She was simultaneously different and yet exactly as I should have expected her to be. A beautiful 1925 Sunbeam motorcar, affectionately named Ladybird thanks to her deep red paintwork, sat in front of me as she awaited her opportunity to once again take to the sands of Ainsdale Beach, by Southport. This morning, as the central attraction of the Southport Festival of Speed, this special Sunbeam was due to perform a re-enactment of one of the best moments of her long and varied motoring career – when ninety years ago she successfully claimed a Land Speed Record with Sir Henry Segrave at a speed of 152.33 mph over a measured kilometre.
Organised by The Atkinson Museum, Sefton Council and the Aintree Circuit Club, the Southport Festival of Speed was a week-long event containing a wide assortment of speed-related activities including a film night, a Concours d’ Elegance and special talks by Neville Hay, Stephen Segrave and Gina Campbell. These activities aimed to both educate and enthuse event attendees on Southport’s role in the pioneering years of British motor racing and in particular, inform of the life and achievements of Sir Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave.
I was in attendance at the Southport Festival of Speed as a freelance motoring writer and photographer but more so simply as an enthusiast for speed records. I had driven several hundred miles from my home in Scotland to see Ladybird, to hear her engine and to watch her in action. Initially it proved a little difficult for me to get a clean and considered look at her thanks to the many journalists, photographers, television crews and curious members of the public that surrounded her but even in limited glimpses I was immediately struck by her grace.
Like many of the record attempts I’ve keenly read about in recent years, my knowledge on the subject has developed at good speed and that’s a surprise given that I somewhat stumbled into the world of the Land Speed Record without even realising I’d done it. During a visit to the Lakeland Motor Museum, I naively walked into the Campbell-Bluebird room where I was at once greeted by the sight of a full-sized replica of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 1935 Blue Bird. At the time I didn’t know anything about speed records but I instantly found myself in awe of this huge vehicle, which filled the room and represented the original car that had been the first to break 300 mph. I didn’t fully understand its design but I sensed purposefulness in everything about it. This bright-blue enormity was ridiculous but for that I truly loved it and speed records have been a core interest of mine ever since.
Segrave’s red Sunbeam was now on the move. She slowly crept past the dunes lining the coast and proceeded down onto the golden sands of Ainsdale. She looked so small and delicate as she was gently towed along by a modern-day pick-up and it was here that I realised how she differed from my expectations.
As I walked along in Ladybird’s tyre tracks, I recalled the vast 1935 Blue Bird which had kick-started my interest in Land Speed Records. I then thought of all the comprehensive LSR literature I’d been absorbing since then and I could also recall the many photographs I had seen of what looked like small people standing next to enormous vehicles. Following Segrave’s Sunbeam through the crowd, it was suddenly clear, that until now, I’d never associated the word ‘delicate’ with a Land Speed Record car. In all the photographs I had encountered, it was usually the driver who had looked like the fragile component, not the other way around.
An enthusiastic crowd had now gathered on the beach. The Sunbeam looked elegant and composed, ready for her big moment, whilst people moved and talked and moved some more all around her. She was joined by a replica of the 1927 Campbell-Napier Bluebird as well as a varied selection of vintage motors, most of whom were attending as part of the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq register.
The Sunbeam was fired up and the crowd quickly lined up along the sands. Her driver Malcolm Page, in leather racing cap and dark glasses, brought her down to the start on the firm, compact stretch of beach and off she sped on her way down Ainsdale. Her engine sounded clean and purposeful and it didn’t take long for her to look very small indeed as she disappeared in the direction of Southport.
At this point I could remember an article from the April 1926 edition of Motorsport Magazine in which the Sunbeam was described to have shown a “most surprising turn of speed” and here something else occurred to me - I was not at all surprised that she was as quick as she was.
Only a few weeks before had I spent an afternoon in the library reading Henry Segrave’s 1928 book The Lure of Speed in which he had explained how the principles of lightness, combined with a super-efficient engine, had been fundamental in the construction of this particular Sunbeam. On his bid to claim the Land Speed Record in 1926, Segrave said:
“For the flying kilometre and flying mile I had to beat 150.778 mph and 150.766 mph, these records having been set up by Captain Campbell on a 350 hp Sunbeam … it was therefore no easy task to defeat the standing figures …”.
Louis Coatalen and the engineers of the Sunbeam Motor Company believed their best chance of success in taking the Land Speed Record within the limited 7-mile space of Ainsdale Beach was to possess an excellent power-to-weight ratio which, in turn, would get her up to speed as quickly and efficiently as possible. Ladybird developed a total of 306 bhp with her super-charged engine, some 44 bhp less than the Sunbeam Blue Bird with which Malcolm Campbell had achieved the Land Speed Record with at Pendine Sands in July 1925.
