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Sir Malcolm Campbell's grandson takes record-breaking Blue Bird out for a spin

Published 21/07/2015

Don Wales in the historic Sunbeam nicknamed Blue Bird, which was once owned by Sir Malcolm Campbell
Don Wales in the historic Sunbeam nicknamed Blue Bird, which was once owned by Sir Malcolm Campbell

They say history has an uncanny way of repeating itself - and the grandson of motoring daredevil Sir Malcolm Campbell can prove it.

Don Wales, 54, got behind the wheel of the car his grandfather used to smash the land-speed record 90 years ago.

In 1925, the 350hp Sunbeam topped 150mph on the sands of Pendine in west Wales, making history and entering the record books in the process.

Fast-forward to 2015 and it was Mr Wales in the driving seat as a crowd of hundreds witnessed the classic 22ft supercar roar once more.

The event was organised by the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire, whose mechanics spent more than 2,000 hours restoring just the engine.

Although the 18.3-litre monster was not fully let off the leash during a low-speed demonstration, the car known as Blue Bird still possessed its distinctive roar.

Mr Wales, who even donned the same style clothing as Sir Malcolm, said: "It's quite incredible to think that 90 years ago today my grandfather achieved 150mph in this machine.

"To even sit in the car is something special, let alone drive it.

"I think if he were alive today he would probably be on my shoulder saying 'go on son, put your foot down more', because he was driven by speed.

"It's a fantastic machine and feeling the wind in your hair was something else."

Mr Wales, also a land-speed record holder at one time, added: "I was very nervous beforehand because I had never driven the car before - and I didn't want to blot my copybook.

"It has fearsome power and just kept wanting to go faster. It's a real feat of engineering."

Blue Bird was the brainchild of Sunbeam's chief engineer and racing team manager Louis Coatalen. Constructed at the company's works in Wolverhampton in 1919 and early 1920, its power came from a modified 18.322-litre V12 modified Manitou Arab aero engine.

The Sunbeam, renamed Blue Bird by Sir Malcolm, took three world land-speed records, the first by Kenelm Lee Guinness at Brooklands in 1922 with a speed of 133.75mph.

Sir Malcolm then purchased the car, had it painted in his distinctive colour scheme and in September 1924 achieved a new record of 146.16mph at Pendine, raising it the following year to 150.76mph.

The car was later sold and passed through a number of owners but was in poor condition when it was purchased by Lord Montagu in 1957 for his expanding motor museum.

It was restored to working order and when not on display it was taken to motoring venues in the UK, Europe and as far afield as South Africa.

Its last proper outing was at the British Automobile Racing Club Festival of Motoring at Goodwood in July 1962 when Lord Montagu took it on a three-lap demonstration run and Sir Malcolm's son Donald did a lap of honour.

However, during a test fire-up in 1993 disaster struck when a blocked oilway in the engine caused it to seize and "throw a rod".

For several years after that, the car was on display in the museum with a very visible hole in its engine where the piston and connecting rod had exited.

But in January last year, the Sunbeam was fired up again - the first time it had been heard in public in more than 50 years - thanks to the National Motor Museum's workshop team.

Doug Hill, the museum's manager and chief engineer, said everyone connected with the Blue Bird was delighted to be able to celebrate its achievements.

He added: "Having spent over 2,000 hours on the engine alone, this low speed commemorative demonstration run is a fitting tribute both to the team of engineers at the museum involved in its restoration and to the original creators of the car.

"It is also a tribute to Lord Montagu who had the foresight to preserve this iconic motor car and to the courage and determination of Sir Malcolm Campbell."

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