Malcolm Campbell was a determined man, no two ways about it.
He demanded much of himself, his machines, and his mechanics. On Wikipedia he’s described as a British racing motorist and a motoring journalist, but in reality he was a lot more than that. And through his ever evolving iterations of Blue Bird (the vehi
cles he used on both land and water had the privilege of the same name), he was THE man to capture the imagination of the world in the 1920s and 30s.
Never one for a desk
Born 11th March, 1885, the son of diamond seller, Campbell had a privileged upbringing and enjoyed a solid education at Uppingham School. It was in Germany, however, whilst he was learning his father’s trade, that he developed a fascination for motorbikes, machines, and racing; and so his obsession was born.
When he returned to Britain, Campbell worked for a two to three years for Lloyd’s of London. But that clearly wasn’t where his heart was. For from 1906 to 1908 he threw himself into motorcycle racing whenever the opportunity arose and ended up winning all three London to Land’s End Trials. By 1910 he’d moved onto cars.
Firmly caught by the bug, he then cut his teeth racing at Brooklands, and it was at this time that he christened his car Blue Bird, apparently having seen the play The Blue Bird at the Haymarket Theatre. He also entered his first marriage. However, it only lasted two years. And though he was set to marry two more times in his life, his passion for speed was where his heart truly lay. His son, Donald, was born to his second wife in 1923, and that passion was passed down to the next generation as many reading this will know.
The military years
Prior to that, however, Campbell had enlisted as a motorcycle dispatch rider, and certainly did his stint at the Battle of Mons in 1914. His military career saw him accept a couple of further moves, and he then found himself drafted into the Royal Flying Corps. It’s of worthy note that during his time at Brooklands, he’d also taken a fancy to flying and had even constructed and flown his own aircraft. However, he only ever served as a ferry pilot; apparently he was too clumsy to be a fighter pilot.
Campbell’s need for speed
Throughout his military career, though, he was never far from feeding his need for speed. First off he won the Grand Prix de Boulogne two years running (1927 and 1928), and found by that time that he was hooked on setting records.
Campbell broke his first land speed record in 1924 at Pendine Sands in a V12 Sunbeam. The car had previously been owned by Kennelm Lee Guiness, who had driven it at Brooklands several times and had clocked an official lap record hitting 140mph into the bargain. Campbell had bought the car, and refurbished and heavily retuned it. And within a short time proved he could squeeze 146mph out of it, just pipping an adversary at the post by a mere 0.015 seconds.
Over the next few years, he continued to notch up the speed, becoming the first driver to manage over 150mph in 1925, and then two years later in his Napier-Campbell Blue Bird brought the Flying Mile up to 174mph, also at Pendine Sands.
Of course, however, he wasn’t the only speed kid on the block. There was fierce competition pushing him each time he went for a new record. One particular ‘foe’ was Henry Seagrave, who snatched glory from Campbell in 1926 and earned himself a knighthood into the bargain. The game continued through the next few years, and Campbell invested phenomenal amounts of time, energy, and no doubt money into improving and rebuilding Blue Bird many times. All sorts of new design and engineering ideas sprung from his efforts – from driver positioning, to tail fins, to engine and radiator positioning, to sleek designs; many of which must have inspired the evolution of speed design that motorsport continues to forge even now.
Campbell’s final, stunning land speed achievement however, was in a super-enhanced version of Blue Bird at Bonnevile Salt Flats on 3rd September, 1935, where he managed an astonishing 301mph. With that accolade under his belt, it seemed his dogged determination and obsession to have air whistling past his goggles also at last earned him the knighthood he’d earlier lost out on to Seagrave.
Pepped up by his grand accomplishment, he began to also feed his need for speed on the water. And in 1939, he set the water speed record of 141mph at Coniston Water in his Blue Bird K4.
It’s easy to forget that this need for speed was actually ‘only’ a hobby. Campbell was a military man, and his military career continued into the 1930s and early 40s, until in 1945, he reached the age of 60 and relinquished his commission with the honorary rank of major. Would that be a bit of a lacklustre end to such a dashing life lived to the full? Absolutely not. For there is one final additional honour Malcolm Campbell achieved that few land speed holders ever managed… he died of natural causes, aged 63. He’d hit over 300mph, been knighted, and passed his passion onto his son. Quite a legacy, and one has inspired addicts obsessed with speed, design, and mechanical innovation ever since.