CAMP­BELL’S AS­TON

In May 1954, Don­ald Camp­bell treated him­self to a DB2/4. Here’s the car today

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS PETER TOMALIN POR­TRAITS MATTHEW HOW­ELL

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.

V

Withthankstow­est­lodgeparkho­tel,hadley­wood.

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

side

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

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