This week in Boston, a four-ton sapphire-blue monster of a car was lifted over the side of a freighter and deposited on the dock. The Bluebird, as Donald Campbell of Britain calls the machine, will be carried by trailer to Utah. There, some time in early September, Campbell will vault into its forward-perched cockpit and go screaming over the level white crust of the Bonneville Salt Flats in search of a new world land-speed record—a search that only three weeks ago claimed the life of one driver, Athol Graham (SI, Aug. 8).
Campbell, already the holder of the water-speed record, will be driving partly for the sake of the challenge ("penetrating out into the dark"), partly to carry on the lifework of his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, who set a record himself in 1935, driving the original Bluebird 301 mph. But mostly, Campbell says, he wants to "flutter the flag a bit" for Britain and push the record beyond the reach of contenders for a long time to come.
Chief among the rival drivers Campbell and a surprising number of Englishmen want to beat is Mickey Thompson, the strapping young Californian who has bettered 360 mph at Bonneville with a home-built car and next week will be back on the flats going after the British-held absolute record of 394.2 mph, set by the late Sir John Cobb in 1947.
Until recently, few Americans had ever heard of Thompson. To the British, however, he is a menace to a cherished possession—one not as important to the crown's prestige as, say, the conquest of Everest, but not a thing to be regarded lightly in post-Suez Britain.
August 21, 1960
If Campbell succeeds—and more than 70 British manufacturing firms have plowed some $4 million into the car in the prospect that he will—the record could soar to 500 mph. Beneath the aluminum hide of Campbell's turbine-engined Bluebird lies the greatest potential performance of any land-speed automobile ever built.
Campbell got in his first licks at the round-numbers speed game by nudging the water-speed record above 200 mph with his Bluebird jet boat in 1955 (SI, July 25, 1955). In the next four years he broke his record on water five times, finally bringing it to 260.35 mph last year on Coniston Water in the English lakes district.
Now he intends to become the second man in history to hold both the water-and land-speed records at the same time. The first was his father. In doing so he hopes to help push back the frontiers of automotive engineering and to prove that "while it's frightfully exciting to think of going to the moon, there's still a lot to be learned on this planet."
Campbell talked persuasively on these matters the other day in the den of his pleasant Tudor country house, Roundwood, in Surrey, three-quarters of an hour from London.
The walls of the room were lined with photographs and mementos of Bluebird exploits. There was Sir Malcolm looking down with a jaunty expression that has carried over intact to his son—the same merry eyes beneath the high forehead, the smiling mouth between a strong nose and chin. There was also a model of the latest Bluebird boat and one of the new car. Behind a desk sat Campbell's project manager Peter Carr, a former R.A.F. test pilot, now retired and furiously occupied with some 11th-hour Bluebird paperwork.
"This particular activity has nothing to do with racing," Campbell said. "It is a completely different tree in another part of the forest. The challenge here is in the machine itself. This is a cold-blooded, calculating, lonely business.
"No one in this world is necessarily equipped to handle the Bluebird. This is far beyond anything attempted in the past. The only people who know something about these things are test pilots or someone like yours truly who has had to learn the hard way on water.
"You don't go into it feeling, 'Boy oh boy, this is going to be a piece of cake.' I did that once, on Father's old boat. The next thing, I nearly turned the whole boat around the propeller shaft.
"On the other hand, you have to think that you have a reasonable chance of succeeding. While one admires the hot-rod boys [Campbell presumably was thinking of Thompson], that's not our line of country. I don't like hot rods because I don't like uncalculated risks. There's always a factor of ignorance in these projects, even after a design is tested and retested, and to my nervous mind that is enough.
"This animal has taken four and a half years to build. It has all kinds of electronic gadgets in it. We're taking advantage of every modern technique known to man.
"In the end, projects of this sort should help get the price of the everyday passenger car down. You can't see the cost of labor going down, so there are only two ways of doing the job, as I see it. First, greater numbers. Second, the virtually untapped field of making ever lighter masses of material do ever greater work."
The new Bluebird, by virtue of its light components, has an unprecedented power-to-weight ratio of one horsepower to less than two pounds. Generally speaking, this ratio is the most crucial factor in any racing or speed-record car; the lightest car with the greatest power is the winner. The four-wheel-drive Bluebird weighs 8,000 pounds and will develop some 4,250 hp from its Bristol-Siddeley Proteus free turbine engine, the engine used in the early Britannia turboprop airplane. Cobb's was a 7,000-pound, 2,800-hp, two-engine car.
