‘When we were carrying out the engine rebuild I did have a secret plan to have the car at Pendine Sands for the ninetieth anniversary of its record run’ says Doug Hill, manager of the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. ‘But I didn’t tell the team!’
Ninety years to the day since Sir Malcolm Campbell extracted an astonishing 150mph from the Sunbeam 350hp ‘Blue Bird’, hundreds gathered at the westerly point of Pendine’s storied sands to witness Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Grandson, Don Wales, pilot the former land speed record holding machine.
The air was thick with mist and all the way to the horizon the sky was split like a sheet, with sunshine and wispy clouds to one side and the darkest and most foreboding of broody stuff on the other. Luckily, the latter won its seemingly inevitable battle (it is July, after all …) only right at the end of the afternoon’s play.
‘We’ve put around 2,000 hours in the motor alone’ Doug explains. ‘So it was only after we’d completed that successfully and run the car in January 2014 that I suggested we bring it back here.’ As a thrilling bonus, the Brooklands Museum agreed to bring along the magnificent Napier Railton to run alternately with the Blue Bird. As second fiddles go, that was a pretty strong one …
‘I was talking to (Brooklands Museum Director) Alan Winn over dinner at the Festival of Speed last year. Beaulieu and Brooklands work closely together and suggested that he bring the Napier Railton.’ Mr Winn kindly agreed and we were treated to the sight of two record breaking cars, the famous shiny monster having run at 150mph for 24 hours almost sixty years to the day, just one of its staggering 47 speed records.
With the weather threatening to take a turn for the worse, the Blue Bird set off once again from the faithfully-recreated start line to a round of applause. With the car’s preservation in mind it was decided to run it just half a mile down the sand and at only around 40mph, after which it took a supertanker-sized u-turn (only to the left. Being designed to run at Brooklands, the Beaulieu crew explained that it’s pretty hopeless at right handers) and rumbled back again to even greater applause. The feat was repeated several more times as the assembled media took its turn to run alongside in the chase vehicle (driven by GRRC member John Norris) and grab what photos and video they could. Minutes before the rain arrived GRR had its chance and we crammed our photographer Tom Shaxson in there to do his stuff. You can see the results and the fruits of the rest of his day’s work in the gallery at the top of the page.
With both cars having performed well, we asked what now lay in store for each. For the Blue Bird it’s a return to Beaulieu and the search for a gearbox. Doug Hill again: ‘We’re using this event to launch an appeal to raise money to recreate the correct gearbox for the Sunbeam. It’s running a period-correct commercial gearbox at the moment.’ Asked what happened to the original, he replies with a morsel of embarrassment ‘well once it was at the museum, but it’s gone now. We even searched the site of the old museum with a metal detector to see if it might be buried, but no luck!’
As for the Napier Railton, Alan Winn tells us: ‘It’s back to Brooklands now to be thoroughly cleaned of sand, then it’s at Wings and Wheels at Dunsfold in August. After that we’re flying it out for the Hong Kong Classic and next year hopefully it can be at Bonneville again, 80 years since it last took records there. But with 12,000 competitive miles under its belt and still on its original pistons we have to look after it!’
Photography by Tom Shaxson