Sir Malcolm Campbell: If at first you don’t exceed…

In 1942 Sir Malcolm Campbell wrote about his record adventures for the magazine of his regiment, the Queen’s Own Royal West Kents. The manuscript surfaced recently; we present an extract of his colourful tale 

by Sir Malcolm Campbell

In 1928, having taken the Land Speed Record four times but recently lost it once more, Campbell is determined to regain it and is searching for a suitable course to unleash his much rebuilt Bluebird.

Realising that a beach, however good, left much to be desired, I endeavoured to find an inland course, making enquiries all over Europe. I even flew out to the Sahara desert as I had heard of a fine stretch out there. That trip was full of adventure; we found the spot but it was not a practical proposition, and on our way home we had engine failure and made a forced landing in Riffian Territory. We were taken prisoner but subsequently managed to get away and eventually after considerable hardship made our way back to Canta and from there to Gibraltar, and eventually arrived home, little the worse for our experience.

My next trip was to a vast mud pan, about 500 miles NW of Cape Town. Segrave had another new car built in the meantime which he called the Golden Arrow. This was of very modern design and powered with the same engine as I had, viz a 950hp Napier Lion.

He left for Daytona at about the same time as I sailed for South Africa, it resolving more of less in a race between us as to whom should just make the attempt on the record now held by the American Ray Keech. My luck was properly out as the course was not properly cleared and ready. There were literally thousands of pieces of jagged flint, any single one of which was sufficient to cut my tyres to ribbons.

After several weeks of really hard work by gangs of natives, the course was almost completed. I made arrangements to transport the Blue Bird up country by a large six-wheeled lorry, but flying up from Cape Town for a final inspection I was involved in what might have been a fatal accident. The propeller on my own machine had cracked due to the heat, so I borrowed a friend’s machine. I purposely did not fly this plane myself since it was not mine, my friend lending me the services of his own pilot at the same time.

The first part of our journey was uneventful but on our way back we ran into the only tree which existed for 100 miles or more. The pilot cracked his skull in a couple of places whilst I had my nose almost severed from my face, as well as other injuries. We were eventually sent down to Cape Town, and whilst lying in hospital, news came through that our track had been ruined by torrential rainstorm. Considering not a drop of rain had fallen in that locality for over 21 years, this was indeed bad luck.

I gave instructions for the work to be commenced all over again and just as I was recovering from my accident, a cable came through from Segrave stating he had successfully raised the record on his new car to 231.3mph.

I had gone out to Africa with the object of beating 207.5mph, and my car was now capable of a speed of at least 220mph, but to exceed 231mph was a very different proposition.

About May 1929 the stage was set, the course had been re-made and the Blue Bird had been sent up to Verneuk Pan, but again our luck was out. Violent dust storms raged continuously and we were more or less marooned for nearly a fortnight, our food and water supplies nearly running out. The weather eventually cleared and one morning at the crack of dawn the attempt was made. The mile was covered at an average speed of 225.3mph which was exactly 6mph under the record set up by Segrave at Daytona a few weeks earlier. My tyres were in a shocking state, torn to ribbons owing to the sharp flints, which we had been unable to remove from the hard-balled mud.

We subsequently made many other attempts but we could never exceed this speed. Eventually we used up all our tyres in these vain attempts and so it was useless continuing. I eventually arrived back home towards the end of June, a sadder, wiser and poorer man.

Work proceeded afresh and by the end of 1930 the car was equipped with a 1450hp Napier Lion supercharged engine, a new streamline body, and many other improvements. February 1931 again saw us at Daytona Beach and this time success crowned our efforts, Segrave’s record being handsomely eclipsed with a speed of 246.6mph. Not content with this we went over again to Florida the following year, raising the speed to 253.5mph. 

I had now conceived the burning ambition to put the record up to the 300mph mark, but to achieve this I knew we should require at least 2000hp. I eventually persuaded Rolls-Royce to sell me one of their special Schneider Trophy engines. This motor was a masterpiece, giving off 2350bhp, or 2475bhp if alcohol was employed. The car was again modified, being equipped with a new back axle, gearbox, and chassis side members.

