Donald Campbell

From New World Encyclopedia

Donald Malcolm Campbell, C.B.E. (March 23, 1921 – January 4, 1967), was a British car and motorboat racer who broke eight world speed records in the 1950s and 1960s. He remains the only person to set both land and water speed records in the same year (1964). His father was the holder of 13 world speed records. He died while attempting another record on Coniston Water in Cumbria. He was exceeding 300 mph when he crashed and sank. He was motivated by a desire to push the limits of speed and endurance and, to a degree, saw himself as competing for headlines with Neville Duke, the test pilot, who helped the Campbell team with its breathing apparatus, and with the formula one racing ace, Stirling Moss. Like them, "he lived with death as a shadow at his shoulder."[1]

The Campbell's were wealthy from the family's diamond business, so they were able to finance their quest for speed. Campbell's engineering ideas attracted interest from both the private and the public sectors. Donald thought his speed-boat design might have a military application, at a time when some people in Britain were reluctant to concede superiority, especially naval, to the super-power across the Atlantic.[2] Campbell wanted Britain to maintain a military advantage and thought that a high-speed torpedo might be developed.

He was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1955.


Donald Campbell was born in Horley, Surrey, the son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, holder of world speed records in the 1920s and 30s in the famous Bluebird cars and boats. Following his father's death in 1949, and aided by Malcolm's chief engineer, Leo Villa, the younger Campbell strove to set speed records on land and water. His father is reported to have said that Donald would "never be like him" because "they were built different" and the younger Campbell appears to have set out to prove that this was not the case.[3]

Donald married Daphne Harvey in 1945. They were divorced in 1952. In 1952, he married Dorothy McClegg. They divorced in 1957. His third wife was Tonia Bern-Campbell, whom he married in 1958. His only daughter, Gina Campbell, was from his first marriage.

Water speed records

Campbell began his speed record attempts using his father's old boat, Blue Bird K4, but after a structural failure at 170 mph (270 km/h) on Coniston Water in 1951, he developed a new boat. Designed by Ken and Lew Norris, the Bluebird K7 was an all-metal jet-propelled 3-point hydroplane with a Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl jet engine producing 3500 lb (16 kN) of thrust.

Campbell set seven world water speed records in K7 between 1955 and 1964. The first was at Ullswater on July 23, 1955, where he set a record of 202.15 mph (324 km/h). The series of speed increases—Template:Convert/mi:h later in 1955, Template:Convert/mi:h in 1956, Template:Convert/mi:h in 1957, Template:Convert/mi:h in 1958, Template:Convert/mi:h in 1959—peaked on December 31, 1964, at Dumbleyung Lake, Western Australia when he reached 276.33 mph (442 km/h); he remains the world's most prolific breaker of water speed records.

Land speed record attempt

In 1956, Campbell began planning a car to break the land speed record, which then stood at 394 mph (630 km/h). The Norris brothers designed Bluebird CN7 with Template:Convert/mi:h in mind. The CN7 was completed by the spring of 1960, and was powered by a Bristol-Siddeley Proteus free-turbine engine of 4,450 shp. Following low-speed tests conducted at the Goodwood circuit in Sussex, England, the CN7 was taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah in the United States, the scene of his father's last LSR triumph in 1935. The attempt was unsuccessful and CN7 was written off following a high-speed crash in September, at Bonneville. Campbell was not seriously hurt, suffering a fracture to his lower skull, and was, by 1961, on the road to recovery and planning to rebuild the CN7.

The rebuilt car was completed, with minor modifications, in 1962, and, by the end of the year, was shipped to Australia for a new attempt at Lake Eyre in 1963. The Lake Eyre location was chosen as it offered 450 square miles (1,170 km²) of dried salt lake, where rain had not fallen in the previous 20 years, and the surface of the 20 miles (32 km) long track was as hard as concrete. As Campbell arrived in late March, with a view to a May attempt, the first light rain fell. Campbell and Bluebird were running by early May, but once again more rain fell, and low-speed test runs could not progress into the higher speed ranges. By late May, the rain became torrential, and the lake was flooded. Campbell had to move the CN7 off the lake in the middle of the night to save the car from being submerged by the rising flood waters. The 1963 attempt was over.

Campbell and his team returned to Lake Eyre in 1964, but the surface never returned to the promise it had held in 1962, and Campbell had to battle with CN7 to reach record speeds (400+ mph). After more light rain in June, the lake finally began to dry enough for an attempt to be made. On July 17, 1964, Campbell set a record of 403.10 mph for a four-wheeled vehicle (Class A). Campbell was disappointed with the record, as the vehicle had been designed for much higher speeds. CN7 covered the final third of the measured mile at an average of 429 mph, peaking as it left the measured distance at over Template:Convert/mi:h.

Dual record holder

Campbell now reverted to Bluebird K7 for a further attempt on the water speed record. After more delays, he finally achieved his seventh WSR at Lake Dumbleyung near Perth, Western Australia, on the final day of 1964, at a speed of 276.33 mph.

He had become the first, and so far only, person to set both land and water speed records in the same year. Campbell's land record was short-lived, because rule changes meant that Craig Breedlove's Spirit of America, a pure jet car, would begin setting records later in 1964 and 1965. Campbell's 429 mph speed on his final Lake Eyre run, however, remained the highest speed achieved by a wheel-driven car until 2001; Bluebird CN7 is now on display at the National Motor Museum in Hampshire, England, her potential only partly realized.

