One of the best-loved heroes of the Western world in the 1920s and 1930s was a doughty little Scotsman whose cloth helmet and jaunty goggles were instantly recognizable in a thousand Sunday supplements. Because he had moved faster over both land and sea than any other man before him, Malcolm Campbell was worshipped by a speed-loving and sentimental public and knighted by a grateful English king. Britons watched in rapt attention as he beat the speed record on land nine times and that on water three. They chuckled fondly when they read how the great speed king had given his little boy Donald an electric train and, like any father, monopolized the toy himself.
Now British eyes are on the son himself, who, for a while anyway, seemed a proper chip off the old engine block. Donald Campbell carried his father's love of toy trains to manhood, and with it his father's determination to beat existing speed records. Between the years 1955 and 1959, a decade after his father's death (in bed), the young Campbell set six new marks on the water, and in 1960 he lived up to his countrymen's highest expectations by preparing to attack the most coveted record of all—that for speed across land.
British industry—at a staggering cost—supplied him with the wherewithal: four tons of scientifically mobile get-up-and-go called Bluebird, and Sir Malcolm's fans waited breathless for his son to assume the paternal mantle. They are still waiting. Now in its fourth year, the formidable Bluebird has yet to set a record or even to make a single all-out attempt at one, and she is now ignominiously marooned by flood-waters in an Australian warehouse in Adelaide.
Now the existing record of 394.196 miles per hour set in 1947 by Campbell's countryman, the late John Cobb, appears to be safe for at least another year, since the rains have made Bluebird's Australian speed course unusable for the balance of 1963. Meanwhile, Campbell's fans are beginning to reexamine their hero.
To a lesser man than Donald Campbell the wretched failure of the Bluebird project over the years might be embarrassing. But Donald has lost none of his famous aplomb. "We have reached the end of a chapter, but not the end of the book," he said after the soggy debacle in Australia. "Nobody's to blame, old boy," Campbell told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Correspondent Fred Hubbard in Adelaide recently. "Play was stopped by a welter of utterly unforeseeable, unpredictable, unaccountable ruddy rain. But nothing is dead yet. This project is very much alive. I have the full and unqualified support of all of Bluebird's backers."
Publicly, yes. The 72 British firms that built Bluebird and contribute to her operating expenses are, on the surface, stanchly united behind Campbell. "We are not disappointed with the events in Australia, except that we are disappointed for Donald Campbell," was the way Reginald Nightingale, manufacturer of some special forgings, put it. "The attitude we take is that if these blokes are prepared to sacrifice their lives in the interest of British achievement, we'll back them whatever way we can. Campbell had no control of the weather. I have the utmost faith in him. He is a charming bloke and full of guts."
Nevertheless, it is clear that some Bluebird people have begun to entertain doubts. With exquisite British restraint, a spokesman for one of Bluebird's largest backers says privately that his firm is "a bit peeved." Another, who also prefers anonymity, says, "A tremendous lot of money has been spent, and a stage is approaching when we have to decide whether it is worth throwing in a few more pounds to pull it off, or to take a stand and say, 'Not another pound.' " Wistfully he adds, "Some members of the project's steering committee feel that they have not been as fully informed as they should have been. They have received handouts from the publicity men but, having put up a lot of money, naturally they feel they should have had a few more paragraphs telling them more about what was really happening."
Some of the insiders who have come to dislike Campbell are less reticent. Lumped together, the various counts in their indictment are: 1) that Campbell has "prostituted a fine ideal"—the advancement of British industrial and scientific renown—by wasting unconscionable amounts of time while living high at the project's expense; 2) that he has grossly mismanaged the project; and 3) that, as the only major land-speed man in history without previous experience in his trade, he was a chancy risk to begin with.
An Australian police officer who admittedly was irritated by Campbell's methods, goes so far as to suggest that he "lost his nerve." Witnesses of Campbell's abortive 1960 record attempt on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, which ended in a crash, recall a detail that they have never been able to put completely out of their minds. This is the unproved claim by Campbell's people that his speed at the time he crashed in Bluebird was no less than 365 mph, although he was supposed to be merely phasing in at moderate speeds. Bonneville observers simply do not believe such a figure was possible, since Bluebird had had only 1.6 miles in which to accelerate. "No car could accelerate that fast. Its wheels would have been spinning and digging holes in the salt that you could stand in," says a Bonneville veteran.
Speed records have long been important to Great Britain, and in these days of her diminishing world power they are even more so. If Britain cannot afford to race the U.S. and Russia to the moon, she can, the argument goes, extend the frontiers of man's knowledge in the realm of her own special competence. Thus Donald Campbell carries, willingly or not, a certain imperial responsibility.