Category Archives: Automotive

Campbell-Railton-R-R 2013 National Motor Museum

Blue Bird LSR Car Part 4: Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce (1933-1935)

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.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1933 no body

With the Rolls-Royce R engine fitted, the chassis of the Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird is shown nearly completed in December 1932. It was fundamentally the same as when powered by the Napier Lion. Note the new coolant tank (just forward of the engine) shaped to fill up the empty space in the car’s body.

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.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1933 Malcolm Donald

Malcolm Campbell and his son Donald pose next to the completed Blue Bird on 9 January 1933. Note the car’s new nose and the cowling humps for the engine’s cylinder banks. The intake for the engine stuck out prominently from above the radiator.

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.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1933 rear

Malcolm Campbell in the Blue Bird’s cockpit. The right-side exit for the radiator cooling air is visible in front of the engine.

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.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1933 Donald

Donald Campbell in the Blue Bird’s cockpit. The lettering “Campbell Special” can be seen above the Union Jack. Note the screw jack mounting point by the left rear tire.

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-Railton-R-R 1933 Daytona

The Blue Bird arriving at Daytona Beach in 1933. The jack screws are installed. Campbell’s crew is behind the engine and in while coveralls. From left to right are Harry Leech, Steve MacDonald (Dunlap), Alf Poyser (Rolls-Royce), and Leo Villa.

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.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1935 debut

The newly completed Blue Bird making its debut on 9 January 1935. The car’s streamlining was much improved. Note the relative positions of the cooling-air exit slot and the engine’s intake—this would later result in turbulent airflow into the intake. The right air brake can be seen behind the double-rear tires.

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.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1935 debut front

Front view of the Blue Bird illustrates the car’s reworked lines. The radiator intake slot is open, and its shutter door can be seen below the opening.

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.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1935 Daytona

Campbell in the Blue Bird speeding south along Daytona Beach on 7 March 1935. The thick, black line of diesel oil marked the center of the course.

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.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 1935 Bonneville

The Blue Bird after the test run at the Bonneville Salt Flats on 2 September 1935. Note the accumulation of salt between the tires and the wheel fairings. The elongated intake scoop can barely be seen. Donald Campbell is on the far side of the car by the front tire.

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-Railton-R-R 1935 Scottish Motor Show

After setting the record at 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h), the Blue Bird was displayed in various locations. Seen here at the Scottish Motor Show in Glasgow in November 1935, the car is in the same condition as when it left the Bonneville Salt Flats. Note the extended engine intake and the front left body damage from the burst tire. The radiator slot is closed, and a Rolls-Royce R engine is in the background. (The Herald image)

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.

Campbell-Railton-R-R 2013 National Motor Museum

The restored Blue Bird at the British National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in 2013. Note the original engine intake, not the extended version used at Bonneville. (National Motor Museum image)

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)

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Malcolm 1931

Blue Bird LSR Car Part 3: Campbell-Napier-Railton (1931-1932)

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.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Malcolm 1931

Malcolm Campbell in the newly completed Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird in January 1931. The car was powered by a 1,450 hp (1,010 kW) Napier Lion VIID W-12 engine.

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.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird build 1930

The Campbell-Napier-Railton being built in the Thomson & Taylor shop at Brooklands. Note the offset of the gearbox and driveshaft. From left to right are Ken Thomson, Malcolm Campbell, Reid Railton, Ken Taylor, and Leo Villa.

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.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird build rear 1931

The body panels of the Campbell-Napier-Railton were removable, except for the tail fin. A screw jack can be seen supporting the car. Note the “Napier-Campbell” lettering on the fin.

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.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Daytona Beach 1931

Campbell sits in the Blue Bird on Daytona Beach in 1931. Note the cowl-mounted tachometer just in front of the engine. The aircraft (Stinson SM-2 Junior) in the background was hired by Campbell to fly Leo Villa from the start of the course to the turnaround after the first run. As the event played out, Villa watched the Blue Bird on the return run from the aircraft since Campbell did not stop between runs.

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-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Daytona Pier 1931

Again in 1931, the cowl-mounted tachometer has been removed and covered. Note the opening between the radiator housing and the car’s body. The Daytona Beach pier is in the background, as is the Austin that Campbell drove to a Class H (under 750 cc / 45 cu in) record of 94.031 mph (151.328 km/h) on 6 February 1931.

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.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Brooklands track 1931

Campbell demonstrates the Blue Bird at Brooklands on 24 May 1931. Note that the disc covering the rear wheel has been removed. The exhaust ports for the upper and left cylinder banks of the Napier Lion are visible.

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-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Daytona 1932

Campbell and the Blue Bird rocket north along Daytona Beach on 24 February 1932. The revised nose was somewhat sleeker and well-matched with the rest of the large car’s aerodynamic body.

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.

Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird Brooklands side 1932

Campbell sits in the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird at Brookland on 28 March 1932. Note the Thomson & Taylor sign in the background.

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)

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1929

Blue Bird LSR Car Part 2: Napier-Campbell (1927-1929)

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.

Napier-Campbell Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1927 no bodyBlue Bird 1929

View of the bodyless Napier-Campbell Blue Bird at Pendine Sands. Note the exhaust manifold for the center cylinder bank, the coolant (water) tank above the steering column, the size of the gearbox, and the oil and fuel tanks behind the rear axle.

