February 1927: a new land speed record

The Engineer was dubious about Captain Malcolm Campbell’s claim have broken the world land speed record on Pendine Sands

Bloodhound SSC, the latest attempt to break the world land speed record, is regularly featured in The Engineer; it’s one of the highest-profile engineering projects in the UK, and its mixture of high technology and derring-do makes it fascinating for many people.

blue bird
Malcolm Campbell at the wheel of the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird at Pendine Sands in 1927

The same wasn’t true in 1927, when a brief news piece marked the breaking of the land speed record by Malcolm Campbell, then a Captain in the Royal Flying Corps — a parallel with current record holder and Bloodhound driver Andy Green, who is an RAF  Wing Commander. Campbell broke the record in the second car to bear the name Blue Bird at Pendine Sands in Wales, and broke the 150mph barrier, hitting 174.883mph on the Flying Kilometre and 174.224 on the Flying Mile. In another Bloodhound parallel, this Blue Bird was driven by an aircraft engine; in this case a Napier Lion 12-cylinder, with the cylinders arranged in three banks of four in a ‘broad arrow’ configuration: this produced 450bhp, which is 100hp less than the Jaguar supercharged V8 that Bloodhound is using to pump oxidiser into its hybrid rocket motor; it positively pales beside Bloodhound’s aero engine, a Rolls-Royce EJ200 turbojet.

The Engineer was surprisingly sniffy about Campbell’s achievement. ‘While we admit that the speed achieved is remarkable for a machine travelling on wheels,  we are not disposed to feel undue enthusiasm for the fact that it is claimed to be a record,’ the journal says. The uncertainty was due to a lack of information about the timing method used. No stopwatch could measure to the accuracy claimed, he article says: even the first decimal place was dubious, as stopwatches of the time measured to a fifth of a second, and only when the sweeping hand was exactly on a division was the time accurate. ‘A stopwatch capable of being read to the thousandth part of a second would require to have a balance wheel making a thousand oscillations per second’ rather than the five oscillations made by the best stopwatches. ‘Captain Campbell’s feat consists of doing the mile in 0.436 seconds faster’ than the previous record holder, John Godfrey Parry-Thomas, it says: ‘That figure speaks for itself, as regards both the achievement and the accuracy which is required.’

Parry-Thomas tragically died trying to retake the record: a month after Campbell’s run he tried again at Pendine, but his car, named ‘Babs’ crashed and caught fire. Campbell himself was a rarity among speed record specialists of the time: he died of natural causes, in 1948, after breaking land and water speed records in a succession of Bluebird vehicles. His son, Donald, was not so lucky; after a dazzling record-breaking career on water and land he perished in an attempt on the world water speed record in the jet boat Bluebird K7 on Coniston Water in 1967.