By William Pearce
Starting in 1925, Malcolm Campbell had established himself as a notable record breaker, setting new absolute World Land Speed Records (LSRs) six times. The development of his Blue Bird cars, from the Sunbeam 350HP, to the Napier-Campbell, and to the Campbell-Napier-Railton, demonstrated a steady improvement in speed and design.
Shortly after setting an LSR over the flying mile (1.6 km) at 253.968 mph (408.722 km/h) on 24 February 1932, Campbell considered ways to exceed 300 mph (483 km/h). Campbell’s then-current car, the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird, was powered by a 1,450 hp (1,010 kW) Napier Lion VIID W-12 engine. After returning to England from the record runs in Daytona Beach, Florida, Campbell started negotiations with Rolls-Royce to acquire an R racing engine. The 1,900 hp (1,417 kW) R engine was originally developed for the 1929 Schneider Trophy Contest, and its output was increased to 2,350 hp (1,752 kW) for the 1931 contest. The engine powered the winner of both races—the Supermarine S.6 in 1929 and the S.6B in 1931. On 29 September 1931, a special 2,500 hp (1,864 kW) sprint version of the R engine was used to power a S6.B to a new absolute speed record of 407.5 mph (655.8 km/h).
Beyond the personal satisfaction these records offered Campbell, there was a fair amount of national prestige involved. In April 1932, Rolls-Royce agreed to loan engine R37 to Campbell. Campbell approached Reid Railton to redesign his car to accommodate the R engine. The Blue Bird car was soon taken to the Thomson & Taylor shop at Brooklands for modifications, which were overseen by Railton and Leo Villa. Because of the new engine, the car is often referred to as the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird.
The Rolls-Royce R was a 60-degree V-12 that was supercharged by a double-sided impeller. The engine had a 6.0 in (152 mm) bore and a 6.6 in (168 mm) stroke. It displaced 2,239 cu in (36.7 L) and produced 2,350 hp (1,752 kW) at 3,200 rpm and 20 psi (1.38 bar) of boost. The 2,500 hp (1,864 kW) sprint version of the R made its power at the same rpm, but it used strengthened internal components and special fuels. The R37 engine sold to Campbell is often cited as a 2,500 hp (1,864 kW) sprint version which could operate at 3,400 rpm.
The R engine was longer, taller, and heavier than the Lion it was replacing. These differences necessitated changes to the Blue Bird’s chassis and body, but much of the car was unchanged. The engine was mounted to a subframe, which was then installed into the car’s frame. The three-speed gearbox was strengthened, and its ratios were updated to a 2.74 to 1 first gear, a 1.55 to 1 second gear, and a 1.00 to 1 third gear. The bevel pinion and a crown gear of the rear axle were driven at 1.2 to 1. The cockpit was still offset to the right, and the driveshaft was offset 7 in (178 mm) to the left. The left suspension had stiffer springs installed to help negate the engine’s torque.
The radiator was mounted to a new forward extension of the frame and enlarged to dissipate the extra heat generated by the more powerful engine. A new coolant tank, mounted directly forward of the engine, was made to conform to the shape of the engine and the car’s body. The car’s cooling system had a capacity of 36 US gal (30 Imp gal / 136 L). A forward-facing intake scoop positioned above the radiator increased engine boost by approximately 2 psi (.14 bar). The scoop ducted air under the coolant tank and to the engine’s four carburetors, located at the bottom of the supercharger housing. The 28 US gal (23 Imp gal / 105 L) fuel tank was still located behind the cockpit in the Blue Bird’s tail.
Modifications to the body were tested in the Vickers Ltd wind tunnel by Rex Pierson, and the chosen design was built by J Gurney Nutting & Co. The aluminum body sloped up from behind the radiator housing and formed two humps to cover the engine’s valve covers. The valve covers were actually exposed, forming the top of the engine cowling. The outer sides of the humps constituted the sides of the car’s body and had an exposed exhaust stack for each cylinder. The large cowling humps restricted visibility from the low cockpit, which was raised about 3 in (76 mm) to elevate the driver’s view.
