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Donald Campbell and 'Bluebird'

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Not only did we children see Bluebird whizzing up and down, we infiltrated into the camp by walking along the lake shore and paddling across a burn to get access to the marquee where the boat was housed, thus by-passing the Police, who were keeping everyone away from the front entrance. The people inside the marquee were impressed by our ingenuity and answered our questions and even let us touch the boat, which I thought at the time was very beautiful.
- A Researcher's account of Bluebird six months before the accident.

The first speed record was set over 100 years ago. In 1898 Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat managed an average speed of 39.24mph in Paris, France. He was only trying to show how good his automobile was, but he started a craze that still exists today. This is not his story.

Donald Campbell was born in Kingston, Surrey on 23 March, 1921. He died on 4 January, 1967. This is his story.

World Record Holders

Donald was the son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, who had broken the land speed record nine times before Donald was 15 and then went on to break the water speed record four times by the time his son was 18. It's no surprise that Donald was bitten by the same bug. The holder of one land speed record and seven water speed records, and the only person to hold one of each in the same year, he died while trying to break the water speed record an eighth time.

When Sir Malcolm died on New Year's Eve in 1948, Donald took over the Bluebird K4 in 1949 by paying a nominal fee to the executors. After it was destroyed in a crash on Coniston Water in 1951, Donald developed a new boat, the Bluebird II K7. It was in this boat that he set all his world records on water between 1955 and 1964.

Donald also tried for the land speed record. After an accident in 1960 he built the Bluebird-Proteus CN7, and became the fastest man on Earth in July 1964. He lost the title less than three months later.

That Fateful Day

To raise the finances to have another shot at the land speed record, Donald decided to attempt to become the first person to go over 300mph on water.

After months of preparation, Bluebird II crashed on Coniston Water in Cumbria during the attempt. Rebuilt and renamed Bluebird K7, it boasted a new, more powerful engine and a powerful water brake as Coniston was only five miles long. Donald managed a speed of 297mph on the run from north to south, then turned round and attempted the second leg without refuelling, or waiting for the lake to settle. As he caught up with the heavy wake caused by using the water brake at the end of the first run, Bluebird began tramping. As its speed climbed, it reached an estimated 328mph before it lifted out of the water, turned over, and then hit the surface, disintegrating on impact.

Donald was killed instantly, and divers recovered only his helmet, life jacket, shoes, and oxygen mask. His teddy bear mascot, Mr Whoppit1, floated to the surface.

Bluebird remained undisturbed for 34 years.


After four years of diving and surveying, a team lead by an underwater surveyor from Newcastle-upon-Tyne recovered Bluebird. In March 2001 the wreckage was lifted from the lake; though the front end was completely crushed, the tail was relatively undamaged.

Human remains were found in May 2001. A DNA expert was called in to carry out tests on the body and on Donald's daughter. The results were close enough that the body was confirmed as Donald's in August 2001. He was buried in the village of Coniston, on his daughter's wishes, in September 2001.

There is a now a permanent headstone on Coniston Water, with a carved Bluebird on it.

Fascinating Facts

The car was named Bluebird by Sir Malcolm Campbell after seeing the stage play The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck. All of his vehicles held this name, and all were painted blue.

Other family members involved in the sport include Donald's offshore power-boat racing daughter Gina and Don Wales, his nephew, who competes in the electric Bluebird.

The Ruskin Museum in Coniston has a display of press cuttings, video footage, and photographs. The museum hopes that Bluebird will be returned to the area, and housed in the museum once it has been restored.

Bluebird's story can be followed at The Bluebird Project.

1The mascot was also carried by Sir Malcolm, and Donald's daughter Gina after Donald's death.

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