Despite Ladybird possessing neither the equivalent horsepower nor maximum speed of Campbell’s Blue Bird, the Sunbeam engineers believed the key to her success would lie in whether she were able to get up to speed more quickly. The thinking was that if she could enter the timed course for the attempt at a higher speed, she might well have been capable of claiming the record too. In addition, it was hoped that Segrave would also be able to push harder within any limited stretch of UK beach as he would require a lesser braking area due to Ladybird being so much lighter and potentially able to come to a stop better than Campbell’s Blue Bird.
I watched Ladybird return after her first re-enactment run on Ainsdale. Despite her lightness, she looked steady and unflustered on the sand. Some people in the crowd applauded as she glided past. Next the 1927 Campbell-Napier replica thundered up the beach, flames and noise belching in its wake – a noticeable contrast to the somewhat more subtle drive from the Sunbeam.
Next the vintage motors took their turn to parade in front of the spectating crowd, most of whom seemed quite invigorated by what they were seeing before Ladybird once again came out for another run up the beach and back prior to being positioned perfectly near the starting area for the press.
I made my way over to photograph Ladybird at the end of her very successful morning. She looked perfect with just a slight spray of sand over her tyres and the morning sun bringing out the best of her vibrant red bodywork.
Segrave’s 1925 Sunbeam had been a car of many contrasts to me – she had been very different to what I would have normally expected from a Land Speed Record car and yet she fitted perfectly both the descriptions and principles I had read in Segrave’s book The Lure of Speed – she was subtle yet powerful, delicate but fast.
I had come to Ainsdale as a keen enthusiast of speed records. I guess I’d also arrived as a dedicated, somewhat biased admirer of Campbell and his many Blue Birds - where all of my interest in speed records stems from - and yet here I was in full respect of this beautiful Sunbeam motorcar once driven by Sir Henry Segrave whilst I myself stood on Ainsdale Beach where together they’d claimed the Land Speed Record back in 1926. Although I hadn’t hoped for anything other than an enjoyable time at the Southport Festival of Speed and a few LSR related photographs to add to my portfolio, it seemed I’d had to, and easily managed, to find a space in my heart for a very surprising little red Sunbeam.
Many thanks go to Gemma Halleran of The Atkinson Art Gallery & Library for organising my press access to the Southport Festival of Speed. Thanks also go to the marshals of the Aintree Circuit Club for lending me a high-vis jacket on the sands and for kindly taking my photograph with the replica 1927 Campbell-Napier Bluebird (something to perhaps proudly show the grandchildren one day!). Thanks to David Simister of Classic Car Weekly & partner Natalie Bassling for a bit of light-hearted banter about classic cars. Thanks to Anthony Stuchbury for a very enthusiastic discussion on the beach about photography and all things Bluebird. Thanks to Nick Benwell of Phoenix Green Garage for a passenger ride around Southport in a 1929 Sunbeam 3 Litre S/C Tourer, once driven by Sir Malcolm Campbell in the 1929 Irish Grand Prix. Thanks to 'the voice of the night' Neville Hay for a lengthy chat about the Sunbeam Motor Company and what it's like to report on the 24 Heures Le Mans in the middle of the night (the best bit!) as well as letting me in on some helpful journalistic advice. Thanks to Keith Hick for being such a wonderful artist & for letting me buy a lovely print of Bluebird CN7. Thanks go to David & Judith Wynn of the Bowden Lodge Hotel for putting me up during my stay in Southport. Special thanks go to Gina Campbell - for your time, for not laughing at me whilst I was dressed as your grandfather at the afternoon talks, for your incredibly kind words of encouragement, for the secret message written in my copy of your book and the impromptu invitation to an extra event relating to Bluebird K7 - it was so nice to meet you. Thanks to Phil Evans of the Speed Record Club for taking my photograph beside the very lovely Sunbeam Ladybird and thanks also to Malcolm & Jane Pittwood for publishing my article in the May 2016 edition of FAST FACTS (newsletter for the Speed Record Club).
As we followed the twisting road down into Pendine, I could feel that I was nervous. This seemed a little odd as I’d been told I would be very welcome in the village and I was on route to do something that I do fairly regularly as an amateur photographer interested in motoring heritage - I was on my way to photograph a car. My partner Chris had taken charge of the driving that morning as he knew this was an appointment I wouldn’t want to miss. With nothing to do but look out of the passenger window, I could barely sit still as our car drove into Pendine and on towards the Museum of Speed and the beach that lay beyond.