Final record attempt

In 1966, Campbell decided to once more try for a water speed record. This time the target was 300 mph (480 km/h). Bluebird K7 was fitted with a lighter and more powerful Bristol Orpheus engine, taken from a Folland Gnat jet aircraft, which developed 4500 lb of thrust. The modified boat was taken back to Coniston in the first week of November 1966. The trials did not go well. The weather was appalling, and K7 suffered an engine failiure when her air intakes collapsed and debris was drawn into the engine. Eventually, by the end of November, some high-speed runs were made, but well below Campbell's existing record. Problems with Bluebird's fuel system meant that the engine could not reach full rpm, and so would not develop maximum power. Eventually, by the end of December, the fuel starvation problem was fixed, and Campbell awaited better weather to mount an attempt.

On January 4, 1967, Campbell was killed when Bluebird K7 flipped and disintegrated at a speed in excess of Template:Convert/mi:h. Bluebird had completed a perfect north-south run at an average of 297.6 mph, and Campbell used a new water brake to slow K7 from her peak speed of Template:Convert/mi:h. Instead of refueling and waiting for the wash of this run to subside, as had been pre-arranged, Campbell decided to make the return run immediately. The second run was even faster; as K7 passed the start of the measured kilometer, she was traveling at over Template:Convert/mi:h. However, her stability had begun to break down as she traveled over the rough water, and the boat started tramping from sponson to sponson. 150 yards from the end of the measured mile, Bluebird lifted from the surface and took off at a 45-degree angle. She somersaulted and plunged back into the lake, nose first. The boat then cartwheeled across the water before coming to rest. The impact broke Bluebird forward of the air intakes (where Donald was sitting) and the main hull sank shortly afterwards. Campbell had been killed instantly.

Campbell's last words on his final run were, via radio intercom:

Pitching a bit down here…Probably from my own wash…Straightening up now on track…Rather close to Peel Island…Tramping like mad…er… Full power…Tramping like hell here… I can't see much… and the water's very bad indeed…I can't get over the top… I'm getting a lot of bloody row in here… I can't see anything… I've got the bows up… I'm going…oh….[4]

The cause of the crash has been variously attributed to Campbell not waiting to refuel after doing a first run of 297.6 mph, and hence the boat being lighter; the wash caused by his first run and made much worse by the use of the water brake; and, possibly, a cut-out of the jet engine caused by fuel starvation. Some evidence for this last possibility may be seen in film recordings of the crash—as the nose of the boat climbs and the jet exhaust points at the water surface no disturbance or spray can be seen at all. Mr. Woppit, Campbell's teddy bear mascot, was found among the floating debris. Royal Navy divers made strenuous efforts to find and recover Campbell's body but, although the wreck of K7 was soon found, they called off the search without locating his body.

Recovery of Bluebird

The wreckage of Campbell's craft was recovered on March 8, 2001, when diver Bill Smith was inspired to look for the wreck after hearing the Marillion song "Out of This World" (from the album Afraid of Sunlight), which was written about Campbell and Bluebird. The recovered wreck revealed that Campbell had activated the water brake to try and slow Bluebird down on her final run. The boat still contained fuel in the engine fuel lines, discounting the fuel starvation theory, though the engine could have cut-out as a result of injector blockage.[5]

Campbell's body was recovered from the lake on May 28, 2001. He was laid to rest in Coniston cemetery on September 12, 2001, after a funeral service in Coniston village attended by his wife Tonia, daughter Gina, other members of his family, members of his former team, and admirers.


The story of Campbell's last attempt at the water speed record on Coniston Water was told in the BBC television drama Across the Lake in 1988, with Anthony Hopkins as Campbell. In 2003, the BBC showed a documentary reconstruction of Campbell's fateful water-speed record attempt in an episode of Days That Shook the World. It featured a mixture of modern reconstruction and original film footage. All of the original color clips were taken from a film capturing the event, Campbell at Coniston by John Lomax, a local amateur filmmaker from Wallasey, England. Lomax's film won amateur film awards world-wide in the late 1960s for recording the final weeks of Campbell's life.

In the village of Coniston, the Ruskin Museum has a display of Donald Campbell memorabilia, and is home to the actual tail fin of K7, as well as the air intake of the Bristol Orpheus engine recovered in 2001. A project is underway to restore K7, aimed at returning Bluebird to Coniston before permanently housing her at the Ruskin museum.

Between them, Donald Campbell and his father had set eleven speed records on water and ten on land.

In 2000, Campbell's nephew, Don Wales set a new British land-speed record for an electrically powered car in his Bluebird Electric.[6]


  1. David Tremayne, Donald Campbell: The Man in the Shadows. Retrieved September 15, 2007.
  2. Diana Bartley, Donald Campbell Lives for Speed. Retrieved September 15, 2007.
  3. The Racing Campbells, Donald Campbell Bio. Retrieved September 15, 2007.
  4. BBC, Last Words from Bluebird Preserved. Retrieved September 15, 2007.
  5. BBC, Divers Find Bluebird Wreck. Retrieved September 15, 2007
  6. BBC, Bluebird Breaks Speed Record. Retrieved September 15, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bern-Campbell, Tonia. Donald Campbell: My Life with a Hero. Stroud: Sutton, 2006. ISBN 978-0750945332
  • Drackett, Phil. Like Father Like Son: The Story of Malcolm and Donald Campbell. Brighton: Clifton Books, 1969. ISBN 978-0901255068
  • Pearson, John. The Last Hero; The Gallant Story of Donald Campbell and the Land Speed Record. New York: D. McKay Co, 1966.
  • Tremayne, David. Donald Campbell: The Man Behind the Mask. London: Bantam, 2003. ISBN 978-0593050583

External links

All links retrieved January 30, 2024.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.