This week in Boston, a four-ton sapphire-blue monster of a car was lifted over the side of a freighter and deposited on the dock. The Bluebird, as Donald Campbell of Britain calls the machine, will be carried by trailer to Utah. There, some time in early September, Campbell will vault into its forward-perched cockpit and go screaming over the level white crust of the Bonneville Salt Flats in search of a new world land-speed record—a search that only three weeks ago claimed the life of one driver, Athol Graham (SI, Aug. 8).
Campbell, already the holder of the water-speed record, will be driving partly for the sake of the challenge ("penetrating out into the dark"), partly to carry on the lifework of his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, who set a record himself in 1935, driving the original Bluebird 301 mph. But mostly, Campbell says, he wants to "flutter the flag a bit" for Britain and push the record beyond the reach of contenders for a long time to come.
Chief among the rival drivers Campbell and a surprising number of Englishmen want to beat is Mickey Thompson, the strapping young Californian who has bettered 360 mph at Bonneville with a home-built car and next week will be back on the flats going after the British-held absolute record of 394.2 mph, set by the late Sir John Cobb in 1947.
Until recently, few Americans had ever heard of Thompson. To the British, however, he is a menace to a cherished possession—one not as important to the crown's prestige as, say, the conquest of Everest, but not a thing to be regarded lightly in post-Suez Britain.
If Campbell succeeds—and more than 70 British manufacturing firms have plowed some $4 million into the car in the prospect that he will—the record could soar to 500 mph. Beneath the aluminum hide of Campbell's turbine-engined Bluebird lies the greatest potential performance of any land-speed automobile ever built.
Campbell got in his first licks at the round-numbers speed game by nudging the water-speed record above 200 mph with his Bluebird jet boat in 1955 (SI, July 25, 1955). In the next four years he broke his record on water five times, finally bringing it to 260.35 mph last year on Coniston Water in the English lakes district.
Now he intends to become the second man in history to hold both the water-and land-speed records at the same time. The first was his father. In doing so he hopes to help push back the frontiers of automotive engineering and to prove that "while it's frightfully exciting to think of going to the moon, there's still a lot to be learned on this planet."
Campbell talked persuasively on these matters the other day in the den of his pleasant Tudor country house, Roundwood, in Surrey, three-quarters of an hour from London.
The walls of the room were lined with photographs and mementos of Bluebird exploits. There was Sir Malcolm looking down with a jaunty expression that has carried over intact to his son—the same merry eyes beneath the high forehead, the smiling mouth between a strong nose and chin. There was also a model of the latest Bluebird boat and one of the new car. Behind a desk sat Campbell's project manager Peter Carr, a former R.A.F. test pilot, now retired and furiously occupied with some 11th-hour Bluebird paperwork.
"This particular activity has nothing to do with racing," Campbell said. "It is a completely different tree in another part of the forest. The challenge here is in the machine itself. This is a cold-blooded, calculating, lonely business.