Tag Archives: Land Speed Record

Showdown On The Salt

There are few places on planet earth that are as alien in appearance as the desolate surroundings of Bonneville Salt Flats. Situated not far from the Wendover Air Force Base in the State of Utah USA, this extraterrestrial looking terrain, covered by an expansive sheet of grubby white salt and girdled by a jagged brown-black mountain range, became an eerie backdrop for one of the greatest gatherings of outright Land Speed Record contenders the world had ever seen.

Four Americans and their streamlined leviathans assembled on the salt during a cool August in 1960 to try and break Englishman John Cobb’s 1947 record of 634.40kph (394.20mph) which for 13 years had stood unchallenged. In a flurry of national pride, it became the aim of these four very different individuals to recapture the title that was last held by the United States in 1928, when Ray Keech, driving his White Triplex Special, exceeded Captain Malcolm Campbell’s record of 333.063kph (206.956mph) by a mere 0.959kph (0.596mph).

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Athol Graham’s City Of Salt Lake record contender.

But in 1960 the array of potential record breakers was even more formidable.

Athol Graham, a devout Mormon, had dreamed he would break the Land Speed Record and regarded it as a divine revelation.  His “car”, named the City Of Salt Lake, used the aero engine from industrialist Bill Boeings Miss Wahoo unlimited hydroplane and produced more than 2,238kw (3,000hp).  Clothed in a channelled ex-Air Force fuel drop tank, the agricultural standard of preparation had led some to consider it a “clunker”.  But nonetheless, Graham clocked a surprising 538.76kph (344.761mph) the previous December in the rear wheel drive machine on the Bonneville salt.

Then there was Mickey Thompson, a product of the American Hot Rod scene and the American National Land Speed Record holder.  Thompson was the most experienced of the group and undoubtedly the best prepared with his LSR car Challenger 1.  Although on paper it may have seemed an unsophisticated device, using four scrap 6.7litre V8 Pontiac engines, with supercharging it produced over 2088kw (2,800hp).  The engines were also ingeniously mounted in pairs and facing each other so the power could be transmitted to both the front and rear wheels through their own individual transmissions and final drive.

A newcomer to Land Speed Record breaking was the well-known drag racer, Art Arfons, driving number 12 in his series of soon to be famous Green Monsters. Nicknamed “Anteater” due to its long pointed snout, it used a more powerful version of the Allison aero engine than Graham’s, putting out around 2,834kw (3,800hp) in Arfon’s untried rear-engined machine.

But perhaps the most amazing LSR contender of this gathering was physician Dr Nathan Ostich’s pure thrust jet engined vehicle called Flying Caduceus. Named after the medical emblem taken from Greek mythology, it used a General Electric J47 turbojet from a Boeing B36 bomber, which produced the equivalent of 5,220kw (7,000hp) and was the first of a new breed of jet-engined record contenders.  Although it was technically ineligible, according to the world governing body of motorsport, the F.I.A., Ostich was prepared to thumb his nose at the European based governing body to become the fastest man on land.

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Dr Nathan Ostich’s Flying Caduceus powered by a pure thrust jet engine.

The scene was now set for one of the great confrontations in Land Speed Record breaking history.

First to venture onto the salt was Athol Graham. Concerned about the prevailing crosswinds and some aspects of Graham’s engineering, the experienced Mickey Thompson talked caution to the Mormon idealist. Off his own back, Thompson had already asked for a telephone pole to be removed at the southern end of the course to reduce any potential risk during Graham’s run. But Graham could not be dissuaded and using full power from the Allison aero engine he rocketed his two-wheel drive vehicle flat out down the salt.  The City of Salt Lake was clocking over 482.80kph (300mph) when tragedy struck. The strong crosswinds caused the home built special to yaw off course and snap sideways into a tumble before losing its tail and becoming airborne.  With a sickening crunch, City Of Salt Lake landed upside down before rolling over and over.  There was little hope for Graham who had not worn a safety harness.  Although an inbuilt roll bar had withstood the numerous impacts, the engine firewall had crumpled, protruding into the car and breaking Graham’s spine.  He was dead on arrival at Tooele Valley Hospital 177km (110 miles) away.

