Donald Campbell’s rebuilt Bluebird K7 water speed record boat could be broken up once more if an ownership dispute cannot be settled. Coniston’s Ruskin Museum has formally requested the team which restored the wreck to return it, citing possible legal action that could result in the reconstructed machine being dismantled.
Some 34 years after Campbell’s fatal 1967 crash, the jet boat’s partial remains were lifted from the bed of Coniston Water by engineer Bill Smith, and were then given to the museum by a family trust led by the record breaker’s daughter Gina Campbell. In 2006 a volunteer team headed by Smith agreed with the museum and the family trust to restore the craft to operable condition at no cost to the museum and to return it for display. Meanwhile the museum raised over £750,000 to build a new wing for it. Opened in 2010, it has been awaiting its centrepiece ever since.
“If we have to dismantle it, we will remove our bits and give theirs back”
After Smith’s team reassembled the missing cockpit, forward structure and sponsons and sourced a Bristol Orpheus jet engine the boat was ready to run, but Smith says negotiations to use Coniston stalled; instead he tested on Loch Fad in Scotland in 2018, reaching 156mph. From there relations between the two parties deteriorated, both sides disputing the agreement and whether the reconstructed elements give the Bluebird Project (headed by Smith and formed in 2012 into a not-for-profit company) joint ownership.
Smith says that without his team the museum has neither skills nor facilities to maintain or run it, adding that the complex running operation needs more time than the 28-day annual period specified by the museum.
Jeff Carroll, deputy chairman of the museum trustee board, told Motor Sport that they had since offered the Bluebird Project a three-month running window but that had been rejected.
Smith told us: “We promised an operable boat to our sponsors and donors, and our volunteers have sweated blood and tears on this. We’ve built the difficult half, a very complex assemblage, but if we have to dismantle it we’ll remove all our parts and give theirs back. We’ll put it back together as fast as it came down. We’d welcome legal action to get us round a table. Let them bring it on.”
Carroll said: “The Campbell family’s deed of gift says the boat should be restored and handed over to the museum. There was never a mention of joint ownership. We are grateful to Bill and his team of volunteers for doing the work, but it was always to be a labour of love. Now he has shifted his ground on ownership and running time. It’s not so much mission creep as mission leap.
“Whatever condition we get her back in,” he continued, “we intend to put her into working order and to run her. We have people ready and able to do that.”
Speaking to Motor Sport, Gina Campbell said: “Bluebird belongs to the museum, and the nation. I promised the museum it would return to them and now I’m unable to fulfil that promise. It’s heartbreaking.”