In May 1954, Donald Campbell treated himself to a DB2/4. Here’s the car today
FIFTY YEARS AFTER HE DIED while chasing an eighth world water speed record on Coniston, Donald Campbell’s story still captivates us. This driven man, haunted by the ghost of his father, whose life was cut short in such a brutal, tragic and public way. There was the glamour, too – the playboy lifestyle, the adulation when he became the first man to hold both land and water speed records. And the machinery – was there ever a more surreally beautiful speed record car than Bluebird CN7? For all these reasons, the story of Donald Campbell still holds a unique fascination. It’s why I’m driving to a north London suburb with photographer Matt Howell, to the home of Peter and Ann Golding.
For almost 20 years, they have owned the ex-campbell DB2/4 – the reason we’re here. Introductions done, Peter opens the garage door and pale winter light trickles over the curves of that distinctive tail. It looks stunning in Bluebird blue. Not its original colour – when it left the factory it was Moonbeam Grey and no-one’s sure when it was repainted to match the record-breakers. In terms of spec, it’s a regular DB2/4 with the popular ‘Vantage’-spec 2.6-litre engine. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But knowing that Campbell once owned it does give it an aura. The fact that it has had just a handful of owners, who have cherished and preserved it, adds to its specialness.
Compared with most of Peter’s cars, the Aston is a mere youngster. It shares garage space with a number of Vintage and Edwardian machines, including a Rolls-royce Silver Ghost and a 4½-litre Bentley. Some of the other vehicles he owns are regular entrants on the London to Brighton run and wouldn’t look odd being pulled by horses.
He tells me he’s 80, but I’m not entirely sure I believe him. ‘We did 2300 miles in the Ghost last year on a rally down through France,’ he grins, though he does add: ‘I was fairly tired when I got out!’ The Aston, he says, was a concession to advancing years. ‘I always knew the time was going to come when I needed something easier to drive, and that Ann could drive, too.
‘So the DB2/4 came up at a Brooks sale in 1998. I’d actually gone along to buy another car, but I had a bit of money jingling in my pocket, so I decided to bid on the Aston. And pretty soon I realised that no-one else was bidding on it. Anyway, I stopped at about £10,500 and the auctioneer banged it down to me. I didn’t even have a trailer for it. So we checked it would start and I phoned my insurers and I drove it home.
‘When I was at school in the early ’50s, you were in one of three groups – you were either Aston, Jaguar or ’Healey 100, and I was always an Aston man. So I felt a lifelong attachment to Astons, even though I’d never had one.’
The factory build-sheet for OYK 7 confirms that it was delivered to DM Campbell Esq, of ‘Abbots’, Betchworth, Surrey, on May 8, 1954. The supplying agent is shown as Brooklands, and the paint colour Moonbeam Grey, with red-piped grey Connolly leather trim. Under ‘non-standard equipment’ it mentions ‘heavy duty shockers’ and ‘RJ needles fitted’ – presumably to the twin SU carburettors. The body was by Mulliners – this was the final year before David Brown bought the Tickford coachworks.
There doesn’t appear to be any special significance to the OYK 7 registration, although 7 was one of the notoriously superstitious Campbell’s lucky numbers – it was for luck that he named his land speed record car CN7, the CN being an abbreviation of Campbell-norris, in recognition of the contribution of engineers Ken and Lew Norris. (In the case of the jet-powered boat K7, incidentally, K stood for the unlimited class in the Lloyd’s ratings, and it was by coincidence the 7th boat registered in the class.)
Subsequent owners of the Aston included the Marquess of Londonderry and an airline pilot. Before Peter bought the car, it had been in the hands of one owner, Alistair Kerr, since 1961, which accounts for its excellent overall condition and originality, and suggests the recorded mileage of around 75,000 may well be correct.
‘We think he was a Scottish amateur racing driver, who raced as Bob Kerr,’ says Peter. ‘I know he also had Ferraris and lived in a huge house at the side of Loch Lomond. It would be nice to find out more about that.’
Now that he’s developed a taste for modern machinery, Peter has also bought a Jaguar XK140 fixed-head coupé, the Aston’s contemporary rival no less. So, how do they compare? ‘Ann wouldn’t even think of getting into the Jaguar!’ laughs Peter. ‘It’s more powerful, being a 3.4, but it’s uncomfortable, and the steering and gearbox are nowhere near as nice and direct as they are on the Aston.’
An engineer by training, who later owned a builders’ merchants business, Peter has always been hands-on with the servicing of his cars. ‘Being able to tilt the whole front of the car makes the Aston really easy to work on,’ he says.
As with all his cars, the Aston is exercised properly whenever time allows. ‘It’s been on a number of road rallies,’ he says. ‘One tour took us to Reims, Baden-baden, Zurich, down into Italy, then across to Saint-paul de Vence, then home – about 2500 miles. And we’ve been all over the Swiss mountains in the car.’