If this was to be a warning of how treacherous Bonneville could be, it did not work.  Five days later 52-year-old Los Angeles physician, Dr Nathan Ostich, took his jet-powered car out on the salt.  Designed and engineered by Ray Brock, the publisher of Hot Rod magazine and hot rod doyen Ak Miller, Flying Caduceus had been wind tunnel tested at California Poly Tech, and with 5220kw (7,000hp) on hand, it was calculated to be capable of 804.67kph (500mph). But problems with a porous fuel pump, collapsing air intakes, then severe vibrations and brake and steering problems forced Ostich and his team to eventually withdraw.

Even so, the flying doctor salvaged some pride by reaching over 482.80kph (300mph) during one precarious run.

Art Arfrons contender nicknamed "Ant Eater". Its clear to see why.

Art Arfons contender nicknamed “Ant Eater”. It’s clear to see why.

Art Arfons took briefly to the salt with his Allison rear-engined Green Monster, only to have a bearing go in the cars final drive on the return run. Arfons released his breaking parachute, which then promptly snapped its nylon line.  Even though his first probe run had reached almost 402.33kph (250mph) with plenty in hand, Arfons acknowledged that “Anteater” was not up to Land Speed Record breaking standard and withdrew.

In the meantime Thompson had been building up speed, making one run at an impressive 569.70kph (354mph).  He too had been encountering problems, the suspensionless Challenger 1 suffering from a lack of front wheel adhesion, which was finally solved with some extra ballast and an aerofoil above the nose of the car.  Thompson was now ready for some serious runs, but an unexpected downpour had washed away the black guideline and the oil truck re-laying it became bogged in the mud flats.  This did not faze Thompson at all, and he elected to run without the guideline, easily managing a one-way speed of 596.67kph (372 mph).  Buoyed by this Thompson was ready to go for the record, and with his next run recorded a sizzling speed of 654.35kph (406.60mph). This was faster than Cobb’s best run of 648.783kph (403.135mph), and Thompson knew if he could get a half decent return run through the measured mile then his two-way average would be enough to beat Cobb’s record by the required minimum of one percent.  America would, at last, regain the world record.

Challenger 1, Mickey Thompson's National Land Speed Record holder.

Challenger 1, Mickey Thompson’s American National Land Speed Record holder.

Regrettably, as so often happens in record-breaking, the return run was an anti-climax with Challenger 1 suffering a broken driveshaft.  Thompson did try his luck again, but this time a broken chain driving a supercharger put paid to Mickey’s dream.

There was, however, one more record contender.  Arriving at Bonneville in early September in an attempt to usurp any American record, enigmatic Englishman, Donald Campbell, returned to where his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, had set a new outright Land Speed Record of 484.620kph (301.129mph) in 1935 to become the first man to break through the 483kph (300mph) barrier.

As a fourteen-year-old boy, Donald had witnessed his father’s triumph. Twenty-five years later and with six World Water Speed Records under his belt, Campbell was challenging for the record his father had held nine times. In keeping with family tradition Donald also named his record-breaking hydroplane and his Land Speed Record contender, “Bluebird”, as his father had, in honour of Maeterlinck’s play, “The Blue Bird”.

Doanld Campbell's Bluebird CN7. British pride and prestige was at stake.

Donald Campbell’s Bluebird CN7. British pride and prestige were at stake.

But if the American gang had been imposing, it was Campbell’s entourage that made the hard to impress Americans jaws drop.  With nearly a hundred personnel, forty tons of equipment and a convoy of support vehicles, it would have been hard not to gasp at the sheer size of Campbell’s undertaking.

And then there was Bluebird herself.  Designed by Ken and Lewis Norris, (who had also been responsible for Campbell’s World Record-breaking hydroplane) Bluebird CN7 had been built by Motor Panels, a subsidiary of Sir Alfred Owen’s Rubery-Owen group, with the support of approximately 80 British companies and at the cost of close to one million pounds sterling. The massive car was powered by a Bristol-Siddeley Proteus gas-turbine engine producing 3,057kw (4,1000hp) at 11,000rpm that powered all four wheels through two David Brown fixed ratio gearboxes.  Bluebird was to be a shining example of British technology and engineering at its best, and no expense had been spared in this pursuit.

Unimpressed by the Englishman’s seemingly limitless resources. Thompson played on Campbell’s superstitious nature by telling him how poor the condition of the salt was in an attempt to psyche him out.  Arfons too was critical of the fact that Campbell had not driven Bluebird before coming to Bonneville and dryly referred to it as, “on the job training”.