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.

Napier-Campbell 1927 M-D Campbell

Malcolm Campbell sits in the cockpit of the newly-completed Napier-Campbell as a serious-looking Donald prepares for his own record-braking future. Note that the windscreen has not been installed.

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.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1927 Pendine early

The Napier-Campbell at Pendine Sands in early January 1927. The engine cowling has no louvers. A small windscreen sits ahead of the cockpit, and there are no wind deflectors by the cockpit sides. Note the water on the sand.

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.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1927 Pendine Record

Campbell running at Pendine Sands in late January or early February 1927. The Napier-Campbell now has louvers on the cowling, a larger windscreen, wind deflectors by the cockpit, and vents on both sides of the tail. Note the single exhaust stack for the center bank protruding from the bulge in the cowling. Another stack is located on the other side of the car.

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.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1928 Daytona

The Napier-Campbell Blue Bird at Daytona Beach. The angle gives a good view of the two surface radiators on each side of the car, the rear wheel fairings, and the steering links. The front wheel fairings are not installed.

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.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1928 Getty

Campbell demonstrating the Napier-Campbell at Brooklands on 9 April 1928, after returning from Daytona Beach. The front wheel fairings are installed, as is the smaller tail fin. Note the space under the cowling between the new updated Lion engine and the car’s new body. (Getty image)

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).

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1928 Villa

Leo Villa, Malcolm Campbell, and the Napier-Campbell racer on the beach at Daytona. The sliding side of the cockpit can be seen in the down position. Note the Blue Bird logo on the car’s nose.

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.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1929

The Napier-Campbell with its third body fresh out of the Arrol-Aster shop. Note the revised wheel fairings, cockpit, and tail fin. The “bird cage” radiator opening was soon revised. The lettering on the tail reads “Napier-Arrol-Aster.”

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.

Napier-Campbell Blue Bird 1929 r-f

Views of the Napier-Arrol-Aster Blue Bird before (left) and after (right) its adventure at Verneuk Pan. Note the then flag of South African on the car’s nose and the revised radiator opening, which has been damaged. Pictures from Verneuk Pan show the smaller opening undamaged. Most likely, the thin aluminum nose was damaged while the car was on tour in South Africa. The rod protruding from the nose was used as a sight while at speed on the large open lake bed.

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)

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 2015

Blue Bird LSR Car Part 1: 350HP Sunbeam (1923-1925)

By William Pearce

Louis Coatalen was the chief engineer of the Sunbeam Motor Car Company in Wolverhampton, England. In 1913, Coatalen was developing a new aircraft engine called the Mohawk. The engine’s V-12 layout was a first for Coatalen and Sunbeam, and both were eager to test the design. With the combination of a new engine design, unreliable aircraft, and poor weather, a better way to test the Mohawk was devised by installing it in a Sunbeam race car. After some teething trouble, the resulting car, named Toodles V, set eight world speed-over-distance records at the Brooklands track in England on 11 October 1913. The car was driven by Jean Chassagne, and it had a top speed of over 120 mph (193 km/h).

Sunbeam 350HP shop

The Sunbeam 350HP shortly after its completion. The engine cowling is bare of the “SUNBEAM” name later applied, and the car is supported on wooden wheels. Note the small windscreen on the scuttle panel. It does not appear that the car was ever run with this screen. The handbrake can be seen extending between the body and exhaust.

In 1919, Coatalen and Sunbeam sought to create a special race car and remembered the successful combination of a light chassis and a powerful aircraft engine. To power the special car, Coatalen took the basic 325 hp (242 kW) Manitou V-12 aircraft engine and combined it with cylinder blocks (with integral cylinder heads) that followed the design used on the 200 hp (149 kW) Arab V-8 aircraft engine. The output of the engine was 355 hp (265 kW), and the car became known as the Sunbeam 350HP.

The 350HP’s engine had the same layout as the Manitou, with two banks of six-cylinders separated by 60 degrees. Each cylinder bank consisted of two three-cylinder blocks made of aluminum and attached to the aluminum crankcase. The two spark plugs in each cylinder were fired by magnetos. Two carburetors were positioned between the cylinder banks, with one carburetor supplying the air/fuel mixture for the front six cylinders and the other supplying the rear six cylinders.

The engine differed from a standard Manitou engine in that the crankcase did not have any provisions for a gear reduction. The bore was increased .39 in (10 mm) to 4.72 in (120 mm), which is the same bore as the Arab. The Manitou’s four-valve per cylinder, dual-overhead camshaft arrangement was discarded in favor of a three valve (one intake and two exhaust) per cylinder, single-overhead design, similar to that used on the Arab. The camshaft acted on a follower that opened the intake valve. Two separate lobes controlled the exhaust valves via rocker arms. The camshafts were driven at the front of the engine (as it was installed in the car) by a train of 16 gears total.

