Sir Malcolm Campbell and the dynasty he created remains one of the best known stories in British motor racing history. Continental Grand Prix racing may have been an unimportant frivolity to this steely Englishman, but his Land Speed Record attempts elevated him to the status of a legend.
Upbringing and early racing career
Campbell enjoyed a private education at Uppingham School in Rutland, England and he followed his father into the diamond trading industry. An interest in motorcycles and motor racing was met with obvious parental displeasure. He started to race bicycles before enjoying motorcycle success on the London-Edinburgh trial from 1906 to 1908.
His first car race was at Brooklands during 1910 – competing in a 10.5-litre Darracq, Renault, Lion-Peugeot and the like before World War I. A Captain in the Royal Flying Corps during the conflict, a visit to the theatre in London was responsible for one of the most famous names in the sport.
Maurice Maeterlink had written The Blue Bird in 1908 and it obviously inspired Campbell for his future LSR vehicles were named after the play. Before that period of his career began, Campbell developed into a star of Brooklands driving everything from a 1912 Peugeot L76 to various Talbots.
Land Speed Record success and Brooklands star
He acquired Kenelm Lee Guinness’s 350bhp Sunbeam V12 in 1923 and overcame initial disappointment to become the world’s fastest man a year later. He recorded an average speed of 146.16mph despite soft sand and blustery conditions at Pendine in Wales. He improved that mark to 150.87mph in March 1925 and 174.88mph in 1927, now driving the first Napier-Campbell Bluebird.
He also continued to compete at Brooklands and was in the field for the first British GP at the Surrey track in 1926. He drove a private Bugatti T39A to second place behind the works Delage of Robert Sénéchal and Louis Wagner. Outright success in such races was confined to minor events – twice winning the Boulogne GP for instance.
But his fame spread thanks to further record attempts at Daytona Beach (his 900bhp Bluebird setting 206.956mph in 1928) and later on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Knighted in 1931, it was at the latter venue that he became the first man to break the 300mph barrier in 1935. He then turned his attention to the Water Speed Record – recording 141.74mph in another Bluebird on Coniston Water on the eve of World War II.
Campbell then served with the British Army as a motorcycle dispatch rider but died in 1948 after a long illness. He was a driven and sometimes difficult man and his influence on his son remained even after his death. Donald Campbell followed his father in record attempts but was killed in 1967.