THIS year marks half a century since Donald Campbell died in the jet-powered hydroplane Bluebird K7. He was attempting to break the water speed record he’d set in Australia three years earlier.
Campbell had followed in his father Malcolm’s footsteps, making land- and water-speed attempts in record-breakers all named Bluebird. His road cars were painted the same pastel blue – a Jaguar XK and E-Type, a Bentley 4 1/4 Standard, and even a Land Rover support car.
Born in 1921 in England, Campbell set records in the UK, US and Australia – in 1964 he established both a new water speed record of 444.71km/h on Lake Dumbleyung, Perth, and a land speed record of 648.72km/h on Lake Eyre near Muloorina Station, South Australia; he remains the only person to set both records in the same year.
Campbell was pushing for 480km/h to break his Lake Dumbleyung record when he crashed spectacularly on Lake Coniston in the north of England on January 4, 1967. The 8km-long lake had been the scene of earlier records set by both Campbells.
A run in each direction was required to set a new record. When Campbell recorded 478km/h on his first run, he immediately turned round, requiring 496km/h on the return. He’d already exceeded 500km/h – travelling at an estimated 528km/h – when disaster struck, Bluebird’s nose lifting before the hydroplane catapulted into the air and smashed nose-first into the surface. It took until 2001 to recover Bluebird and Campbell’s body from 37 metres of water. He was buried in the nearby Coniston church graveyard.
The 50th anniversary of Campbell’s death was marked with a series of events in Coniston, attended by Campbell’s daughter Gina, herself a water-speed champion.
Fans hoped Bluebird K7 would be restored in time for the occasion, but the project continues to edge towards completion. One day, it’s planned that Bluebird will again power across the lake that claimed Campbell’s life 50 years ago.
In a special feature first published in 1981, Wheels asked Campbell’s Australian land speed record campaign manager and former Holden PR, Evan Green, to recount his time with the fastest man on the planet.
Deeply superstitious and with a hatred of the colour green, Campbell never referred to Evan by his surname, instead calling him “Mr Blue”.
Resetting the benchmark
The water speed record Campbell had set on Lake Dumbleyung was broken the same year he died, by American Lee Taylor. It was subsequently twice bettered by Australian Ken Warby; Spirit of Australia’s 1978 record of 511.12km/h stands to this day.