Now it was time for Sir Malcolm’s son to prove himself.

Campbell (left )in discussion with Mickey Thompson (right). Thompson played on Campbell's surreptitious nature.

Campbell (left )in discussion with Mickey Thompson (right). Thompson played on Campbell’s surreptitious nature.

Campbell initially made some gentle runs to get accustomed to the monstrous blue car, building up slowly from 200kph (124mph) to 386kph (240mph) before asking for the steering ratio to be lowered after the runs.

Despite still being unhappy with the steering, Campbell went back out to make his fifth run.  Bluebird managed to accelerate to 483kph (300mph) within three miles, putting a smile of relief on Campbell’s face. CN7’s designer, Ken Norris, promptly reminded him that the minimum required was two miles if they were to achieve a new record.   Campbell then made what would be a fateful decision to do some acceleration tests. Norris was clearly unhappy about this and Dunlop tyres Don Badger also reminded Campbell that the test tyres fitted to CN7 were only good for 483kph (300mph).

On the return run Campbell accelerated the massively powerful car much harder and had reached almost 580kph (360mph), when, in circumstances almost identical to Athol Graham’s accident, Bluebird strayed progressively off course before spinning sideways and rolling over.  The massive 4,354kg (9,600lb) car suddenly leapt into the air for what seemed like an eternity before crashing back down onto the salt as it continued to roll over, shedding wheels and bodywork until finally sliding on its belly to a halt.

Campbell somehow survived the worlds fastest automobile accident.

Campbell somehow survived the worlds fastest automobile accident.

Although sustaining a fractured skull, contusion of the brain, a burst inner ear and various lacerations, Campbell had somehow survived the world’s fastest automobile accident.  But the car was a total write-off except for the Proteus gas-turbine engine and some minor ancillary components.

Bonneville Salt Flats and Cobb’s record had not been conquered. But this was to be just a prelude to a new chapter, as Campbell and a rebuilt Bluebird would challenge for the record again in Australia, while Arfons, Ostich and Thompson would try their hand once more at Bonneville.  For as different as these men were, they all shared the same dream and possessed the same kind of superhuman courage and determination that is needed to try and become the fastest man on land.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 2002.  Images courtesy http://www.samuelhawley.com, http://www.gregwapling.com, http://www.thompsonlsr.com, http://www.dburnett.photoshelter.com, and http://www.rbracing-rsr.com.

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Speed King

For enthusiasts of Land Speed Record breaking, the title “Speed Ace” or “Speed King” conjures images of such archetypal heroes as Segrave, Campbell and Cobb, frantically sawing at the wheel of some aero-engined behemoth as it thunders down the beaches of Daytona or along the dazzling white salt flats of Bonneville. English gentlemen who would risk life or limb for King and Country and the prestige of Britain.

But record-breaking often creates less likely heroes who would arguably qualify for the same distinguished mantle.  Don Vesco was one such person, who not only set an outright World Land Speed Record for motorcycles of 318.598mph (512.73kph), but also an outright World Land Speed Record for a wheel-driven vehicle of 458.440mph (737.787kph).

Don Vesco.

Don Vesco.Record-breaking was only one part of a lifetime chasing speed.

Record-breaking for Vesco though was only one part of a lifetime chasing speed.

Don was born in Loma Linda Southern California on April the 8th 1939, in an environment that not surprisingly nurtured a “need for speed”.  His father, John Vesco, ran hot-rods and streamliners out of his body shop on Southern California’s numerous dry lakebeds – a perfect setting for Don and his two younger brothers Rick and Chuck to gain an education in all things fast.

Vesco was mechanically gifted as a child, and while still in his teens, modified a rigid framed Triumph 500cc T100R twin to enter his first official race, a local drag race meet at San Diego’s Paradise Mesa drag strip. What followed was that unique blend of American motorcycle racing, on bitumen, dirt track and TT steeplechase. One of Don’s old Hoover High School buddies and main rival on the track in those days was a future legend, Cal Rayborn.

It was in the discipline of road racing that Vesco excelled and it soon became apparent that the Triumph was no match for the Manx Norton’s many of his rivals were racing.  Thanks to a loan from his girlfriend Norma, who would become the first of his three wives, Don was able to purchase a Manx.  The combination proved almost unbeatable in local road races at tracks like Willow Springs and Riverside in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s – at a time when Japanese manufacturer Honda was trying to take a foothold in the lucrative American motorcycle market.

