Meet the Campbells: The world’s fastest family
Gina Campbell interview conducted by Stuart Kortekaas @ Motorclassica, Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building, 24-25th October 2014.
Living life at the front lines of land speed records is not a job for the faint of heart, but for the Campbell family, three generations have suited up and fired up some of the world’s fastest machines.
We recently caught up with Gina Campbell, author and multiple-time speed record holder, about her family’s ongoing legacy of speed. Story by Stuart Kortekaas.
In 1964, Donald Campbell became the only person to break the world speed record on both land and water in the same year by piloting some of the world famous “Blue Bird” machines. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this unique achievement, a tribute was held in Melbourne in late 2014, with a special collection of Bluebird artefacts and memorabilia on display entitled, “50 years of Speed presented by Longines”.
The special guest for this event was Gina Campbell, Donald Campbell’s daughter. Like her famous father and grandfather (Sir Malcolm Campbell), Gina is a world speed record holder in her own right.
We talked about many subjects, including Aston Martin’s David Brown—who directly played an important role in the construction of Bluebird CN7, the vehicle in which Campbell set the World Land Speed Record back in 1964. But first, buried treasure!
In your autobiography Daughter of Bluebird you mentioned the only subject you really enjoyed at school was geography. You also revealed something about your grandfather I found fascinating; that he once went searching for pirate treasure on a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica [Back in 1926!]. To this day what he was searching for, the Treasure of Lima, still remains undiscovered. Have you ever considered looking for it yourself, or travelling the world searching for other buried treasure and pirate gold?
Gina Campbell: Well! This St. Christopher that was my dad’s [Pointing to the medal hanging around the neck of Mr Whoppitt, her father’s famous teddy bear good luck charm] came up with his body in 2001, it’d been underwater since 1967. I had it, then I lost it in my garden… and I’ve got two and a half acres of garden. To cut a long story short, two years later a professional treasure hunter found it for me—within an hour!
I must have spent , I won’t dare tell you how many hours looking… He has got a permit to go to the Cocos Islands, where this treasure is, with this ground searching, penetrating radar, and he’s convinced he’ll find it, because it’s there, it IS there… [he asked] Would I go along? So there you go. Would I go along…?! If he does it quickly, yes. Otherwise I’ll be too old, they’ll have to get me on there with a Zimmer frame!
Regarding art and treasure, at one point in time you were living in the south of France, just outside Mougins [Near Cannes]. You recalled a nice old man a few gardens away used to say hello to you, inviting you over for coffee, but you’d always say you were too busy to drop in. Who happened to be the famous artist Picasso.
GC: Yes! Honest to goodness! Very briefly, I used to hang out the kids washing on the line – no spin dryers, no tumble dryers in those days – and not this garden but the next garden there was always this old man in his smock coat, who he had these enormous flowers, sunflowers. He was always out there fiddling around.
Every morning he would see me and say, “Bonjour ma petit, tout viens ici pour un teste du tea?” and “No no, je suis occupé” you know and all the rest of it… I remember saying to my bosses… “You know, [there’s a] really nice old man a couple of gardens away, always asking me in for a cup of tea”.“Oh, yes” they said, “he’s a well known artist. His name’s Picasso”. That’s an unstoppable line, isn’t it! And, I said, “Who’s Picasso?”! You know, what did I know at that age… who Picasso was! Now I know, and I really regret not going in for that cup of tea.
You mentioned a few things about your grandfather Sir Malcolm Campbell in your autobiography that I found very interesting, which I’d briefly like to talk about. He once received a speeding fine as a young boy, on a bicycle of all things! [Back in 1897 he scared two old ladies who were about to cross a road, and was charged with “furious riding”!]
GC: Ten shillings! That was a lot of money in those days. “Let that be a lesson to you, Malcolm Campbell, never to go so fast again in the future”. I mean, isn’t that wonderful! To a man that would do over 300 miles an hour, and break all barriers. Wonderful, wonderful line: “…let that be a lesson to you, young man”. Didn’t do much, did it?
