One of the best-loved heroes of the Western world in the 1920s and 1930s was a doughty little Scotsman whose cloth helmet and jaunty goggles were instantly recognizable in a thousand Sunday supplements. Because he had moved faster over both land and sea than any other man before him, Malcolm Campbell was worshipped by a speed-loving and sentimental public and knighted by a grateful English king. Britons watched in rapt attention as he beat the speed record on land nine times and that on water three. They chuckled fondly when they read how the great speed king had given his little boy Donald an electric train and, like any father, monopolized the toy himself.
Now British eyes are on the son himself, who, for a while anyway, seemed a proper chip off the old engine block. Donald Campbell carried his father's love of toy trains to manhood, and with it his father's determination to beat existing speed records. Between the years 1955 and 1959, a decade after his father's death (in bed), the young Campbell set six new marks on the water, and in 1960 he lived up to his countrymen's highest expectations by preparing to attack the most coveted record of all—that for speed across land.
British industry—at a staggering cost—supplied him with the wherewithal: four tons of scientifically mobile get-up-and-go called Bluebird, and Sir Malcolm's fans waited breathless for his son to assume the paternal mantle. They are still waiting. Now in its fourth year, the formidable Bluebird has yet to set a record or even to make a single all-out attempt at one, and she is now ignominiously marooned by flood-waters in an Australian warehouse in Adelaide.
Now the existing record of 394.196 miles per hour set in 1947 by Campbell's countryman, the late John Cobb, appears to be safe for at least another year, since the rains have made Bluebird's Australian speed course unusable for the balance of 1963. Meanwhile, Campbell's fans are beginning to reexamine their hero.
July 28, 1963
To a lesser man than Donald Campbell the wretched failure of the Bluebird project over the years might be embarrassing. But Donald has lost none of his famous aplomb. "We have reached the end of a chapter, but not the end of the book," he said after the soggy debacle in Australia. "Nobody's to blame, old boy," Campbell told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Correspondent Fred Hubbard in Adelaide recently. "Play was stopped by a welter of utterly unforeseeable, unpredictable, unaccountable ruddy rain. But nothing is dead yet. This project is very much alive. I have the full and unqualified support of all of Bluebird's backers."
Publicly, yes. The 72 British firms that built Bluebird and contribute to her operating expenses are, on the surface, stanchly united behind Campbell. "We are not disappointed with the events in Australia, except that we are disappointed for Donald Campbell," was the way Reginald Nightingale, manufacturer of some special forgings, put it. "The attitude we take is that if these blokes are prepared to sacrifice their lives in the interest of British achievement, we'll back them whatever way we can. Campbell had no control of the weather. I have the utmost faith in him. He is a charming bloke and full of guts."
Nevertheless, it is clear that some Bluebird people have begun to entertain doubts. With exquisite British restraint, a spokesman for one of Bluebird's largest backers says privately that his firm is "a bit peeved." Another, who also prefers anonymity, says, "A tremendous lot of money has been spent, and a stage is approaching when we have to decide whether it is worth throwing in a few more pounds to pull it off, or to take a stand and say, 'Not another pound.' " Wistfully he adds, "Some members of the project's steering committee feel that they have not been as fully informed as they should have been. They have received handouts from the publicity men but, having put up a lot of money, naturally they feel they should have had a few more paragraphs telling them more about what was really happening."
Some of the insiders who have come to dislike Campbell are less reticent. Lumped together, the various counts in their indictment are: 1) that Campbell has "prostituted a fine ideal"—the advancement of British industrial and scientific renown—by wasting unconscionable amounts of time while living high at the project's expense; 2) that he has grossly mismanaged the project; and 3) that, as the only major land-speed man in history without previous experience in his trade, he was a chancy risk to begin with.
An Australian police officer who admittedly was irritated by Campbell's methods, goes so far as to suggest that he "lost his nerve." Witnesses of Campbell's abortive 1960 record attempt on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, which ended in a crash, recall a detail that they have never been able to put completely out of their minds. This is the unproved claim by Campbell's people that his speed at the time he crashed in Bluebird was no less than 365 mph, although he was supposed to be merely phasing in at moderate speeds. Bonneville observers simply do not believe such a figure was possible, since Bluebird had had only 1.6 miles in which to accelerate. "No car could accelerate that fast. Its wheels would have been spinning and digging holes in the salt that you could stand in," says a Bonneville veteran.
