By William Pearce
When Malcolm Campbell set his first Land Speed Record (LSR) at 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h) on 25 September 1924, he knew the record would not stand for long. The Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird that he was driving was an old design, and faster cars, like the Djelmo, were in the works. Campbell decided to start designing a car capable of 180 mph (290 km/h). However, there was still a little speed left in the 350HP, and Campbell upped his own record to 150.869 mph (242.800 km/h) on 21 July 1925. The car was then sold, and work concentrated on the new LSR car.
Campbell had used his connections with the British Air Ministry to acquire a 450 hp (356 kW) Napier Lion VA aircraft engine, which resulted in the car often being referred to as the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird, but it was also called the Blue Bird II. The Lion had a “broad arrow” configuration made up of three cylinder banks, each with four cylinders. One cylinder bank was in the vertical position, and it was flanked on the left and right by the other cylinder banks at a 60 degree included angle. The W-12 engine had a 5.5 in (140 mm) bore and a 5.125 in (130 mm) stroke. Total displacement was 1,461 cu in (23.9 L), and the Lion produced 450 hp (356 kW) at 2,000 rpm and 502 hp (374 kW) at 2,200 rpm.
With the engine on hand, Campbell turned to Amherst Villiers, a well-respected British engineer, to design the Napier-Campbell LSR car around the Lion engine. However, the relationship soured, and Villers left the project after the frame was designed. Italian engineer Joseph Maina, a friend of Campbell’s head mechanic Leo Villa, took up the project and designed the rest of the future record-breaker.
The Napier-Campbell LSR car was of a fairly conventional layout. The car’s C-channel frame rails were made by Vickers Ltd using a special steel with three-percent nickel. The frame’s four cross members were machined from solid forgings. The engine was installed near the front of the vehicle and behind a custom-made radiator. The 12 US gal (10 Imp gal / 45 L) coolant reservoir tank was positioned behind the engine and around the steering column. The steering column led to a cross-shaft with two steering boxes, each operating a drag link that extended along the side of the car to a front wheel.
The special three-speed epicyclic (planetary) gearbox was designed by Maina and Forster Brown. Part of Maina’s agreement with Campbell was that the Napier-Campbell LSR car would use his gearbox, as Maina and Brown were trying to market the design to the automotive industry. The forward speed gear ratios were a first gear of 3.0 to 1, a second gear of 1.5 to 1, and a third gear of 1 to 1. A reverse gear was also included. The shift lever extended from the right side of the gearbox. An enclosed drive shaft (torque tube) led from the gearbox to the rear axle. The rear axle was encased in an aluminum housing and driven at 1.27 to 1 via a bevel pinion and a crown gear. Behind the rear axle was a 12 US gal (10 Imp gal / 45 L) oil tank and a 24 US gal (20 Imp gal / 91 L) fuel tank.
The car was supported with half-elliptic spring suspension. The front tires were 33 x 5 in (838 x 127 mm), and the rear tires were 35 x 5 in (889 x 127 mm). The Dunlop tires ballooned to 5.85 in (149 mm) wide when filed with air. All four wheels used 18 in (457 mm) diameter drum brakes that were 1.625 in (41 mm) wide. The drums were machined with fins around their circumference to dissipate heat. The brakes could be operated by either a foot pedal or a hand lever. The Napier-Campbell had a front track of 5 ft 5.25 in (1.66 m) and a rear track of 4 ft 9 in (1.45 m). The car had a wheelbase of 12 ft 1.5 in (3.70 m) and was 15 ft (4.57 m) long. It weighed around 6,000 lb (2,722 kg).
The car’s Lion engine, Villers frame, and Maina gearbox were delivered to Robinhood Engineering Works, which was founded by Kenelm Lee Guinness. Here, the chassis was completed and made ready for the body. The car was then transported to Campbell’s Povey Cross estate where it could be completed under the watchful eye of Leo Villa.
