Donald Campbell took the public imagination by storm with his powerful, beautiful and world-record breaking vehicles - both on land and water, remaining to this day as the only person ever to break both the land and water speed record in the same year (1964.) Here we take a look at Donald's personal garage - just what cars scratched the speed king's itch for on-road excitement?
Words and Research: Gillian Carmoodie
Pictures: Thanks to Chris Lowe, Practical Classics and Classic Car Weekly.
This article was first published in Classic Car Weekly on January 4th, 2017. Fifty years to the day since Campbell's fatal accident.
Famous for having scooped numerous speed records for Britain on both land and water during the 1950s and 1960s, Donald Campbell's life came to a tragic yet heroic end on 4 January 1967 while attempting to break the water speed record on Coniston Water in his Bluebird K7 speedboat. He was aged just 45.
As a patriotic supporter of British industry and connoisseur of fine motorcars, Donald opted for an enviable selection of homegrown classics as personal transport – often finished in similar shades of blue to that which he favoured for his Bluebird record vehicles and boats. Here’s our pick of those he drove... well, at least the ones that weren’t gas turbine-powered.
1. 1965 Jaguar E-Type
Of all of Campbell’s personal machines, Donald’s Jaguar E-type Series I in Opalescent Silver Blue is the car with which he is most closely associated.
Bought in May 1966 from HR Owen, Donald was photographed beside the Serpentine in Hyde Park as he handed the keys to his wife Tonia Bern-Campbell. Registered GLM 37C, the 4.2-litre E-type was often seen driving through the village of Coniston, with Donald waving and tooting to locals on his way to Bluebird K7’s workshop. The E-type was the last car Donald drove and it remained parked alongside Pier Cottage after Donald’s fatal accident on Lake Coniston 50 years ago.
Removed on 6 January 1967, the Jaguar was sold about a week later along with the registration of DC7. In the intervening decades, the E-type has been treated to panel work, a full respray and an engine rebuild while retaining the non-standard wooden gearknob fitted by Donald.
2. 1964 Radford Mini
In the 1960s, it was fashionable to have a Mini Cooper customised by Radford to create a more opulent and exclusive version (actor and comedian Peter Sellers is pictured with one, above).
When Donald Campbell treated his wife Tonia to a 1964 1275 S, it had benefitted from the Radford treatment. Among the extras was a full leather interior, electric windows and a record player. The Radford also had a radio with roof-mounted aerial and a grille with recessed spotlights, in line with the company’s Mini de Ville Grande Luxe specifications. Although it is unclear if Donald ever drove the Mini himself, it was photographed on Campbell’s driveway at his home of Priors Ford in Leatherhead as it sat beside a full-scale prototype of the land speed record car Bluebird Mach 1.1, designed to reach speeds of up to 840mph. Bluebird may have been significantly faster, but the Mini probably handled much better.
3. 1937 Bentley 4.5-litre (DXU 2)
Donald Campbell became the third owner of this stunning 4.5-litre Bentley after buying it on 3 February 1949. Sporting Standard Steel Park Ward coachwork, the car was originally black but had been painted silver prior to Donald’s purchase.
Famously photographed in a publicity shot alongside Bluebird K7 in the French port of Aixs- Le-Bains by Lake Bourget, Donald Campbell’s XK150 SE fixed-head coupé was as stylish as the settings it often found itself in.
On the sale receipt he gave his address as the Reigate Hill Hotel in Surrey. It is believed he was living there while Bluebird K4, a speedboat previously owned by his father Sir Malcolm, underwent alterations prior to Donald’s first attempt at the water speed record.
He had a St Christopher badge fitted to the dashboard, as well as aircraft seatbelts, both of which are still in the car. Donald owned the Bentley for little less than a year, selling it in December 1949. The 4.5-Litre was bought by the Lakeland Motor Museum in 1989 and fully restored, including a respray in Bluebird Blue and the fitting of a radiator mascot in the shape of a swift.
4. Jaguar XK150 (DC 7)
Built in June 1958, this 3.4-litre XK150 was finished in Pastel Blue and came with numerous special factory options including Koni shock absorbers, Pirelli Cinturato tyres, a high compression cylinder head, D-type camshaft and overdrive, while the luxurious interior was finished with grey upholstery with safety belts and a Derrington steering wheel.
Registered to Donald by Henlys of London, the XK150 was used as a daily driver and looked after by Donald’s long-term mechanic Leo Villa. Rumour has it that Donald also used the XK150’s engine in a speedboat.
The XK150 remained in Campbell ownership until mid-1963; it is now privately owned, with its most recent public appearance being 2016's NEC Classic Motor Show in November.
5. Land Rover Series I (JNJ 375)
As Donald strove for his speed records, he was supported by various Land Rovers that worked tirelessly to keep his attempts going.
They pulled stranded speed record vehicles free when they became stuck in soft terrain and were also employed winching Bluebird K7 out of the water at Coniston Water.
Perhaps one of his slowest ever vehicles, Donald’s Series I was likely chosen thanks to its sheer dependability but was never tasked with record-related work. Bought on 29 January 1960, JNJ 375 was petrol-engined and had an 86in wheelbase.
Unusually for one of Donald’s cars, it is believed this Land Rover retained its original green paintwork while under Donald’s ownership. This is despite his superstition that the colour green was unlucky.
Beneath the now blue paintwork, the panels of the Series I are made of Birmabright, the same corrosion-resistant alloy that made up much of Bluebird K7’s bodywork.
Donald's Other Road Cars
Donald also owned, at various times an AC Ace, Aston Martins DB2/4, DB MkIII and DB4 GT, Jaguars XK120 and MkI and a Morris Minor Traveller, used as a general purpose runaround.
His first-generation 1955 Jensen Interceptor had a brief drive-on part in 1962’s motoring-orientated The Fast Lady movie, starring Stanley Baxter, Leslie Phillips and Julie Christie. Despite his preference for true blue Brits, he also acquired one of the zeniths of 1950s sports cars, a Mercedes- Benz 300 SL ‘Gullwing’.
You can find excerpts from BBC's 'Across The Lake' in this Marillion music video, the song of which is about Campbell's final record run.