Sunbeam 350HP Thomas

René Thomas in the 350HP at the Gaillon Hill Climb. Note that wire wheels have been fitted. The hill climb required the car to carry a passenger. The exhaust pipe was moved so that an additional seat with a fairing could be attached to the left side of the car. However, it appears that lead ballast took the place of a passenger for the actual run up the hill. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica image)

The engine had a 5.31 in (135 mm) stroke, but it is occasionally cited as 5.45 in (138.5 mm) or 5.59 in (142 mm). The discrepancy is on account of the master and articulated connecting rod arrangement. The master rod provided a stroke of 5.31 in (135 mm), but the articulated rods increased the stroke by .28 in (7 mm), to 142 mm. The 5.45 in (138.5 mm) figure is an average of the two strokes. To accommodate the slightly longer stroke, the cylinder blocks of the left bank were slightly taller than the right bank. The engine displacement if often cited as 1,118 cu in (18.32 L), which is calculated from the 5.31 in (135 mm) stroke. But the stroke difference resulted in the left bank displacing an additional 29 cu in (.48 L), giving the engine a calculated displacement of 1,147 cu in (18.80 L). A hand crank was used to start the engine. Tuned by Bill Perkins at Brooklands, the 350HP’s engine produced 355 hp (265 kW) at 2,200 rpm.

The engine was positioned in the car so that what would have been the propeller shaft faced the rear, and it was mounted to the car’s C-channel frame that was 4.75 in (121 mm) tall and 29.5 in (749 mm) wide. A radiator was positioned in front of the engine, and the four-speed transmission was mounted behind a 22 in (559 mm) flywheel attached to the back of the engine. An open driveshaft connected the transmission to the bevel-drive rear axle. The cockpit was positioned toward the rear of the car. A lever on the outer right side of the car controlled the cable-operated drum brakes on the rear wheels, and a foot pedal actuated a transmission brake. The front wheels had no brakes. Behind the cockpit were tanks for engine oil and fuel, and the car’s body was made of aluminum sheet. The front of the car’s body tapered down but was left open to supply cooling air to the radiator. Exhaust was collected in pipes that ran along both sides of the car and expelled behind the cockpit. A metal underpan attached to the bottom of the frame and helped improve the car’s aerodynamics.

Sunbeam 350HP Thomas front rear

Front and rear views of the 350HP with Thomas in the driver’s seat. The starting shaft can be seen below the radiator. Note the lack of a windscreen, the tapered front ends of the exhaust pipes, and the car’s narrow tail. The handbrake is now on the outside of the exhaust. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica image)

The Sunbeam 350HP had a wheelbase of 10 ft 7 in (3.23 m) and a track of 4 ft 6 in (1.37 m). The car was 3 ft 10 in (1.17 m) tall to the top of the engine cowling and was around 13 ft long (3.96 m). The tires were 34.6 in (880 mm) tall and 4.72 in (120 mm) wide and initially mounted on wooden wheels, but wire wheels were used later. The 350HP weighed approximately 3,417 lb (1,550 kg). The car’s body was finished with a dark green paint covering the nose and tail, and the bare aluminum cowling and cockpit area was polished.

The 350HP made its debut at Brooklands on 19 June 1920 and was driven by Harry Hawker, Sopwith Aviation test pilot and future co-founder of Hawker Aircraft. During a practice session, a front tire blew out, and Hawker lost control of the car. It smashed through some fencing and was not able to compete in the race. The car was repaired and back at Brooklands in August. Again, the 350HP’s potential was not realized when the car stalled, and Hawker was unable to start the race.

The Sunbeam racer was shipped to France where Frenchman René Thomas drove the 350HP in the Gaillon Hill Climb on 10 October 1920. Despite the car being geared for Brooklands, Thomas had better luck in the car than Hawker and set a record by averaging 108.3 mph (174.3 km/h) over the course. This speed broke the old record set in 1912 by German Fritz Erle in the 200 hp (149 kW) Blitzen Benz at 101.7 mph (163.6 km/h).

Sunbeam 350HP Guinness

Kenelm Lee Guinness sits in the 350HP at Brooklands in 1921 or 1922. A flat windscreen has now been added in front of the cockpit. Fillers for the oil and fuel tanks in the tail can easily be seen.

Hawker made an unsuccessful attempt on the Land Speed Record (LSR) in bad weather at Brooklands on 11 December 1920. He recorded a speed of 124 mph (200 km/h) covering a half mile (.8 km) and 121 mph 195 km/h) covering a mile (1.6 km). Over the next 1.5 years, the 350HP was driven by a number of different drivers and achieved some success at Brooklands, with Kenelm Lee Guinness setting a lap record of 120.4 mph (193.8 km/h) on 28 March 1921. Guinness also covered the Railway Straight half mile stretch at 135 mph (217 km/h) on 24 September 1921.

On 17 May 1922, Guinness and the 350HP set a world LSR at Brooklands, averaging 133.75 mph (215.25 km/h) over the flying km (.6 mi) and 129.17 mph (207.88 km/h) over the flying mile (1.6 km). This was the first LSR for Sunbeam and the last absolute LSR established at Brooklands. The curved track was not able to provide the acceleration distance needed as LSR speeds increased. Guinness also set flying half mile (136.05 mph / 218.96 km/h) and flying two mile (122.11 mph / 196.51 km/h) records. With a substantial amount of wheelspin, Guinness set standing start records covering a half mile in 23.460 seconds (76.73 mph 123.48 km/h), one km in 26.785 seconds (83.51 mph / 134.40 km/h), and one mile in 37.255 seconds (96.63 mph / 155.51 km/h). Guinness continued to campaign the 350 HP throughout 1922 and placed well in various handicapped events.