Don on the salt at Bonneville with his Manx Norton.

Don on the salt at Bonneville with his Manx Norton.

Honda hired Vesco to race its highly successful RC161 four-cylinder four-stroke 250cc Grand Prix racer in American events to help promote the brand. Don duly notched up two wins on the RC161 first time up at the Goleta Airport track in Santa Barbara but crashed the bike several months later at the same venue.  When a promised ride in the 1962 US Grand Prix at Daytona (an FIM sanctioned international event) was given to Japanese rider Kunimitsu Takahashi, it appeared that Don was out of favour.

In a twist of fate another Japanese manufacturer, Yamaha was also trying to promote their motorcycles in America. Yamaha contacted Vesco to race its RD56 250cc two-stroke Grand Prix racer the following year in the open class at the same event. The race, however, wasn’t to be all smooth sailing. Vesco, suffered a fall in the Daytona infield, but remounted and went on to lap the entire field to win the 1963 US Grand Prix, giving the Japanese manufacturer their first major victory in America. Vesco was to ride again for Yamaha at Daytona in 1964, and this time the Grand Prix was a fully sanctioned round of the FIM 250cc World Championship.  Unfortunately, a nasty fall in practice resulted in a broken collarbone for Vesco, and the GP racer was handed to up and coming English rider, and future World  Champion, Phil Read. The bad luck continued for Yamaha and the bike seized during the race.

Don aboard the Open Class winning Yamaha RD56 at Daytona 1963 with Japanese rider Fumio Ito.

Yamaha was now offering Don a dealership, which initially he declined, but reconsidered when his employer complained he had too much time off through racing accidents. He opened shop in El Cajon California in 1966.

By the early 70’s Vesco had two of the world’s best racers riding out of his dealership, former world 250cc Grand Prix champion, Australian Kel Carruthers (who had come to live and race in the U.S. at Don’s invitation), and his old racing buddy and rival Cal Rayborn.   By the late 70’s other such greats as Gene Romero, Dave Aldana, Ron Pierce and Yvon du Hamel had all ridden under the Team Vesco Yamaha banner.

Don had by now shelved his own racing ambitions to concentrate on the dealership with the satisfaction of having been a factory rider for a number of manufacturers including Honda, Yamaha, Bridgestone and BSA.

Don on the cover of the Orange County Raceway program riding a 250cc Bridgestone GP racer.

It was during this period that Vesco began his highly successful motorcycle land speed record runs at Bonneville Salt Flats. Don was no stranger to the salt having first run a motorcycle at Bonneville at the age of 16, and in 1963 joined the exclusive 200mph (321.87kph) club, driving his fathers Offenhauser powered four-wheeled streamliner #444 to 221mph (355.67kph).

However, it was the outright Motorcycle Land Speed records that Vesco became synonymous with. The first was in September 1970 using a twin-engine streamliner fitted with Yamaha R3 air-cooled 350cc two-stroke engines to set a new world record of 251.924mph (405.43kph), becoming the first man to break the 250mph barrier.  It was short lived though, as less than a month later Harley-Davidson broke his record with Cal Rayborn at the controls. Vesco knew of his friend’s record attempt and made sure he received his contingency money from Yamaha and his other sponsors quick smart!

Vesco and Big Red the first motorcycle to achieve over 250mph.

Vesco and Big Red the first motorcycle to achieve over 250mph.

Five years later Don returned to the salt and was the first to crack the 300mph barrier and set a new record in the Silver Bird Yamaha, (a stretched version of his old streamliner Big Red, fitted initially with two TZ700cc two-stroke Yamaha racing engines), leaving the mark at 302.928mph (487.53kph).

This was not enough for Vesco, and in August 1978 he established a new outright world record of 318.598mph (512.73kph) with Lightning Bolt using two modified 1015cc turbocharged Kawasaki KZ900 engines.  Remarkably this outright world record stood for 12 years.

But it was only two months later that success turned to failure when Don took Lightning Bolt to El Mirage dry lake and crashed.  Vesco escaped without injury, but much of the streamliner’s bodywork was damaged.  By 1980 Don had finished work on a new streamliner using two turbocharged 1300c six cylinder Kawasaki engines, although success eluded his latest creation.

