famous Bluebird title.

Top: the famous car in which Donald Campbell became the fastest man on land. Bottom: Bluebird K7, the boat on which Campbell was killed on Coniston Water, Cumbria in 1967. Illustration by Graham Coton

Top: the famous car in which Donald Campbell became the fastest man on land. Bottom: Bluebird K7, the boat on which Campbell was killed on Coniston Water, Cumbria in 1967. Illustration by Graham Coton

Because he had been instructed by Campbell to design a vehicle which would be capable of exceeding 500 mph, designer Ken Norris opted for a different approach. He devised a powerful gas turbine-engined layout, utilising a 5,000 hp Bristol Proteus power-unit, as used in Britannia airliners.

In order to achieve greater stability during the fierce period of acceleration preceding the measured mile, the new Bluebird CN7 (the CN stood for Campbell-Norris) featured four-wheel drive and enormous Dunlop tyres.

A special underground plant had to be built at a cost of £125,000 to test the performance of these purpose-designed tyres and to ensure that there would be no risk of a “blow-out” at high speeds.

Various tyres were tried at different stages in the CN7’s development programme; some were built with a 350 mph “speed limit” for the initial test runs, while stronger constructions were to be used for the actual record attempt.

Bluebird’s main body structure was a masterpiece of engineering. By sandwiching together various layers of strong, yet light, metal skins, then bonding them under pressure with special adhesives, it was possible to combine low overall weight with immense structural strength.

In the slowing-down department, Bluebird was not to be found lacking, either. Special air-flaps could be extended from the car’s flanks to help stop the mighty machine, followed in turn by a drogue parachute. With about half the speed thus eliminated, compressed-air-operated disc brakes on all four wheels would haul the mighty car to a complete standstill.

Altogether, no less than 80 British companies participated in Bluebird’s mammoth construction programme. Said to have cost over £1 million to build, Bluebird was destined to absorb a further £1 million in its four-year lifespan as an active record-breaker.

On arrival at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the Bluebird team began the time-consuming job of setting up shop and carrying out the many preliminary test runs necessary to ensure that everything was in perfect working order.

It is a sobering thought that Bluebird’s minimum speed, with no throttle on at all, was over 180 mph, so Campbell must have been driving very gingerly indeed – possibly even applying the brakes gently from time to time – as he sought to break in his fearsome yet handsome blue beast.

At 6 a.m. on 16th September, 1960, Donald Campbell set off on his fifth timed trial run. The tyres fitted that day had a 300 mph test limit, but Donald got carried away.

Before he had time to check his speedometer and take correcting action, he was doing 360 mph. In a terrible instant, the Bluebird snapped to the left, shot into the air and somersaulted over and over in a cloud of salt spray and pale blue paint.

When the dust finally settled, and the support team arrived at the scene of Campbell’s terrible accident, it was a pitiful sight indeed which met their eyes.

Pieces of blue-painted wreckage were strewn all over the place, and a trail of blood from the Bluebird’s cockpit led everyone to expect the worst.

When chief mechanic Leo Villa prised open the cockpit cover, an overwhelming wave of relief swept over the entire British team. Campbell was alive. He lay semi-conscious in the twisted remains of what was once his pride and joy, and amazed everyone by having the presence of mind to switch off Bluebird’s Proteus gas-turbine engine which, surprisingly, was still ticking over after its violent battering.

At the intensive-care unit of a nearby hospital, Campbell’s injuries were announced to the waiting pressmen. His skull was fractured, an eardrum had been pierced, and he was suffering from severe cuts, bruises and concussion. An anxious reporter stooped by Campbell’s bedside and asked what his next course of action would be. “I’m going to have another try”, was the terse reply.

On 17th July, 1964, Donald Campbell, true to his word, finally broke the land speed record. He eventually achieved 648·728 km/h (403·1 mph) on the Lake Eyre salt flats in South Australia. It was a long and bitter struggle, for atrocious weather played havoc with the British team’s carefully-laid plans.

But the irony was that Campbell’s hard-earned achievement had already been eclipsed by a variety of jet-propelled cars in the USA. These incredible machines certainly did not comply with the authorities’ regulations for the land speed record, but they were nevertheless regarded as the “world’s fastest” by the man in the street.

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