The wheels, tires, and brakes were unchanged from the previous Blue Bird version. 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). The tires were made by Dunlop, mounted to steel rims, and inflated to 125 psi (8.62 bar). Each tire and rim weighed approximately 224 lb (102 kg) and was secured to the car by 10 lug nuts. An aerodynamic disc made of aluminum covered each rim. Each wheel had a drum brake that was 18 in (457 mm) in diameter, 1.625 in (41 mm) wide, and machined with cooling fins around its exterior.
The Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird had a front track of 5 ft 3 in (1.60 m) and a rear track of 5 ft (1.52 m). The car’s wheelbase was increased 17.25 in (438 mm) to 13 ft 8 in (4.19 m), and its overall length was approximately 27 ft (8.23 m). It weighed around 9,000 lb (4,082 kg), which included approximately 1,450 lb (658 kg) of lead ballast by the rear axle intended to improve traction. With the more powerful R engine, wheelspin on the sandy beach was a serious concern.
The car was finished in December 1932 and had “Campbell Special” written on the tail fin. Campbell, his team, and the Blue Bird left for Daytona Beach in January 1933. When Campbell arrived on 2 February, the beach was found to be in such a poor state that only nine miles of course were available, and all testing was put on hold in the hope that conditions would improve. After delaying two weeks for a better course, a trial run was made on 14 February that ended with an overheated gearbox after the first pass. Campbell reported a very unsteady ride on the beach and lots of wheelspin; he also injured his left hand and forearm while shifting. Work was done on the gearbox to improve oil circulation, and another week passed with Campbell recovering from his arm injury.
On 22 February 1933, the weather and beach conditions were decent, and Campbell decided to make an attempt on the record. The R engine roared to life as the Blue Bird set off south down Daytona Beach. Speeds for the run were recorded as 273.464 mph (440.098 km/h) for the km (.6 mi), 273.556 mph (440.246 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km), and 263.540 mph (424.004 km/h) for 5 km (3.1 mi). The Blue Bird was serviced, and its tires, damaged by shells on the beach, were replaced. On the return north, the speeds were 271.473 (436.893 km/h) mph for the km (.6 mi), 270.676 mph (435.611 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km), and 251.340 mph (404.493 km/h) for 5 km (3.1 mi). New records were set at an average of 272.465 mph (438.490 km/h) for the km (.6 mi), 272.108 mph (437.915 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km), and 257.295 mph (414.076 km/h) for 5 km (3.1 mi). Campbell broke his own record by 18 mph (29 km/h).
Campbell was disappointed with the speed and felt it was the worst ride he had ever had in his life. The tires had been cut by sharp shells, and the wheelspin made the car very difficult to control. Campbell planned to make another attempt on 23 February 1933 but cancelled his plans as a result of his injured hand and the poor beach conditions. Before the team returned to England, plans were in motion to redesign the Blue Bird to achieve 300 mph (483 km/h). Ideally, a longer and better course could be found that had more consistent conditions. Also, Campbell officially stated that he planned to retire from LSRs once he surpassed the 300-mph (483-km/h) mark.
Campbell and crew returned to England on 8 March 1933, but work at the Thomson & Taylor shop to modify the Blue Bird did not begin until April 1934. There was no question that Campbell was going to stick with the Rolls-Royce R engine, and he purchased R37 for £5,800. The car’s gearbox was fine, but the rear axle was damaged. A new axle was designed that incorporated dual rear wheels. The hope was that having twice the contact surface driving the car forward would lessen the wheelspin and improve traction. The rear wheels used 110 psi (7.58 bar) of air pressure, while the front wheels used 125 psi (8.62 bar). The new axle used two pinions on the same axis, with each engaging a separate axle shaft. This would decrease the tooth load but resulted in staggered axles, with the left 1.5 in (38 mm) behind the right. The new gear ratio for the rear end was 1.19 to 1. The axle was resprung equally, and ballast weight was positioned on the left side of the car to counteract engine torque.