Don with the Silver Bird Yamaha streamliner after setting an new world record of 302.98mph.

Don with the Silver Bird Yamaha streamliner after setting a new world record of 302.98mph.

Vesco now started to eye the record for wheel-driven automobiles and in 1982 returned to Bonneville with a unique machine called Sky Tracker. Built along the lines of Don’s motorcycle streamliners, Sky Tracker used the driver’s compartment from Lightning Bolt and sported five wheels, two next to each other at the rear, one on each side and enclosed in the middle of the bodywork, and one at the front.

Rain, in both 1982 and 1983, thwarted attempts with Sky Tracker at Bonneville, although a speed of 235mph (378kph) was achieved in 1984 using a turbocharged Drake-Offenhauser engine before the meet was rained out again.  1985 saw Vesco qualify Sky Tracker for the World Finals record runs with a pass of 318mph, (512kph) his unusual creation starting to show its potential. Like anybody involved in the pursuit of speed, Vesco was well aware of the dangers, but a blown rear tyre at 350mph (563kph) underlined that point in no small way.  Sky Tracker crashed end over end five times utterly destroying the car. Don came away with damaged vertebrae, concussion and a broken bone in his hand and right foot.

Don with the Kawasaki Lightning Bolt. His record stood for 12 years.

Don Vesco with the Kawasaki Lightning Bolt. His record stood for 12 years.

Finding enough money to continue chasing the record was not unfamiliar territory for Don and his brother Rick who was also working on a parallel project. It made sense to join forces to complete a new twin-engine car, although it was not until 1991 with a pair of turbocharged 160 cubic inch Drake-Offenhauser power units that it started to show promise with a run of 372mph (598kph).   Expensive engine failures were now becoming a problem, and it was apparent to the brothers that piston engine power was reaching its upper limits. A different power source was needed if they were to break Al Teague’s wheel-driven record of 409.97mph (659.78kph).

A gas turbine was seen as the best solution, and a compact helicopter unit could be found comparatively cheaply in the form of an Avco Lycoming T55-L-11A SA. The streamliner now became known as the Turbinator with its engine producing 3,750hp at 16,000rpm, driving all four wheels through a gearbox bolted to the front with a reduction ratio on the shaft of 2:1.

Turbinator.

Turbinator.

The first development runs took place in 1996 at Bonneville, and over the next four years, Don and Team Vesco set three national records at the World Finals in excess of 400mph (643.74kph), culminating a one-way run of 427mph (687.19kph) in 2000. The world record slipped through their grasp that day when a gearbox failure with Turbinator prevented the team turning the car around for the return run within the one hour stipulated by FIA regulations.

Team Vesco returned to Bonneville once again in 2001 for the World Finals, with 500mph squarely in their sights.  The team were buoyed by the fact that in a one-way “shakedown” run Turbinator reached 470.28mph (756.84kph) and was still accelerating out of the measured mile. The record runs however produced a real problem.  Don was unable to hold open the throttle as the engine temperature at the burners kept creeping up dramatically and could have caused the engine to self-destruct. Vesco had to modulate the throttle 16 times to contain the temperature but still hit over 458.mph (737.08kph) on the first run. The problem was the reduction gearbox, bolted to the shaft on the front of the engine, prevented enough cooling air to flow into the turbine.

The return run was going to be challenging, and again Vesco was required to modulate the throttle 18 times to contain engine temperature. Worse was yet to come as the rear left tyre blew inside the measured mile. It took all of Don’s skill and experience to keep the Turbinator on track and slow it down, stopping a mere 15 feet inside the black line.

Team Vesco had done the job; the return run had equalled the first to give a two-way average of 458.44mph (737.79kph).

Don and the team were happy to have beaten Al Teague’s 1991 wheel driven record of 409.986mph (659.81kph) in Spirit of ‘76. But more delighted to have broken the record for a gas turbine automobile of 403.10mph (648.73kph) set 37 years earlier in 1964 by Donald Campbell at Lake Eyre in South Australia driving CN7 Bluebird.

Don and Team Vesco break the wheel-driven Land Speed Record 2001.

Don and Team Vesco break the wheel-driven Land Speed Record 2001.

