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Britain By Car - A Motoring History

Created Date:

27 April 2015

Last Modified:

19 December 2023

Coniston Water

The site where Sir Malcolm Campbell set a world water speed record, and where his son, Donald Campbell, also a world land and water speed record holder, met his death in 1967, attempting to raise his own world water speed record to 300 mph.

Just over five miles in length and a half a mile wide, Coniston Water is located in the south central part of the Lake District. 

The lake was used in attempts on the World Water Speed Record in 1939, during the 1950s, and again in 1967.


In 1939, Sir Malcolm Campbell, a former racing driver and world land speed record holder, reached 141 mph on Coniston Water in his boat Bluebird K4, to claim a new world water speed record.  Sir Malcolm died in 1948, but within a year his son Donald was using his father’s boat on Coniston to try to keep the record in Britain.  

Despite various modifications to the boat this was not a success, and culminated in 1951 in a high speed accident in which Donald Campbell and his mechanic, Leo Villa, were lucky to escape with their lives. Their K4 boat was completely destroyed.

Plans, however, were soon underway for a new boat of a much more modern design, and in 1955, Donald Campbell broke the 200 mph barrier in the new Bluebird K7 on Lake Ullswater.  Over the next four years he continued to raise the record, each time on Coniston Water, eventually reaching a speed of 260mph..

It was during this period that Campbell’s attention turned to the world land speed record, which then stood at 394 mph, set by John Cobb in 1947.  But his first attempt in 1960, with a brand new car (also named Bluebird) ended in failure at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. In 1963 he tried again, this time on the dry bed of Lake Eyre, about 430 miles north of Adelaide.  Unexpected heavy rainfall made the course unsuitable, and success continued to elude the team on their return to Australia in March 1964.  However, in July 1964, improving conditions gave Donald Campbell a brief opportunity to reach his goal, and on 17th July 1964, he created a new world land speed record of 403 mph.  

Campbell immediately set himself the task of raising still further his existing water speed record, and on 31st December 1964, at Dumbleyung Lake in Western Australia, he took K7 to a speed of 276 mph.  With this he became the first (and only person) ever to break both the world water and land speed records in the same year.

Donald Campbell’s story is outlined in detail by Neil Sheppard on the Bluebird Project website, where he states that despite this huge achievement, Donald Campbell did not receive a great deal of public acclaim, and suggests that it may have been this that drove Campbell to go for just more record – passed 300 mph.

Work began in 1966 on refitting Bluebird K7 for this final record attempt.  Again, the team was dogged by misfortune; an engine failure during its first full power test and further problems with the boat’s handling, both caused significant delays. Having the right weather at Coniston was also proving to be a problem.

At around 7.30 on the morning of 4th January 1967, Donald Campbell checked the condition of the Lake and decided that the water was smooth enough for an attempt at the record.  Just over an hour later he began his first run.  Neil Sheppard reports that, by the end of the measured kilometre, Bluebird had reached a speed of over 310 mph.  Within a couple of minutes, Donald Campbell had turned the boat round and started his return; but this time the water was much rougher.   Sheppard states that Campbell’s commentary “left no one in any doubt that he was having one hell of a rough ride”.

About 700 metres before the measured kilometre, and travelling at over 300 mph, Bluebird began to lift free of the water - and then bounce back down.  A few seconds later it happened again – and again. On the sixth occasion, and 200 metres into the measured distance, Bluebird rose beyond the critical point and took to the air, before somersaulting and crashing down into the Lake.

It is believed that Donald Campbell was killed instantly and, following his own and his family's wishes, the accident site was left undisturbed.  However, in March 2001, after surveying and exploring the site for almost four years, a team of divers raised Bluebird from the bottom of Coniston Water.  Two months’ later Donald Campbell’s body was recovered from the Lake and later finally laid to rest in Coniston Cemetery.

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