Off the Record

The name of Campbell is firmly linked with record-breaking on land and water but as Bill Boddy reminds us, Sir Malcolm Campbell was also a prolific and successful driver on the track, in a wide range of cars

Sir Malcolm Campbell is remembered as Britain’s quintessential record-breaker. Did he not go for the fastest-ever blast, the Land Speed Record, from 1924, taking it to 357.5mph by 1938 in a series of Napier and Rolls-Royce-engined Campbell Specials, and the water speed record, reaching 141.74mph on Coniston Water a year later with ‘Bluebird K7’? Had he not been our second racing driver to be knighted after Sir Henry Segrave, in 1931, his Napier Lion-engined 1450hp ‘Bluebird’ having devoured the Daytona beach at a mean speed of over 246mph?

Malcolm Campbell had become a legend in his own lifetime. This ambitious, forceful man, not tall, but good-looking, and difficult to live with according to a wife, held the admiration of the public in the age before TV pressed so much sport on them. I cherish a shot from a newsreel film of Campbell on the deck of a liner returning from Daytona in 1931: when the Purser hands him a cable informing him of the pending knighthood Campbell immediately removes his hat… Capt George Eyston was a much more prolific record-man than Campbell — he, too, was to raise the LSR, to 357.5mph in 1938, with his prodigious ‘Thunderbolt’.

What is sometimes overlooked is that both these drivers raced as well as chasing records. Eyston would use anything from a Singer or Riley 9 saloon for record bids, so did less racing than Campbell. Malcolm Campbell in fact, after spells on bicycles, had turned to motorbikes by 1902 with a Rex, and with a 3½hp Quadrant he rode in MCC trials from 1906, gaining three gold medals in the tough Land’s End trial. He also built an aeroplane but with an underpowered JAP vee-twin engine it had shown no desire to leave the ground.

He discovered Brooklands and car competitions in 1911, and acquired an old 1908 TT Darracq racing car. It was a great disappointment, as although it won a First, it retired from other BARC races. It was replaced by an ex-hillclimb 34.9hp Darracq ‘The Flapper’ which was worse, non-starting in seven successive 1911 races. The next year Campbell drove a 9hp 1.7-litre Lion-Peugeot until June, when he changed to a 10½-litre ex-Vanderbilt Cup Darracq. He named it ‘Bluebird’, like all his later cars, after seeing Maeterlinck’s play “The Blue Bird of Happiness”. Rebuilt, the Darracq proved very effective, but demonstrated the hazard of racing when in a close finish a tyre burst, it hit the low kerb and the two offside wheels collapsed. The car canted over but scraped in to fifth place.

In 1912 Campbell immediately won twice with the big Darracq, lapping at 81½-mph. Soon ‘The Blue Bird’ was doing over 93mph and Campbell was the favourite with the spectators, if not with the bookmakers… He had a penchant for variety, racing the big but aged Darracq with new wheels, a 5-litre Darracq, a 3-litre Darracq, an 11.5hp Gregoire and a 3-litre Coupe de l’Auto Sunbeam. He drove the fearsome 60hp Darracq to and from the Track from his residence at Bromley in Kent. In 1914 the Blue Bird stable included a GP Schneider and a 5.7-litre Charron with four exhaust pipes protruding from its coal-scuttle bonnet. After war closed Brooklands Campbell ferried aeroplanes to France for the RFC. He had raced as a private competitor (not yet being in the motor business), and was successful in the fast Lightning Handicaps. When peace came he resumed at once; from a wealthy family, he also had his own insurance company which pioneered libel cover for the newspapers. Campbell had won his class in a Talbot at the 1919 Westcliffe speed trials, and the pre-war 12hp Talbot had made second-best time in 1920 at Kop Hill, winning also on formula, and it took a class win at Thundersley Church hill-climb, and at Shelsley Walsh. As soon as Brooklands re-opened in 1920 MC was there, with a 1912 GP 15-litre Lorraine Dietrich, said to have come through customs as an ex-war staff car. As Campbell had gone to France with the RFC this may have been true, and as Héméry took records with such a car at the Track pre-war and MC’s Vanderbilt Cup Darracq was driven by this driver, there may have been a connection. It won two impromptu match races at the rained-off Easter Meeting and two races at the meeting proper. MC had acquired another famous pre-war car, one of the 1912 GP 7.6-litre twin-cam Peugeots, taking class records with it in 1920, and he made FTD in a Talbot at Holme Moss.

By 1921 Brooklands was in full use again. With his 2.6 and 5.1 Talbots MC took a second and third at Easter, won and was second at Whitsun with the 2.6 and 3.0 Talbots, took a second that summer in a 3½-litre Mors, and netted a second and a third with a 3.8 and a 4½-litre Talbot. That autumn he rounded it off by winning from scratch in a 1.8 Talbot and again in the 4½, against ever-heavier handicaps.

Short races apart, Campbell had the honour of the STD appointing him to drive a Talbot-Darracq in the JCC ‘200’, his track knowledge and ability to sell cars no doubt recognised. He did not let them down, finishing third as intended, behind Segrave and Lee Guinness. At Thundersley the GP Peugeot made FTD and MC’s Talbot was second to Segrave’s 1914 TT Sunbeam at Holme Moss. At Spread Eagle his 15hp Talbot beat a Bugatti and his 25/50hp Talbot a 30/98 Vauxhall. Campbell was now well into motor trading and he publicised the makes he sold in racing. In 1922 at Brooklands he won with the 3.8 Talbot and a Sascha Austro-Daimler and in the 1912 GP Peugeot, lapping at nearly 103mph.

