The man, the fear and the lake

ROBBO PRESENTS... Classic Wheels EPIC TALES FROM OUR ARCHIVES FIRST PUBLISHED APRIL, 1981

Evan Green

IT’S NOW MORE THAN 50 YEARS SINCE DONALD CAMPBELL BECAME THE FASTEST MAN ON THE PLANET, HIS BLUEBIRD THE QUICKEST CAR, THE SIMMERING SALT PANS OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA’S FABLED LAKE EYRE ENGRAVED FOREVER AS THE LOCATION WHERE IT HAPPENED.

Evan Green’s enthralling two-part epic of how Campbell registered an average speed of 648.7km/h with back-to-back passes near Muloorina Station may just be the best-written Wheels story.

When Evan left Holden (GMH as it was then) through ill health after a stint as PR director, I asked him if he would be interested in writing for Wheels. “Well,” he said, “not if it interferes with Gavin’s work.” Gavin, Evan’s eldest son, was then working freelance for Wheels from London. Fortunately for all of us, the concerned father agreed that first-person stories about the 1950s and 60s couldn’t be duplicated by any works from Gavin, who went on to succeed Steve Cropley as editor of Car magazine.

We talked through a number of story ideas and decided Evan’s time as manager of Campbell’s 1964 attempt on the land speed record deserved to be an appropriate beginning.

We agreed on 4000 words as the upper limit.

A few weeks later, a mildly embarrassed Evan arrived with the manuscript: just the first two-thirds and stretching to 7000 words. I knew from my first reading that not one word could be cut. So we ran all 12,000 words – surely Wheels’ longest story – over the November and December 1981 issues. It is a marvelous yarn, best read at one sitting and savoured over a glass of quality wine.

The Motor, a now departed English weekly, asked to reprint the story. Evan was delighted, and so were we. It subsequently appeared, minus wife Tonia Campbell’s dirty joke.

A couple of months after the story ran, Tonia, then working as a nightclub singer in Los Angeles, wrote to Wheels (April, 1982): “Congrats on the super story about DC. It’s the best I’ve read and goodness knows how many have ever been written… I’m glad the old boy is remembered for the character he was.”

Tonia admitted that she had written the same story, but told us, “Frankly it needs re-writing (part of the book is by Donald). I called it Bluebirds and Windmills.” It took another 20 years for Tonia to eventually publish her book, under the title My Speed King: Life With Donald Campbell.

“He was brave, fearful, loyal, treacherous. Highly intelligent, supremely foolish. Religious one moment, an atheist the next. Saint Donald, Don the con. You name it. Donald Campbell was it.” EVAN GREEN

Deadly obsession

DONALD Campbell was obsessed with becoming the first man to break both the land and water speed records in the same year.

He achieved the double on December 31, 1964, when he clocked 444.7km/h at Lake Dumbleyung near Perth, WA, in his Bluebird K7 boat. That wasn’t enough: his next target was to take a rocket-powered car – to be named Bluebird Mach 1.1 – to 1350km/h.

To publicise this project, Campbell took another shot at raising the water speed record. On January 4, 1967, at Coniston Water in England’s Lake District, Campbell’s Bluebird K7 boat flipped at an estimated 528km/h. Campbell was killed instantly. His body and the K7 were not recovered until 2001.

Also in Wheels, November/December 1981

MITSUBISHI Sigma is Australia’s first production turbo; Lamborghini’s Countach S takes on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road; Wheels explores why some cars sold in Australia cost twice their overseas equivalents; the four-cylinder engine remains the new VL Commodore’s worst feature; Volvo takes a fleet of cars to the Red Centre; an unnamed Wheels reporter spends a week as a new-car salesman

Next issue

The notorious Romsey Quints is sent packing in a Jaguar XJ-S to Queensland in the hope he would get lost, never to return. He did return, and wrote a classic tale of his sojourn into the land of Joh.

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