Some of the greatest feats of the twentieth century were forged by the ultimate, almost symbiotic fusion of man and machine. Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis. Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Both timeless and unshakable bonds that have endured throughout history and will doubtless linger in the minds of future generations long after those great men are gone and their iconic machines have been consigned to the museum.
In July 1925, another of those great partnerships of blood and oil was immortalised, not in Paris, not on the moon, but over a 7-mile stretch of sand on the South Wales coastline.
Pendine Sands has been a mecca for speed since the dawn of the motorcar itself and has been dubbed “the finest natural speedway imaginable”. It was here in 1925 where the legendary Blue Bird, in the hands of Sir Malcolm Campbell, first broke the 150mph barrier to set an unprecedented World Land Speed Record and lay the foundations for an entire dynasty of Campbell-Blue Bird record-breakers.
This week marks the 90th anniversary of that remarkable run and in a truly special tribute, the Sands once again came alive with the hissing and roaring of the distinctive V12 as Don Wales, grandson of Campbell, took flight in the original Sunbeam Blue Bird in front of hundreds of spectators.
The culmination of more than 2000 hours of restoration work, this spectacular homage to the golden age of speed may never have even got off the ground were it not for the hard graft and dedication of the workshop team at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu.
The brainchild of Sunbeam’s chief engineer and racing team manager, Louis Coatalen, the future Blue Bird stared life at the company’s factory in Wolverhampton in 1919. After its record-breaking exploits with Campbell, the car passed through a number of owners before being acquired by Lord Montagu in 1957; in less-than stellar condition. Blue Bird was soon restored to full working order and put proudly on display as part of Beaulieu’s expanding collection of four-wheeled icons. Far from just a museum piece, the record-breaker was a regular headliner at motoring events all over the UK and Europe before taking to the track for the last time at Goodwood in 1962.
However, in 1993 Blue Bird had its wings severely clipped when the engine seized and was seriously damaged during a test fire-up. For several years after that, the wounded Bird remained on display but sported a gaping hole in its 18.3 litre V12 engine.
It wasn’t until January 2014, 50 years after it last spread its wings in public, that the Sunbeam was fired-up in to life once more. Following a complete mechanical rebuild, Campbell’s charger was ready for its triumphant return to the 7-mile stretch of sand where it first made its name 90 years ago.
These days, Blue Bird may not be quite capable of fully tapping into its original 350bhp reserves; a relatively leisurely 50mph was the fastest Wales dared push the old stallion this time around. Nevertheless, Don, who has dedicated his life to keeping alive the proud Campbell-Blue Bird heritage and is himself a World Land Speed Record holder, was understandably delighted to take the very wheel his grandfather once grasped and bring many years of tireless work and loving restoration to such a fitting conclusion.
As Wales rightly points out, “my grandfather was a remarkable man and for us to remember him and honour some of his achievements in this way is very humbling.”
Undoubtedly, a fitting tribute to the glorious achievement of one extraordinary man and his legendary machine.
Check out the video below for a windswept ride aboard the Blue Bird