For sprinting, he borrowed the fastest car of all, Coatalen’s 350hp V12 Sunbeam and at Saltbum sands unofficially broke the LSR at 132.02mph and took two race classes with the little Austro-Daimler. At Spread Eagle he broke the hill record in his 4.9 Sunbeam and was second in class with the Austro-Daimler. The Sunbeam then set a new course record at Holme Moss. At the Track the variety continued, MC racing in 1923 the big Peugeot (first), a 2.0 Ballot `Vanda’, (first and second) the ex-Rubiffio Coppa Florio Itala (first and second) and won in his newly acquired 1921 GP Ballot.

He then had an even more prestigious call, to drive, with Salamano, a supercharged Fiat in the JCC ‘200’. But after leading, both retired; when I was at the wonderful Fiat Museum in Turin in 1961 I asked the reason, which was not divulged at the time, and was told no Fiats had been sent to this race! At the track in 1924 MC was dominant, winning three races in the 4.9 Sunbeam, two with a single-seater 12/40hp Star, and one each in a sports Itala and the GP Ballot. The 350hp Sunbeam gave MC the course record at Skegness and FTD at Saltburn at a remarkable 145.26mph.

In 1925’s main BARC races the Itala won, with a first and a second for one of MC’s two Chryslers, lapping at 99.61mph. Campbell was the London agent for Bugatti and in 1926 he ran a variety of them, including the suspensionless single-seater. Tyre trouble spoilt the Evening News 100 Mile handicap, and he retired from the JCC ‘200’ mile race, but he won a handicap race in a T39. MC now owned the 350hp Sunbeam, with which he broke the LSR twice at Pendine (reaching 150.76mph by 1925) but he continued to race, with a win in the 1926 100-mile Evening News handicap in a T35 Bugatti and another in a Surbiton MC 50-mile race. In the latest 1½-litre T39 Bugatti he split the works Delage onslaught in the RAC British GP at Brooklands, with second place, and won the Whitsun 90mph Long Handicap but – his elusive Pearl never materialised.

Trading from Sussex Place, Kensington, and later from premises in the Brooklands Paddock, Campbell was agent for many exotic makes besides Bugatti, like Dawson and Gregoire-Campbell, etc.

By now Campbell was becoming more occupied with the LSR, but did not neglect racing. In 1927 his Bugatti won the Boulogne Light Car GP at 67.24mph and the JCC ‘200’ with only two speeds left in the gearbox, at 76.82mph. He also had four wins, three seconds and a third in T35 and 35A Bugattis, and in an old four-cylinder 200 Mile Race Talbot, now non-s/c, that he had dug out. By 1928 he had the ex-Benoist 1½-litre GP Delage, and took the 14-year-old Rivers Fletcher as passenger, promising the boy’s mother he need not go fast to win (61.04mph) the JCC Junior GP. This fine car then won the JCC ‘200’ at 78.34mph without using fifth gear.

To publicise that great fast tourer, the T43 Bugatti, Campbell then drove his in the 1928 Ulster TT, but it was burnt out — and the broker had not insured it! In other races the T43s of Eyston and Field also caught fire; was the fuel tank too near the back axle, in spite of the stiff reversed quarter-elliptic springs? The trip to Daytona then kept MC away from Brooklands, except for a win in one sprint race there in a Bugatti. Later his longer journey to Vemeuk Pan, using a DH Moth, and his sorties to a remote island in search of buried treasure also meant no racing, but he drove a twin-cam 3-litre Sunbeam at Phoenix Park until its clutch gave out, and came third in class in a Riley 9. But he returned to the Weybridge Track to win two Mountain Speed Handicaps, in a 2.3 Bugatti, and his Mercedes-Benz, and he got second and third with the Bugatti and with the GP Delage, and was also second on the Mountain Circuit in the latter, after an impeccable drive. He won his class in the ‘TT, and set fastest speed at 71.53mph with the 38/250SS Mercedes-Benz GPIO, which the Midland Motor Museum let me drive to Brooklands and back in 1982, up the Test Hill and along the Members banking, where I felt the onlookers should hear the famous blower whine. It also came sixth in the 1930 Irish GP, also at Phoenix Park, and the same year Campbell achieved his BARC 120mph badge in a Bugatti.

To complete this catalogue of MC’s racing, at Brooklands until its closure in ’39 he won another Mountain Speed H’cap in the Mercedes, setting a lap record, but also had a bad moment when the track-rod fell off his 1½-litre GP Bugatti coming down to the fork turn. The Mercedes set a tyre on fire in the JCC ‘1000’, but in 1932 Sir Malcolm won the Mountain Championship at Brooklands in one of the two ex-Kaye Don V12 4-litre Sunbeams which he had had rebuilt by T&Ts with new bodies, hydraulic brakes and pre-selector gearboxes. The first one was taken to Berlin for the fast Avus race, but six of the cylinders oiled up. In the 1932 ‘500’ he was fifth in a Riley 9 with Chris Staniland. A shunt in the 1932 Mountain Championship left the Sunbeam up the banking with back axle seized, while in the 1933 JCC International Trophy race a broken blower-drive put it out. In 1934 it raised the Mountain lap record to 76.71mph and won its class at Shelsley. Sir Malcolm shared an MG with Everitt in the 1935 JCC International Trophy, (sixth), and in 1937 left his mark on Brooklands with the building of the road circuit carrying his name.

Thus Sir Malcolm, British hero in the age of leather flying helmets and plus-fours — not just a record-man, as I have tried to recall