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Donald Campbell - Fastest Man on Earth

Updated on October 2, 2016
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Donald Campbell in Bluebird on Coniston Water, 24 June 1967
Donald Campbell in Bluebird on Coniston Water, 24 June 1967 | Source
Land and water speed record breaker Donald Campbell
Land and water speed record breaker Donald Campbell | Source

I was six years old when Donald Campbell was killed on Coniston Water in Cumbria. The son of record-breaker Sir Malcolm Campbell, Donald was attempting to break his own water speed record of 276 miles per hour on the lake, when his boat - Bluebird K7 - dramatically crashed.

Images of the accident appeared everywhere - on the TV news, in the papers and in documentary footage. But what fascinated me about Donald Campbell was that he was British and he'd achieved something no-one else had achieved - he was the fastest man on earth, and in my book, that meant he was a hero.

Sir Malcolm Campbell at Daytona Beach
Sir Malcolm Campbell at Daytona Beach | Source

Family Traditions

It must have been difficult for Donald Campbell being born the son of a record breaker (nine land speed records and four on water), but if the boy had hopes of following in his father's footsteps, they were dashed early on. Donald's father seems to have made it clear he didn't want his son continuing the family tradition. In fact, when Sir Malcolm died, his estate, including both the Bluebird Car and the hydroplane, was auctioned off. Donald, however, took the opportunity to purchase them himself, possibly as souvenirs of his father's success.

Whether Donald had any immediate ideas of trying to emulate his father is hard to say, but having trained as a maintenance engineer, he clearly had an interest in mechanics. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. Certainly, by the summer of 1949, he had teamed up with Leo Villa - Sir Malcolm's long-time engineer - and travelled to Coniston Water to try out the old Blue Bird K4 hydroplane. Unable to use the original jet engine due to difficulties with the manufacturers,

Donald had the boat changed back to propeller drive and his initial runs came close to breaking his father's water speed record. The following year, the team were back at Coniston, but by that time the record had already been broken by an American, Stanley Sayers.

Stealing it Back

The Americans didn't hold the record for long, though - Donald won it back later that same year at Nevada's Lake Mead. Winning, of course, improved the money situation, since successful racing teams are exactly what advertisers look for.

Cash came in from the likes of Mobil and BP, while back in Britain, an annual award put up by Billy Butlin (of Butlin's holidays) gave Donald the money he needed to break the record another four times.

Private Life

Donald Campbell's private life had never been a barrel of laughs, and must have put an additional strain on his record-breaking pursuits. After his first marriage ended in divorce, he married again in 1952. But this too did not last and by 1958, he was married to Belgian singer Tonia Bern. Bern persists that they were very happy together, though the couple both had affairs.

Finance, too, was always a problem for Donald - racing cars and boats for a living was never going to come cheap. It was the proceeds from selling his interests in the Kine engineering firm that paid for the design and building of Bluebird K7 for his 1955 attempt on the world water speed record.

Leo Villa and Donald Campbell
Leo Villa and Donald Campbell | Source

Water and Land

Holding the water speed record gave Donald another idea. Why stick to just one area of expertise when he could have two? The land speed record at that time was held by British driver John Cobb, who'd broken his own record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1947 with a speed of 394 miles per hour. Donald enlisted engineers Ken and Lewis Norris (who had also built K7) and set them to work designing a new car.

The CN7 (or Campbell Norris 7, as it was originally called) performed moderately well on its first run at the Salt Flats in September 1960, but Donald's determination to test the acceleration speed proved too much and at a speed of more than 360 miles an hour there was a terrific crash, rendering the vehicle a right-off and leaving Donald with a fractured skull.

Naturally enough, the accident didn't keep Donald from the track for long and in 1962 he went to Australia's Lake Eyre with a rebuilt Bluebird CN7 for another attempt. The weather, however, had other ideas and the endeavour had to be called off when the course was flooded.

