Sir Donald Campbell CBE and his father Sir Malcolm were revered for repeatedly breaking speed records. Sir Malcom held thirteen and Sir Donald broke eight world speed records on water and on land; Donald is the only person to ever set the world speed record on water and land in the same year (1964). Both their water and land speed machines were always named Bluebird.

SA Institute for Tribology Executive Committee Member, Leon Bradley, had a close encounter with one of the machines. He says, “In 1966, as a student engineer, I worked at FH Bourner, Coach Builders, in the small Town of Worthing on the south coast of England. I was 19 years old, inexperienced, an underling and given what was considered the most uninteresting jobs; renovating the bodywork of vintage and unusual vehicles such as Roll Royce, Bristol, Jensen and early Fords. My morning job was to drive eight or ten vehicles out of the 200m long, very narrow workshop – it had been built for railway carriage maintenance; it was great to start, for example, a keyless 1930 Rolls Royce with press-button starter and digital (mechanical) speedometer.

Donald Campbell with Bluebird CN7, circa 1960

 One morning, the foreman told me that a confidential job was due to arrive, which I would work on: Donald Campbell’s speedboat, Bluebird! “Don’t tell anyone,” he said, “not your mother, not your best friend or your current girlfriend; the Americans want to look at it; they want to beat the World Water Speed Record before the British.”

The next day, a low-loader reversed into the workshop: a dark grey tarpaulin covered a huge very odd shape with overhang on both sides. When it was uncovered, my face dropped; it was a sad, uncared-for piece of rough bodywork (no engine or mechanicals were fitted). When I asked what I was supposed to do with it, I was told, “Prepare it for respraying, it’s got to look good”. Walking around it, I saw ripples, splits and fatigue cracks in the bodywork. I had just completed a stint working as a learner Air Frame Builder at the Beagle Aircraft Company, so I thought I knew a little about aerodynamics and the effect that inconsistencies in the outer surface could have on stability.

The friction of air applied to a moving object can cause turbulence and unwanted effect, in the case of an aircraft wing, a desirable negative pressure. Air resistance or ‘drag’ is a force acting opposite to the relative motion of a moving body, even minor roughness in a surface will have an effect on the efficiency of a travelling machine. Drag force is proportional to velocity for low speeds but the square of velocity for high speeds. ‘Wave resistance’ or ‘wave drag’ also occurs when a solid object is moving along a fluid boundary and making surface waves – hydrodynamics.

I pointed out my concerns to the foreman who said, “Don’t be a smart-arse, just make it look beautiful.”

After a week of replacing rivets, applying large amounts of cellulose body filler, and the bone-aching work of filing and sanding, it was ready for the spray shop. The paint was a specially made blue tint, supposedly used on all Bluebird record-breaking machines. After spraying, it looked brilliant: shining, with not a ripple in the bodywork, like something from science fiction. I was sad to see it taken away, under the same dirty tarpaulin and, although I had some misgivings, was determined to watch its attempt at the World Water Speed Record, due early the next year. 

Shortly after this, I was redeployed to work in the small Sussex town of Haywards Heath, for MBE Development Engineers; this was the company of Martin Baker who developed the first aircraft ejector seat and many other inventions. After some weeks, I was called to the window by a colleague who said “Look, that’s Donald Campbell’s Bluebird!” sure enough, across the road at another small specialist engineering company, Bluebird was being unloaded; as I learned later, to have the Bristol Sidley Orpheus turbo jet engine fitted.

On Jan 4th, 1967, I was sitting in my parents’ lounge watching, on black and white television, the preamble to Donald Campbell’s attempt at the world water speed record at Coniston Water in the Lake District. The event has been written about by several revered journalists over the years; I will explain briefly that the record attempt must be over a measured mile, in opposite directions, within one hour and the average taken as the result. The first run was good, reaching an average speed of 478km/h, faster than Bluebird had ever run. 

Four minutes later, Bluebird had turned to make the defining return run; in the timing zone, the vessel reached 526km/h. Bluebird then became unstable, the front seemed to lift, surprisingly slowly and flipped over backwards in a complete somersault, then dived nose-first into the water. 

The recording, still available, proves that a moment before his death, Sir Donald uttered the same words as his father’s very last words in a similar situation, “I’m going”.

You can see a one minute video of the fatal last run of Bluebird here.

Experts have stated: “Bluebird may have exceeded its aerodynamic static stability limit, complicated by the additional destabilising influences of loss of engine thrust. There is also evidence to point to the fact that Bluebird’s dynamic stability limit had been exceeded.”

On 28 January 1967, Sir Donald was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, “for courage and determination in attempting the world water speed record”.

  The main wreckage of Campbell’s Bluebird was only recovered from Coniston Water on 8 March 2001, 33 years after the fatal crash. His own remains were recovered in May of that year and interred at Coniston village.

Some interesting links

Leon Bradley – SAIT Committee Member. 18 August 2021

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