The aluminum body of the Napier-Campbell was made by workers from Jarvis & Sons and fitted as close to the chassis as possible. A large opening at its front provided cooling air to the radiator. Individual exhaust stacks for the left and right cylinder banks protruded from bulges in the engine’s cowling. Exhaust for the center cylinder bank was collected in a manifold that split into two pipes behind the engine, with one pipe exiting the left side of the cowling and the other pipe exiting the right side. The cockpit was positioned above the drive shaft, and the driver’s legs straddled the gearbox and its shifter. Two large tachometers dominated the dashboard, with one indicating the engine rpm and the other the driveshaft rpm. A small windscreen was positioned in front of the cockpit, and an aerodynamic headrest extended behind the cockpit. Behind the rear wheels, the car’s body tapered into an extended tail. When Campbell went to sit in the nearly completed car, it was found that the steering wheel needed to be removed for him to get in and out of the cockpit.
While the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird was being constructed, Henry Segrave, driving a modified Sunbeam racer, slightly increased the LSR to 152.33 mph (245.15 km/h) on 16 March 1926. The record was then decisively smashed by John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in the Liberty V-12-powered Babs on 27 April 1926 at a speed of 168.074 mph (270.489 km/h). Parry-Thomas upped the record to 170.624 mph (274.593 km/h) the following day. Parry-Thomas was looking to push his car further, and others were quickly closing in on Napier-Campbell’s target speed of 180 mph (290 km/h). To make matters worse, Sunbeam was constructing a special 1,000 hp car designed to propel Segrave to over 200 mph (322 km/h). If an LSR was in his future, Campbell and his Blue Bird would need to act fast.
The Napier-Campbell Blue Bird was completed on 30 December 1926 and taken to Pedine Sands for its first test on 2 January 1927. Running on the very wet beach, the gearbox was hard to shift, the brakes were very inadequate, and the cockpit design resulted in wet sand flying into Campbell’s face and covering his goggles. The car was returned to Povey Cross where work was done on the gearbox and brakes. A larger windscreen was installed, and wind deflectors were added just in front of the cockpit sides. A significant amount of air had been blowing out of the cockpit, and the updraft made Campbell uncomfortable. To redirect the airflow, vents were added to the car’s tail, and louvres were added to the previously smooth engine cowling. Some sources indicate a new racing version of the Napier Lion VA was installed. This engine had a higher compression ratio and produced 585 hp (436 kW) at 2,350 rpm. It was built for the Gloster II floatplane intended for the 1924 Schneider Trophy Contest, which was postponed.
Later, in mid-January, Campbell returned to Pendine Sands but could only reach approximately 160 mph (257 km/h), not fast enough to set a record. The poor conditions caused part of the issue, but the car was still experiencing difficulties. Work continued on the Napier-Campbell while everyone waited for better weather. On 20 January, Campbell made a record attempt and achieved 166.38 mph (267.76 km/h) against the wind and 171.30 mph (275.68 km/h) with it. The average of 168.84 mph (271.72 km/h) was not sufficient for a new record. Campbell made two more attempts on the record, but the beach conditions prevented him from bettering his speed.
The Napier-Campbell was returned to Povey Cross for more work and in the hope that better conditions would soon prevail at the beach. Campbell and the car returned to Pendine Sands on 30 January 1927, but conditions were still far from ideal. On 3 February, Campbell had two furrows plowed along the beach to help drain water and make a strip of dry sand. The work was somewhat successful, and on 4 February, Campbell felt that the weather was tolerable and the beach sufficiently dry to attempt a record. On his first run, he covered the km (6 mi) at 179.157 mph (288.325 km/h). On the return, a bump lifted Campbell out of his seat, and his head hit the slipstream. The wind pushed Campbell’s goggles up his forehead, and he had to drive squinting and with one hand while he pulled them down. The mishap decreased Campbell’s speed to 169.291 mph (272.448 km/h). However, it was still enough to set new records, averaging 174.883 mph (281.447 km/h) in the flying km (.6 mi) and 174.224 mph (280.386 km/h) in the flying mile (1.6 km).
Although Parry-Thomas congratulated Campbell on the new record, he also wanted to win it back. On 3 March 1927, Parry-Thomas in Babs was trying to regain the record, when the car went out of control and crashed. Parry-Thomas was killed in the accident, becoming the first person to die while attempting a LSR. On 29 March 1927, Campbell’s record was obliterated when Segrave averaged 203.793 mph (327.973 km/h) over the flying mile (1.6 km) at Daytona Beach, Florida in the Sunbeam 1,000 hp Mystery Slug.