A vacuum air cylinder was positioned behind the cockpit to operate air brakes, located behind the rear wheels. Each of the two air brakes offered 2 sq ft (.19 m2) of surface area that would be presented nearly perpendicular to the airstream. The fuel tank was relocated to the left side of the car, outside of the frame rail and between the front and rear tires. Its capacity was 48 US gal (40 Imp gal / 182 L). The steering system was revised to incorporate a more conventional design with a single steering box and interconnected front wheels.
A new radiator was built that spanned the front of the car. Its new housing formed a wedge with an open slit at the front to draw in air. Using a lever in the cockpit, the slit could be closed for short periods of time to cut down wind resistance as the car traveled through the flying mile. The shape of the new radiator housing flowed into the new body, which was again developed through wind tunnel tests. The sides of the car now extended out to encompass the space between the front and rear wheels. A new tail fin extended back and up from the headrest behind the cockpit.
With the changes, and keeping all of the previous Blue Bird versions in mind, the press occasionally referred to the car as the Blue Bird V. The car had a track of 5 ft (1.52 m) and a wheelbase of 13 ft 8 in (4.19 m). Its overall width was 6 ft 11 in (2.11 m), and its overall length was 28 ft 3 in (8.61 m). The revised Blue Bird weighed around 10,450 lb (4,740 kg), including ballast.
During 1934, while the Blue Bird was being rebuilt, Ab (David Abbot) Jenkins was doing all he could to make the racing world aware of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Eventually, Railton met with Jenkins and visited the Salt Flats. Railton was impressed with that he saw and realized the LSR potential that the vast expanse offered. Campbell was also interested in the location. However, the Salt Flats were only usable in the summer and early fall, and the Blue Bird would not be finished until the winter. Because of the timing, the decision was made to take the car to Daytona Beach in January 1935. The Blue Bird’s chassis was finished in November 1934, and the body was completed in early January 1935.
Arriving in Daytona Beach on 31 January 1935, the team went to work to test the newly revised car. Test runs were made on 14 February, but the main issue affecting the team was bad weather and unfavorable conditions on the beach. Jenkins heard of the wait and traveled to Daytona Beach to speak with Campbell about the Bonneville Salt Flats. He also showed a film of speed runs on the flats. Jenkins spent three weeks in Daytona, and by the time he left, Campbell was planning to be on the Salt Flats in August 1935.
Conditions had improved enough for another test run on 2 March 1935. Issues were encountered with body panels warping next to the exhaust stacks and allowing fumes into the cockpit. Also, the car’s speed actually decreased when the radiator shutter was closed—it seemed like the engine would lose power with the radiator closed. The following day, after modifications had been made, the Blue Bird recorded a one-way speed of 270.473 mph (435.284 km/h). During the run, the beach was so rough that Campbell was lifted out of his seat and his goggles were pushed down, leaving his eyes with no protection against the speeding airstream. Campbell decided against making the return run.
It was not until 7 March that Campbell attempted another record run. The mile (.6 km) run south was completed at 272.727 mph (438.912 km/h). The return north was much rougher, but the Blue Bird covered it at 281.030 mph (452.274 km/h). The average was a new record of 276.816 mph (445.492 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km), 276.160 mph (444.436 km/h) over the km (.6 mi), 268.464 mph (432.051 km/h) over 5 km (3.1 mi), and 251.396 mph (404.583 km/h) over 5 miles (8 km). The speeds were well short of the 300-mph (483-km/h) goal Campbell had set. This was the last absolute LSR set on Daytona Beach.
Part of the reason Campbell wanted to run on the Bonneville Salt Flats was to see if the sand at Daytona Beach was causing the discrepancy between the forecasted speed of over 300 mph (483 km/h) and the realized speed of 275 mph (443 km/h). While at speed, Campbell did not have time to look at the gauges and was unable to see if the engine boost pressure decreased when the radiator was closed. Back in England, A duplicate set of instruments were positioned in the right-side fairing. A light illuminated the instruments, and they would be recorded during runs with a Kodak movie camera to be reviewed later. Also, wind tunnel tests indicated that when the radiator slot was closed, the airstream was being deflected over the induction scoop, resulting in a decrease of engine power. The issue was solved by extending the scoop forward, past the opening for the radiator air exit. The Blue Bird was demonstrated at Brooklands on 21 April 1935 and then made ready for another LSR attempt.
