The Bluebird in Oxford

David E Langford continues his series on Oxfordshire motorsport heroes who have inspired his work


The Bluebird K7 being transported through Oxford, October 67.

In 1956, the world land and waterspeed record holder, Donald Malcolm Campbell, received a significant sponsorship deal from the Mobil Oil company in New York. In July of that year, Mobil agreed to pay $10,000, around £34,000 at today's value, for an official waterspeed record, and a further equivalent of £24,000 if it was recorded officially in excess of 250mph.

The boat, Bluebird K7, was on a month-long display at the Festival Gardens, Battersea, during August of the same year.

It must have been around this time that, for some reason (presumably related to raising further funds and advertising revenue) Bluebird' was on show at the Mobil Garage on the Botley Road, Oxford, near to the current site of PC World.

I was only seven at the time, but can remember my brother taking me to the Bluebird roadshow and, surprisingly, we were even allowed to sit in the cockpit of the boat, which was similar in profile to a jet aircraft.

As one gets older, details of memory become vague, so a decision was made a few years ago to write to the Oxford Mall to find out if any other readers could remember the Botley Road display.

Fortunately, a reply came from Cyril Barrett, reflecting on his own memory of sitting in the Bluebird, Cyril explained that his friends visited the event on more than one occasion.



David E Langford illustrates his childhood memory.

This confirmed my recollections at least, as the childhood memory of sitting in the most famous speedboat in the world certainly left a lasting impression.

In 1956 Donald Campbell was given further publicity when he was featured on the TV show This Is Your Life. It was this TV exposure that certainly helped win his much-needed sponsorship. On the strength of this support, Campbell made a new attempt on the water speed record on September 19 the same year at Coniston Water, in the Lake District. The conditions were perfect and preparations were put in place for the run. Through the first kilometre his speed was 286mph, nearly 50mph faster than he had ever gone before.

This brought doubts that the lake might not be long enough to allow sufficient distance at either end for Bluebird to slow down after reaching such a high speed. His return run produced problems that were to give an insight into what may have caused the crash which killed him at Coniston, in 1967.

Riding through the wake created by the first run, Campbell experienced dangerous instability in the craft.

Between 1956 and 1967, Bluebird barring modifications on a small scale, remained the same basic machine. The main differences in the outward appearance were the tail fin from a Folland Gnat Jet Trainer aircraft (see illustrations) and internally the Gnats Bristol Siddeley Orpheus jet engine.

January 4, 1967, began with a gathering of press photographers and spectetors at Coniston Water, waiting for Bluebird's new record attempt which was timed to coincide with the Daily Express Boat Show, due to open the same day.

Campbells enthusiasm to get the record attempt rolling is recorded in David Tremayne's book, Donald Campbell – The Man Behind the Mask (Bantam Press, London: ISBN: 0593 0505B4).

There had been a long wait for conditions to be perfect and the morning of January 4 was calm enough to proceed. The first run went without too many problems and a top speed of 300mph was achieved.

Controversially, the use of a water brake, to enable the craft to slow down enough from such a velocity, had created more than the usual amount of disturbance on the surface of the lake. The normal technique was to allow time after the first run to let the water settle before making the second attempt.

It appeared that the wake was worse than could be detected visually, and the instability created as a result caused the boat to lift during the second run to such an extent that it completely left the water flipped over backwards and plunged into the lake, killing the pilot on impact.

Campbell and his Bluebird lay at the bottom of Coniston Lake for over 30 years before being raised to the surface in March 2001. Donald Campbell's body was found in May that year and finally given a proper funeral and burial place at Coniston on September 12 of that year.

July 2006 Oxfordshire Limited Edition