By William Pearce
Malcolm Campbell got his start in setting Land Speed Records (LSRs) in 1924 with the Sunbeam 350HP. His next LSR car, the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird, had reached its peak in 1928. Campbell knew his car needed a redesign to beat Henry Segrave’s 231.362 mph (372.341 km/h) run in the Irving-Napier Golden Arrow. In late 1929, Campbell called in Reid Railton to see what more could be done to improve the Blue Bird’s speed. Railton was an automotive engineer who worked for Thomson & Taylor at Brooklands. The Thomson & Taylor shop started out as Thomas Inventions Development, founded by John Godfrey Parry-Thomas and Ken Thomson. After Parry-Thomas, a friend and former co-worker of Railton, was killed during an LSR attempt in 1927, Ken Taylor joined the company, and it was renamed Thomson & Taylor.
Railton had the Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird sent to the Thomson & Taylor shop. A few weeks later, Railton advised Campbell that if he could acquire a 1,500 hp (1,119 kW) engine, the car could be modified to reach 250 mph (400 km/h). Campbell would need the speed. Sunbeam was finishing construction of its Silver Bullet LSR car with the goal of reaching 250 mph (400 km/h), and the car was expected to make a record attempt later in 1930.
Campbell went to the British Air Ministry seeking the loan of the latest Napier Lion engine. However, the Air Ministry was reluctant to lend an engine and required a £5,000 deposit per engine. Campbell was not prepared for this expenditure, but his friend and powerboat racer Marion Barbara (Joe) Carstairs donated £10,000 to cover the cost. Campbell returned to the Air Ministry and was able to acquire two Napier Lion VIID engines. The supercharged W-12 engine produced 1,450 bhp (1,010 kW) at 3,600 rpm and was the same type that powered the Gloster IV floatplane, an entrant in the 1929 Schneider Trophy Contest.
Once the engines were delivered, the Blue Bird was built at the Thomson & Taylor shop. The frame, front axle, rear axle center section, steering system, and brakes were all retained. A new flywheel, clutch, gearbox, and rear axle shafts were installed. The Railton-designed three-speed gearbox had a 4.01 to 1 first gear, a 2.27 to 1 second gear, and a 1.24 to 1 third gear. The gearbox was offset 7 in (178 mm) to the left and allowed the driver’s seat to be offset to the right and lowered to about 10 in (254 mm) above the ground. The lower driver’s seat allowed the height of the entire car to be kept to a minimum. The enclosed drive shaft ran along the left side of the cockpit to the rear axle, which was also offset. The rear axle was encased in an aluminum housing and driven at 1.27 to 1 via a bevel pinion and a crown gear.
The chassis’ half-elliptic spring suspension was altered so that the left side of the car was more heavily sprung than the right. This resulted in the left side of the car sitting slightly higher than the right when the vehicle was at rest. However, under power, the torque of the engine would level the suspension so that the car was at an even ride height. Provisions for screw jacks were added to all four corners of the chassis. Having the simple jacks built into the car would decrease the time needed to change tires between record runs.
All tires were made by Dunlop, mounted to stamped-steel rims, and inflated to 120 psi (8.27 bar). An aerodynamic disc made of aluminum covered each rim. The front tires were 35 x 6 in (889 x 152 mm), and the rear tires were 37 x 6 in (940 x 152 mm). Each tire and rim weighed approximately 224 lb (102 kg) and was secured to the car by 10 lug nuts. The 18 in (457 mm) diameter and 1.625 in (41 mm) wide drum brakes with machined fins used on the previous Napier-Campbell Blue Bird were retained, but they were operated solely by a foot pedal and used a vacuum booster.
The body designed by Railton was tested and refined by Rex Pierson in the wind tunnel at Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd. The aluminum body was built by J Gurney Nutting & Co in 36 days. A new radiator was built to conform to the car’s new body. The radiator was mounted and cowled in its own housing at the front of the car. Air would pass through the radiator and be swept upward over the engine cowling. Having the radiator separate helped keep air out of the car’s body. The coolant tank was located in the main body of the car, just in front of the engine. The cooling system held 26 US gal (22 Imp gal / 100 L) of water. A 6 US gal (5 Imp gal / 23 L) oil tank was mounted next to the engine.
