The names Seagrave, Cobb, Campbell, Campbell, Noble and Green sound like a firm of solicitors, but in fact they have been my speed heroes beginning from being a young lad. There have been many other speed freaks of course that probably deserve to be on this list, but they were either not recognised nationally or were not British.
All of the above have held the world land speed record; four held the water speed record and three of those died in subsequent attempts. Water has never been a safe environment for humans. Even the most benign and gentle area of water demands respect, including your own bathtub, which holds untold perils for the careless. When the brave and heroic humans decide to travel along an open stretch of water at breakneck speed, as some of the above have done, then that previously gentle stretch of water takes on the consistency of concrete and becomes determined to swallow us up for our audacity.
An interest in speed that began with Campbell’s Bluebird
My interest started with the exploits of Donald Campbell. Many boys my age had the Corgi Toys Protius 153, Bluebird diecast model, similar to the one above. Driving the full-sized gas turbine powered version, Donald Campbell set the land speed record at 403.1 miles an hour at Lake Eyre, Australia in July 1964.
He and his father Malcolm Campbell had previously set many speed records on land and water. When he was 50 years old, Malcolm was the first to officially drive a car at over 300 mph in September of 1935.
The record-breaking ‘gentlemen of speed’
In March 1927, Sir Henry O’Neal de Hane Segrave was the first person to travel at 200 mph in a car. During the next 20 years the land speed record had crept up until another of my heroes, John Rhodes Cobb, took the land speed record to 394.19 mph. Even though the world records set by Henry Segrave, John Cobb and Malcolm Campbell were before my birth, the achievements set later by Donald Campbell were predictably linked by the news media at the time to previous records. Therefore, the names Segrave, Cobb and Campbell were familiar to me as the stiff-upper-lipped gentlemen of speed, forever etched in my head as the type of Brit that made Britain great.
They all started their speed career on the racetrack and came from similar established family backgrounds with money and therefore could afford to indulge their passion for speed and thrills. All four took their thrill-seeking on to the water, again all achieving world records and greatness, inevitably enhancing their proper British bravery in so doing.
In 1930 Henry Segrave was the first person to hold both land and water world speed records at the same time. However, in July 1964 Donald Campbell took the land speed record to 403 mph on Lake Eyre Salt Flats and in December took the water speed record to 273 mph on Lake Dumbleyung, again in Australia, thus becoming the only person to take both records in the same year.
Of the four heroes of speed Sir Malcolm Campbell was the only one to die of natural causes, dying peacefully in his bed at the ripe old age of 63. All the other three died while trying to better the water speed record.There is a common denominator somewhere here: water is for drinking and washing; travelling fast along its surface is bloody dangerous.
Campbell’s test runs with Bluebird
This photo is of Donald Campbell in his Bluebird K7, I remember quite clearly during his development runs in late 1966, on Coniston Water. There were newspaper and television reporters covering the excitement of our national hero taking on yet another speed record.
One image I remember distinctly was that the crew had tied two sandbags to the tail of Bluebird to test the balance during the following test runs. I don’t know what speed they managed with the sandbags in place but I would have thought that their findings would have been useless at speeds less than 150 mph. Proper lead weights were fitted internally for subsequent runs, but even with my very limited knowledge (none) of travelling fast on water, I thought that was a bit naff.
A fatal final run for this hero of speed
Campbell died in early January 1967, attempting to take the world record to 300 mph.
For speed records to be officially recognised, one run within a measured mile in both directions has to be carried out within one hour and the average of the two is then taken. On Campbell’s first run, he was clocked at 297. On his return it has been estimated that he was travelling at well over 300 mph when Bluebird flipped over backwards and he was killed instantly.
It took until 2001 before the remains of Donald Campbell and Bluebird K7 were found at the bottom of Coniston. Fittingly he is now buried at Coniston Cemetery. In his quest for speed Donald Campbell broke eight world speed records, seven on water and one on land.
The current water speed record is 317.59, set in 1978 and held by the Australian Ken Welby.
Americans and Brits vie for the land speed record
After Donald Campbell, the land speed record was held by a succession of Americans until October 1983, when Richard James Anthony Noble driving Thrust 2 took the record to 634.051 mph. In September 1997 the RAF fighter pilot Andrew Duncan (Andy) Green, driving another Rolls Royce jet-powered car named Thrust SSC, took the record to 713.990 mph. This was the biggest jump in land speed record-breaking history, which in turn took it way out of reach of these pesky, upstart Americans.
To further stamp their authority during the following month, our latest hero Andy Green, again driving Thrust SSC, took the land speed record to an astonishing 760.343 mph which is faster than the speed of sound, in effect breaking the sound barrier in a car.The photo shows the black car Thrust SSC (supersonic car) in which he did this.
The quest for ever greater speeds goes on
The white car in the photo is Bloodhound LSR (land speed record). This will be powered by both jet and rocket motors. So far in testing they have only run the jet engine but have still achieved 628 mph.
Both Richard Noble and Andy Green are still very much involved with this project and are hoping to pick up sponsorship shortly to carry it forward. As they are both a bit long in the tooth to be driving at these sorts of speeds, they are also looking for a driver. Any retiring fighter pilots or Formula 1 drivers out there looking for a bit of a thrill in their retirement? I can think of one soon to be retiring: a British F1 driver, rich enough to buy Bloodhound and add the world land speed record to his many fantastic achievement in motor sport. (Any guesses who I’m thinking of?).
However, my advice, for what it’s worth, is to stay away from the water.