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Blue Bird, Tiger Moth and Verneuk Pan

2014-02-11 11:20


BLUE BLAST FROM PAST: Blue Bird, the land-speed record car between the European wars, has been restored for the Montagu Motor Museum in the UK. Driver is Don Wales, Campbell's grandson Image: Beaulieu Museum (with permission)

Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 75-year-old record-breaking aero-engined car Blue Bird has been fired-up for the first time in more than 50 years.

Originally constructed at the Sunbeam works in Wolverhampton in the English Midlands in 1920, the car travelled all over the world in the hands of several illustrious owners, among them K. L. Guinness (brewer), Billy Cotton (British band leader) and of course Campbell, each trying to find a suitable venue at which to break land speed records – some of which lasted only days before being beaten by perhaps only one kilometre per hour.

Briton Captain Malcolm Campbell, not a man to take kindly to being usurped by such small margins and always up for the challenge of searching for suitable venues, his entire family, 56 crates of spare parts and 800 gallons of aviation fuel for his De Havilland Tiger Moth and, of courrse, Blue Bird boarded the Carnarvon Castle liner in 1929 and headed to Cape Town.


His destination – according to Cape Odyssey records – was Verneuk Pan, 550km north-east of Cape Town, where Campbell attempted to wrest the speed record once again for King and Country. With little more than a handshake sportsmen of the day did that sort of thing…

Graham Scott, the Cape Times reporter who at the time interviewed Campbell, recorded that Campbell felt Daytona Beach in Florida, US, the celebrated home for attaining speed records – as it still is – was “too variable, weather-wise” and had heard that Verneuk Pan in South Africa was well worth checking out.

Verneuk is Afrikaans for deceive – a reference to the mirages conjured up in the area. On a recce in the area all looked good to Campbell and his entourage, until closer inspection revealed sharp flint-like stones all over the Pan. Pushing the car up to 135km/h (Campbell was hoping for 400km/h) it was obvious to him that much work would have to be done to the strip if it was to be a successful attempt on the land speed record.

Obliging as ever(!) the local Provincial Roads Department in the Cape came to the party creating a 15m wide tar strip over a distance of 20km. No mean feat as hard-to-find water had to be transported from eight kilometres away. A white line was painted down the entire length of the circuit – and it’s still visible today.


Alas, the venture took a turn for the worse – the pilot tasked with taking Campbell up for a recce stalled and crashed. Both were OK but Campbell was swathed in bandages and obviously knocked about. Major Allister Miller, a well-known South African air force pilot, kindly offered to ferry Campbell back to Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town for further treatment.

The return flight went well, the landing was fine, but a gust of wind overturned the Moth, opening Campbell’s wounds. A newspaper quote from Campbell at the time read: “I cannot label the trip a resounding success but it certainly was interesting!”

A week of so later Campbell was fit enough to tackle what he came all the way here for: an attempt at the one-mile (1.6km) world record. He failed, but in the process succeeded in snatching two other important records: improving the five-kilometre world record to 347km/h and upping the eight-kilometre record to 339km/h.

His trip to South Africa was definitely not wasted but another British record holder, Sir Henry Segrave in his Golden Arrow, was still the man to beat. Incidentally, it was Segrave who, in 1930, became the first person to hold land and sea world records simultaneously.

But what became of Blue Bird down the years?


Well, the car was exhibited at Garlick’s showrooms in South Africa in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg for about two years. Campbell, meanwhile, was knighted in 1931 after finally capturing the world mile record in an all-new Blue Bird at Daytona.

In 1987 the car was repainted and the wheels rebuilt. Around 2007, the Beaulieu motor museum workshop team started looking at the car with a view to repairing the engine and an initial strip allowed them to assess the damage sustained in a 1993 start-up.

Examination showed the connecting rod had come through the side of the crankcase, scoring the crankshaft and damaging three pistons and valves.

Now the fully restored Sunbeam will be transported to the Retromobile classic car show in Paris before returning to Beaulieu to take its place in a new display titled 'For Britain & For The Hell Of It' – the story of British land-speed records, opening for Easter 2014.

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