Donald Malcolm Campbell, British land and water speed record breaker. 1921 - 1967
"Someone in my family is going to get the chop. I pray God it's not me, but if it is, I hope I'm going ruddy fast at the time."
Like father, like son. Donald Campbell was one of the old-fashioned heroes, taking after his father in the pursuit of sheer speed on both land and lake. Between them, Malcolm and Donald broke eleven world records on water and ten on land.
Donald was born in Horley, Surrey, on 23rd March, 1921. His father, Sir Malcolm Campbell had been a racing driver and speedster for years, and despite being apparently distant from his son, nonetheless instilled in him a drive to succeed against all odds. Donald was an energetic and excitable boy, once described as "rambunctious"; he was also intensely curious, and loved tinkering with things. He admired and even worshipped his father, but was not above profiting from the hero worship of others; at the age of eight, he was making a tidy profit by selling his father's autographs to schoolmates.
Four months after his father's death in 1949, Donald took up his father's mantle, despite his father's warning that he was too accident-prone to race. He drove the Bluebird K4 with the same panache as his father, and managed to survive the accidents his father had foretold, his first being in 1951 when the boat hit a submerged railway sleeper at 170 miles per hour (270 kph) on Coniston Water.
His successes would come. He put his limited wealth behind the development of a new Bluebird, the jet-powered K7, which he trialed on Ullswater in 1955. On 23rd July, he broke the 200 mph (320 kph) barrier, with a 202 mph run. Despite K7 sinking on Lake Mead, Nevada, he still broke his own record later that season with a 216 mph run.
Billy Butlin, the holiday camp magnate, had offered an annual prize of £5000 to anyone who broke the record, and each year, Campbell would improve on his previous speeds: 225.63 mph in 1956; 239.07 in 1957; 248.62 in 1958; and 260.35 in 1959.
Life was good to Donald. He was living the jet-set lifestyle, and living it to the full. In December 1958 he met singer Tonia Bern, and entered into a new adventure - marriage. After a whirlwind 3½ week romance, Donald and Tonia tied the knot, and another episode began. Again, Donald's sheer drive and lust for life led him into trouble. There were affairs on both sides, but they stuck it out, bringing up their daughter, Gina in some style.
Like father, like son. His father had raced motorcycles, and broken speed records on four wheels. Donald would be no different. He took his father's plans forward with the development of a wheel-driven car, again named Bluebird (a legacy from Malcolm). Typically, Donald pushed hard, and in Utah, in 1960, he rolled the car at 300 mph, sustaining a skull fracture. Stubborn as ever, he walked into the hospital rather than be put in a wheelchair.
On 17th July, 1964 he had his first land success. On a wet and tricky course at Lake Eyre, Australia, he averaged 403 mph, despite his tyres being shredded en route. This was the last time that wheel-driven cars would be in the spotlight - Craig Breedlove's jet-powered Spirit of America had already hit 407 mph, which, whilst it was a record, was set before jet engines were ratified for land speed record-breaking attempts.
Three months later, jet power was "legalised", and he lost his world record. Not having a suitable car, he went for another water record, with a 276 mph run at Lake Dumbleyung, a unique achievement, as he had set records for both land and water in the same year.
Back to the water
He had plans for a new, supersonic, rocket-powered Bluebird, but was annoyed when there was little interest in the project. He decided to go for broke, installed a more powerful Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus engine into his Bluebird K7, and returned to Coniston Water to attempt to break the 300 mph barrier.
Beset by problems throughout the winter of 1966, he suffered delay after delay, but was finally ready to go early in January, 1967. The night before the planned run, during a card game, he turned up the Ace and then the Queen of Spades, the same combination that had signalled the end for Mary, Queen of Scots. He said, "Someone in my family is going to get the chop. I pray God it's not me, but if it is, I hope I'm going ruddy fast at the time."
The following day, 4th January, 1967, all was ready for the attempt. His first run, north to south, was at 297 mph, a good start. Possibly thrilled at the having another record in his hands, he turned round for the second run without refuelling. He skimmed along quickly until he met the wake from his previous run. Lacking the weight of fuel, Bluebird began to "tramp", bouncing uncontrollably. At an estimated speed of 328 mph, the boat shot into the air, crashing back down and sinking.
Donald Campbell was killed instantly.
This courageous, patriotic, determined man was mourned, not just by his family and friends, but also by a nation, for whom he had carried the flag for so many years. He was one of my childhood heroes, and one of my prized possessions was a scale model of his Bluebird car.
Despite his outward bravery and derring-do, he was a superstitious man - he would never allow anyone to wish him luck, was wary of the colour green to such an extent that one of his project managers (Evan Green) was called "Evan Turquoise", and he always carried a teddy bear named "Mr Whoppit" on his record attempts.
The wreckage of Bluebird recovered early in 2001, and Donald's remains were found later that year. He was buried in St Andrew's church in Coniston on 12th September, 2001.