Like Guinness, Malcolm Campbell was a Brooklands racer and had become interested in setting world LSRs. Campbell was present when the Sunbeam 350HP made its public debut and had seen the car many times at Brooklands. Campbell became infatuated with the 350HP and pushing the record over 150 mph (241 km/h). After some persuasion, Coatalen let Campbell run the car during the speed trials at Saltburn Beach. On 17 June 1922, Campbell recorded six runs along the beach with the fastest timed at 138.08 mph (222.22 km/h), and he averaged 134.07 mph (215.76 km/h) for the flying km (.6 mi). While faster than Guinness, unofficial timing equipment was used, and the speed was not recognized by the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) as a world record. Still, Campbell had proven that the 350HP had more speed available and that he could handle the car. Campbell negotiated with Coatalen and Sunbeam and eventually purchased the 350HP in April 1923.

Sunbeam 350HP Campbell

Malcolm Campbell in the 350HP on Saltburn Beach in June 1922. The car appears to be in the same configuration as when it was run by Guinness at Brooklands.

Once in Campbell’s possession, the 350HP was painted blue, but it retained the polished aluminum cowling. The car was also named Blue Bird, a name applied to all but the earliest of Campbell’s cars. The 350HP was probably the fourth “Blue Bird,” but it was the first LSR car to carry the name—although, it was most often referred to as the 350HP. A few other modifications and repairs to put the car in running order were made by Campbell’s mechanics Leo Villa and Harry Leech.

Campbell’s first run in the 350HP Blue Bird was along the beach on Fanoe (Fanø) Island in Denmark. On 23 June 1923, Campbell recorded a record speed of 136.32 mph (219.39 km/h) over the flying km (.6 mi). On 24 June, Campbell focused on the flying mile (1.6 km) and averaged a record pace of 137.72 mph (221.64 km/h), with 146.40 mph (235.61 km/h) being recorded on the outbound run with the wind. Campbell and the 350HP then participated in a few races at Fanoe and won them all. However, the timing equipment used for the record runs was again not certified by the AIACR, and the records were not accepted.

Sunbeam 350HP frame

The 350HP became Campbell’s first “Blue Bird” LSR car. Most likely, the image is from 1924, when the 350HP was heavily modified. Note the separate cylinder blocks making up each bank and the fairing on the handbrake. The car’s body is leaning up against the wall on the left, and the cockpit section is leaning on the windows.

Campbell knew the 350HP Blue Bird had the speed to set a world record, but he also knew that others were trying to break the existing record. To improve the 350HP’s speed, Campbell turned to Boulton & Paul to improve the car’s aerodynamics through wind tunnel tests. In the first part of 1924, the 350HP’s body was modified with an elongated tail that fit over the existing fuel tank, fairings covering the rear suspension, a streamlined headrest behind the cockpit, a fairing added to the handbrake, and a redesigned scuttle panel just before the cockpit to direct air over the cockpit. The tail added about 3 ft (.91 m), making the car 16 ft (4.88 m) long. The modifications were performed by Jarvis & Sons in South Wimbledon. In addition, new pistons were installed that raised the engine’s compression.

To test the improved 350HP, Campbell ran the car at speed trials along Skegness Beach on 19 June 1924 and at Saltburn Beach on 24 June 1924, where Campbell was unofficially timed at 145.26 mph (233.77 km/h). Everything was ready for the 350HP to make another LSR attempt, but the record was pushed higher before Campbell could try again. On 6 July 1924, René Thomas raised the speed record to 143.312 mph (230.638 km/h) driving a Delage in the speed trials at Arpajon, France. The record was further increased by Ernest Eldridge in the aero-engined FIAT Mephistopheles. Eldridge reached 146.01 mph (234.98 km/h) during an extension of the Arpajon speed trials on 12 July 1924.

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 1924

The 350HP Blue Bird on Pendine Sands in September 1924. Note the elongated tail, large fairing by the rear wheel, absence of the exhaust pipe, and new paint job. The rear hood strap is unfastened. The new windscreen was later removed.

Campbell made his next attempt on 24 August 1924 at Fanoe. The state of the beach was far from ideal, and Campbell had complained about a lack of crowd control. Near the completion of the first run, the 350HP’s back tires separated from the rims, but Campbell managed to maintain control. Shaken, Campbell had new tires fitted to the back wheels for the return run. During the run, tragedy struck when the front right tire separated from the rim and stuck a young boy spectator, who subsequently died of his injuries. Campbell was cleared of any wrongdoing, but speed trials were never held again at Fanoe.

Back in Great Britain and at Pendine Sands on 25 September 1924, Campbell and the 350HP Blue Bird made another attempt on the LSR. For this run, the side pipes had been removed, and the engine’s exhaust stacks protruding from the cowling were left bare. In addition, a new wind deflector has been added to the scuttle. On a soggy beach, Campbell averaged a record speed of 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h) over the two runs covering the flying km (.6 mi). This was the fourth time Campbell had recorded a speed in excess of the existing LSR, but it was the first time his speed was recognized by the AIACR. Malcolm Campbell was now officially the world’s fastest man on land.

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird 1925

Back on Pendine Sands in July 1925, the 350HP Blue Bird has a longer, more tapered nose, no windscreen, refitted exhaust pipes, and discs installed on the rear wheels. The engine’s two vertical intake pipes can be seen under the cowling. Campbell looks on as work is being performed by Harry Leech. A happy looking Leo Villa is standing behind the car.

