Watch: Why Donald Campbell remains a true hero

More than 50 years after Donald Campbell's tragic death on Lake Coniston, we get a personal perspective from our Speed Records expert on why Campbell remains a true hero

Above an old desk and a much-used laptop, a solo monochrome image hangs on one of the walls of my modest flat. As a freelance motoring writer, I spend the vast majority of my working time sat beneath this very photograph, and it often serves to motivate me when I am feeling tired or I can’t quite find the first few words of an article I’m due to write. It’s a striking image from 1967 that captured the jet hydroplane Bluebird K7 ‘at full pelt’ on Coniston Water as her pilot Donald Campbell strived to be the first person to achieve 300mph on water.

In my journalism work I’m occasionally asked who my biggest inspiration is, and my answer is always the same – Donald Campbell. This tends to surprise people, as Donald – as the image on the wall would suggest – is strongly associated with speed on water, whereas my work revolves around classic cars, most of which (perhaps with the exception of an Amphicar) would not likely appreciate a dip in a lake, no matter how scenic the location.

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However, it was my appreciation of classic cars that introduced me to Donald Campbell’s story, as well as to the world of speed records and the legacy of Bluebird. During my first holiday in Cumbria, I opted to spend a day at the Lakeland Motor Museum. I took in the venue’s numerous car-based displays, and then wandered across to the Campbell Bluebird Exhibition, which was housed in a separate out-building. I knew nothing of Donald Campbell, or even indeed that people set speed records – how things were to change!

A full-scale replica of the Campbell-Railton Blue Bird was the first object to greet me at the door of the exhibition. I was immediately impressed by the sheer scale of this unusual vehicle, as well as the fact that the car had gained a World Land Speed Record of 301.337mph with driver Malcolm Campbell at the wheel.

My introduction to Donald Campbell

My introduction to Malcolm’s son Donald was somewhat less glorified, as I naively watched some grainy black-and-white TV footage. What unfolded on screen both shocked and fascinated me. It was, of course, the footage of Donald’s fatal crash with Bluebird K7 in January 1967, which is well known the world over. However, to me it was completely new. I didn’t fully grasp who or what I’d just watched, but I do remember leaving the exhibition with a heavy heart. It seems I was followed out of the door by a relentless curiosity to better understand what I’d just seen.

I became inquisitive, and soon I had read several books that introduced me to British speed legends including Malcolm Campbell, Henry Segrave, George Eyston, John Parry-Thomas and John Cobb. Mild curiosity developed into a fascination with record setting in the glorious 1920s and 1930s, but still I knew nothing much of Donald. Later, when I heard of a powerboat festival taking place in Coniston, I returned to the Lake District to seek some answers.

Upon the shore of Coniston Water, I observed speedboats thundering down the same five-mile stretch that Donald and Bluebird K7 had used for their attempts. It was quite an experience to listen to the enormous engines echo around the fells which, when the water is calm, are reflected upon the surface of the lake. I was completely drawn in. I guess Donald must have experienced something similar, for I often wonder if he chose speed records or if speed records chose him.

Since that first time I saw footage of his final 300mph attempt on water, I’ve become aware that some commentators feel Donald’s record-setting bids were the result of issues with his relationship with Malcolm and, ultimately, his dad’s passing in 1948. Authors frequently mention a somewhat ‘absent’ father figure, as Sir Malcolm chased speed record after speed record with almost hell-bent ambition.

But look more closely and you’ll see that Donald was more often than not present at these record attempts. As a young lad, he blessed his father’s Blue Bird K4 powerboat with the smashing of a bottle of champagne, and a neat, albeit rather short and nervous, speech.

In later years, his dying father’s words ‘It’s all right, old chap – I’m quite finished’ must have understandably been a significant blow to Donald, and likely the catalyst that properly threw him into the spotlight of speed records. Regardless of the exact reasons, to take it upon oneself to follow in the same field as a world-renowned legend, while also carrying the pressure of the same Campbell surname, takes guts – and I’ve always admired Donald for that.