Speed records have long been important to Great Britain, and in these days of her diminishing world power they are even more so. If Britain cannot afford to race the U.S. and Russia to the moon, she can, the argument goes, extend the frontiers of man's knowledge in the realm of her own special competence. Thus Donald Campbell carries, willingly or not, a certain imperial responsibility.
The almost casual way in which Campbell's father penetrated this frontier seemed to increase the magnitude of his feats. The press adored Sir Malcolm for his daredevil ways and his expressive speech. "The wind," he once said "plays a grand old tune" at the speeds to which he was becoming accustomed. There was a childlike quality in Sir Malcolm. He confessed that a search for buried pirate treasure on a Pacific isle off South America was, on the whole, more thrilling than his record runs.
From childhood Donald Campbell seemed to have inherited his father's flair for casual derring-do. He made his first substantial impression on the press in 1935 at the age of 14, when he paraded in and out of a New York hotel room holding a gigantic revolver aimed at imaginary enemies while newsmen were interviewing his father. He made his second impression shortly after his father's death, when news spread that the active American industrialist, Henry Kaiser, was planning a boat to challenge Sir Malcolm's mark. The dead man's son and heir touched a sympathetic chord in British hearts when he proclaimed that he would personally defend his father's record against the presumptuous Yanks. Six times he proved as good as his word.
As young Donald Campbell screeched to his first record—202.32 mph in 1955 in a waterborne Bluebird—and then drove the mark up and up to 260.35 mph, he appeared to be every inch his father's son. "He drove that ruddy boat time after time," admits one of his foes today, "and I wouldn't have liked to try it even once. Beyond a certain point nobody could tell what the blasted thing might do. It could career off in almost any direction or even come apart."
Newsmen happily discovered that Donald, like his father before him, spoke in the kind of quotes that make good copy. "Bluebird" he once said, "has a naughty period. Somewhere between 160 mph and 225 she tries to shake your teeth out." And he could be eloquent as well as flip. "The day we stop seeking answers from the unknown," he said, "is the day we are finished as a race."
Having found his answers on the water, Donald Campbell turned to the land. The sleek, four-wheeled laboratory he planned to use was designed by Kenneth and Lewis Norris, the same pair who had dreamed up his jet boat. It was built by Motor Panels (Coventry) Ltd., a wing of the Owen organization, shod at spectacular expense by Dun-lop Rubber Co., powered by a 5,000-hp gas turbine Proteus aircraft engine and fed by British Petroleum, Ltd. It was and is the costliest and most special single automobile in the history of motor sport. No other record car ever built had cost more than $100,000. Campbell's new Bluebird, when she eased out onto the white, marble-hard Utah salt in 1960, represented an investment of $4 million—and when all her expenses to date are totted up they may well reach nearly $6 million.
Knowledgeable British fans were ecstatic about this monster's prospects. Capable in theory of 500 mph, the Bluebird, it was generally agreed, would probably warm up at 425 to 450 in her first assault on the record. "It is hard to see," said Co-Designer Lewis Norris comfortably, "how any vehicle driven through the wheels can have a higher potential than this one. You can almost say this is the end of the road."
Any worry over Campbell's unfamiliarity with high-speed auto driving was suppressed. His water-record experience was considered ample. Campbell was his own best apologist. "This is," he said, "far beyond anything attempted in the past. The only people who know about these things are test pilots or someone like yours truly, who has had to learn the hard way on water."
Campbell soon discovered that he would have to learn the hard way on land, as well. On September 9, 1960, while he was getting ready for his own try in Utah, an impertinent American hot rodder named Mickey Thompson drove his home-built Pontiac-engined Challenger I through Bonneville's measured mile at a speed of 406.6 mph. No one had ever before traveled as fast on four wheels.
For a record to be official, however, an average of two runs in opposite directions must be struck, and on the return run Thompson's car broke down. Cobb's 1947 record still stood, but Campbell had a bear of a competitor on his hands. One week later, ostensibly carrying out moderate-speed exploratory trials, Campbell took his Bluebird across the flats and crashed. Swerving out of control, the great blue car took off, sailed 235 yards through the air, landed on its side and bounced upright.
Strapped snugly into his cockpit between Bluebird's huge 52-inch front wheels, Campbell was not severely hurt. He joked away the 106 miles between the crash scene and a hospital in Tooele, Utah with his chic, Belgianborn third wife, Tonia, and Ambulance Driver Ted Gillette. The hospital said Campbell had suffered a hairline skull fracture and severe lacerations and bruises, but the fracture was described as "not serious." Campbell spent two weeks at the hospital, then returned to England to plan another try.
