The lure of a legend

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25 years since his death, Donald Campbell’s name still exerts a magnetic charm

At 8.46 on the morning of January 4 1967 Donald Campbell took what became the last great gamble of his life on Coniston Water. Only moments after speeding down the black lake at 297mph, he elected not to refuel, nor to let his wake die down, but to return immediately. At a speed estimated to be well beyond the 300mph average that he sought, his Bluebird turbojet hydroplane left the surface and somersaulted spectacularly to destruction. His body was never found.

Last month, in a simple but moving ceremony by the memorial that now stands to him in the quiet lakeland village, the 25th anniversary of his passing was remembered. Robin Brown, the chairman of the K7 Club named after Bluebird’s racing number, laid a wreath on the memorial that is hewn from Coniston slate.

Ever since I first saw film of Campbell’s accident, at the age of 14, I developed an obsession with the man and the many myths that surround him, but it still surprises me just how many others have been so similarly affected. Steve Holter, the curator of The Campbell Hall of Speed in Polegate, East Sussex, and of Paul Ffoulkes-Halberd’s adjacent Filching Manor Motor Museum wherein lives a mock-up of K7 and Sir Malcolm Campbell’s original K3, is but one example. “At the age of seven my father sat me on his knee to watch the television. Not an unusual thing for a father to do, but the date was January 4 1967. I remember it was about 5.45pm and that my Dad had said, ‘It is the end of an era, you’ll never see the like of this again. The end of an era and a very brave man.’ I would have to be honest and say it was not a day that changed my life, nor were the comments of any meaning to me, but the events of January 7 were.

“I remember waking to find my ‘rich’ aunty Joan’s brand new Triumph Herald convertible outside, which was very odd as she always visited us on Fridays after school. That day was a Saturday, but I was soon to find out what was happening. “Last night your father was taken ill, and died,’ said my mum. After that I cannot remember a thing. One thing that did occur to me was the last thing I had done with my dad, watching the news from Coniston, and I determined to find out what had so impressed him to make me watch.
When time and money allowed I began reading about Donald M. Campbell, to collect the books written by him, about him, by his family, on his family, about the land speed record and about the water speed record. Books, models, postcards — anything that I could find. I quite clearly remember writing to Ken Norris at Norris Brothers for information: that letter was to end up on Tony James’ desk, an event he reminded me about when I eventually met him in the flesh some 17 years later!

“But at the back of all this was the reason I got so hooked on record breaking and especially the Campbells: my father, who introduced me to the subject but was not interested himself. I cannot say I remember my father that well, I cannot claim to have known anything about Donald Campbell when he was alive, but I can say that in the intervening 25 years they have both given me a great deal.

“Maybe my reasons for admiring one man are a bit too personal, but I have been very fortunate to meet and in many cases become friends with the people who were around Donald Campbell when he was alive, and they have told me so much about the man himself, things that have never been published, private things, that I have developed a great admiration for him. And that in many ways has been reflected by the people I have since met who knew my father, and the things they have told me about him.”

“I suppose it is a little like knowing someone secondhand, but if these two men had impressed these other people so much to have had a lasting effect, which has been passed on to me in recollection, then I am proud to have known them both in such a way.”

Some have spoken as movingly, while others have been more pragmatic. The motorboat historian Kevin Desmond finds the name Campbell rarely leaves him alone. “In 21 years of my writing articles and books about land, air and waterborne motorsport, Donald Campbell and Bluebird have played a mysteriously recurring role. Although I never met ‘The Skipper’, just by listening to the anecdotal memories of a dozen who had dealings with him – particularly my dear friends Leo and Joan Villa – certainly gave me an objective knowledge of his character, even if lacking in subjective experience.

To me, Donald Campbell was a promiscuous, superstitious. courageous and ingenious go-getter. He knew how to fight back when the odds were stacked against him, although at times he suffered such emotional scars as a domineering father.

As the owner of both a fragment of Bluebird K7’s wreckage and two scale models, and of a sizeable collection of the published works of Maurice Maeterlinck (who wrote the theatre play ‘The Blue Bird’ which so fascinated Sir Malcolm), and having written three books on motorboating history, each of which chronicles Donald’s achievements to a greater or lesser degree, I am what might be called a second-generation aficionado. But then so are Ken Warby, the current water record holder, Steve Holter, yourself, Martin Summers, modeller Fred Harris, artist Arthur Benjamins, Speed Record Club founder Robin Richardson and several others bathed in the magnetic ‘Bluebird blue’ speed haze.

“When, two years ago, Lady Arran and I assembled a team which designed and built a boat which broke the World Electric Water Speed Record, Campbell’s persuasive genius in the building of the Bluebird CN7 car was my strategic inspiration for the 50mph An Straciag. I would like to think that, had he been alive today, aged 70, the man who had been on the point of getting heavily involved with the potential of waterjet propulsion, would still have made a very positive input towards our dream of a 100mph superconducting electric hydroplane British, of course!”

My own obsession began shortly after seeing Campbell’s accident on television, when I happened upon a copy of Richard Hough’s BP Book of the Racing Campbells. I believe it cost me 12/6d, a good week’s pocket money. It was instrumental in nurturing my fascination for the land and water speed records. To me Donald Campbell was an intensely loyal, cunning, flamboyant yet ultimately lonely man, abnormally brave. Driven by an inner desire to prove to himself that he was as good as his father had been, yet trapped in Sir Malcolm’s long shadow to the point where no matter what he achieved, he would never feel it was enough. What fascinates me most is that he was at times genuinely afraid of what he was doing, and yet he persevered. His successes included not just seven water speed records (more than anyone else), one land record and the unique feat of breaking both in the same year, but a lifetime’s triumph over fear, either of a physical nature after his 360mph accident at Bonneville or, to him worse still, of failure.

Such is that fascination that I am now researching the definitive book on Donald Campbell, and would be delighted to hear from any readers who have personal anecdotes they would like to share. I can be contacted at 85 Kingshill Drive, Harrow HA3 8QQ.

To Donald Campbell life was a series of mountains that one had to climb. He spent much of his career atop summits, and was within striking distance of his highest and most challenging when Bluebird flipped. Even today, 25 years on, it is possible to stop in the russet red and vivid green beauty that surrounds Coniston, and be touched by an atmosphere still redolent of the ghost of a great Englishman who spared nothing as he reached out for the ultimate. — DJT

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