Praying at the Altar of Speed – Donald Malcolm Campbell CBE

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Donald with Sir MalcolmDonald Campbell was born into the fastest of motoring environments; one week after his birth at Canbury House in Surrey in March 1921 the Easter meeting at Brooklands saw Kenelm Lee Guinness achieve 140mph in the 350hp Sunbeam. Two years later his father Malcolm purchased that very car, repainted it blue and attempt his first Land Speed Record; a decision that would influence both their lives. Referring to David de Lara’s book 300+ A Speed Odyssey, Donald recollected a childhood where he grew up in ‘an electric atmosphere of the unceasing striving for higher speeds and greater speed records’. Many opinions have been expressed over the relationship between father and son, no doubt Sir Malcolm was strict and of a selfish character; history shows, to achieve great things ‘especially behind the wheel’ requires a single minded attitude. In many ways they were peas from the same pod. CN7 crash at BonnevilleIn his father, Donald certainly saw ‘greatness’ and his determination to not only match but exceed Sir Malcolm’s record would result in a similar personality and conclude in tragedy. One person who influenced both their lives was Chief Engineer Leo Villa, a calm and brilliant technician who was at the forefront of Sir Malcolm’s speed records and offered a workshop of sanctuary for young Donald; a place where he wouldn’t annoy his father and could stay out of trouble. Even so, Donald would normally be found accompanying his father at record attempts, even at the age of six he remembered Pendine Sands in 1927 when ‘The Skipper’ (as he was known) broke the Land Speed record for a third time at 174mph. Trips to South Africa and Utah followed as Malcolm pushed the boundaries on land to over 300mph in 1935. Records on water would now fall in Switzerland in 1937 and 38 and again at Coniston Lake just prior to WW2 breaking out; Blue Bird K4 would reach 141.74mph and as always Donald was by his father’s side. Post-war, the aging and poorly Malcolm took one last attempt on water with a modified K4. A jet engine had been installed but the craft was dangerously unstable over 90mph and combined with the ill health and failing eyesight of its pilot the attempt was doomed to failure. Young Donald had joined Kline Engineering Company at Horley and received a call just before Christmas 1948 to say his father had endured a stroke. Both Land Rovers and a fleet of Austin 1100s were used in AustraliaSir Malcolm Campbell passed away just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. His father’s estate would be sold for auction, although the family were permitted to purchase anything of sentimental value prior to the sale. Donald acquired the 1935 (Utah) 301mph Bluebird car and the K4 hydroplane that had failed just 2 years before, one wonders why they weren’t willed to him automatically? It was just after the funeral that Donald learnt American money would sponsor band leader Guy Lombardo to attempt the water speed record in an all-aluminium craft. He immediately found Leo Villa in the workshops and exclaimed ‘they are going to take dads record back to America and I am going to do something about it! Are you with me? After explaining why this was not a good idea, Leo confirmed he was on board. At the time Donald recollects this would be a short term ‘bash at it’ never considering it would become a threat to his marriage or a life changing decision. It’s fair to comment Donald ‘rode his luck’ with his K4 attempts (converted back to propeller thrust) initially, just shy of his father’s speed by 2 mph, he persevered and saw 170mph on the speedo before colliding with debris on the water; K4 was holed and sunk 20 yards from shore at Coniston in 1951. His marriage had failed, mainly due to Donald’s addiction to speed attempts but after the loss of K4 he purchased an old cottage and remarried, just prior to the death of another record chaser John Cobb at 220mph on Loch Ness in September 1952. This re ignited the desire that culminated in Bluebird K7 finally bringing success in July 1955 at 202.3mph at Ullswater in the Lake District. Incredibly, K7 broke the record again in November and then every year until 1959, achieving 260.35mph on Coniston in May of that year; the cost, a re-mortgaged house, debts and his second marriage. Celebrations in AdelaideHe would however tie the knot again with Belgium cabaret star Tonia Bern on Christmas Eve 1958 after a whirlwind romance of just three weeks. Work had begun on Campbell Norris Bluebird project 7 (CN7) car whilst Donald was chasing water speed records and was completed in 1960. It went straight into runs on the Bonneville Salt Flats where a crash at 370mph caused a fractured skull and broken ribs following a 6G terror ride for Donald. Rebuilt and redesigned CN7 was ready to attempt Lake Eyre in South Australia in March 1963 but was the pilot? Campbell did hit 403mph proving he still retained his nerve but on a reduced track over 5 miles as the elements had conspired against the team. Three months ‘down-under’ and over £1 million in the red the team knew CN7 could go faster but that would wait until their return the following year. Before his final run at ConistonOn 17th July 1964 Donald Campbell set a new Land Speed Record 403.10 mph then on New Year’s Eve at Lake Dumbleyung the dependable K7 would claim a new water record at 276.30 mph; Campbell now had both records taken in the same year, a feat unlikely to be repeated again and achieved on the anniversary of Sir Malcolm’s death 16 years prior. Surely now there was nothing left to prove? To quote from David de Lara’s book Donald himself had sacrificed everything at the ‘altar of speed’, his final offering was made 4th January 1967 when K7 attacked one attempt too many on Coniston Lake. A British motoring hero taken in just a few violent seconds within a massive plume of spray, is very much remembered half a century on. Donald Campbell like his father certainly lived life ‘flat out in the fastest lane’. Special thanks to author David de Lara for allowing us to include a few images from his superb book Donald Campbell 300+ A Speed Odyssey. The ultimate portrait of the man, his team and family, with contributions from many involved with his life; when the fastest machines in the world carried a Union Jack on blue bodywork.