Campbell was not pleased that he had been beaten to 180 mph (290 km/h) and 200 mph (322 km/h). He knew the Blue Bird in its then-current form would not be able to exceed Segrave’s record, but with so much invested and now having become completely obsessed with setting LSRs, Campbell decided to rebuild the Napier-Campbell to surpass the 200 mph (322 km/h) mark.
The results of the rebuild left the basic chassis unchanged, but a new Lion VIIA engine was installed at the Napier works in Acton Vale. The engine produced 900 hp (671 kW) at 3,300 rpm and was similar to the one used in the Supermarine S5 floatplane that won the 1927 Schneider Trophy Contest. The Lion VIIA engine was considered “Secret,” and Campbell had negotiated conditions with the British Air Ministry for its use. Other changes included updating the rear axle to a 1.5 to 1 drive ratio. A completely new body was designed by Rex Pierson, chief designer at Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd, and based on results achieved in their wind tunnel. The front radiator was discarded, and a set of two surface radiators were installed on each side of the car, just behind the cockpit. The radiators were built by Fairey Aviation, and each panel contained 122 cooling elements and was 4 ft 7 in (1.40 m) long and 1 ft 7 in (.48 m) tall. The four panels had a total of approximately 2,400 ft (732 m) of tubing. Water entered the radiators by the cockpit and exited the lower rear side.
The car’s new body was built of 18-gauge aluminum by Barkers Ltd. The nose of the body was rounded and enclosed. It extended back to completely encompass the engine, without the bulges of the previous body. Exhaust from the center cylinder bank was now expelled via individual stacks protruding through the right side of the cowling. The scuttle and cockpit sides were built up to limit the amount of air and sand entering to cockpit. The cockpit sides slid down for driver entry and exit. Fairings were added behind the front wheels, and the rear suspension was completely enclosed in fairings. Two different size tail fins were made that could be added behind the cockpit to improve directional stability. The larger fin rose to a height about 8 in (200 mm) above the headrest, and the smaller fin extended back from the headrest fairing at a slight decline. As a result of the changes, the car’s length was extended by 3 ft (.91 m) to 18 ft (5.49 m), and its weight was reduced by a couple hundred pounds to around 5,820 lb (2,640 kg). The updated car was sometimes referred to as Blue Bird III.
The rebuilt Napier-Campbell racer was completed in January 1928, and Campbell and the car arrived in Daytona Beach, Florida on 12 February. The smaller tail fin was fitted for the record runs. During a test run on 16 February, the car struck some bumps at speed and became airborne. Campbell was lifted out of his seat, and when the car came back down, the underpan caught on the sand and was ripped off. The suspension was also damaged. The car was repaired, and on 19 February 1928, Campbell ran with the wind and covered a mile at 214.797 mph (345.682 km/h). Campbell noted the steering as very heavy, and he lost control immediately after the end of the run as the car slewed to the side. Fortunately, a quick recovery was made, but Campbell was quite shaken from the experience. Campbell decided not to change tires during the turn around for fear that he would not get back into the car. His return leg against the wind was a bit smoother and run at 199.667 mph (321.333 km/h). The average of the runs gave Campbell a new record at 206.956 mph (333.064 km/h), but he was so exhausted after setting the record that he needed help getting out of the car.
Campbell felt the updated Blue Bird could achieve a higher speed if the beach were in a better condition—a top speed of 220 mph (354 km/h) had been anticipated. Campbell also knew that his record would not stand long, as others, like Ray Keech and Frank Lockhart, were at Daytona to set records of their own. Segrave was also having another car built, the Irving-Napier Golden Arrow, scheduled to run in early 1929. On 22 April 1928 Keech broke Campbell’s record when he averaged 207.553 mph (334.024 km/h) in the White Triplex—a brute force, three-engine monster. On 25 April 1928, Lockhart lost his life in the Stutz Black Hawk when a tire blew at over 200 mph (322 km/h).