Just forward of the engine was a tachometer mounted to the cowling and covered with a fairing. This was installed to enable the driver to keep his eyes on the course and see the engine speed at the same time. It could also be used as a sight when the vehicle was at speed. The car’s wheel fairings were so large that they would contact the ground if a tire went flat. As a result, the bottom of the fairing was made of thin aluminum and designed to crumple without damaging the rest of the fairing in the event of a flat tire.
A small scoop “ventilator” was installed in front of the cockpit. It drew air into the cockpit, increasing its relative air pressure. This was done to prevent exhaust gases from accumulating in the cockpit and to prevent a back draft working to lift the driver out of the cockpit. A headrest positioned behind the offset cockpit tapered back into a large tail fin, which was also offset to the left of the car’s center. Behind the cockpit was a 28 US gal (23 Imp gal / 105 L) fuel tank. The filler for the gas tank was accessed by removing the headrest pad in the cockpit.
The car was finished in early January 1931 and had “Napier-Campbell” written on the tail. The car is often called the Campbell-Napier-Railton to eliminate confusion with other Blue Bird versions, and it is occasionally referred to as the Blue Bird IV. However, some publications continued to credit the car as Blue Bird III, and the American press mistakenly referred to it as the Blue Bird II. Campbell and his team continued to simply call the car “Blue Bird,” as they had done with the previous versions. The Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird had a front track of 5 ft 4 in (1.63 m) and a rear track of 5 ft 2 in (1.57 m). The car had a wheelbase of 12 ft 2.75 in (3.73 m) and was over 25 ft (7.62 m) long. The top of the cowling was 45 in (1.14 m) from the ground, and the car had 5 in (127 mm) of ground clearance. It weighed around 7,950 lb (3,606 kg), which included approximately 1,450 lb (658 kg) of lead ballast by the rear axle intended to improve traction.
While the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird was being built, engine and gearbox issues caused the Sunbeam Silver Bullet to fall well short of its speed goal. But a new contender, an Australian named Wizard Smith, was working on the Fred H. Stewart Enterprise and intended to reach the 250 mph (400 km/h) mark. Smith planned to run his car on Ninety Mile Beach in New Zealand, which was of much interest to Campbell. However, after the trouble in Verneuk Pan, South Africa, Campbell was sticking with Daytona Beach in Florida until someone else found a better location. Campbell left for Daytona Beach in mid-January 1931 and arrived on the 29th, hoping to set a new LSR before anyone else could.
The car was quickly prepared, and Campbell’s first test run was on 31 January 1931. This was the first time the new Blue Bird got up to any serious speed, around 200 mph (322 km/h), as there was no reasonable way to test the car at high-power in England. During the run, in thick mist and haze, the spectating crowd had pushed onto the course and were nearly hit by Campbell making his return. On 2 February, Campbell hit 240 mph (386 km/h). The next day, he had reached around 260 mph (418 km/h) when the gearbox slipped out of third gear and the engine overrevved, potentially causing damage. A quick inspection found no issues with the engine, and the team decided against swapping it out for the spare Lion. Some images show the car with the tachometer on the cowling, while others show that it was removed and covered over. However, it is not clear if the tach was missing for the practice runs and added for the record attempt, or vice versa.
The car was ready for another run on 5 February 1931, which was another imperfect day with mist and fog and rough spots on the beach. With the Blue Bird pointed to the south, Campbell gained speed and shifted into second at 80 mph (129 km/h). He noted that the car did not accelerate as quickly as it had in the past, most likely a result of some engine damage from the over-rev. Once he hit 150 mph (241 km/h), Campbell shifted into third and kept his foot firmly on the accelerator, recording a speed of 246.575 mph (396.824 km/h) over the measured mile (1.6 km). Campbell immediately turned around and started the second pass without stopping. On his return trip north, the Blue Bird reached 244.897 mph (394.124 km/h). The average of the two runs over the flying mile (1.6 km) was 245.736 mph (395.474 km/h), a new LSR. Campbell bettered Segrave’s speed in the Golden Arrow by over 14 mph (22 km/h). Campbell also set a flying km (.6 mi) speed record of 246.086 mph (396.037 km/h).
Campbell and the rest of the team returned to England on 20 February 1931 and received many accolades. Campbell was knighted on 21 February by King George V, but Campbell knew that the Blue Bird could achieve faster speeds under better conditions. The Enterprise in New Zealand was still under construction and a possible contender for the absolute LSR. Although Campbell was the first person to exceed 240 mph (four miles per minute) on land, the 250 mph (400 km/h) mark was just a few mph away. After Daytona, the Blue Bird was sent on a brief trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina for a British Empire Exhibition. Once back in England, the Blue Bird was demonstrated at Brooklands on 24 May, and preparations were soon underway to return to Daytona Beach in 1932.