In February 1933 we again visited Daytona but the highest speed we could achieve was only 272mph. This was due to the terrific wheel spin when full power was employed. To give some idea how serious this was, when travelling flat out over the measured mile my rev-counter gave a reading of 355mph whereas actually we had only travelled at a speed of 272mph, the difference in the figures being entirely due to lack of wheel adhesion. The tyres were torn to shreds and I soon came to the conclusion that it was folly to persist, and that considerable alterations to the car would have to be carried out.

I returned home extremely disappointed and although we had beaten the previous record by a margin of 19mph the only thing that mattered was that we had not reached our goal of five miles per minute, and therefore in my view the attempt was a failure. The rest of 1933 and the whole of 1934 was spent in once again re-designing the Blue Bird. To reduce wheel spin we decided to adopt twin rear-wheel drive. This, of course, meant that we should now have double the tyre area in contact with the ground, the disadvantages being additional unsprung weight, and greater frictional losses, but we had an abundance of power.

Other improvements included an entirely new streamline body, designed after exhaustive tests in the wind tunnel, and a new twin rear bevel-drive to the back axle. We also incorporated wind brakes and a new type of radiator with a special shutter which, when closed, cut off the air from passing through it, thus giving us an additional speed of 15mph for a brief period. 

March of 1935 saw us once again at Daytona, this time full of confidence. The weather and beach conditions were in bad shape, but we managed to make a number of runs. Every one was unsatisfactory; whereas we had eliminated the wheel spin we were unable to achieve any real speed, the maximum attained being only 276.8mph, an improvement of only 4mph.

We were all very mystified, as on paper the 300mph mark should have been easily reached. After each run my mechanics wanted to know the reading of each of my many instruments. The course itself was less than 50 yards wide with the sea on one side and the soft sand and dunes on the other, and our forward speed was approximately 142 yards per second so the danger incurred in taking one’s eyes completely off the course for a couple of seconds or more can be readily realised. In my anxiety to obtain the information required, the inevitable happened: the car partly left the track and we went charging along the soft sand; it was touch and go but I eventually managed to bring Blue Bird back on her course once more. I was very lucky to have got away with it, but this gave me a new idea – to incorporate a small cine camera apparatus on the car, to have a complete record of the reading of the instruments

We returned home disappointed and puzzled as to why we had fallen short of 300mph We even placed our engine once more on the bench and found that it was still giving off 2375hp. There was, however, one factor which could have prevented us reaching our goal and that was that more power was being absorbed in overcoming resistance than we had allowed for.

I therefore decided to make an attempt on the Salt Flats at Utah. This was somewhat of a gamble as up till then the highest speed recorded in that region had only been about 150mph. I realised only too well that a surface that was safe for these comparative low speeds might well be highly dangerous for 300mph. Pendine and even Daytona had amply proved this in the past.

We left England early in August 1935, arriving at Salt Lake City towards the end of the month. After my first preliminary run I realised at once that we had solved the problem and that with any degree of luck we should now achieve our object. Shortly after dawn on September 2 we made our attempt, and never shall I forget that epoch-making run.

The car was behaving magnificently, and accelerating as she had never done before. One mile before reaching the measured distance, I closed the radiator shutter. Blue Bird was then travelling at 295mph and still increasing speed.

Suddenly a film of oil started to cover the wind screen and deadly fumes from the engine commenced to enter the cockpit, and I realised that at any moment I might fade out. However, we were fast approaching the end of the mile when there was a terrific explosion. The near-side front tyre had burst. By now the screen was opaque. I had a feeling as though dozens of nails were being driven through the top of my head, this being caused through inhaling the exhaust fumes, and in consequence regaining full control of the car was not very easy. However, I eventually came to a standstill five miles down the course where my mechanics changed all the wheels and looked the car over. News came through that we had covered the mile at a speed of 304.8mph.

So far so good, but the remaining tyres were so hot that they could not be touched by the bare hand and I felt that the new ones now being fitted were likely to burst on the return journey when I might not be so lucky the second time. However, the return journey was more or less uneventful and the average mean speed worked out at 301.4mph, so at long last our ambition had been achieved. 

I had made up my mind that if and when I reached my goal, I would retire from motor racing and would make an effort to regain the World’s Water Speed record which for so long had been held by the American Gar Wood, but this is another story which I hope to relate in future.

Thanks to Rupert Talbot and to the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regt.