Campbell had never been happy with the length of the Bonneville course—11 miles in 1960—because the placement of the measured mile at midpoint left so little room for braking. Now he heard about a wondrously vast, flat, hard dry lake called Eyre in Australia and, after a thorough study by the Bluebird team, decided to give it a whirl. The Bluebird was rebuilt pretty much along the old lines, but with the addition of a high tail fin for extra stability, and for a while Campbell more or less dropped out of the news. But behind the scenes he was busier than ever. In the first place, according to an authoritative source, he had overspent his Utah budget by $89,000 and was forced to seek reimbursement from British Petroleum. Meanwhile rumors proliferated. One had it that the Bluebird steering committee was considering giving the car to another driver. Another had it that Campbell had been "gravely injured" in Utah, which was not the case. Still another had it that he himself wanted to step out as driver, giving his injuries as the reason.
One man less interested in rumor than fact was James Phillips, managing director of Coventry Motor Panels, who made a vigorous appeal for an early try on Lake Eyre. Phillips was among those who had scouted the lonely, fly-infested terrain. He had been warned by Elliott Price, owner of the Muloorina sheep station, the nearest habitation, of the possibility that disastrous rains might fall in 1963. How much weight Phillips gave this piece of forecasting when he went before the committee is conjectural, but, in any case, Campbell argued that there was no time for a 1962 assault at Lake Eyre, so everything was deferred until '63.
Campbell's project manager in Utah had been Squadron Leader Peter Carr, an ex-RAF test pilot. For the Australian try he obtained a man equally innocent of speedrecord experience, a London public relations director whose name is David Wynne-Morgan.
The Bluebird party was cordially welcomed to Australia, and Prime Minister Robert Menzies lent his personal support to the venture. After displaying Bluebird for three weeks at the Melbourne Trade Fair, Campbell shipped the huge machine by rail the 750 miles north to Muloorina, where he set up his GHQ 35 miles away (by atrocious road) from the actual speedcourse site.
There were other drawbacks and setbacks. Before Campbell could attempt an all-out run, salt extrusions on the lake bed had to be scraped flat. This work was never really completed. The original 20-mile course on which Campbell had his heart set was abandoned when graders broke through its unexpectedly thin top crust, and a substitute course was settled on. Then, just as the sheepman had predicted, the rains came, the dry lake was flooded and the whole project was scrubbed. Last week, two months later, the $6-million Bluebird was sitting in an armored-car warehouse in Adelaide. Donald Campbell and a few intimates, working out of a plush motel in Perth, were looking into other possible sites in Australia, and Wynne-Morgan was in England trying to explain to the industrialists who control Bluebird's pursestrings what went wrong.
No one blames the car itself, although an irreverent outsider might point out that its wonders still remain to be demonstrated. What criticism there is centers upon Donald Campbell.
Some charge that he wasted time and money living like a millionaire and basking in personal publicity. Others say that he was just plain incompetent. "Mickey Thompson made an absolute fool of him," says one bitter critic who was with him in Utah, "and it was primarily Campbell's sudden scramble to make up for the time he wasted that caused him to wreck the Bluebird. Donald used to whiz to and from the flats each day accompanied by a convoy of 26 vehicles. Mickey had three—the family car, a workshop vehicle and a tender for his speed car. In three weeks Donald had managed 175 mph. Mickey in his homemade thing got above 400 and made Donald look so utterly ruddy foolish that he suddenly got desperate and felt that he had to do something."
Similar charges have been leveled at the Australian attempt.
"Did he make the most of his available time on Lake Eyre?" one particularly irritated critic asks. "The hell he did! Bluebird was built around an engine capable of pushing her at 475 mph for 1,000 hours without overhaul. What did we see at Lake Eyre but Donald's personal engineer, Leo Villa, and his boys pulling this, that and something else down and putting it back together again and again. It was utterly unnecessary.
"Then there was the nonsense with the oxygen bottle. Campbell claimed that the extra bottle would speed the turnaround during a record attempt. Oxygen was never necessary anyway. A simple ruddy tube into the cockpit to force up the air pressure sufficiently to push any exhaust fumes through an outlet was all that was needed.
"There was the pantomime of the radio installation. Having a radio hookup in the car was of doubtful ruddy value anyway, and in any case we were supposed to be racing against time and floods. Why the hell did we waste three to four days fiddling with a radio?
