Saturday 7 January 2017

Donald Campbell 1921-1967

Off topic but the 4th January was the 50th anniversary of the death of Donald Campbell (1921-1967) on Coniston Water in Cumbria and I wanted to commemorate him. He was a certain type of Briton now sadly missing from our public life. That is not to say perfect by any means but with sterling qualities not demonstrated much today, a decisive courage that accepted risk and the risk of being described as foolhardy if things went badly. In Britain today the prevailing leadership instinct is to avoid any risk at all, with things still going badly anyway, as they often do, beyond the wit or control of man.  

Donald Campbell's last words as recorded in his radio transmission:-

". . . Full nose up . . . Pitching a bit down here . . . coming through our own wash . . . er getting straightened up now on track . . . rather closer to Peel Island . . . and we're tramping like mad . . . and er . . . FULL POWER . . . er tramping like hell OVER. I can't see much and the water's very bad indeed . . . I'm galloping over the top . . . and she's giving a hell of a bloody row in here...I can't see anything...I've got the bows out ...I'm going . . . U-hh . . . "

Donald Campbell's body was finally found and recovered from the lake only in 2001. In the 1960s he was a household name in Britain and his blue-painted world speed record vehicles familiar to every schoolboy. Now most of the younger generation don't even know of him and there are no Airfix kits of his vehicles.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
(Ecclesiastes 9:11)

Image credits: Donald Campbell and Bluebird CN7 1960 via Wiki; Bluebird K7 by Neil Sheppard via Wiki; Coniston Water by Mike Knapton via Wiki


Bill Gilman said...

Although I was too young at the time, my Dad went to Canandaigua Lake near our home in 1957 to see Campbell and Bluebird K7 make a speed run. I believe that the water was too rough for him to attempt a record. There are resin kits available of Bluebirds K3 and K7, but you're right - Airfix should make a kit.

When I was a lad in the early to mid 60s, the speed records from the Bonneville Salt Flats were a yearly event, and received a lot of press coverage. People like Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove were heroes to kids like me here in the States. The Beach Boys even recorded a song about it. Today you have to go looking if you want any information on Bloodhound SSC, at least over here. Does Andy Green have a kind of hero status in the UK?

Richard Tool said...

Nick - Thanks for posting this . Fate certainly plays an indiscriminate hand. My father and grandfather were both master boatbuilders by trade and my father raced powerboats when I was a boy. He and my grandfather initially raced a class called Jersey Speedskiffs and he became National Champion with his first boat in the late 1950's . His second skiff was High point champion one season - thereafter he designed, built and drove a 280 cu. inch class hydroplane which missed a speed record for the class by a few tenths of a second- something in the range of 103 mph. The racing was very stressful for my mother as I recall- the risk and expense were both great yet she always supported him. My dads closest friend in those days was a young man named Mike Thomas . Mike And his father owned a marine dredging company which allowed a big budget for Mikes racing - Mike campaigned a 266 cu. inch class hydroplane which was actually a faster class than the 280 because the engines were modified while the 280 was stock. Mikes success in this class caught the attention of Bernie Little who owned a string of Unlimited Class hydroplanes named Miss Budweiser. Mike drove Miss Budweiser for one season in, I believe 1967.
I believe these boats ran V 12 Allison aircraft engines and did something in the area of 180 mph . Later that season Mike was loading a small bulldozer on a trailer at less than 1 mph when it rolled over and killed him. A brilliant young man - single , rich and good looking - gone just like that. My dad, on the other hand made it to 91.
Such is chance - Richard

Straggler 脱走兵 said...

Bill and Richard

Thank you both for contributing those recollections here.


Nessus said...

We (at least in the Western "Anglo-sphere", live in a soft, feminized, passive society today. We are endlessly lectured to be hyper, hyper sensitive to everyone's feelings and thus no great achievements are accomplished, for that would imply some succeed and some fall by the wayside.

I for one, prefer the world of an earlier age, say post WWII to up to around the 1980s or so.

Young Ian said...

The first word I had of Donald Campbell was a TIME magazine report of his fatal crash. Only much later did I hear of his Land Speed Record exploits and his gorgeous Bluebird car. I spent my first years in Akron, Ohio, and the focus there in the Sixties was on the rivalry between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons, sponsored respectively by Akron tire companies Goodyear and Firestone. Breedlove was the All-American boy piloting the Spirit of America, but my heroes were the Arfons brothers, who built a Monster in their back yard.

Seawings said...

Hello Nick,

What a post..! IYou know when people say 'I remember where I was and what I was doing that day, etc etc', well this is one of mine. The day after the crash the Daily Mirror - my Father's paper of choice - ran a full double middle-page photo of the last second before the crash as the boat began to rise out of the water, with the transcript of 'she's tramping, she's tramping' etc . And that night in our lounge, me, me dad and Mum huddles around our black and white TV as the evening news showed the events of the previous day.

Nick, I remember every minute of the day after; being at Grammar School with my Dad's cherished newspaper and showing all the boys around me what had happened. I was thirteen at the time, I'm 63 y.o. now and can still remember that morning in school. That evening Dad was stunned, mortified and Mum cried...... I didn't really grasp what had occurred except that the 'new' invention of TV was showing me something that looked exciting then really wierd.
But you are so right, there are very, very few like him around now; maybe Tim the spaceman or the guy that drove Thrust but that's it. Everyone else can't be arsed to get out of bed.........Good topic, mate and no apology needed. Regards, Bryan

Keiron said...

Enjoyed the blog Nick. You hit all the right reminiscences that struck home with me. Took me back to '67. Almost 12, I was still on school holidays. The sudden death of a legend which shocked the world. Everyone knew who Donald Campbell was, and the word "Bluebird" stirred every boys' imagination in a fading epoch when such men of deeds as he were still admired.

Looking past the nostalgia even with competency, understanding and appreciation of tech and the gadgets of today, I have to agree with Nessus. I have much older brothers and friends who spent their formative years in the 40's and 50s. An afterthought, mine were the '60s. I think the 1960's were the last 'Boys Own' adventure decade to grow up in. Airfix kits at 3/- in a headered plastic bag, "Look and Learn" magazine, all wonderful stuff.

Seawings said...

Keiron, you hit a note there: 'Look and learn' magazine, I had every issue..! Wow, those were the days. Still got a few 'bagged' Aiirfix kits in the stash too.

Ken Glass said...

Thanks for this story, Nick.

Ken Glass