The team arrived on the Bonneville Salt Flats in August 1935. Rolls-Royce had even loaned Campbell a spare engine, R39, to ensure the best possible outcome for the record attempt. Testing was done to make sure the rough salt surface would not damage the tires, and a perfectly straight and level 13-mile (21-km) course was completed on 1 September. A test run was completed on 2 September to make sure everything was in order and allow Campbell to become acclimated to the different surface. Some minor modifications were made to the Blue Bird, including increasing the clearance between the tires and wheel fairings to prevent the accumulation of salt.
On 3 September 1935, Campbell climbed into the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird for an attempt on the LSR. Flying northeast across the open expanse of salt, he covered a mile in 11.83 seconds at 304.311 mph (489.741 km/h). When he closed the radiator opening, exhaust fumes filled the cockpit, and an oil mist covered the windscreen. At the end of the measured mile (1.6 km), the left front tire blew out at around 280 mph (450 km/h). Campbell had a rough time keeping the car under control; the tire caught fire, and Campbell stopped about half a mile (.8 km) short of where his crew was stationed. The crew loaded up their equipment and hurried to the car to prepare it for the return run. All six tires were changed, but the still-smoldering burst tire took much longer than the others. Barely within the hour time limit, Campbell was on the return trip southwest and covered the mile (1.6 km) in 12.08 seconds at 298.013 mph (479.605 km/h). He kept the radiator shutter open on this run and experienced a skid while braking.
Campbell exited the Blue Bird quite convinced that he had surpassed the 300-mph (483-km/h) mark. Moments later, the timekeeper informed Campbell that his speed averaged to 301.1 mph (484.6 km/h). An elated Campbell grinned broadly as the crew cheered. A few minutes later, while the team was tending to the Blue Bird, the timekeeper came back and said that an error had occurred. Campbell’s time was really 299.874 mph (482.600 km/h). Campbell was very disappointed but quickly recovered and said that he would make another attempt the next day. The team set to work preparing the car for another run. To solve the problem of exhaust fumes in the cockpit and gain some extra speed, an aluminum cockpit cover was quickly being made.
During dinner later that night, the timekeeper approached Campbell and took him aside. The timekeeper explained that a miscalculation had been made, and that he had actually gone 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h)—the initial calculation was correct. Campbell’s run in the Blue Bird was the first absolute LSR set on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Other records that Campbell set were 1 km (.6 mi) at 301.473 mph (485.174 km/h) and 5 km (3.1 mi) at 292.142 mph (470.157 km/h).
Campbell was upset that the moment of his crowning achievement had effectively been taken away. True to his word, he retired from LSRs, and his run for the following day was cancelled. In a span of 11 years, Campbell had set nine LSRs, raising the record from 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h) to 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h). Within two years, Campbell would take on the even more dangerous challenge of setting Water Speed Records.
Campbell, his team, and the Blue Bird returned to England. The car was displayed in a number of exhibits and returned to the United States in 1937. It returned across the Atlantic in 1946. After Malcolm Campbell passed away on 31 December 1948, the car was purchased by his son Donald. Donald sold the Blue Bird in 1949 to acquire parts to complete the K4 hydroplane for an attempt on the water speed record. The Blue Bird returned to the United States and passed through a few owners and museums until it was acquired by the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum in Alabama, which restored the car in 1996 to the Daytona 1935 standard (no extended intake). The Blue Bird returned to England in 2004 and 2013 when it was displayed at the British National Motor Museum in Beaulieu with the Sunbeam 350HP and Donald Campbell’s Bluebird CN7. The Blue Bird is currently displayed in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, located at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. A replica of the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird is displayed at the Lakeland Motor Museum in Cumbria, England.
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)
– Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
– The Record Breakers by Leo Villa (1969)
– The Unobtainable: A Story of Blue by David de Lara (2014)
– My Thirty Years of Speed by Malcolm Campbell (1935)
– The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
– Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)
– Leap into Legend by Steve Holter (2003)