Recollections of Aston-driving Donald Campbell, and a Cygnet backlash
I very much enjoyed discovering Vantage and reading the article about the ex-donald Campbell DB2/4 (issue 17) to which I was able to add my own recollections – as part of the design team on both the K7 hydroplane and the CN7 land speed record car, I knew Campbell a little and, as the article mentioned, once drove that very Aston.
What I should have mentioned was that the transmission boxes for CN7 were made by David Brown Ltd. I have a vague recollection of the name of Jim Iredale as my contact there, and I include a photograph of one of the boxes being installed. Hugh Standing, who designed them, is still around, now in his 90s.
I also found the enclosed pic of me on that visit to Donald just before he let me drive the Aston. I was there to explain the design to him and Leo Villa, although the publicity shot does not look as if I am! My beard had been grown at the request of Donald ‘because I looked too young for the job I was doing’!
My involvement started when, at the age of 19, I answered an advertisement in our local newspaper for a design draughtsman to join a newly formed company in my home town of Haywards Heath, Sussex. Somehow I became the first employee of Norris Brothers Ltd. Ken and Lew Norris were respectively aeronautical and mechanical engineers. Lew had been involved with Donald Campbell’s modifications to Sir Malcolm’s K4 boat and Donald asked them to design a new craft for him, which became K7.
When Ken and Lew had completed the basic design, I produced many of the detailed drawings and was given the task of designing the cockpit, steering and retractable spray-guards for the engine air intakes. After National Service, I rejoined the company to work on the Land Speed Record car, putting together the specification and working on wind tunnel models to define the shape, which had to have neutral lift characteristics (Dunlop having specified no downforce!). My detailed design work was limited to the cockpit and air-brakes, because I was made project co-ordinator responsible for selection and technical liaison with manufacturers, and technical support for Donald when visiting manufacturers.
It was an ‘educational’ period for me, having come from a very financially restricted background. I found myself being entertained in restaurants such as Rules, staying in five-star hotels, and enjoying the pleasures that he enjoyed, all at no expense to me.
Donald was a complex character, very charming, especially to attractive women and to anyone influential, but, as one director of a major supplier said, ‘He is the most charming bastard that I ever met!’
When the construction was nearing completion, I became ‘persona non grata’ because I told Leo Villa that he did not know what he was up to when he insisted on installing, and taking out, the engine three times, ‘just so that he could be assured of how to do it’, finishing at 4am the next morning! In the event he never had to, but I was deleted from the Utah team!
There is a sad addendum to this. When we moved to Tenterden two-and-a-half years ago we met the daughter of Jack Watson, foreman of the DB team that made the transmission boxes. She told me that, when Donald crashed the car at Utah, he was listening to the news and had a massive heart attack, thinking that one of the boxes had seized and it was his fault. He was immobilised for the rest of his life.
If any readers would like to read more about all of this, I still have a few copies of my book on the design and construction of CN7, signed of course, with a DVD of the record run. The price is £40 (paperback) or £45 hardback (only two left), including P&P, available from me at 2 Beacon Walk, Tenterden, Kent TN30 6SF.
Above and left Installing a DB transmission box in CN7. Donald Stevens (on right) talks through the design of the box with a pipe-smoking Donald Campbell and Leo Villa