No significant changes were made to the Blue Bird for its LSR attempt in 1932. The radiator was slightly decreased in size and covered with a new cowling that had a smaller, extended opening. The cowl-mounted tachometer was removed, and the spare Lion engine was installed. However, some changes had occurred at Daytona Beach. The beach was a little over 23 miles (37 km) long, but a pier was positioned near its center, cutting the beach into two 10-mile (16-km) sections. Ten miles (16 km) had been enough room to set flying km (.6 mi) and mile (1.6 km) records, but it was a challenge to set 5-mile (8-km) records, and very difficult to set 10-km (6.2-km) records. As the absolute LSR was pushed higher, even the 10-mile (16 km) stretch of beach was becoming inadequate. To work toward a solution, some pilings were removed from the pier, creating a 50-ft (15-m) gap for LSR cars to speed through. However, even the most courageous of men, like Campbell, felt that trying to thread the 50-ft (15-m) needle at high-speeds was asking for trouble. The end result was that the course was extended beyond the pier, but not much. LSR cars would go under the pier at around 100 mph (160 km/h) while accelerating or under braking, depending on the direction of travel. No attempts were made to pass through the pier at top speed, and this left attempts on the 10-mile (16-km) record highly inadvisable for Daytona Beach.
Whenever possible, Campbell liked to set records on the same course and at the same time, with different sets of timing equipment recording the times for different distances. With the changes extending the course to 12 miles (19 km), Campbell and the Blue Bird would attempt LSRs up to the flying 10 km (6.2 mi). Campbell and team arrived at Daytona Beach on 10 February 1932—the Blue Bird was in perfect condition, but the beach was not. The pressure was on, as Wizard and the Enterprise were already in New Zealand and had set a 10-mile (16-km) record at 164.084 mph (264.077 km/h) on 26 January. The Enterprise was being prepared for an attempt on the absolute LSR as well as record attempts for longer distances.
After waiting for some time, the conditions on Daytona Beach had improved but were still far from perfect. On 20 February 1932, Campbell made a preliminary test run in the Blue Bird with rather rough results. On 24 February, while conditions were still improving, Campbell decided to make another test run south before a record attempt. Campbell liked what he saw and felt during the test run and decided to give the southbound leg all that he had. Aided by a 20-mph (32-km/h) tailwind, the Blue Bird covered the flying mile at 267.459 mph (430.434 km/h). The northbound return against the wind was at 241.773 mph (389.096 km/h), giving an average of 253.968 mph (408.722 km/h) over the flying mile (1.6 km). New records for the 1 km (.6 mi) and 5 km (3.1 mi) were set at 251.340 mph (404.493 km/h) and 241.569 mph (388.768 km/h) respectively. Speeds for the 5 mile (8 km) and 10 km (6.2 mi) were not recorded due to a malfunction with the timing equipment.
Campbell was a little disappointed with the speeds, and decided to try again. Rain prevented any record attempts on 25 February 1932, and although the 26th was clear, the wind had kicked up, and the beach was deteriorating. Campbell decided to make a run for fear that the conditions would continue to get worse. The speeds for the km (.6 mi) and mile (1.6 km) were slower, but he set new records for 5 km (3.1 km) at 247.941 mph (399.023 km/h), 5 mile (8 km) at 242.751 mph (390.670 km/h), and 10 km (6.2 mi) at 238.669 mph (384.101 km/h).
Just after breaking the 250 mph (400 km/h) mark, and even before returning to England, Campbell was considering what it would take to reach 300 mph (483 km/h). If the Blue Bird could reach 250 mph (400 km/h) with the 1,450 hp (1,081 kW) Napier Lion, then surely 300 mph (483 km/h) would be possible with a 2,500 hp (1,864 kW) Rolls-Royce R engine. It was not long before Campbell acquired an R engine and work on fitting it into the car began. This led to the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird.
This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.
The Land Speed Record 1930-1939 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
The Record Breakers by Leo Villa (1969)
The Unobtainable: A Story of Blue by David de Lara (2014)
Napier: The First to Wear the Green by David Venables (1998)
My Thirty Years of Speed by Malcolm Campbell (1935)
Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)