Unfortunately, the same thing happened when Donald returned there in 1964, but this time there were additional difficulties. Disagreements about organisational issues and rumours about his physical fitness, led to Donald's financers pulling out, forcing him to seek alternative funding. Nevertheless, a later record attempt saw the car break the record at 403 miles per hour (though this was still far short of what the team had expected).

Working on Bluebird's engine
Working on Bluebird's engine | Source

At the tail end of 1964, Donald had the chance he'd been waiting for - to break both the land speed and water speed records in the same year. At Western Australia's Lake Dumbleyung, Bluebird K7 took the water speed record at 276 miles per hour.

Donald Campbell is still the only man to break both records in a single year.

If the victory at Dumbleyong had accomplished everything he'd hoped for, perhaps Donald would not have attempted to break the record again. However, the public at large were not particularly overwhelmed at his achievement and his success went largely unacknowledged. It may be that he felt he could not rest until he'd broken the longed-for 300 miles per hour target on water.

Bluebird K7 at Goodwood Racing Museum in 1960
Bluebird K7 at Goodwood Racing Museum in 1960 | Source

By November 1966, Donald, Leo and the team were back at Coniston Water for another attempt on the water speed record. First trials did not go well, though and damage to the engine necessitated that a replacement be fitted. This, along with problems with the distribution of weight on the boat led to an improvised addition: sandbags were strapped to the tail to allow the boat to plane properly at speed. Improvised or not, it did the trick and everything worked perfectly.

But once again, the weather let them down and the longsuffering press and TV crews shuffled away for the Christmas holidays. Donald, however, had other ideas. Over Christmas, when there was no-one around to witness it, he took advantage of a break in the weather to run Bluebird at speeds up to 250 miles per hour.

The Last Day

Donald made his final attempt on the water speed record on 4th January 1967. With the press and TV people back and ready to laud his success, Donald made a first run up the lake at an average speed of 297 miles per hour.

Eager to make a second run, Donald's comments over the radio told his team that he was having a difficult time, but nevertheless, he increased his speed down the lake and at one point was hitting around 305 miles per hour. Then, disastrously, the bow began to rise out of the water. Dropping back down, the bows rose another four times, at which point the whole craft parted company with the surface of the lake, somersaulted over and crashed back down, falling apart as it hit the water

A markerconiston water cumbria -
Coniston Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria, UK
get directions

For more than 30 years, Donald Campbell's body lay near the wreckage of Bluebird K7 at the bottom of the lake. Then, in May 2001, the Bluebird Project finally brought him and his record-breaking boat to the surface.

There were rumours that Donald had a death wish. Certainly, he was extremely superstitious and would follow the same routines, avoid the colour green and always kept his teddy bear Mr Whoppit nearby on record attempts.

In reality, I think he was simply acutely aware that the lifestyle he'd chosen was incredibly dangerous. He must have known that on every single occasion that he climbed into Bluebird, it might be for the last time.

Donald Campbell was a record breaker. He achieved what few people have been able to achieve, and for several years he was indeed, the fastest man on earth.

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    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks Kristen, much appreciated. I think he was a pretty remarkable guy - the pressure of his father's success must have been a tremendous image to live up to. There's talk of another movie about his life, possibly starring Hugh Grant, but that may be pie in the sky.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      What a fascinating hub, Colin, about Donald Campbell and his story. Thanks for sharing this interesting hub. Voted up for interesting!

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Hi Buildreps - yes, he was a fascinating character. I got really interested in him about 30 years ago after reading a book about the world water speed record, and of course both Donald and his father were heavily featured. Thanks for reading, much appreciated.

    • Buildreps profile image

      Buildreps 2 years ago from Europe

      It was nice to read about Donald Campbell. I was just born (1964) when he broke both record on land and water. Great Hub.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Wow - that's great, Larry! I saw a replica of the Bluebird car when I was a kid, and I suppose since it looks axactly the same as the original, it sort of sticks in your mind as being the real thing. Thanks for reading.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Great hub!

      I've actually had the pleasure of seeing some of these machines in the museum when I visited family in Salt Lake. Very cool.