We’d come a long way to be here. I’d left my beloved Scotland and travelled over 500 miles to be in this exact place, on this particular day. The anticipation had simply built as we’d got ever nearer and then there it was – my first glimpse of that unmistakable blue and I knew exactly what it meant – Blue Bird was here and so was I.
Pendine, Blue Bird, me, here. I couldn’t quite take it in. As I walked towards the beach slipway, I couldn’t really see Blue Bird properly for the many people walking around her. Instead I got the quick sight of a wheel here and a hint of blue bodywork there. It was a real tease.
I’m slightly embarrassed to confess this now but two years ago I knew very little of land speed records or Bluebirds. In September 2013, my partner Chris & I took a short break in Cumbria and how my naivety on the subject was all about to change.
We opted to visit the Lakeland Motor Museum in Ulverston and it was a good choice. I spent a satisfying afternoon happily wandering around, minding my own business and photographing lots of lovely cars. Soon it would be closing time but there was one last section of the museum to visit. I walked through the doors of the museum’s Bluebird wing and saw in front of me an enormous bright blue car that seemed to fill the room. I’d never seen anything like it. This was a full-scale replica of the Campbell-Railton Blue Bird, which in 1935 took Sir Malcolm Campbell to over 300mph and the pinnacle of his record-breaking career. I walked around this striking vehicle, taking in both its size and unusual shape. I didn’t fully understand its design but I was certainly curious.
We then looked at the large collection of trophies, photographs and paintings that lined the room but for all the impressive memorabilia, and to my surprise, it was some black and white footage on a television that really got my attention. Here I saw Bluebird K7’s crash for the first time. Despite not knowing much about what I was watching I immediately felt sick when I saw the plumes of white water reach up towards the sky as the craft impacted upon the lake. I felt like my world had stopped and I felt very sad. In my hands I held a faithful camera that goes everywhere with me but I took not a single picture in the Bluebird wing. I somehow felt it would be disrespectful and then closing time came and we had to go.
Distraction came from the rest of our holiday but the footage had stuck and with it came numerous questions – what exactly was K7 and why had it been going so fast? Who had been driving when it had lifted out of Lake Coniston and what happened afterwards? Had anyone ever dared to go that fast on water again? And most importantly, how had the crash ever happened? It bothered me.
The need for answers led me to a familiar habit – I sought out books and began to read. I started with The Fast Set by Charles Jennings and instantly became fascinated with the world of the land speed record and the attempts made by Sir Malcolm Campbell, John Cobb, George Eyston, Henry Segrave and John Parry-Thomas. I quickly learned the names of many record-breaking vehicles – Blue Bird, Babs, the Golden Arrow, Thunderbolt, the Railton Mobil Special and a 1000hp Sunbeam known as ‘the slug’.
I’d had a good general introduction but I was curious to know more of the people involved in land speed records and their reasons for doing so. This was when I remembered the 1935 replica Blue Bird I’d discovered in Ulverston and at my local library I requested My Thirty Years of Speed by Sir Malcolm Campbell.
This book and the old photographs inside it absorbed my attention for weeks. At the time I was working in a very monotonous job and commuting a long-distance to do so. Each day I looked forward to getting the bus home and whilst hidden up amongst the back seats, I was transported to the likes of Brooklands, Pendine Sands, the Verneuk Pan, the Bonneville Salt Flats and Daytona Beach. I learned how complicated achieving a speed record was – from technical difficulties to bad weather and beyond – it was a wonder anyone could persevere!
One day I read a story from Campbell’s youth of how he’d constructed his own aeroplane and then accidentally bought it back from himself whilst trying to increase its value at auction. To the bewilderment of my fellow passengers, I laughed out loud as if Sir Malcolm had been re-calling this tale whilst sat next to me on the bus.
I also read of his various treasure-seeking pursuits around the world and of the beat-up planes he’d fly back to Britain as a ‘ferry’ pilot during World War I. These stories made a real impression on me. It struck me as strange that, if the date marks on the first page were correct, then this old library book had been tucked away in storage since 1983. I was born in the November of 1984 and if that were the case Sir Malcolm’s book had sat waiting until I was 28 to be read again. My new interest appeared to be somewhat niche.
