Blue blood in the West End

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Gordon Cruickshank

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A famous racing family returns to the theatre of speed where it all began

I went to the theatre in June. That’s not unusual – it’s one compensation for living in London, and I go often. But this visit was different. You might call it a mixed media performance – two people on stage, black and white films, and an outdoor element with a boat. The two people were grandchildren of Sir Malcolm Campbell, the films were Pathé newsreels, and the boat was his Water Speed Record K3. The point was to mark 100 years of the recordbreaking family name ‘Bluebird’.

It was at the Theatre Royal in Haymarket a century back that Malcolm Campbell saw a play by Maurice Maeterlinck called The Blue Bird. Moved by the performance, he decided to christen his Darracq Bluebird, instead of Flapper III after a horse he liked, and paint it in the now famous bright blue. And it was outside the same theatre, ranged on red carpet down one side of London’s Haymarket to the puzzlement of the public, that we found Sir Malcolm’s Rolls-Royce V12-powered record boat K3, his racing Lorraine-Dietrich, the oldest surviving car to have carried the Bluebird name though now better known as Vieux Charles III, and the 350hp Sunbeam in which he broke his first records and hit 150mph on Pendine Sands.

To reinforce the blue bloodline, Don Wales brought the electric Bluebird in which he too broke records on Pendine, and Gina Campbell, daughter of Donald, was present too. A one-time offshore powerboat racer who was herself the fastest woman on water, Gina is involved with the restoration of K7, the jet boat which crashed at 300mph on Coniston Water killing her father Donald. It’s planned to run it on Coniston next year. Meanwhile Gina, who tells me she’s involved with a new BBC docu-drama about her father and is writing her autobiography, says she could be tempted to race again. “I’m very competitive. I find ordinary boating unexciting.”

The gathering wasn’t all history, though; the team unveiled a mock-up (black, ironically) of a Bluebird electric racer aimed at the proposed 2014 Formula E electric race series. With its faired-in wheels the single-seater coupé would be a fresh new shape in racing. Don Wales told me the project is about promoting British technical achievement as well as maintaining the Bluebird profile for future record attempts. “I hold the British electric record,” he says, “and I want the world one. But we’re seriously under-funded.”

After an attempt to break 150mph the tiny team had to repair the knee-high battery bullet after a crash with Don’s son Joe aboard, fourth generation of a family which already boasts 30 records. “Next time it won’t be Pendine,” says Don. “Too rutted. We’ll use a nice flat runway.”

Sitting on a huge trailer high above the London street, level with the coachloads of passing tourists, K3 looked impressive enough. Then we realised that they were preparing to fire up the huge V12 – if the Westminster Health & Safety reps allowed it. After a good deal of conferring and promises not to cross 1500rpm, there was an eruption of blue smoke. Windows rattled up and down the street as the vast V12 bellowed, and passing trippers nearly overturned their open-topped buses by hanging over the side with cameras.

Karl Foulkes-Halbard, who has spent 20 years restoring K3’s shaky timbers to a water-worthy state, explained that what we were hearing – and feeling – was actually a Rolls-Royce Meteor tank engine. “We have the original R engine too, but it’s just too historic,” he told me. “It’s the same engine Malcolm Campbell used to break 300mph in the car before he swapped it to the boat and took the water record at 130mph. It gave 2500hp, where the Meteor is 650 – but that’s plenty for demonstrating!”

When with a final ear-shivering blast the V12 shut down there was spontaneous applause. Seeing the effect on the crowd, Don Wales grinned. “I’m trying to encourage Gina to try for the World Water Speed record in 2014,” he said. “It’ll be 50 years since Donald broke both land and water records in the same year.”

“I’m always game,” said Gina cheerfully. “I usually say yes – so be careful what you ask…”

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