However, others, like Tommy Milton in the twin-engine Duesenberg, had gone faster during attempts that were not recognized by the AIACR, and Campbell knew his international record would soon be broken. Campbell put the 350HP Blue Bird up for sale and planned to focus on creating a faster car. But he quickly changed his mind after hearing of other LSR contenders, notably John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in Babs. Campbell felt the 350HP Blue Bird had a little more speed left. The 150 mph (241 km/h) mark was tantalizingly close, and he wanted to get there before anyone else.

The 350HP was again modified—the side pipes were reinstalled; the new wind deflector was removed along with the spring fairings; a longer nose was installed with an increased taper that decreased the size of the opening to the radiator; and the cowling was painted blue. The car was tested on 8 June 1925 at Skegness Beach with favorable results. On 21 July 1925 at Pendine Sands, Campbell improved his own record by averaging 150.869 mph (242.800 km/h) over the flying km and 150.766 mph (242.634 km/h) over the flying mile. The km runs were 151.482 mph (243.787 km/h) and 150.261 mph (241.821 km/h), and the mile runs were 152.834 mph (245.962 km/h) and 148.754 mph (239.397 km/h).

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 1925

With no leather head covering, Campbell was most likely driving for the press and not making an actual run. Even so, intense concentration can be seen on his face. The shape of the new nose is shown to advantage. Note the small fairing by the rear wheel and that the engine cowling has been painted blue.

Campbell was the first to be internationally recognized for achieving over 150 mph (241 km/h) on land, but he had already set his sights on surpassing 180 mph (290 km/h). Campbell knew the 350HP had reached its limit and had already planned his next LSR car—the Lion-powered Napier-Campbell Blue Bird. In 1925, the 350HP was sold to Ralph Aspden, who sold it to Jack Field in July 1934. The car may have been sold to Bill Cotton in 1936, but it was acquired by G. A. Tuchet-Jesson in June 1941. By this time, a fin had been added to the long tail. In 1944, Harold Pratley purchased the 350HP, which was in a sorry state. The car was cosmetically restored to the Brooklands trim (short tail with green paint) in 1946 by Roots Limited, the company that purchased Sunbeam in 1935.

In 1957, Lord Montagu purchased the Sunbeam 350HP, and it went through an extensive rebuild during 1958–1959. The car was in bad shape, but it was brought back to working order. The original gearbox was gone, but another (although inadequate) transmission had been substituted. The 350HP was put on display in the Montagu / National Motor Museum at Beaulieu and also run under its own power at a few outings. Donald Campbell, Malcolm’s son, drove the 350HP on 14 July 1962 at the Goodwood Circuit.

In 1987, 350HP was rebuilt to Campbell’s 1924 Blue Bird standards. On 2 April 1993, the engine was started for the first time since 1962. A blocked oil passage caused a master rod bearing to overheat, breaking the rod and piston and damaging the crankcase. Starting around 2007, the National Motor Museum worked to restore the engine and car to operating condition. The restoration was completed in January 2014, although the transmission still needs to be replaced, and the museum continues to work toward that goal. The Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird is on display at the British National Motor Museum and is occasionally run for special events.

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 2015

On 21 July 2015, the restored Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird returned to Pendine Sands to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Campbell breaking the 150 mph (241 km/h) mark. The car was driven by Don Wales, Malcolm Campbell’s grandson, and is very close to its 1924 appearance. The 350HP is displayed at the British National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. (National Motor Museum image)

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

Brooklands Giants by Bill Boddy (2006)
Sunbeam Aero-Engines by Alec Brew (1998)
The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
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)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)

cummins 1952 28 start

Cummins Diesel Indy 500 Racers

By William Pearce

Clessie Lyle Cummins was a self-taught engineer. In 1911, he served on the pit crew for Ray Harroun’s #32 Marmon Wasp racer, which won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 race. Clessie went on to start the Cummins Engine Company in 1919 and specialized in diesel engines. The Cummins company struggled in its early years. Initially, Cummins engines found success powering yachts, but the company made efforts to break into the automotive field.

cummins 1931 record dc

Clessie Cummins in Washington D.C. on tour after setting the diesel speed record at 100.755 mph (162.150 km/h) on 7 February 1931 in Daytona Beach, Florida. The car was slightly modified and entered in the 1931 Indianapolis 500 race. (Indiana Public Media image via

The Great Depression took its toll on Cummins and also affected auto racing. To increase race participation, Eddie Rickenbacker, then-owner of the Indianapolis Speedway and American Automobile Association Contest Board president, relaxed the racing rules to allow stock-block engines up to 366 cu in (6.0 L) in 1930. Cummins saw an opportunity to help fill the racing field and gain publicity in the Indianapolis 500 by fielding a diesel-powered racer in the 1931 race. Rickenbacker agreed to the plan and offered Cummins a provisional spot provided the racer could top 80 mph (129 km/h). However, the Cummins entry would not be entitled to any winnings, because of its guaranteed entry into the field.