Donald's early success

Achieving success early on in his own record attempts was not easy for Donald. To some extent he had his father to thank for this, as Sir Malcolm had made it difficult for Donald to lay his hands upon the very machinery that had brought the elder Campbell some of his most notable achievements.

However, with persistence Donald acquired Blue Bird K4 and the help of Sir Malcolm’s long-term mechanic Leo Villa. Additionally, in exchange for one of Sir Malcolm’s Blue Bird cars, Donald also acquired three of his father’s engines, one of which had powered the Campbell-Railton Blue Bird to over 300mph in 1935. In mid-1949, Donald arrived in Coniston to begin his own career in record-breaking.

Unfortunately, in the short time the craft was operational Donald failed to gain a speed record with K4 – but he did have success in winning the 1951 Oltranza Cup on Lake Garda in Italy, while also beating the existing lap record by a considerable margin.

It was clear that Donald needed a specially built vessel of his own in order to progress, and so began the development of Bluebird K7, a three-point jet hydroplane producing 3500lb of thrust and estimated to reach up to 250mph on water. Her creation was not without cost – for his plans to come to fruition, Donald had to remortgage his house and invest practically every penny he owned. Sir Malcolm had been rather famed for his stubbornness, and it seems Donald had inherited the very same trait. He wanted the records despite the risks.

Bluebird K7 was launched on Ullswater in early 1955 and, after some alterations, Donald achieved his first World Water Speed Record of 202.32mph that summer. This kick-started a series of World Water Speed Records for the team throughout the 1950s, including a record of 216.20mph on America’s Lake Mead in November 1955.

Donald’s preference for Coniston as his record-attempt venue of choice shone through as he went on to achieve 225.63mph in 1956 and then 239.07mph in 1957. He was now firmly on the record-breaking treadmill, marked by his appointment as a CBE. By 1959, he had gained a total of six records, with his best speed now registered at 260.35mph.

Crashing at 360mph

Perhaps thanks to his exposure to the Land Speed Record through his father’s activities, Donald temporarily changed tact and decided to try his hand at speed on land. His first attempts took place at Bonneville Salt Flats with his turbine-powered, four-wheel-drive car known as Bluebird CN-7, but were to prove almost fatal when, on September 16, 1960, he crashed at over 360mph.

Suffering from a fractured lower skull and a broken eardrum, Donald took some time to recover. It’s disheartening to think of the criticism he received at the time, when the proponents undoubtedly lacked the nerve to drive at even half the speed he had achieved. I believe a crash of this kind would likely unnerve anyone, particularly someone with a partner and a young daughter. Determined as he was, Donald was also human like the rest of us – and his resultant brief lapse in confidence only serves to highlight this.

Meanwhile, CN-7 was rebuilt and shipped out to Lake Eyre in Australia, where after much difficulty with the terrain, Donald was back on form as he successfully broke the World Land Speed Record in July 1964 at 403.1mph. This may be far lower than the current World Land Speed Record of 763.035mph but, even so, Donald’s achievement remains simply astounding.

In my line of work, I’m often lucky enough to be given fairly powerful cars to test and report on. As I have done, next time you’re behind the steering wheel try to imagine how intimidating driving at 403.1mph must be. Now imagine doing that having had a traumatic road accident at over 360mph. As Donald would say: ‘Full Stop’.

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1964: Two records in a year

During 1964, nothing seemed to hold back Donald’s ambition. On the very last day of that year, on Australia’s Lake Dumbleyung, he once again took the World Water Speed Record at 276.30mph with Bluebird K7. It was a remarkable year for Donald, and for the British speed community as a whole. His double success in taking both the Land and Water Speed Records within the same year had never been achieved before, nor has it been repeated.

Plans began to develop for a supersonic car known as the Bluebird Mach 1.1, as you can see above, but to make this vehicle a reality Donald once again needed to work hard to impress the relevant people, who could potentially fund the project. I find the effort required remarkable given what he had already achieved, but it’s understandable in part when taking the bigger picture into consideration.

