On this day : The 10th of November 1958

Donald Campbell breaks water speed record

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Donald Campbell followed in his father’s slipstream as a fanatical pursuer of speed records. Sir Malcolm Campbell won two grand prix driving a Bugatti, was the first man to exceed 300mph in a car, and in all set nine speed records on land and four on the water, the last on Coniston Water in 1939 when he reached 141.74mph.

Donald Campbell began his own speed attempts in his father’s Bluebird K4 boat, but after a major problem at 170mph in a run on Coniston it was obvious that in order to advance a new craft was required. Bluebird K7 was the creation of Ken and Lew Norris. It was powered by a jet-engine, was of an all-metal construction, and was a three-point hydroplane design.

K7 set its first record on Ullswater in 1955, passing 200mph, and Campbell moved the mark upwards over the following years. This was an era of exciting technical innovation, and Bluebird with a shape like something out of the Dan Dare comic-strip epitomised the feeling that technological progress had no limits.

The record set on November 10th 1958 was achieved with some vital design changes: a tail-fin housing a parachute was added; the fairings on the forward planing shoes were raised to reduce the tendency to lift, a problem also addressed by the mounting of a steel fin on the transom that shifted the load further back and improved stability.

While it is Campbell who is remembered for his courage and obsession, the heroes in the backroom should not be forgotten, working with slide-rule and imagination to give him the machinery required, indeed Campbell himself was careful to call it a British achievement rather than an individual one.

On the 10th of November 1958 Campbell managed to complete the second run of the pair required just nine minutes before the hour allowed had elapsed. He had raised the world water speed record to 248.62mph. Minutes later the wind got up and the water became too choppy to even consider further efforts. Campbell was brave not crazy.

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