Cummins contracted Augie Duesenberg to modify a Duesenberg Model A chassis and install a 4-cylinder Cummins Model U engine. The Model U was a marine engine with a 4.5 in (114 mm) bore, a 6.0 in (152 mm) stroke, and a displacement of 382 cu in (6.3 L). To make the engine conform to the displacement limit, the bore of the race engine was decreased by .125 in (3 mm), resulting in a bore of 4.375 in (111 mm). This resulted in a displacement of 361 cu in (5.9L). The engine had been modified with aluminum pistons and two intake valves but retained a single exhaust valve. The race engine produced 85 hp (63 kW) at 1,500 rpm and weighed about 1,600 lb (726 kg).

cummins 1931 8 indy

Clessie Cummins stands behind the Cummins Diesel Special #8 entered in the 1931 Indy 500. Dave Evans and Thane Houser are in the cockpit. Note the racer’s height. (IMS image)

To test the powertrain, Clessie drove the car to Daytona Beach, Florida and set a diesel flying-mile (1.6-km) speed record at 100.755 mph (162.150 km/h) on 7 February 1931. The racer was then driven to Washington D.C. and back to the Cummins factory, where it was modified in accordance with the Indy 500 rules. Its completed weight was a hefty 3,389 lb (1,537 kg).

For the Indy 500, the car was named the Cummins Diesel Special and given race #8. Dave Evans was the driver with Thane Houser as the riding mechanic / co-driver. The Cummins Diesel Special was regularly driven the 45 miles (72 km) from the Cummins factory in Columbus, Indiana to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Cummins racer qualified at 96.871 mph (155.899 km/h), which was the 43rd fastest car. Since Rickenbacker had guaranteed a spot in the 40-car field, the Cummins Diesel Special was the slowest car in the 1931 Indianapolis 500. However, the Cummins team had a plan to pick up a few spots during the race.

cummins 1931 8 display

The restored #8 displayed in the Indianapolis Motors Speedway Museum. Note the engine’s four individual cylinders. (Doctorindy image via Wikimedia Commons)

On race day, 30 May 1931, the Cummins Diesel Special was driven from the factory to the raceway. The racer proved to be slow during the 500-mile (805-km) competition, but the fuel-efficient engine enabled the Cummins Diesel Special to run the entire race without stopping, the first and only racer to accomplish such a feat during the Indy 500. In those days, the race continued after the first-place car finished until each car that could finish had completed the 200 laps. The Cummins Diesel Special completed its 200th lap and finished the race 38 minutes after the race leader, which was enough to secure a 13th place finish. The diesel-powered racer averaged 86.170 mph (138.677 km/h) over the 500-mile (805-km) distance, and the amount of fuel used reportedly cost $1.40 ($23 in 2018 USD).

In 1932, Clessie Cummins and William G. Irwin (Cummins’ main financial backer) took the racer on a 5,000-mile (8,047-km) tour of Europe. This trip resulted in some modifications to the racer, such as the addition of a windshield and headlights. The Duesenberg-built Cummins Diesel Special was preserved by Cummins and restored to its Indy-race configuration. The car is often displayed in various museums and run on rare occasion at special events.

cummins 1934 6 indy

Dave Evans and Jigger Johnson in the four-stroke #6 at Indy in 1934. The Roots supercharger can just be seen at the front of the car. (IMS image)

The Cummins Team returned in 1934 to race in the Indy 500. Cummins fielded two Duesenberg-chassis cars for the race, each powered by an experimental, supercharged, aluminum, inline-four engine. The engine had a 4.875 in (124 mm) bore and stroke and displaced 364 cu in (6.0L). The difference between the cars was primarily a difference in engines, with one car using a four-stroke engine and the other car using a two-stroke engine. The Indy 500 race served as a test to compare the two different combustion cycle engines. The Roots-type supercharger was driven from the engine and installed at the front of the car. The supercharger in the four-stroke car took about 7 hp (5 kW) to run, compared with 37 hp (28 kW) for the two-stroke car, which also used the supercharger for cylinder scavenging. The four-stroke engine had one intake valve and one exhaust valve. The two-stroke engine had two exhaust valves and intake ports in the cylinder that were uncovered by the piston. Each engine produced approximately 135 hp (101 kW) at 2,500 rpm. The engines each weighed about 1,000 lb (454 kg), and each car weighed around 3,200 lb (1,451 kg).

cummins 1934 6 engine

The #6 car with the Roots supercharger passing induction air through the radiator and to the engine. (IMS image)

The four-stroke car, race #6, was driven by Dave Evans with John ‘Jigger’ Johnson as the riding mechanic. It qualified in 22nd place at 102.414 mph (164.819 km/h). During the race, #6 made its first pitstop after 200 miles (322 km). Unfortunately, engine torque damaged the transmission as the racer quickly accelerated to reenter the track. This forced Evans and Johnson to retire from the race, and #6 was awarded 19th place. The engine in #6 had operated flawlessly during the race. The car has been preserved by Cummins and is occasionally displayed for special events.

cummins 1934 6 display

The restored #6 car displayed in the Cummins Museum at the Company’s corporate headquarters in Columbus, Indiana. (Ricky Berkey image)

cummins 1934 5 daytona clessie

Clessie Cummins stands by the two-stroke #5 racer at Indy in 1934 with Stubby Stubblefield and Bert Lustig in the cockpit. The Roots supercharger can be seen through the car’s grille. The racer’s 12th place finish is the best for a diesel-powered car in the Indy 500. (Indiana Public Media image via