It also makes appearances at various shows and Campbell-related events, including the launch last year of the new David de Lana book on Campbell (see Desirables,
page 29). Peter’s had shots of it taken with Campbell’s widow Tonia, daughter Gina, and nephew Don Wales (both Gina and Don record-breakers in their own right, the former setting a woman’s world water speed record, Wales holding records for both electric and steam-powered cars).
Peter also reunited the car with Donald Stevens, a member of the design team on both K7 and CN7. Stevens remembers the Aston well. Talking to Vantage from his home in Kent, he recalls an occasion when, aged just 22, he found himself behind the wheel of the Aston with Campbell alongside, urging him to go faster.
‘The only car I could afford at the time was a pre-war Standard 8, and the fastest I’d ever been was 60mph, and that was pedalling very hard indeed!’ he laughs. ‘One day I was explaining bits of the CN7 design to Donald and he had a phone call and said: ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go and see this chap now. Come with me.” So we jumped into the Aston and belted off, and we got up onto the Hog’s Back and he pulled over and said: “It’s about bloody time you drove a decent car. I want to see 100mph before we hit that rise.” That was quite a demand, but we hit 105mph. All I recall is a lot of noise and a bone-rattling shake!’
That I can certainly believe. Peter fires up the big straight-six engine and after a bit of a cough and a splutter it settles to a brisk idle, barking through its only lightly silenced exhaust when he blips the throttle before reversing out of the garage and into a rather grey Wednesday morning in the London suburbs. I slip in alongside and we set off for nearby West Lodge Park Hotel to take some pics.
‘It does sound good, doesn’t it,’ says Peter, as we ease out into light traffic. He works his way up through the David Brown gearbox, changing up early and making the most of the LB6’S torque, occasionally double-dipping the clutch to ease the changes. The whole car is alive with sounds and vibrations. It doesn’t feel particularly quick, and it’s clearly a very physical car to drive, but then it hasn’t had any of the modern mods that so many have.
‘Not interested,’ laughs Peter. ‘It’ll cruise all day on the Continent at 65-70mph, which is what I feel comfortable with. I’m no speed merchant!
‘Chris Shenton [the Stoke-based Aston specialist] did the paintwork soon after we got it, so nearly 20 years ago. It had always been garaged, so it was rot-free. It had an engine rebuild about five years ago by Trinity Engineering. Otherwise it’s totally original. Even the steering wheel’s orginal – it’s all taped up, but I wouldn’t dream of replacing it. It’s the original wheel, and it really pleases me to know it’s the same one Donald Campbell held.
‘The car is from a period of his life when he was on top of the world and everything was going right for him, as opposed to the later years when he was beset by problems.’
And how true that was. Towards the end, Campbell looked a tortured soul, struggling to find sponsorship, dogged by bad luck, largely ignored by an indifferent media. By contrast, in 1954, when he bought OYK 7, he was just entering the most successful period of his life. His jet-powered hydroplane, K7, was nearing completion. The following year it would establish the first of seven world water speed records, and he would of course eventually hold the records on both land and water. Campbell genuinely was a national hero.
Peter doesn’t know exactly how long Campbell kept
OYK 7. Daughter Gina, in the book Bluebirds:storyofthe Campbell Dynasty, says that her earliest memory of record-breaking was the sight of the jet engine from K7 in one of the garages at Abbots, with OYK 7 alongside and her father discussing plans with chief mechanic Leo Villa. That memory was preserved in the wonderful photograph, reproduced here on page 76.
Gina also recalls that, a year or two later, when her father wanted to introduce her to his new girlfriend (soon to be third wife), the actress Tonia Bern, ‘he brought her down to the school which I was by then attending in Blandford, Dorset, in an Aston Martin – impressive enough by itself.’
Campbell was clearly much taken with his DB2/4, because a few years later he bought a MKIII, which would wear the registration DC 7. The same plate was later worn by a Jaguar XK150, and that was followed in 1965 by an E-type. This was the car he drove to Coniston for what would prove to be his final record attempt. Rather hauntingly, there are photos of the E-type parked on the shoreline just where Donald left it before climbing into K7 on that fateful day in January 1967. He was just 45.
I was a mere lad of five at the time, but I remember my Corgi Bluebird CN7, which together with the Astons and Jaguars of the day first fired my passion for cars and engineering and heroes like Campbell. If you’re of a similar mind, you’ll enjoy a new book, Donaldcampbell,300+, Aspeedodyssey by David de Lara. And if you haven’t seen it already, do watch the 2013 BBC documentary, Donaldcampbell,speedking. Both are fine accounts of a truly remarkable man and his achievements.
Above The Aston sharing garage space at Campbell’s Surrey home with the MetropolitanVickers Beryl jet engine that would power Bluebird K7. On the left is Campbell with chief mechanic Leo Villa, and examining the engine is team member Maurice Parfitt. Righ
Above Campbell in reflective mood on Ullswater in 1955 with the recently completed K7 jet-engined hydroplane. Later that year he would go on to set a new water speed record of 202.32mph. By 1964 he had raised the record to 276.33mph