Donald Campbell incontrovertibly broke the land speed record on Lake Eyre pushing his Bluebird CN7 to an average speed of 403.1mph across the Australian salt. That was on 17 July 1964. The previous record holder John Cobb had set the previous record at 394mph in 1947. I will never forget how Donald snatched victory from the jaws of defeat showing skill and courage. His last two runs on that day with a deteriorating track were a last throw of the dice. My book “Bluebird and the Dead Lake" charts the nail-biting story that led up to that exhilarating moment.
Purists would argue that this record still stands. All subsequent world land speed records have been jet-propelled. Donald’s record was not. Equally Bluebird was not an average car with its huge wheels and tailored physique. Donald knew he had to enter this new land speed world and arguably his final water speed attempt on Coniston Water was an attempt to prove that he could.
Donald had a wicked sense of humour alongside his courage. I was in his sights when he suggested that the man who was telling his story had to have driven Bluebird too. Within a matter of minutes, I was togged up in overalls and one of Donald’s helmets.
With mouth in stomach I climbed into Bluebird. It was surreal then to be pulled onto the track of sticky salt and to feel the sheer power throbbing of the massive 4,450 horsepower engine like a wild animal. I very carefully let it out and Leo Villa gave me the thumbs up. My driving skills were not top order. I had signed my own driving licence during my national service in the Service Corps. Since then my family had witnessed my evolving skills as I occasionally drove on pavements rather than the road. But this was to be my moment of courage. I pressed the accelerator and reached the dizzy heights of 200mph. Even then the vibration shot through me. This was not for the faint-hearted. But how to stop? Bringing Bluebird to a halt seemed to take an eternity. But I eventually did. Getting out of the cockpit I saw Donald smiling. “Well done Johnny”, he barked. “Thanks Skip”, I replied. This was the name Donald answered to when he was with his inner circle. Short for Skipper. Leo Villa called him that … and now so did I.
I cannot quite believe that so much time has passed. And of course Donald died on 4 January 1967. I wrote his obituary for the Sunday Times in my flat in Rome a stone’s throw from the ancient Circus Maximus where charioteers had shown such guts. But no one equalled the Skip. May we always remember what he showed us all. I will.
23 March 2021