The two-stroke car, race #5, was driven by Stubby (Wilburn Hartwell) Stubblefield with Bert Lustig as the riding mechanic. The car qualified 29th at 105.921 mph (170.463 km/h). Although the two-stroke engine was temperamental, #5 went the distance and finished the 500-mile (805-km) race in 12th place, averaging 88.566 mph (142.533 km/h). Evans took over driving duties from Stubblefield around mid-race. Race #5 was the last car to complete the 200 laps—finishing the race trailing smoke and overheating. After the racer was shut down, the pistons seized in the cylinders. Some sources indicate that Clessie was so displeased with the two-stroke engine that it was tossed into a river as the team made its way back to Columbus. Because of the issues with the two-stroke engine, Cummins subsequently abandoned two-stroke development and focused on four-stroke engines.

cummins 1934 5 daytona

After Indy, a four-stroke, six-cylinder engine was installed in the #5 racer. Wild Bill Cummings set diesel speed records on Daytona Beach Florida in 1935 and is seen behind the wheel. The front of the car was stretched to accommodate the longer engine. Note the six-to-one exhaust manifold. (Cummins image)

Race #5 was subsequently modified (lengthened) to accommodate a four-stroke, six-cylinder engine. Wild Bill Cummings used the updated #5 to set a flying-mile (1.6 km) diesel speed record of 133.023 mph (214.080 km/h) on 1 March 1935. The following day, Cummings increased the record speed to 137.195 mph (203.200 km/h). Race #5 was preserved by Cummins in its record-setting form and is occasionally displayed in various museums.

Cummins 1934 5 Amelia Island

The restored #5 in its Daytona configuration with a four-stroke, six-cylinder engine. The car was displayed for a time at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum on account of its Duesenberg chassis. As seen above, #5 is at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in April 2019. (The Southern Concours / John E. Adams image)

It was not until 1950 that Cummins returned to the Indy 500. The car was called the Cummins Diesel Special (just like the 1931 entry) and wore race #61. Because of its green color, driver Jimmy Jackson referred to the car as the Green Hornet. The racer consisted of a modified Kurtis Kraft chassis powered by a supercharged inline-six engine based on the Cummins JBS-600 truck engine. The car used disc brakes, which was a first at Indy.

cummins 1950 61 indy

Jimmy Jackson sits in the 1950 Cummins Diesel Special #61 at Indy. Although much more refined compared to the earlier racers, #61 was still a heavy brute compared to the rest of the field. Induction air was brought in via the front tunnel. The scoop on the engine cowling provided clearance for the cylinder head and airflow to help cool the engine, but overheating was still a problem. (IMS image)

The Roots-type supercharger was crankshaft-driven and mounted in front of the engine. The special engine had four-valves per cylinder and used an aluminum crankcase, cylinder block, and head. Two injectors delivered fuel into each cylinder, and the engine used an early design of what would become Cummins’ PT (Pressure-Timed) fuel injection. The engine had a 4.125 in (105 mm) bore and a 5.0 in (127 mm) stroke. It displaced 401 cu in (6.6 L) and produced 320 hp (239 kW) at 4,000 rpm. With the ram-air effect of the racer at speed providing additional boost, the engine’s output increased to 340 hp (254 kW) at 4,000 rpm. The engine weighed 860 lb (390 kg).

cummins 1950 61 engine

The uncowled #61 with Jackson in the cockpit. Note the crossflow head with the intake manifold on one side and the exhaust manifold on the other. The earlier Indy racers had the intake and exhaust manifolds on the same side (passenger) of the engine. The car’s independent front suspension was a first at Indy. (Motor Trend image)

Despite some difficulty, the diesel-powered Green Hornet eventually qualified for the Indy 500 at 129.208 mph (207.940 km/h), the slowest qualifying speed of the grid. During the race, the car was retired on lap 52, while in 29th place, because of issues with the engine’s vibration damper and supercharger drive. Repaired, and at the Bonneville Salt Flats on 11 September 1950, Jackson and the Green Hornet set six International diesel speed records: 163.82 mph (263.64 km/h) over 1 km (.6 mi), 165.23 mph (265.91 km/h) over 1 mile (1.6 km), 164.25 mph (264.33 km/h) over 5 km (3.1 mi), 161.92 mph (260.59 km/h) over 5 mi (8.0 km), 147.63 mph (237.59 km/h) over 10 km (6.2 mi), and 148.14 mph (238.41 km/h) over 10 mi (16 km). The Green Hornet was preserved by Cummins and is often displayed in various museums. On rare occasions, the car is run at special events.

cummins 1950 61 display

The 1950 racer was nicknamed Green Hornet on account of its paint. After Indy, #61 and Jackson set six diesel speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The Green Hornet is pictured as displayed in the Indianapolis Motors Speedway Museum. (AutoDesign image)

In 1951, Cummins decided to make a serious attempt for the 1952 Indy 500. Clessie’s brother Don Cummins headed the team, with Nev Reiners as the chief engineer. Also on the team were Thane Houser (riding mechanic / co-driver for the 1931 Indy effort), Bill Doup, Mike Fellows, Art Eckleman, and Joe Miller. The Cummins Team worked directly with Frank Kurtis of Kurtis Kraft to design a low-slung chassis, and every opportunity was taken to exploit the chassis-engine combination.