In 1999 the American Motorcyclist Association had honoured Vesco’s achievements and inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Don turned 60 that year.  If there is one thing, that old motorcycle racers know from experience, crashing and riding injured come with the territory. Vesco had suffered his share, but in 1995 while spectating at a sprint car meeting at the Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix Arizona, Don was struck in the left eye and permanently blinded by a piece of debris thrown up by the rear tyre of a sprint car. Driving Turbinator with one eye was just another obstacle for Don to overcome, which makes those 400mph (643.74kph)  plus runs all that more remarkable. It didn’t deter Vesco from competing at Daytona in the BMW legends series, riding an R1100RS as fast as ever, and he continued to compete in AHRMA events on one of Team Obsolete’s Manx Nortons.

Unfortunately, there was one final obstacle Don was unable to overcome before he could achieve his dream of 500mph (804.67kph). He was diagnosed with prostate cancer and succumbed to the illness on the 16th of December 2002 aged 63.  Vesco was inducted posthumously into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2004.  Today, after 13 years, Don’s record still stands, but Team Vesco will continue to work towards that dream of 500mph (804.67kph) and will be back at Bonneville with an upgraded and improved Turbinator 11.

Don Vesco, factory motorcycle racer, team owner, engine tuner, designer, Land Speed Record Breaker. Speed King.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 2013. Images http://www.bluebird-electric.com, http://www.bikernet.com, http://www.gregwapling.com, http://www.forumboxerworks.com, http://www.yamahapart.com, http://www.eliteday.com, http://www.global.yamaha-motor.com and http://www.croinfo.net.

Archives: The Longest Mile

Bluebird k7 becomes airborne.

” Full power…tramping like hell here…I can’t see much and the water’s very bad indeed…I can’t get over the top…I’m getting a lot of bloody row in here…I can’t see anything…I’ve got the bows out…I’m going…Oh…”

It was over five decades ago, on January 4th, 1967, that British speed ace, Donald Campbell, lost his life to the cold dark waters of Lake Coniston in the English Lake District.  In a macabre sense, it was a fitting end to Britain’s most enigmatic record breaker and one that lifted him from a flawed hero into legend.

For Donald Campbell had appeared to be many things.  He was fiercely patriotic, extremely superstitious, generous and charming one minute, arrogant and uncompromising the next.  But to those who got close enough, Donald Campbell was full of a gnawing self-doubt that did not sit well with the popular belief of what a hero should be.

To understand this man that had broken the World Water Speed Record on seven occasions, and the Land Speed Record once, one has to search his past.

Born in 1921 the son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, Britain’s most successful record breaker, it was hardly surprising that he would one day try and emulate the man he hero-worshipped, even idolised.  But Sir Malcolm was a tough, overbearing, and some would say, cruel father, who had unrealistically high expectations for a son who did not shine academically at school, and who much preferred to be playing sport or working with his hands.

Bluebird CN7 sits poised on her built-in jacks.

Bluebird CN7 sits poised on her built-in jacks.

Indeed, the young boy afflicted with a nervous stutter barely survived a childhood fraught with accidents and illness.

At the age of eight Donald was taken by his father on an unsuccessful record attempt to South Africa, and upon returning to England contracted typhoid fever, which very nearly claimed his life.  Eight years later he came down with rheumatic fever, a debilitating disease that permanently damages the hearts’ valves, forcing the teenager to be wheelchair bound for many months.  Then the following year, he fell from his motorcycle and fractured his skull in two places.

When war broke out in 1939, Donald spent no time in enlisting for the RAF but was rejected when it was discovered he had suffered rheumatic fever.  This was an extremely low point in Campbell’s life.  His father, having served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, was acting as a liaison officer in the Middle – East, while Donald filled in time as a special constable and a progress chaser between component manufacturers and aircraft constructors.

Donald was quoted as saying, “It appeared I was somewhat of a failure.  The Old Man was doing a real job of work, and here was I, playing at Policeman and having bloody silly accidents.”  The accident in question was between his motorcycle and an army truck, which resulted in a broken shoulder, two cracked ribs and a broken arm.

It was not until after the war, following the death of his father and the auction of his estate, that Campbell decided to don the mantle.  A friend of Sir Malcolm’s, Lt. Col. “Goldie” Gardner, visited Donald and told him of an American threat to his father’s World Water Speed Record.  Campbell had decided years earlier to follow in his father’s footsteps but had been reluctant to throw his hat into the ring while Sir Malcolm was still record-breaking, “The Old Man being what he is.”