"If it isn't easier to drive this beast than the Bluebird boat," Campbell went on, "then we've done a bloody bad job. Those who have gone after records on both agree that the land is easier than the water. I am here to tell you that this game on water is getting tricky. It was tricky enough for me, thank you very much indeed."
One man who knows perhaps better than Campbell how tricky high speeds can be, on water or land, is Lewis Norris, one of Bluebird's chief designers, who, at his home in the little Sussex town of Burgess Hill, made it clear that Campbell will do well to approach 500 mph.
Compact, dark-eyed and intense, Norris, who also designed Campbell's jet boat, sat at a Spartan desk before a blackboard covered with abstruse mathematical hen tracks.
Campbell, Norris said, will have two major tasks. The first is to accelerate the Bluebird at precisely the rate giving maximum tire adhesion. Since the engine is powerful enough to produce unwanted wheel spin all through the acceleration range, two sets of data, which will appear on a special dial, will be reflected onto the windshield in such a way that the figures will seem to be projected on the track ahead of Campbell. One will show a theoretically perfect acceleration figure for any given point on the course and the other will show his actual performance.
The second vital task is to stop the car in time. The Bonneville course is only 17 miles long, with the measured mile through which the record runs in the center. This leaves 10 miles in which to gather speed and another six in which to decelerate. Twin air flaps that project outward from the sides of the car will be used to slow it to 400 mph; then Campbell will apply four massive, air-operated, inboard disc brakes. These must dissipate 75 million foot-pounds of energy in no more than 70 seconds.
As far as you can go
"It's hard to see," Norris said, "how any vehicle driven through the wheels can have a higher potential than this one. We should have the means of arriving at the maximum coefficient of friction, or grip, that one can use with tires as we now know them. You can almost say this is the end of the road in that sense.
"It's the shortness of the run that makes life difficult. The machine hasn't got time to reach its peak. It's got to be accelerating all the time.
"It's incredible that Graham and Thompson got up so high. I hope Thompson takes the record from us before Donald gives it a go. He jolly well deserves it."
Implicit in Norris' verbal bouquet was, of course, the presumption that Campbell would jolly well get the record right back for Great Britain if Thompson did succeed. The Bluebird people mean business. There is a trustee council, headed by the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, which is charged with carrying out the assault in case of Campbell's illness or death.
It is much likelier that Campbell will be as healthy as a Hampshire boar, come the "ultimate" run, probably on September 12.
"Donald will have enormous pressure on him as he accelerates," Lew Norris said. "He'll feel a bit like the arrow in the bow."
Campbell will feel like something more than that if he hits his mark.
"BLUEBIRD" DESIGN is dictated by high-speed problems of overheating, tire failure, uneven drive and braking. Egg-box construction (circles) permits air-cooling of engine, reduces torque, distributes thrust with two-way drive. Hard suspension reduces sway while constant velocity couplings transmit power evenly. Outsize tires, which will be changed after each run, will minimize heat expansion, help stabilize steering. Air flaps and friction brakes should stop car within six miles from end of run.
STEERING REDUCTION GEARBOX
ENGINE FRONT MOUNTING
LAMINATED-GLASS SAFETY SCREEN
FRONT SPIRAL BEVEL GEARBOX RATIO: 3.6 TO 1
FRONT GEARBOX OIL TANK
ELECTRICALLY DRIVEN FUEL AND OIL CIRCULATING PUMPS
FOUR-WAY EXHAUST DUCT WITH SILICA BATT AND ALUMINUM FOIL INSULATION
DISK-TYPE STEEL WHEELS WITH DETACHABLE RIMS
PNEUMATIC SUSPENSION LEG WITH HYDRAULIC DAMPING
CONSTANT VELOCITY COUPLINGS
DRIVER'S INSTRUMENT PANEL
ENGINE FRONT DRIVE WITH FREE-WHEEL DEVICE
PROTEUS GAS TURBINE ENGINE DELIVERING 4,100 S.H.P AT 11,100 RPM MODIFIED TO DRIVE FROM BOTH ENDS
REAR GEARBOX OIL TANK
CAMERA AND LIGHTS
BRAKE-SYSTEM CHARGING AND JACKING CONTROL PANEL
BRAKE-SYSTEM AIR STORAGE CYLINDERS
AIR INTAKE ON ENGINE
REAR SPIRAL BEVEL GEARBOX RATIO: 3.6 TO 1
PHOTOGRAPHIC INSTRUMENT PANEL