Afterwards, I went on to find answers on the jet hydroplane K7 in Neil Sheppard’s book Donald Campbell, Bluebird and the Final Record Attempt before adding to it with Daughter of Bluebird by Gina Campbell. I visited Coniston, the Campbell family became an inspiration to me and I continued to learn more and more on speed records. Whilst all this had been going on, I’d always imagined that my first sight of a Bluebird would be an uninterrupted one, perhaps in a quiet museum somewhere, so it was strange to meet the 350bhp Sunbeam in the midst of so much activity at Pendine.
I naturally began to gravitate towards the car but my partner Chris noticed a group of marshals gathered around a dapperly dressed chap and directed me towards them instead. I quietly joined the back of the group and began listening to instructions being given out for the day ahead.
The instructions were being given out by Don Wales, grandson of Sir Malcolm and holder of several land-speed records in his own right. Today this particular Blue Bird would take to Pendine Sands in celebration of the 150.76 mph record set by Sir Malcolm Campbell 90 years ago. I needed to listen carefully as a few weeks beforehand I’d volunteered to help Don out as a photographer. The last thing I wanted was to get in anyone’s way or be flattened out on the sand!
Don concluded by asking if anyone didn’t have a specific job to do. As always I had my camera in my hands and I was ready to help but I wasn’t sure where I was to be or what specific photos were needed. I knew I’d have to put my hand up and as I did so, Don quickly spotted me.
“Is that Gillian?” he asked.
In new situations I have a natural tendency to be shy. Shyness, shyness, shyness and then I blushed. “Yes, hello.” I managed back. Clearly he’d seen through my disguise of a flat cap with goggles on top with relative ease. It seemed like the most appropriate thing to wear to a 1920’s land-speed celebratory event. I was keenly aware that I either looked the part or like an idiot. Then I noticed Don was wearing Plus fours and I guessed I was probably in good company.
“Everyone this is Gillian and she’s our ‘pet photographer’ for the day.” Don said to the group, many of whom looked in my direction. A man lifted his camera and started taking pictures of me and I just blushed all the more. The group discussed things a bit further and then parted. Don started to head for the beach.
Meanwhile I was introduced but still unsure how best to help. I didn’t want to be shooting the wrong things or wasting people’s time and consequently I realised I’d have to go after Don. I thought to myself how Pendine was a place where many people had found some bottle and now it was time for me to do the same.
I ran after Don and asked him what he specifically wanted me to do. He was perfectly lovely and polite – why had I been so unsure of speaking to him? General, atmospheric shots of the day and what I thought might work became my brief. Having already seen some of my work, Don seemed confident that if I just did what I’d normally do as a photographer that would be good. I accepted the challenge and wished him well with driving Blue Bird. It was clear I had the far easier task. Shortly Don would have to drive a legendary land speed record car in front of the national media and hundreds of expectant people. I genuinely hoped it would all go well for him.
I began with some general shots of Blue Bird whilst she waited for her afternoon ahead. Various mechanics from the Beaulieu National Motor Museum were busy checking all was well as she sat on the ramp for the beach. Other photographers with large cameras buzzed around and curious people looked at the car. There were no barriers in the way. This was incredibly trusting and I was surprised to be allowed to get so close to the Sunbeam.
Don and some helpers then rolled and guided Blue Bird down onto the sand. Myself and many other photographers followed, walking hurriedly alongside. Blue Bird came to a stop and Don climbed inside, quickly becoming occupied with doing interviews and answering an array of questions.
I watched all that was going on and made my way to the front of the crowd that was building up around the car. Don spotted me again and I went to take his photograph. It was then, as I readied my camera, that I noticed the similarity between Don and his grandfather. Through the viewfinder I saw Don, then Sir Malcolm and then Don again. It was striking. Of course Don was sat inside Blue Bird and wore the correct attire - re-creation was the overall idea of the event after all - but it was mostly in Don’s face that I saw the resemblance. In that split moment I could’ve been fooled into thinking this was 1925 and somehow I’d managed to step into one of the grainy pictures from My Thirty Years of Speed. Don said something about the photograph and as soon as he did, I pressed the shutter. There were many journalists behind me wanting to do the same, likely with urgent deadlines to adhere to, so it was a matter of giving Don a quick thumbs up and getting out of the way, heading down shore for some alternative pictures of the event.
It wasn’t long before my camera and I were called upon. Autocar journalist Steve Cropley had brought a Ferrari FF with him and he required a photograph of this sleek supercar together with Blue Bird for the magazine. With some perseverance I was able to get some images of Steve and Don chatting together as the two vehicles sat side-by-side.
