When future Champ Car designer and B.A.R. technical director Malcolm Oastler was growing up in Australia, Donald Campbell’s record-breaking attempts caught his attention and admiration
You can’t ignore a car like Donald Campbell’s Bluebird — it’s so striking. It’s so different from the earlier record cars, which in comparison were just trucks with big engines in them, whereas Bluebird was a new concept.
For one thing it’s beautiful, and that’s always fairly important! It was also unique, and successful, in that it achieved what it set out to do. And it had a gas turbine engine, which was very sexy at the time, in the age of jet-powered aircraft.
The whole effort was impressive. It must have cost British industry masses, because it was supported by the whole of the transport and technology industry, and everyone was into it At the time, Great Britain was slipping away from having an Empire.The size of this enterprise was amazing, and the fact that it was basically out to maintain Britain’s standing in the world meant that it was really a national project. So much of the country went into it, and of course it was still the romantic era of record-breaking machines.
So there was poor old Donald Campbell, who had the weight of the Empire on his shoulders as he sought to maintain the water and land speed records on behalf of Britain. It was an onerous responsibility. His father established them and it was his job to maintain them. So he must have grown up under massive pressure to carry Britain’s pride. And he was under pressure forever, because when you take a record, there’s always someone creeping up behind who wants to take it off you. He was quite a remarkable bloke, but what a tormented soul he must have been.
Bluebird was designed by Kenneth and Lewis Norris, and built by Motor Panels, which belonged to Alfred Owen of BRM fame. It was massively advanced for its time, and it was an aircraft technology project. It had a monocoque construction, with the engine in the middle. When you look at cutaway drawings you can see it was beautifully laid out, and very simple, which was the nice thing about it. You had the fuel, engine, axles, body and driver – that’s about ‘all’ it is!
It was four-wheel-drive, with the 5000bhp Proteus gas turbine driving off both directions, front and rear. They had some air brakes, with covers that flipped up. It had special wheels and tyres from Dunlop, an aircraft style cockpit on the front, and it was all aluminium. It was just a really sexy bit of kit – it looked gorgeous. A lot of effort went into it.
There are lots of beautiful touches. I love the way the exhausts are fitted flush with the top bodywork, a bit like a top exhaust on an F1 car today, but just done so nicely. It had some very advanced systems, and the whole thing was cutting-edge technology in aircraft at the time, and nothing like anyone was building into cars. There was no comparison with a 1960s BRM, for instance!
When they ran it originally you weren’t allowed to have fins on the cars -it was not done, not in the rules. So they went out and ran it without a fin in Utah in 1960, and Campbell crashed it quite heavily when he lost stability.
Meanwhile the Americans were running their jet-powered cars, which didn’t comply with the rules at all. Craig Breedlove’s machine had three wheels, and it wasn’t wheel-driven. There was no category for it, so their speeds weren’t properly recognised. Anyway, the American cars were backyard projects – blokes that lived in the boonies, and got a jet engine out of some sort of service surplus. That was the American way.
After the crash in Utah, Campbell took it home and totally rebuilt it They applied common sense and put a fin on it regardless. It’s just engineering, really. At 400mph, subsonic dynamics aren’t that much of a challenge. It’s run in a straight line, after all!
In early 1963 he went to Lake Eyre, and after a lot of problems caused by the rain, he eventually took the record up to 403.1mph in July 1964.I suppose I was more aware of it because it ran in Australia, although I was only four or five at the time. But it was still a pretty current thing when I was 10.
I also have a personal interest, in that Adrian Reynard’s dad was there – he was the BP fuel technician that worked on the project. On that trip he bought paintings that he gave to Adrian who has since passed them on to me.
Bluebird was appropriate to the era. I think what Richard Noble has done more recently is great as well. Getting a supersonic record is remarkable in itself, but perhaps not as big a thing for the country.
I have to be honest and say I wouldn’t be massively interested in doing an LSR project today, and it’s not really my area of interest. Bluebird was just a beautiful car that was successful in its day. And it’s my favourite colour as well!
Malcolm Oastler was talking to Adam Cooper