"But probably the greatest time waster of all was Campbell's decision to live in comparative comfort at the Muloorina homestead instead of camping at the lake's edge—as Cobb camped and roughed it in Utah—and getting on with the job.
"I don't think Donald lacks nerve. But eventually he is going to find himself in a position where the pressure of circumstances will force him to make a genuine bid. And having broken the record, what of his bread and butter then?"
That Donald Campbell deliberately dragged his feet in Australia is furiously disputed by his chief mechanic, Leo Villa, 63, who long served Sir Malcolm in the same capacity. "If anyone held Donald back," he says, "it was me. When we saw that we were running out of time he wanted to take the governor off the throttle and have a go. We had the most frightful row. He wanted to go all out and I said no. The track was wet and tricky, and you know what happened when he put his foot down in Utah."
Operations Manager Ken Burvill, who was responsible for preparing the course, agrees. "People can say what they like," Burvill declares. "Donald did all he could to build up his speed on that track. On some of his runs he hit puddles of water inches deep when he was going 200 m.p.h. It was ruddy dangerous. No one expected a wet track. Nobody realized that when we scraped off the tops of salt islands we would find soft spots underneath. The true and only basic answer is that we were licked by the weather."
A British Petroleum man in Australia is convinced that Campbell was a "fair dinkum goer." He argues that it would have been unwise to hurry the project in any case. "When Donald called the pressmen together and fold them that the team had been defeated by circumstances beyond human control, he seemed genuinely and bitterly disappointed and emotionally stirred."
Many of the newspapermen were similarly impressed. "I think," says Motoring Editor Noel Prisk of the Adelaide News, "that Campbell was making a genuine effort when he was washed out by rain."
No matter what Campbell's champions and detractors say about his skill and nerve as a driver, there seems almost universal agreement that the Lake Eyre business was badly managed. "Our men would get an urgent radio message to bring certain tools," says an Aussie who lent a hand. "They'd cart them from Muloorina to the lake, only to find that they were the wrong ones or that somebody had decided to work on a different part of Bluebird and wanted other tools. Back the police or army lads would have to go for what now was wanted, and hundreds of miles of traveling and many hours were wasted shuttling uselessly back and forth.
"The so-called blitz buggy hired to haul Bluebird to and from the lake was an absolute disgrace," the same man says. "It had been stamped BER—Beyond Economic Repair—at an army sale almost 10 years before. Campbell paid $337 for the use of it. It had about 10° of steering to the left and virtually none to the right. When we went to move Bluebird out to the lake we had gone about 100 yards from the homestead when the blitz wagon's engine packed up. We never did get it to start again, and it took us 10 hours to drag it and Bluebird the 35 miles to the lake's edge with one of our wrecker trucks.
"When we were washed out by rain at the lake we had to drag the whole mess back to Muloorina the same way, and because we couldn't contact either Campbell or Wynne-Morgan to find out where to put Bluebird, we very nearly finished getting caught by the floods. We could have lost everything in midstream."
There were others who claimed that Campbell's behavior in Australia was the direct result of his crash in Utah. Campbell himself had advanced the possibility that he became slaphappy on the flats from what he terms "hyperventilation"—i.e., breathing too much oxygen—and in this intoxicated mood kept his foot down hard on the accelerator when he should have eased off. But no two Bluebird people seem agreed on what really happened in Utah.
Villa insists that Campbell "put his foot down." Peter Carr and others maintain that it was just a practice run. Kenneth Norris, blithely ignoring Carr's and Campbell's stout insistence on the 365 mph, personally estimates Bluebird's precrash speed at 325 mph. Norris says that on this run Campbell was not supposed to exceed 300 mph, because the tires with which Bluebird was then fitted were good only to that speed.
In any case, said one of those on hand at Lake Eyre, "Campbell was always talking about the Utah crash. He kept harping on rescue drill; on the procedure for getting him out of the car if something went wrong; whether the aircraft supplied by the government as an ambulance would be able to get down quickly enough to help him; where the doctor ought to be; how vehicles should be placed along the track to go to his aid if necessary. I don't think he looked like a trier at all." But who can decide, in such a venture, where prudence ends and fear takes command?
As long as Bluebird waits bogged down by an Aussie swamp, and maybe far beyond that time, the questions of Donald Campbell's courage and competence will be hotly argued and reargued. But behind the blow and bluster one fact remains that nobody can deny: in the days when he was setting speed records on the water, Donald Campbell was in every way as conspicuous a hero as his father. He may one day be so again.