Campbell wanted to find a better course. The lack of traction in beach sand resulted in a lot of wheelspin, and a breeze always blew across beach courses, particularly at Daytona, that did nothing but cost speed. Among other places, there had been rumors of a large dry lake at Verneuk Pan, South Africa that would be ideal for LSRs. Campbell had searched various locales, even traveling to the Sahara Dessert, for an adequate speed record course, but he never found what he was looking for. An associate of Campbell’s had evaluated Verneuk Pan and believed it had potential.
During the search for a new course, Leo Villa had overseen work on another new body for the Naiper-Campbell racer. Again, wind tunnel test results were used to design the new body, which was built by Arrol-Aster and installed at their shop in Dumfries, Scotland. The surface radiators had proved not to be entirely effective and were removed. A new, conventional radiator was installed in the car’s nose. The front of the body was redesigned to incorporate a large opening for the radiator, which was later elongated and reduced in size. The front and rear wheel fairings were enlarged, as was the cockpit windscreen and cockpit opening. The sides of the cockpit were fixed, as was the tail fin, which was a redesign of the smaller fin used on the Daytona record runs. The revised car was called the Napier-Campbell-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird, but it is often just called the Napier-Arrol-Aster.
Once the Napier-Arrol-Aster was completed, the car, spare parts, and crew set off for South Africa. They soon discovered that Verneuk Pan was in the middle of nowhere, 400 miles (645 km) northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. The dry lake sat at 2,500 ft (760 m) above sea level, and there were no developed roads to the lakebed and no near-by workforce to build a course. But Campbell liked the huge, flat, open surface and the fact that the dominion of South Africa was part of the British Empire. Work on a 12-mile (19-km) course had started at the beginning of 1929, before Campbell arrived in South Africa (on 2 February). Once the course was prepared, small but sharp slivers of shale that would cut tires were found protruding from the surface. The top of the lake bed was scraped up, sifted to remove the sharp rocks, and then laid back down to dry into a hard surface under the scorching sun. As soon as the course was ready, massive rains came and flooded the area. It had not rained for five years, but suddenly there were 6 in (152 mm) of water covering the course.
On 11 March 1929, while a new course was being prepared at Verneuk Pan, Segrave in the Golden Arrow set a new LSR at 231.362 mph (372.341 km/h) on Daytona Beach. Campbell knew that he could not beat Segrave’s speed, but he was going to give a run all he had. The Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird was brought out to the course on 18 April, and a record run was attempted on 21 April 1929. Campbell recorded 224.58 mph (361.43 km/h) on the outbound leg and 212.51 mph (342.00 km/h) on the return. The average speed of the runs was 218.54 mph (351.71 km/h), well short of the absolute LSR record, but enough for a British speed record (top speed achieved on British Empire soil).
The heavy Blue Bird broke through the surface as it ran, resulting in the destruction of eight tires. After some course improvements were made, on 25 April, Campbell set a new flying 5-km (3.1-mi) record at 216.04 mph (347.68 km/h) and a new flying 5-mi (8.0 km) record at 211.49 mph (340.36 km/h). That was all Verneuk Pan and the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird had to offer. The team returned to England, and after a six-week tour of South Africa, so did Leo Villa and the car.
Campbell wanted the LSR back, and before the car had returned from South Africa, he had been considering whether a new car should be built or if the Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird could be rebuilt. The new speed goal was 240 mph (386 km/h) and beyond. At the end of 1929, Campbell enlisted Raid Railton to see what more could be done with the Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird. Railton had some ideas, which led to the car being rebuilt as the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird.
A tribute to the 1927 Napier-Campbell was built by Lorne Jacobs using a 1921 Napier chassis (No. 14097). The Lion was acquired in 1930 by Lorne’s grandfather Gordon, long before Lorne was born. The two-seat car is registered for street use.
This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.
– The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
– The Record Breakers by Leo Villa (1969)
– My Thirty Years of Speed by Malcolm Campbell (1935)
– The Unobtainable: A Story of Blue by David de Lara (2014)
– Napier: The First to Wear the Green by David Venables (1998)
– Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)