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Blue Bird celebrates 90th anniversary record

Published 28 July 2015

Hundreds of spectators made the trip to Pendine Sands to see a commemorative run of the iconic 350hp Sunbeam, nicknamed 'Blue Bird'. 

The event took place 90 years after Sir Malcolm Campbell set the World Land Speed Record of 150mph.

The National Motor Museum marked the anniversary with a low-speed demonstration run in the restored Sunbeam, with Sir Malcolm’s grandson Don Wales at the wheel.

Don Wales and the museum team also recreated two iconic pictures from the original run.

Wales, who is also a Land Speed Record holder, said he was thrilled to be given the chance to drive his grandfather’s car back at Pendine where the record was set.

Wales said, 'It was an honour both to follow in his footsteps and to drive this iconic car on such a special occasion.

'My grandfather was a remarkable man and for us to remember him and honour some of his achievements in this way is very humbling.

'I really must thank Beaulieu for this opportunity and for all the hard work the restoration team have done on her.'

The car was the brainchild of Sunbeam’s chief engineer and racing team manager, Louis Coatalen, and was constructed at the company’s works in Wolverhampton during 1919 and early 1920.

Its power came from a modified 18.322 litre V12 Manitou Arab aero engine, a type used on naval seaplanes.

The Sunbeam, renamed Blue Bird by Campbell, holds three World Land Speed Records, the first achieved by Kenelm Lee Guinness at Brooklands in 1922 with a speed of 133.75mph.

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

Campbell then sold the Sunbeam and it passed through a number of owners and was in a poor condition when purchased by Lord Montagu in 1957, for his ever expanding motor museum at Beaulieu.

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 outing was at the British Automobile Racing Club Festival of Motoring at Goodwood in July 1962 when Lord Montagu took it on a 3-lap demonstration run and Donald Campbell did a lap d’Honneur.

During a test fire-up in 1993 to assess the car’s condition, disaster struck when a blocked oil way 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 con-rod had exited.

In January 2014, following a complete mechanical rebuild undertaken by the National Motor Museum’s workshop team over a period of many years, the Sunbeam was fired-up again - the first time it had been heard in public in over 50 years.

The following month it was a star of the show at Retromobile, Paris and was also run at the 2014 Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Doug Hill, the National Motor Museum’s manager and chief engineer, said, 'When we were rebuilding the Sunbeam, I always hoped it would be finished by 2015 so we could run it here today on the 90th anniversary of its World Land Speed Record.

'I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to Louis Coatalen, the designers, the engineers who built it and the people who developed it during its racing history. I am also indebted to our team of engineers and volunteers who have spent more than 2000 working hours returning it to running condition.'

Supporting the run was the 1933 aero-engined Napier Railton Special, which holds the all-time lap record of 143.44mph at Brooklands.

The Napier-Railton has its own unique history at Pendine, having been the star (alongside James Mason and Ava Gardner) of the 1951 movie Pandora & The Flying Dutchman.

In the film, the car is used for an attempt on the Land Speed Record, for which the action sequences (culminating in the car being driven into the sea to quench an engine fire) were filmed on Pendine Sands during 1950.

In recent months, a film researcher has established that among the ‘extras’ in the crowd scenes for these sequences was the famed Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.

Owned by the Brooklands Museum since 1977, the Napier-Railton also made a few runs along the sand at Pendine, with Museum Director & CEO, Allan Winn, in the driving seat.


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