Captain Sir Malcolm Campbell (1885 - 1948)

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Captain Sir Malcolm Campbell (1885 - 1948)

Malcolm Campbell with his son Donald Campbell
Malcolm Campbell with his son Donald behind the wheel of
the Napier-Campbell Bluebird.

Malcolm Campbell was born on the 11th March 1885, the son of William Campbell, a wealthy diamond merchant. From an early age, Malcolm Campbell was fascinated by speed, much to the disgust of his father, who wanted him to take up a career in the city.

At his first school, Hornbrook House, Chislehurst, Malcolm and a friend, S. C. H. 'Sammy' Davis (later to become one of the 'Bentley Boys') borrowed an ancient penny-farthing, which promptly decanted them in some remarkably prickly undergrowth, without dampening their enthusiasm for things on wheels in any way.

Enthusiasm, however, soon landed Campbell in trouble; he was hauled before the local magistrate for riding downhill at speed with his hands in his pockets. From his public school, Uppingharn, he went to Germany for eighteen months' further education; here he took part in cycle races.

When, in 1906, he returned to England, he moved on to motor-cycle competition, winning gold medals in the London-Edinburgh Trials of 1906, 7 and 8.  He also raced two-wheelers at Brooklands.

In 1909, he began experiments with aero- planes; he built two and succeeded in persuading one of them to leave the ground for a short distance before crashing. Even for a wealthy young man like Campbell, though, flying proved too costly a sport, so he turned his attention to motor racing.

The Darracq Flapper

He had already tried his hand, at Brooklands in 1908, with a Paris-Madrid Renault, but without result. His new car, a 34 hp Darracq nicknamed 'The Flapper', was more competitive, however, and, in 1910, he won his first race with it, lapping at around 75mph. After owning a Peugeot ('which brought me no luck') and a 1906 Darracq, more powerful than 'The Flapper' ('which led me into every kind of trouble'), Campbell acquired a 59.6hp Vanderbilt Cup Darracq, which became the first Bluebird.

The First Bluebird

It was this car which shed its offside wheels against the kerb in the Brooklands finishing straight, sliding over the line on the hubs to finish fifth in the race. Even so, the accident didn't please the irascible, superstitious Campbell. 'He got out, went to the front of the car, took his black cat mascot off the radiator and stamped on it,' recalled an eye witness of the event, which took place on August Bank Holiday, 1912. At the outbreak of war, Campbell joined up, at first as a motor cycle dispatch rider, but found that this risky occupation was not exciting enough for his taste. So he applied for, and got, a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps.

When the war was over, Campbell found civilian life too tame. Motor racing offered the sort of thrill that he was seeking and he plunged into the sport with a new fervour. His first ventures on to the track were with a 1912 Grand Prix Peugeot and a 2.6-litre Talbot, but he was soon racing a bewildering variety of cars. There were several different Talbots, including one of the two 1913 single-seat 4½-litre cars (twin-sister to Percy Lambert's "100-miles-in-the-hour' car), two Ballots (Bluebird and Vanda), the 350 hp Sunbeam and an Indianapolis Sunbeam, a Chrysler, an Itala, Bugattis and so on.

At this period he was, not suprisingly, running a motor dealership in London's West End. He was the sole concessionaire' for the United Kingdom and Colonies of the new 20 hp Silent Mors sporting car, and also dealt in Talbot, Darracq, Rover, Standard and Gregoire-Campbell cars. He also boasted 'a large number of racing cars always in stock-any trial given on the Brooklands Track'. A typical day's outing for the Campbell equipe was August Bank Holiday, 1920, when Captain M. Campbell was entered for five out of twelve races, with three different cars - a 2.4-litre Mors, a 7.6-litre GP Peugeot and a 3-litre Talbot.

Clarenence Chamberlain, the Atlantic flyer, with Malcolm Campbell
Clarenence Chamberlain, the Atlantic flyer, with Malcolm at Daytona Beach in 1928. Malcolm was at Daytona trying for the land speed record. After damaging both his car and his back when hitting a bump at 180 miles per hour, and trouble with exhaust fumes entering the car, he went on to set a record of 206.95 mph.

Donald Campbell, pictured at Lake Eyre in 1964
Malcolm's son Donald Campbell, pictured at Lake Eyre in 1964.

V12 Delage Foot Burners

In 1926, the RAC organised a quasi-road race at Brooklands - the first British Grand Prix; Campbell hedged his bets by entering both a Talbot and a Bugatti, finally electing to drive the 'Bug', a wire-wheeled type 35. At first, the new Talbot-Darracqs made the running, but they were eliminated by mechanical troubles and Campbell began to creep up on the leaders, the new V12 Delages, which, because of their badly routed exhausts, were putting their drivers through purgatory by burning their feet. Two laps from the end, Campbell overhauled the second placed Andre Dubonnet, and was gaining rapidly on the leaders, Senechal and Wagner, when the chequered flag fell.

