The Hand of Fate

Renowned racer Alain de Cadenet was commissioned to take photographs of Donald Campbell during his fatal World Water Speed Record attempt at Coniston in 1966. By a curious twist of fate he was also the pilot of the mock-up Bluebird K7 during recent filming of the BBC’s Across the Lake television film…

Fate, as we all know, plays an important F role in everyone's life, whether directly or indirectly. Whether we choose to take it seriously or not is a matter for personal preference. Donald Campbell CBE, was a man who not only believed implicitly in fate, but was also highly superstitious.

Much has been chronicled elsewhere concerning his career, and that of his illustrious father Sir Malcolm Campbell, between them breakers of 21 land and water speed records. In the Twenties and Thirties, record breaking was an activity much indulged in by the super-heroes of the day, such as Malcolm Campbell, Henry Segrave, John Cobb and Kaye Don. Both Segrave and Campbell were knighted by King George V for their successful efforts, and the young Donald grew up in awe of his father's achievements on both land and water.

Accordingly, when he took up the record-breaking cudgels himself, to stem an attack on his father's last water record, Donald did so fully aware that, once he had started, there would be no going back. He could never stop. Perhaps that was his fate.

Towards the end of 1966, I was struggling away as a club-racer and trying to pay for it by being a freelance photographer. One of my commissions was to drive to Coniston in the Lake District and take some photographs of Donald Campbell.

He was encamped with his team at the Sun hotel whilst he waited for clement weather for his attempt on the World Water Speed Record. He already held it with Bluebird K7 at 276.33 mph, but wanted to push it up over 300, where he felt it would be safe from the forthcoming American attempts.

I was only up there for a day or so, but well remember his staunch patriotism and was much impressed by the very "family" atmosphere which existed amongst all those that were involved in the venture. This must have had some influence in the way I subsequently ran my own Grand Prix and Le Mans teams.

This is also where fate took a hand in proceedings. Twenty-one years later my friend Tony Maylam told me about his project to make a feature film about the last 60 days of Donald's life, up to his tragic death on January 4, 1967. He had an excellent script, written by Roger Milner, who had also done a very good story on Sir Malcolm which the BBC had made into the television film The Speed King.

The BBC had agreed to produce this new story, which was to be called Across the Lake. Tony was to direct, and had signed Anthony Hopkins to play Donald. The only thing that was proving difficult was how to recreate the Bluebird K7 hydroplane which had seen the demise of its driver, and now lay in pieces at the bottom of the Coniston Water…

Back in the early Seventies I had worked with Jack Lovell of Protoco, and we engaged him to build a replica. Armed with photographs, video films and copies of the original drawings (obtained from the Science Museum in London), the recreation of Bluebird commenced.

Initially, a small model was made of half of the boat, to give an accurate three-dimensional impression of the complete craft. Full-size cross-sectional drawings were then made, and these were pasted on to plywood and cut out with a band and jig-saw. The sections were then stationed on a wooden keel so the outline of the body became apparent, and then filled in with lathe-like strips of wood before being plastered over an styled to the original finish.

The BBC was quite particular about the detailing, and every original rivet had to be accounted for on the life-size buck. The sponsons caused a small problem, since the drawings were from 1955, whereas we needed the 1966 versions which were considerably different in shape. Several days’ consternation followed, and much midnight oil was burnt to alter them!

Originally it had been planned to float the wooden mock-up itself, and to use it in the film. Eventually, there was enough time to take conventional grp moulds of the body and sponsons, with sub-moulds for the sponson mounting spars. From these moulds were produced grp panels gel-coloured to the original light blue (the colour was supplied by the same firm which supplied Campbell's original paint), and the whole boat was then bonded and screwed together with marine-ply reinforcements to the floors and cockpit.

The transparent cockpit bubble was not easy to reproduce. The only firm which could handle it was the company which produces Harrier jump-jet canopies, and its version was some three-eighths of an inch thick, and probably bullet proof! We also found one small reason why modern fighter planes are so costly to produce .

The new Bluebird K7 had her first airing in the studios of Blue Peter, and then went on to the London Boat Show where she had a whole stand to herself. After that it was time to fit the two power-units.

