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Donald Malcolm Campbell (1921–1967) was a British car and motorboat racer who broke eight world speed records in the 1950s and 60s. He remains the only person to set both land and water speed records in the same year (1964).
1921 March 23rd. Born in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, the son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, and his second wife, Dorothy Evelyn née Whittall.
He attended Uppingham School.
Served with a Lloyd's underwriting firm
WWII At the outbreak of World War II he volunteered for the Royal Air Force, but was unable to serve because of a childhood illness. He joined Briggs Motor Bodies in West Thurrock, where he became a maintenance engineer.
1945 Married for the first time to Daphne Harvey in 1945, producing daughter Georgina (Gina) Campbell in 1946
Late 1940s he invested in the Kine Engineering Co of Redhill, where he became managing director and fifty per cent shareholder.
1948 Following his father's death in 1948 and aided by Malcolm's chief engineer, Leo Villa, the younger Campbell strove to set speed records on land and water.
1952 Married for a second time to Dorothy McKegg
Campbell began his speed record attempts using his father's old boat Bluebird K4
1951 after a structural failure at 170 mph on Coniston Water, Lancashire 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 lbf of thrust.
Campbell set seven world water speed records in K7 between 1955 and 1964. The first was at Ullswater on 23 July 1955, where he set a record of 202.15 mph. The subsequent series of speed increases — 216 mph later in 1955, 225 mph in 1956, 239 mph in 1957, 248 mph in 1958, 260 mph in 1959 — peaked on 31 December 1964 at Dumbleyung Lake, Western Australia when he reached 276.33 mph; he remains the world's most prolific breaker of water speed records.
1956 Campbell began planning a car to break the land speed record, which then stood at 394 mph. The Norris brothers designed Bluebird-Proteus CN7 with 500 mph in mind.
1958 Married for a third time to Tonia Bern, which marriage lasted until his death in 1967.
1960 The CN7 was completed by the spring of 1960, 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 in Utah, USA, scene of his father's last land speed record 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 the rebuild of CN7.
1962 The rebuilt car was completed, with minor modifications; by the end of the year, it had been shipped to Australia for a new attempt at Lake Eyre in 1963. The Lake Eyre location was chosen as it offered 450 square miles of dried salt lake, where rain had not fallen in the previous 20 years, and the surface of the 20-mile 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.
1964 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 over 400 mph. After more light rain in June, the lake finally began to dry enough for an attempt to be made. On 17 July 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 440 mph.
Campbell then reverted to Bluebird K7 for a further attempt on the water speed record. After more delays, he finally achieved his seventh water speed record 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 part realised.
1966 Campbell decided to try once more for a water speed record. This time the target was 300 mph. Bluebird K7 was fitted with a lighter and more powerful Bristol Orpheus engine, taken from a Folland Gnat jet aircraft, which developed 4,500 pounds-force (20,000 N) 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 failure 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.
1967 On 4 January, Campbell was killed when Bluebird K7 flipped and disintegrated at a speed in excess of 300 mph. 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 315 mph. Instead of refuelling 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 kilometre, it was travelling at over 320 mph. However the craft's stability had begun to break down as it travelled over the rough water, and the boat started tramping from sponson to sponson. 150 yards (140 m) 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'm going.... oh!"
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 Whoppit, 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.
On 28 January 1967 Campbell was posthumously awarded the Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct For courage and determination in attacking the world water speed record.
Campbell apparently also had some interest in the paranormal, which he nurtured as a member of the Ghost Club.
1969 after Campbell's fatal accident, his widow, Tonia Bern-Campbell negotiated a deal with Lynn Garrison, President of Craig Breedlove and Associates, that would see Craig Breedlove run Bluebird on Bonnyville's Salt Flats. This concept was cancelled when the parallel Spirit of America supersonic car project failed to find support.
2000/1 The wreckage of Campbell's craft was recovered by the Bluebird Project between October 2000 when the first sections were raised and June 2001 when Campbell's body was recovered. The largest section comprising approximately two thirds of the centre hull was raised on 8 March 2001.
The recovered wreck revealed that Campbell had possibly activated the water brake to try to slow Bluebird down on her final run though it later emerged that a secondary power source may have activated it subsequent to the sinking. 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. No evidence has emerged thus far to support this theory.
Campbell's body was recovered from the lake on 28 May 2001.
Campbell was interred in Coniston cemetery on 12 September 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. Jean Wales (Donald Campbell's sister) had, however, been against the recovery of her brother's body out of respect for his stated wish that, in the event of something going wrong, "Skipper and boat stay together". When Donald Campbell was buried in Coniston cemetery on 12 September 2001 she did not attend the service; nor did she afterwards visit his grave.
1967 Obituary