cummins 1952 28 indy

Freddie Agabashian and crew with the 1952 Cummins Diesel Special #28 at Indy. The engine installed on its side made the car a low and sleek racer. Compare #28’s height with that of the earlier racers. (IMS image)

Powering the new racer was a further development of the JBS-600-based engine used in the Green Hornet. Since the new engine was turbocharged, it is often referred to as a modified JT-600. The engine consisted of a magnesium crankcase with an aluminum cylinder bank and head. Concepts from Cummins’ NHH-series engines (inline-six laid on its side) were applied to the race engine, and it was installed in the racer’s chassis laid over at an 85-degree angle—nearly on its side. This resulted in a very low engine cowling about 23 in (.58 m) above the ground. The turbocharger was installed in front of the engine on the right side of the car and provided up to 20 psi (1.38 bar) of boost. Like with the Green Hornet, a precursor to the Cummins’ PT fuel injection system was employed. The engine had a 4.125 in (105 mm) bore, a 5.0 in (127 mm) stroke, and a displacement of 401 cu in (6.6 L). The power produced was 380 hp (283 kW) at 4,000 rpm and 430 hp (321 kW) at 4,500 rpm. The engine weighed around 750 lb (340 kg).

The crankshaft, transmission, and driveline were on the left side of the car, putting 150 lb (68 kg) of weight bias on the left side of the car for better handling around the oval track. The cockpit was offset to the right, and the driver’s position was very low, only 4 in (102 mm) off the ground. The racer’s configuration resulted in a very low center of gravity, but the car was quite heavy at around 3,100 lb (1,406 kg). The turbocharger was a first at Indy, as was the offset drivetrain and the car’s independent front suspension. The aerodynamics of the chassis and bodywork were fine-tuned in a wind tunnel, which was reportedly another Indy first.

cummins 1952 28 no body

With the body removed, the compact nature of #28’s chassis is revealed. The turbocharger can just be seen between the front tires. On the left side of the car, note the underside of the crankcase and the driveline extending to the rear. (Cummins image)

The car was completed in late 1951, and testing began in November. Again christened as the Cummins Diesel Special, the car was given race #28 and was driven by Freddie Agabashian. Early testing indicated a very fast car, and Agabashian was careful not to reveal the racer’s full potential during practice sessions at Indy. Agabashian would not run full power for complete laps because there was some concern that the car would be banned had its true, competitive speed been reached. Fifteen minutes before the end of Pole Day qualifying, Agabashian took #28 out and set a one-lap record at 139.104 mph (223.866 km/h) and a
four-lap record at 138.010 mph (222.106 km/h). Agabashian and #28 had qualified in 1st place in a diesel. Agabashian had pushed the racer so hard that he tore the tread off some of the tires. The qualifying record was short-lived, as two cars later qualified with faster speeds, but it was still a major accomplishment for the Cummins Team.

On 30 May 1952, the Indy 500 was run. Agabashian in #28 found the diesel slower to accelerate than the other cars. Another problem cropped up with a buildup of tire rubber debris clogging the turbocharger intake. This issue ultimately caused the turbocharger to fail and forced #28 to retire on lap 71. At that point, Agabashian was in 5th place and had averaged 131.5 mph (211.6 km/h). The race was eventually won at a 130.843 mph (210.571 km/h) average, indicating #28 was keeping pace. Race #28 was credited with a 27th place finish. In short order, rules were changed, and the Cummins Diesel Special was the last diesel-engine racer to compete in the Indy 500.

cummins 1952 28 start

Agabashian and #28 set off from the pits at Indy for a practice run. Unlike racers of today, the smoke at the back of the car is diesel smoke exhaust and not tire smoke. Note the indentation ahead of the front tire. The body was so wide that body indentations were needed for full lock tire clearance. (Cummins image)

Race #28 was returned to the Cummins factory in Columbus, Indiana where it was preserved. A restoration in 1968 revealed that the crankshaft had cracked and would have failed completely had the turbocharger issues not brought a halt to #28’s race. The racer was occasionally run for special events until 1999. In 2016, the Cummins Diesel Special underwent a restoration and was run for the first time since 1999. The racer is often displayed at the Cummins Museum and run on rare occasion at special events.

In each of its four outings at Indy, Cummins took advantage of rules that enabled the displacement of diesels to be up to twice that of spark-ignition engines. While this did offer an advantage for diesels, nearly everything else about the engine was a disadvantage compared to the standard racers. Cummins used the Indy 500 to showcase its diesel engines, test new technology, and make a statement about diesel power.

cummins 1952 28 goodwood

After its 2016 restoration, #28 participated in the 2017 Goodwood Festival of Speed in Chichester, UK. Bruce Watson, a retired Cummins Engineer, is driving the racer and also led the car’s restoration. (Steve Siler / Car and Driver image)

A sponsorship agreement between Cummins and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will provide for all five diesel Indy cars to make a parade lap before the 2019 Indy 500. The event, which coincides with Cummins’ 100-year anniversary, will be the first time that the five cars have run together.

Cummins Diesel Indy Cars 2019

All five of the Cummins Diesel Indy Cars on display in May 2019 prior to the Indy 500 race. (Cummins image)

– “Cummins at the Brickyard” by Karl Ludvigsen, Car Life (July 1969)
– “Diesels at Speed” by Griffith Borgeson, Motor Trend (December 1950)
– “The Triumph of the Diesel” Popular Mechanics (July 1934)