Speaking of human-powered vehicles, the world speed record on water is currently 18.5 knots, set by a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Have you ever thought of attempting to beat this record?
GC: I did my two water speed records, and—that’s enough, really. I’m of a certain age, that, if I was successful, everyone would think, “Brilliant, good old girl”, but if I was a failure, “You should have given up years ago, old lady”, and… I don’t think people are particularly interested at the moment in motorised world records.
I think if you start going into alternative fuels—maybe, but I don’t think there’s a thing about speed anymore, because, the world has moved so fast, so quickly, and I think people might quite appreciate the world to slow down a little bit. You know, it’s just—it’s crazy, you can’t live life at that pace and enjoy it, I don’t believe.
One of my favorite brands of all time is Aston Martin. You had the opportunity to visit the factory back when it was at Newport Pagnell, and then years later to own a DB7. I recall reading at one point you had a loan of a later V12 model from a dealership. Did you end up getting one? Do you still have it?
GC: Yes. I had the V12… [Islay Blue DB7 Vantage V12] I had one, which was the smaller engined for a couple of months [A Burgundy DB7 V6] then I swapped it for the bigger engined one. I had to get rid of it, because I used to get nabbed for speeding all the time.
Aston Martin was famously owned for some time by a friend of your father, David Brown. The DB series of cars, which includes the iconic DB5 driven by James Bond, were named using his initials. What some people might not know is that he also made gearboxes for the Bluebird CN7 car.
GC: Yes they did. David Brown. The organisation made the gearboxes for this car.
Speaking of cars and homes, one house in the South East of England you lived in at one point while growing up had a unique feature – a petrol pump in the garden! [The name of the house was Roundwood, however according to Gina it was always known as the house with the petrol pump]
GC: Oh yeah, Dad had one in the garden!
I’m curious, was this something actually used?
GC: Yes, oh my god yes. And you could see it from the road, so it was a damn good selling [point]. People would say which house, and you went oh, the one with the petrol pump. Of course the petrol had to be stored underground… I don’t know if you still can do it, but in those days I think it was quite a considerable saving to buy it in bulk – I think it held about 500 gallons – the cars in those days, [their fuel tank] probably only took 4 to 10 gallons of fuel.
2014 marked the 50th anniversary of your father’s greatest achievement, becoming the only man to hold the world land and water speed records in the same year. Reading your autobiography, I was amazed at just how dramatic and tough the events surrounding the 1963 world attempt were. It was almost like a scene out of Goldfinger, with things flying out of the aircraft—At one stage, with a tornado coming, Donald Campbell had to get quickly fly his plane off the salt lake before it was smashed to pieces. At around 1000 feet, the door blew open on the plane and everything loose in the cabin instantly disappeared!
GC: Oh yes, that day was just quite amazing. it was really quite scary, because the plane fell like a rocket, like a bloody stone fell out of the sky. Thank god my father was cool and calm and collected, I think other people might have panicked… there was only himself, Tonya, and myself in the aeroplane.
Despite the lake flooding after the first rain in 20 years, your father was determined not to give up, and he returned the next year, when he finally succeeded, and achieved something no-one else had ever done—the first man officially clocked at more than 400 mph (643 km/h) in 1964. When it comes to success in life, what do you think is more important: talent or sheer determination?
GC: It’s got to be determination, hasn’t it.
Regarding your father, there’s a couple of quick questions I’d like to ask. I’ve read that he was very superstitious, and in particular he hated the colour green. Do you have any idea why?
GC: I don’t know, I believe it’s quite common amongst people who race cars, this colour green. This guy, who came for the job, Evan Green, and he [Donald Campbell] said, “Yes, I’d love to give you the job, but you will have to change your name,” and he changed it to Evan Turquoise. I mean, isn’t that hilarious!