Just before 8.30am on the morning of 4th January 1967, Donald Campbell eased his Bluebird K7 boat away from the jetty on the edge of Lake Coniston and headed out onto the water. His aim: a new record to add to the world-beating speeds he had already achieved in both boats and cars.
The first run, made just after 8.45, saw Bluebird cover the measured kilometre on the Cumbrian lake at an average of 297.6mph, with a peak of around 315mph. Then, unaccountably, without waiting for the wake to subside and the water to return to its traditional stillness, Campbell turned the boat round and began the second, opposite direction, run.
At 8.48, travelling at around 290mph, Bluebird’s bow suddenly lifted. In a scene that was to be repeatedly played out on newspaper front pages and TV newsreels for days and ultimately years afterwards, the catamaran performed a graceful backflip, crashing back into the lake to sink to the bottom and take Donald to his death.
So ended the life of a man who had relentlessly pursued, and achieved, outright speed records; a man who had perennially fought to escape the shadow of his equally speed-obsessed father. Lost that day was a true British hero who – this writer at least believes – has still, some 50 years on, not been given the recognition he deserves, especially in the leafy Surrey-Sussex border area in which he spent his life.
Visit Coniston lake today and you will find that air of stillness remains – it’s a tranquil place seemingly quite removed from the dramas of 1967 and before. But Campbell reminders are everywhere, his spirit very much pervading Coniston.
There are summer boat trips, retracing the route of the record runs with detailed descriptions of what went on. The shoreline Bluebird Café offers a wide range of memorabilia, while the museum built to commemorate Victorian great John Ruskin includes a Campbell wing with photos and artifacts.
Eventually this museum will also house the restored Bluebird K7, salvaged from the lake in 2000. Since then, a small team has been working to restore the shattered boat to working order – the Campbell family having decided that K7 should be displayed in a condition that recalls the many speed records set by Donald, not the one major failure that still overshadows all he achieved.
The same salvage operation also eventually located the body of Donald himself. Today he lies at peace in Coniston churchyard – a plot which, each year, sees pilgrimages from many fans of speed.
Away from home
Yet neither Donald Campbell, nor his equally speed-record setting father Malcolm, came from the Coniston area. Both spent the vast majority of their lives in two neighbouring boroughs of East Surrey.
The writer grew up in the small town of Horley, in the shadow of Gatwick airport, and soon became aware that the Campbells were locals. Various properties formerly owned by both Donald and Malcolm still exist today, as do the tales, such as how in the 1920s the earliest giant Bluebirds cars would be unloaded at Horley railway station and driven home along public roads.
It was in these cars that Malcolm eventually took the Land Speed Record past 300mph in 1935. He followed this by raising the water speed record to 141.470mph, on Coniston lake in 1939. In total Campbell senior set nine land and four water speed records.
Against father’s wishes
Malcolm had not wanted his son to follow him into record-breaking, and before his death, from a stroke on 1st January 1949, he sold off his Bluebirds. After hearing that an American was set to take his father’s water speed record, Donald became determined to keep the record in Britain. First he had to buy the pre-war K4 Bluebird boat, and the Bluebird car, from the estate. Never enjoying the wealthy comfort of his father, Donald would eventually have to resell the car to help fund his record breaking.
It took great determination and many setbacks, but the younger Campbell finally became a world record holder in his own right in July 1955, when he reached 202.32mph on the lake at Ullswater, not far from Coniston.
Donald then turned to the Land Speed Record (LSR), which at the time stood at 394.19mph. For this he had built the jet-powered CN7 car – reputedly testing the first jet engine he acquired by strapping it to the floor of a barn at his then home of Abbotts in the village of Leigh, midway between Reigate and Dorking. The barn is still there, while two miles away in the garden of his next home, still visible from the road today, is a large concrete shed specifically built to house the Bluebird car and boat.
The LSR effort proved fraught with difficulties. But by August 1960 everything was ready and at the famed Bonneville salt flats in Utah, USA, Campbell began his test runs, targeting 400mph and a new record. But on the sixth run, he lost control at around 360mph and Bluebird flipped into a shattering crash. Donald escaped with a fractured skull and burst eardrum, with only the sheer strength of the car saving him from more serious consequences.
Undeterred, he had Bluebird CN7 rebuilt and shipped to a new site, the Lake Eyre salt beds in Australia. On 17th July 1964, he drove the car to 403.1mph and finally secured an officially-recognised Land Speed Record. In the eyes of many Donald had at last exorcised the fatherly demons that had haunted him for years.
Then on the very last day of 1964, at Lake Dumbleyung near Perth in Australia, Campbell raised the WSR to 276.33mph. To this day he remains the only man to set land and water records in the same year. But this feat did not catch the public imagination, and worse, his LSR marker was soon left far behind by the new breed of rocket-powered American cars.
A fateful decision
As a result, instead of retiring as he had planned to do, Donald decided to raise the water speed record past 300mph, which he hoped would produce the funding he needed to build his own rocket-powered car and regain the LSR. And it was as he was on the verge of achieving that 300mph record, on 4th January 1967, that Donald Campbell’s luck ran out…
The 403.10mph that Donald achieved in July 1964 was the last outright LSR set by a wheel-driven car. By 1970, American Gary Gabelich’s ‘Blue Flame’ rocket car had taken the record to 630mph, where it stayed for 13 years until October 1983 when Briton Richard Noble added just 4mph in ‘Thrust 2’ to return the LSR to Britain.
A further 14 years on, Noble was the head of the project that saw RAF pilot Andy Green achieve the first supersonic LSR, at 760mph in ‘Thrust SSC’. And now Green is preparing to go record-hunting once again with ‘Project Bloodhound’, seeking to push the speed past 1,000mph.
Noble and Green are very much in the mould of the Campbells. Today Malcolm and Donald are remembered at Coniston, and in a very good display housed in a bespoke building added to the Lakeland Motor Museum on the edge of Cumbria. Here are displayed full-size replicas of the Bluebird cars and boats.
But go to the Surrey-Sussex border districts where the two men spent their lives, had their homes, and you will find statues proudly erected by the local authority, recalling other local famous sons, composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams and the 19th century builder Thomas Cubitt. Of the Campbells there is nothing…