Donald Campbell in discussion with Andrew Mustard at Lake Eyre.

Donald Campbell in discussion with Andrew Mustard at Lake Eyre.

Campbell immediately enlisted the help of Leo Villa, who had come to work as Sir Malcolm’s chief mechanic when Donald was only months old and was now almost part of the family.  There was no question that Villa would help.  He had always kept an eye out for the mischievous young Donald, whom among other things he had taught to drive and to dismantle a motorcycle engine.  Campbell would also continue another family tradition by naming his record-breaking car and boat, Bluebird, just as his father had, in honour of Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird.

Although Sir Malcolm had been a wealthy man, making his fortune as an insurance broker with Lloyd’s, he had left little money to Donald and his sister Jean.  Most of it was held in trust for Sir Malcolm’s grandchildren, granting only a modest ten-pound a week allowance to his own children.  Record-breaking had been an expensive hobby to Sir Malcolm, but for Donald finding enough money would always be a problem.

In fact, after six frustrating years of trying to break the record with his father’s old boat, Campbell was forced to sell his share in the successful engineering firm, Kine’s, and mortgage his home to finance a new design Bluebird hydroplane that would finally give him a new World Water Speed Record of 202.32mph in 1955.

In doing so, he had succeeded in breaking the hypothetical “water barrier”, claimed by its proponents to lurk at 200mph and cause such severe buffeting to the hull of a boat that it would eventually disintegrate.  Campbell had proven this to be wrong, and for the next five years, he continued to push the record higher, leaving it at 260.33mph.

Campbell's third wife Tonia Bern in an off guard moment at Lake Eyre.

Campbell’s third wife Tonia Bern in an off-guard moment at Lake Eyre.

However, the cost of his success on a personal level had been extremely high.  His first two marriages had failed, due in no small part to Campbell’s single-minded preoccupation with record-breaking.  He would marry his third wife on Christmas eve 1958, and outwardly, Tonia Bern, a well-known Belgian cabaret artist, seemed like an odd match.  But they were both determined, strong-willed characters, and Tonia understood that in an age of increasing commercial sponsorship, they were both, to a degree, in “show-business”.

But it was after his second World Water Speed Record on Lake Mead in the United States that the idea for Campbell’s most significant challenge gelled.

In 1947, Englishman John Cobb had set an outright Land Speed Record of 394.20mph which for years had stood unchallenged.  It now became Campbell’s obsession to recapture the record his father had held nine times.  He even toyed with the idea of breaking both the water and land record on the same day!

At this time Campbell’s stock had never been higher, and he was able to persuade, charm and cajole, eighty British companies to support his quest for the land record.

After a fanfare of publicity, in September 1960, Campbell took the enormously expensive gas-turbine Bluebird car to Bonneville Salt Flats and very nearly killed himself.

Campbell prepares to make another run at Lake Eyre.

Campbell prepares to make another run at Lake Eyre.

Anxious to get the record, he accelerated the massively powerful car too hard, too soon.  It became airborne at 360mph before slamming back down onto the salt track, bouncing back into the air then rolling over several times as it shed wheels and bodywork, before finally sliding on its belly to a halt.  Somehow though, Campbell had survived the world’s fastest automobile accident.

But the car was gone, a total write-off except for the gas turbine engine.  When it became known from Campbell’s hospital bedside that his first concern was the Bluebird car, and how soon he could have another crack at the record, his sponsors’ rallied.  Sir Alfred Owen, a hard-nosed north England industrialist whose company, Motor Panels, had been responsible for constructing Bluebird, immediately sent off a telegram offering to build Campbell a new car.

Bonneville Salt Flats, however, was no longer considered a suitable venue, the American track being considered too short to exploit Bluebird’s full potential.  Campbell’s longtime sponsor, British Petroleum, suggested an alternative.  It was a little-known salt lake in the far north of South Australia called Lake Eyre.

Base camp southern end of the lake.

Base camp southern end of the lake.

There had been a drought at Lake Eyre for seven years, but as soon as Campbell and his huge entourage arrived in the Australian autumn of 1963, the heavens opened.  The bad weather would plague the Bluebird team from that point on, eventually flooding the lake and causing the abandonment of the record attempt that year.