The Ferrari then backed out of shot to trade places with a 24-litre Napier Railton, in which John Cobb had set the 1935 Brooklands Outer Circuit Lap Record of 143.44mph. It was a very purposeful and elegant car, the surrounding activity mirrored on its reflective bodywork. Meanwhile, whilst I’d been busy the starting gantry had been assembled and many people had brought their own cars down onto the sands where they now lined the course.
Two mechanics stood hunched in front of Blue Bird, waiting for their cue to crank her 18.3 litre V12 into life. From behind the dash fuel was hand-pumped through and then the two mechanics moved in unison to give Blue Bird the start she needed. I saw them do this and tensed a little, remembering my dad’s tale of how he’d broken his thumb and wrist when an engine he’d cranked had kicked back.
Blue Bird fired into life. Flicks of flame and blue smoke vented from the many exhaust pipes and thankfully no one came to any harm. Suddenly the air was filled with the roar of Blue Bird’s engine. It sounded much louder and more complicated than any other engine I’d heard. I knew before Blue Bird had even turned a wheel under her own power that I would not be forgetting this in a hurry.
There was a brief pause as Don called for some of the press to come back closer to the start. It was too risky for them to be that far up the course. It would be good to have some run-off should anything go wrong with the car.
With goggles down and much anticipation in the crowd, Don set off. I got what I could with my camera, silently cheering him on as I watched him go by. I wondered what Sir Malcolm would have thought. Now spectators were straining to see as the Sunbeam turned to come back. There was a good variety of people there – older chaps comparing notes with one another, individual people with their cameras and lots of families. Young kids pointed at Blue Bird as she got nearer and they were really excited. Blue Bird glided past, doing around 50mph. She was making easy work of her performance and it was clear she had much more to give. Don returned to the start and the crowd applauded. It was a great atmosphere.
Blue Bird continued her celebratory drives, taking it in turn with the Napier Railton to go up and down Pendine Sands. Land Rovers drove alongside both cars whilst film crews hung out of windows and hatches to capture the action. Meanwhile, I was running up and down the beach trying to catch Blue Bird from different points along the course. One photograph I was particularly keen to take was a modern-day equivalent of an image I could remember from My Thirty Years of Speed. In this particular sepia snapshot Blue Bird had been photographed just before she crossed the start line at Pendine. To my delight I was able to get something very similar as well as some scenic shots of her whilst looking out to sea. I might not have been as experienced as many of the other photographers present but I was certainly trying to do what I could.
The afternoon gradually came to a close and Blue Bird was once more taken up to the ramp for the beach. She was shortly due to appear in a live television interview with Don. I caught up with my partner Chris whilst Don spoke to the team who’d been assisting during the day. I was hopeful he might be free again for a few moments as I was keen to express my thanks in person. I spotted an opportunity and ran across to talk again.
I shook Don's hand and said something along the lines of “I just want to say a big thank you for everything today. You did great and Blue Bird was amazing. I’m just so happy.”
In my hands I held a brown bag. Inside was my copy of The Fast Set, which had first informed me about land speed records as well as a gift for Don.
“I brought you a gift.” I said as I took a dark green and blue tartan scarf out of the brown bag. “This tartan is called Black Watch and it’s closely associated with the Campbell family. I thought you might like it.”
Don graciously accepted the scarf and signed the book for me. Now that my nerves had dropped there was so much more I wanted to say – your family have been an inspiration to me and this was the best way to see Blue Bird and Pendine Sands for the first time – but Don was being prompted for the up-coming interview and I decided the tartan scarf would have to do. I really felt like I’d got a taste for what it must have been like back in 1925 when Sir Malcolm Campbell achieved his record of 150.76mph. Don & I hugged and I hoped that he could tell from how happy I was, that in motion and upon the legendary Pendine Sands, Blue Bird had been the most inspirational thing I had ever seen.
Super special thanks to Don Wales for allowing me to join in with the run of the 350bhp Sunbeam Bluebird, driven to 150.76mph in 1925 by Sir Malcolm Campbell on Pendine Sands. Despite being incredibly busy talking with fans, doing interviews, posing for photos and doing the all-important task of driving a legendary land speed record car in front of thousands of expectant eyes, Don was kind enough to give me both photography suggestions and confidence in the midst of chaos. You couldn't meet a more smashing chap! Thanks also to the folks at the Beaulieu National Motor Museum for sneaking me a high-vis jacket and Chris Russell for helping me to get to South Wales. Finally, sincere thanks go to Blue Bird herself for simply being glorious. I was so happy to see her on the move that I could have just cried. Wonderful!