The International Tourist Trophy, held on Ulster's Newtownards circuit in 1928, proved an expensive day out for Campbell. As he drove into the pits, flames started shooting out from under his petrol tank. When he stopped, the whole car caught fire and, within minutes, was reduced to a mere skeleton. Malcolm Campbell watched in utter dejection as the smoke died down and left a furnace of boiling ashes where the cockpit had been. He had entertained high hopes for the race and had done very well in practice.

Worst of all, the car was not insured and its loss cost him more than a thousand pounds. A curious oversight given Campbell was not only a member of Lloyds' but was also a director of the Zurich Insurance Company. Later the same year, Campbell entered another Bugatti for the George Boillot Cup race at Boulogne. In practice, he broke the lap record, and was obviously 'out for victory. He drove magnificently and took something off his handicap at every turn; fourth in the third lap, third in the fifth, he was leading in the eighth. Brake failure was beginning to tell, however, and the Bugatti had to retire before the distance was run.

Searching For Treasure On The Cocos Islands

In the early 1930s Campbell acquired a new Brooklands mount, the 4-litre V12 Sunbeam Tiger, which he took the Mountain Championship in 1932. However, it was with the legendary Bluebirds that Malcolm Campbell achieved international fame. Motor racing was not the sum total of Campbell's existence: Who's Who listed his recreations as 'motor racing, fishing, riding, yachting, breeding Alsatians and Airedales...'. Another much-publicised activity was his search for pirate treasure on Cocos Island; when he had retired from record breaking and racing on land, at the age of 50, Campbell turned to a new element, water.

The Water Going Bluebird

Campbell's Bluebird boat was almost as successful as the cars; his four attempts on the water-speed record, between 1937 and 1939, culminated in a speed of 141.7mph on Coniston Water. Although well over age, he managed to get into the Army during World War 2, working mostly with motor cycles. After the Armistice, Campbell attempted to fit one of the newly developed jet engines into his Bluebird boat, but it proved unstable at speed. By this time, illness was creeping up on Campbell, although he continued work on the boat. His sight began to fail and he had spells of depression.

As 1948 slipped into 1949, Captain Sir Malcolm Campbell (the knighthood dated from 1931) died in his sleep at his home at Povey Cross, near Reigate, Surrey. 'Perhaps, then, death was merciful,' wrote his erstwhile schoolfellow, 'Sammy' Davis, 'but with his passing we lose as picturesque a figure as ever handled a racing car's wheel, a man who wrought mightily for the sport, and whose record of success is an encouragement to all who follow. And with him passes one of the great figures that made racing.'

Donald Picks Up Where Malcolm Left Off

However, his son Donald, born in 1921, decided to carry on his father's work, initially with the Bluebird speedboat. He refitted the old 'R' Type Rolls-Royce aero engine and propeller drive, and modified the hull form. Both Donald and his mechanic Leo Villa (who had served his father since 1922), were.lucky to escape with their lives when they hit a floating log on Lake Garda, in Italy in 1951, while travelling at nearly 170mph. After the accident, Campbell developed a new, jet-propelled Bluebird, with which he established a new water-speed record of 202.3 mph on Ullswater and raised this figure six times, culminating in a speed of 276.3 mph being set in Western Australia in 1964.

By this time, Donald had developed a new Bluebird car, too. Designed by Norris Brothers, a Sussex engineering firm, of which Campbell was a director, the new car was built during 1956 - 1959 at the works of Motor Panels Limited of Coventry. It had a 4100 bhp Proteus jet engine, which drove all four wheels, but its outings seemed plagued by disaster. In its initial attempt on the land-speed record, which took place at Utah in 1960, it crashed badly. The rebuild which followed was so thorough that the car emerged as Bluebird II.

In 1964, after further delays, Donald Campbell managed to achieve his ambition of being the first man to set up an over-400mph land-speed record with a wheel-driven car, rather than a jet engine on wheels that others were using for record attempts. A further attempt on the water-speed record came in January 1967. While travelling at a speed said to be in excess of 300 mph, Bluebird lifted its bows, became airborne and somersaulted with such a violence into Coniston Water that it broke up.

Mr Whoppit Recovered

Donald's shoes, crash-helmet and mascot teddy-bear, Mr Whoppit, were all recovered, but his body has never been found. Typically, at the time of his death, he was working on a new Bluebird car, this time a projectile-like, rocket-driven tricar running on steel tyres. Its projected speed was 800 mph - it would have been a magnificent finale to the Campbell saga.

Also see: World Land Speed Records
Donald Campbell pictured at Goodwood on the 18th June, 1960, with his 4100 bhp Proteus jet engined Bluebird
Donald Campbell pictured at Goodwood on the 18th June, 1960, with his 4100 bhp Proteus jet engined Bluebird.
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