By the mid-1960s, Donald was one of the only speed record contenders in the world. Some now considered the pursuit of higher speeds to be a sort of nonsense; they argued that the sport had its day back in the 1920s and 1930s, and that the speeds were now too dangerous to tackle – and pointed out that most of the individuals who’d been successful in the early days of motoring had perished in their quest for glory.

Despite impressive credentials, Donald decided the only way to reignite interest, as well as gain the necessary sponsorship, would be to break 300mph on water. It was a remarkably familiar goal, echoing that of Sir Malcolm’s ambition to achieve 300mph on land.

Subsequently, Bluebird’s Beryl jet engine was replaced with a Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus that delivered 5000lb of thrust. The sponsons on K7 were re-designed, a tail fin was fitted and the cockpit canopy was smoothed over. The attempt for 300mph on water was to be completed on Coniston and on a tight budget – Donald saying ‘the old meter’s always ticking down’ in one of his many interviews.

Blighted by technical problems, bad weather and timekeepers who were absent over the festive period, Donald’s patience must have been continually tested as he awaited his opportunity for an official record attempt in early 1967.

A gentleman under pressure

As the weeks rolled by the press became impatient, journalists’ questions becoming more difficult, increasingly personal and at times cutting. I think this is the point at which I am most impressed with Donald, both as a record setter and an individual.

In one television interview, filmed in Coniston, he is asked a series of difficult questions. His answers are eloquent and polite, despite the fact he’s very clearly being put on the spot. His eyes suggest he has tired of the questioning and that he just wants to get on with the job at hand.

Despite the pressure he’s under, he remains modest and retains his dignity throughout. My impression is that he believes in what he is doing, himself and the team he has with him. There is much to be learned in how to handle oneself from these scant minutes of footage. I only wish there were more of them.

Sadly there’s a reason why there is not. On the morning of January 4, 1967, he decided to make his attempt at breaking 300mph on water. Soon after 8.40am, spectators dotted around the shore and the press were watching as Donald and Bluebird K7 sped across Coniston Water yet again. Both were going harder than ever before in their attempt to break the World Water Speed Record, pushing beyond 1964’s 276.30mph and then going faster still.

Disaster on Lake Coniston

For her outward run, Bluebird’s speed was read out as ‘+47’. This equated to 297mph, with 250mph acting as the zero point for relaying speeds on the team radio. Donald then turned K7 around to begin the return run towards Coniston. He opted not to re-fuel at the turning point by Peel Island, likely trying to avoid the wash from the run he’d just completed. He had done this many times before.

On the return run, Donald entered the measured kilometre at 328.12mph. Success was tantalisingly close, but then disaster struck as Bluebird suddenly became airborne and somersaulted backwards. K7 crashed back onto Coniston Water at a force of 300G, breaking forward of her air intakes and instantaneously killing her ‘skipper’, Donald.

Bluebird cartwheeled across the surface before the main hull sunk beneath the water. A peculiar silence fell upon the lake. The pair had been only 150 yards away from the end of the measured mile and the goal of 300mph.

The grainy black and white footage I observed years ago in the Lakeland Motor Museum was a recording of that very attempt and its consequences. When I watched the recording it affected me deeply. I felt a notable sense of witnessing something that was incredibly unfair, even though at that point I knew nothing about Donald.

Donald Campbell - the ultimate hero

How I would have loved to have spoken with him and seen K7 on her runs on Coniston Water. I’m envious of anyone who has. How I would also prefer that Donald were still here with us, that he had succeeded that day.

Yet I can’t help but realise that if his story had ended differently, then perhaps I would have known nothing of him at all – and he wouldn’t have inspired me with his story, ambition and character in the way that he has.

That photograph of Bluebird K7 will long remain on my wall as I write. For although our lives are very different, Donald is my main inspiration. When it comes to pushing yourself beyond your fears, retaining self-respect in difficult situations and absolutely giving your all to whatever it is in life that you choose to do, he taught both you and I everything we need to know. And this remains the reason why he's an ultimate hero.

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