One was a full size dummy of the Bristol Siddeley (now Rolls-Royce) Orpheus turbojet engine (taken from Motoring News Executive Editor David Tremayne's real version), which slotted in behind the cockpit. The second was the actual motive power, which was a Mercury V6 200 bhp outboard attached to a transom. It had its own well sunk through the hull to provide drive, and was connected via steering arms to the steering wheel in the cockpit.

D-Day approached and the site chosen for the launch was the Princes Water Ski Club lake at Feltham in Middlesex. Bluebird's purpose-built trailer was backed into the lake, and she took to the water like a duck.

Some initial movement and flotation tests were carried out, and a trim-line set by using a few 28 lb stage-weights as ballast in the nose. Leaks were plugged by using many tubes of silicon rubber (RTV) to seam in joins, and some expanded polyurethane foam to give buoyancy around the engine bay.

Coniston Water in February can be very unpleasant. Cold, windy weather with snow or hail is the norm, so Maylam was quite apprehensive about his chances of keeping to schedule. But other than the first few days, which were true to form, the production was blessed with the best weather that any of the locals could recall in years. We all felt that Donald was up there having a bit of a laugh at the idea of a film about him, and was arranging for all the right buttons to be pressed.

The props department had faithfully recreated the boathouse and launching rails, and our 'Bird was on her trolley for the Press launch. Hopkins came out to meet the Press in his blue overalls, RAF-style flying helmet and oxygen mask, and one observer who had been Present at the original attempt remarked that it could easily have been 1966 again.

The following four weeks saw Bluebird working for her money, whether on the move or as a static prop. Some of the techniques used by her director to achieve the desired results were quite novel, but at no time did our 'Bird let us down. She always ran on the button, and did everything asked of her. She did consume several tubes of RTV, but never looked like sinking!

Altogether, it was quite an eerie feeling going through the motions of exactly what Campbell did on that fateful day. I had several deja vu feelings, and on one occasion when I had Bluebird at the end of the lake in the original start position, I looked through the bubble and saw exactly what Campbell had seen - the long expanse of water that stretches away into the hills at the southern end of the lake. I received the order through my headphone to start the engine and then to give it full throttle, and as Bluebird lunged forward, I suddenly realised what it was all about! I told Maylam afterwards that it was perhaps just as well that we didn't have a genuine Orpheus engine in the back (the idea had been mooted at one stage), as I would surely have wanted to do it for real! The hard-worked Bluebird is now enjoying a quieter retirement in the Windermere Steam Boat Museum. Across the Lake will be screened on BBC television this year. A de C

Founding Father and Son

Jack Lovell followed the tradition of his great grandfather as he worked on the sets of various London theatres between the wars, before graduating to television and film work in the Fifties. As a founding father of glass-reinforced plastic (grp) his credits include props for Cleopatra, Camelot, The Longest Day, Genghis Khan, Superman, James Bond and Dr Who.

Protoco Mouldings was formed in 1950, and when son John joined from school the company began producing grp hard-tops for MG Tads, TVs and As, Aces Aces and early Cobras, and Austin Healey’s 3000.

That in turn led to work in the motor sport field, on Brabham’s production BT36s, March Engineering’s F1, F2, F3, Formula Atlantic and two-litre sports cars, Tyrrell’s 007 series, Patrick Head’s Scott F2 contender, Frank Williams’ original F1 Marches, and the Trojan T101 for Ron Tauranac. Then there was further work for Fittipaldi, all Chevron’s Seventies’ single seaters and the Ford C100 project, allied to development work in the carbon-fibre and aircraft industries and manufacture of reproduction cars and planes.

The Battersea-based company still does work for Ralt (having done all the RT1 bodywork when Tauranac set up on his own again) and Bert Ray, as well as contracts for film companies and London Transport, and production of body kits for BMWs and Mercedes. There is also a contract for experimental work from America, Lovell commenting: "We cover the whole spectrum, from medieval armour to genuine spacecraft!"

The Bluebird connection came about via Alain de Cadenet, who used the father-and-son business for his Le Mans projects in the Seventies, starting with the Duckham Special. As a tribute to the workmanship of the Lovells and their staff, when the Bluebird K7 mock-up was displayed at the London Boat Show a high percentage of stand visitors went away convened that they had seen the real thing… DJT