Then came another blow.  On August 5th, 1963 an almost unknown American set a new record of 407.45mph at Bonneville Salt Flats.  His name was Craig Breedlove, and his “car” was a three-wheeled device with a pure thrust jet engine called Spirit of America.  It did not, however, conform to the rules laid down by motorsports world governing body the F.I.A., and the record was not recognised officially.

But it did fire increasing criticism of the Bluebird Project.  Sir Alfred Owen arrived in Australia with a flurry of publicity, accusing Campbell of mismanaging the record attempt, while questioning his ability to drive the car to its full potential.  He also raised questions over who actually owned Bluebird.  Campbell retaliated by challenging Owen to a television debate and finally had his solicitor issue a writ for defamation on Sir Alfred in his Adelaide hotel.

More fuel was added to the fire, when later that year, Breedlove also arrived in Adelaide, and after examining Lake Eyre as a possible venue for his next record attempt declared he could go faster with a fraction of the money and support that Campbell had at his disposal.

Eventually, Campbell’s dispute with Owen was resolved, but by this time he found himself locked into staging the attempt at Lake Eyre.  So in 1964, he returned only to face the same problems with the weather, the car, and a team who had started to believe in a Campbell jinx.  Even Campbell’s ability to drive Bluebird was brought into question as rumours of a phobia of really high speeds persisted, because, it was said, of his Bonneville crash.

Campbell discusses problems with the track to his team.

Campbell discusses problems with the track after a run.

And indeed, Campbell’s approach was cautious.  The effects of the crash had taken their toll, and the possibility of damaging the car again must have weighed heavily on his mind.  But to the press and an increasingly sceptical public, Campbell no longer had what it takes.

To make matters worse, Andrew Mustard, a significant member of the team whom Campbell had contracted to build the track on Lake Eyre, and who was also responsible for the enormous Dunlop tyres fitted to the Bluebird car, became increasingly critical of Campbell’s reluctance to go for the record.  As Bluebirds nominated reserve driver, he began to openly offer to do the job himself.

More controversy erupted when the Confederation of Australian Motorsport officials, whose job it was to verify the record should it be achieved, insisted that Campbell have a medical examination on the grounds he was unfit to drive Bluebird.  A huge argument ensued, putting the whole record attempt in jeopardy until a compromise was reached and Campbell agreed to take the medical.

Weeks dragged past as trouble with the track, and the weather continued, until finally, on July 17th, 1964, on a track surface that was far from ideal, Campbell at last set a new official Land Speed Record of 403.10mph.

Longines timing photograph. The record at last.

Longines timing photograph. The record at last.

It was still, however, in the back of Campbell’s mind to try for “the double”, a feat not even achieved by his father, and plans were laid in Australia for an attempt on his own World Water Speed Record.

Lake Bonney at Barmera in the South Australian Riverland was tried, but poor weather made it unsuitable.  Lake Dumbleyung in Western Australia held promise, but problems again with the weather made it seem as though breaking both records in the same calendar year would elude Campbell.

The team had just about given up, when on the last day of 1964, with only three hours of light remaining, conditions improved sufficiently for Campbell to set a new World Water Speed record of 276.3mph.

This was to be Campbell’s swan song, for now, the world was looking to the heavens for its heroes.  The space race had generated a new breed of men, strapped atop enormous rockets, full of raw, explosive power, yet controlled with incredible precision by computers.  With almost monotonous regularity these men were tossed into space, orbiting the earth at over 26,000mph.

Bluebird K7 on display at Barmera in the South Australian river land.

Bluebird K7 on display at Barmera in the South Australian Riverland.

Donald Campbell became a man trapped between eras, belonging to neither.  Few were interested when he proposed a new rocket-powered car to break the sound barrier.  Science, it was said, not a man’s bravery, would now test the laws of psychics.

Perhaps then, on that cold winters morning at Lake Coniston, there was only one piece of equipment aboard the Bluebird hydroplane that could not have been scientifically perfected – only one component that was truly being tested to its limit and way beyond.  Perhaps it had always been, Donald Campbell himself.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 1997. Colour photographs John Workman (C) 1964.  B/W photo’s courtesy Les Jackson.  Article published in Classic and Sports Car April 1997 and Australian Classic Car June 1997.