To say that the Blue Bird V was decades ahead of its time, both in mechanics and design, is a substantial understatement.
The undertaking involved men with forklifts and wrenches and straps and rollers, and yet they often looked as though they left something important back at the shop – in this case, Bryson Crane Service of Daytona Beach, Florida.
This was perhaps the most famous land speed record car in the world, at nearly 80 years old and 10ft longer than a Chevrolet Suburban, and weighing about 10,000lbs. It is probably also worth mentioning that a source close to the vehicle, who declined to be identified citing the sensitivity of the information, pegs its value at over $25 million – which seems rather low for a one-off historical vehicle in near-perfect condition.
Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird V – he named his cars and boats after the 1908 French play Blue Bird – went over 330mph unofficially, 276.82mph officially after performing the required two-way run, still astonishing given that this was in March 1935, and the two-way run was made at low tide on Daytona Beach, just a few feet from the Atlantic Ocean.
The Blue Bird V would later be housed in a Daytona Beach museum that went bankrupt, before migrating to a storage facility at Talladega Speedway in Alabama, before returning to Daytona International Speedway in 1996 after a thorough restoration. It now lives permanently in a seldom-visited display area at the flagship Nascar track.
In 2004 it was loaned to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, staged annually by Lord Charles March at his family's 12,000-acre estate in West Sussex, England. And that is where it is headed this time, again to be displayed in July with other land- and water-speed record holders. During its prior visit the Blue Bird V was hung vertically, like a prize fish from its gills; this year, a more respectful presentation is promised.
The Daytona display, backed by obligatory fake palm trees, was overseen by a rumpled, life-sized white statue of the trim, compact Campbell, hands on his waist, goggles resting on his forehead, looking either stern or bemused; it’s difficult to tell. He was born in England in 1885, the only son of a diamond merchant.
Campbell died in 1948 from natural causes – an unusual fate, given how many lives the pursuit of speed claimed in Campbell’s era.
He began racing motorcycles in 1905, then cars, winning two Grand Prix races in France aboard a Bugatti. Speed-record attempts on water and land followed beginning in 1924. Campbell visited Daytona Beach several times, lured by its 23 miles of “hard-packed sand on a bed of native coquina shell, which gives a velvet-like surface” – perfect for setting speed records, or so said the Chamber of Commerce.
Velvet-like or not, the surface was tough on Blue Bird V’s six Dunlop tires – four in the rear, two up front – and a new set was required for every run, as they were shredded by the finish line. They were made of 18 layers of silk and cotton, and coated with rubber, and cost $1,500 each: the equivalent of $25,000 today.
There are films of Sir Campbell’s run, but they do not remotely capture what must have been the visual and aural thunder of the huge ‘Bird, powered by the 2,500 horsepower generated by its 2,227-cubic-inch, supercharged 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce racing aircraft engine. To say the Blue Bird V was decades ahead of its time, both in mechanics and design, is a substantial understatement.
Sir Campbell’s Blue Bird V, encased in a rust-coloured steel shipping container, is now on a cargo ship bound for England at speeds of approximately 23mph. It will be shown at Goodwood alongside the Bluebird CN7, raced by Campbell’s son, Donald, which he drove to 403.1mph in 1964.