1920s Blue Bird Land Speed Racer Sings Again
UK Motor Museum Restores the Roar to 18-liter V12
More than 90 years after setting its first land-speed record, and 50+ years after its engine was last turned over, Malcom Campbell's famed "Blue Bird" was started up recently at England's National Motor Museum (NMM).
The car was part of an early wave of vehicles that, taking advantage of advances in aviation technology spurred on by World War I, relied on airplane engines to chase the land-speed record. According to information from the NMM, the Blue Bird originally was built under the auspices of an early British automaker called Sunbeam, and wrapped a relatively aero-influenced body around a massive 18.322-liter V12 that was originally designed for use by seaplanes. Engineers were able to extract about 350 hp from that engine, which Sunbeam driver Kenelm Guinness—of the brewing family—used to reach a then-record 133.75 mph.
That's when Malcom Campbell comes into the picture. An all-around motorsports enthusiast who also set speed benchmarks on the water and won a pair of early Grand Prix races, Campbell bought the Sunbeam after its record-setting run and got behind the wheel himself. In Campbell's capable hands, and nick-named the Blue Bird for its distinctive coloration, the car raised the bar to 146.16 mph in 1924, then managed a third record in 1925 when Campbell achieved 150.76 mph. (And if the name "Sunbeam" sounds familiar to gearheads of a certain, that's likely because Maxwell Smart, aka Agent 86, drove a Sunbeam Tiger in the classic show "Get Smart.")
As for Campbell and the Blue Bird, the two went their separate ways soon after, with Campbell setting a slew of further land-speed records that culminated in him becoming the first driver to break 300 mph. The car itself went through a number of hands before arriving at the NMM in 1972. At that point, the Blue Bird hadn't been started since a 1962 appearance at the Festival of Motoring at Goodwood, and it remained idle until the museum attempted to fire it up in 1993 as part of a routine assessment. The result, however, was anything but routine, as the engine threw a rod.
Fast forward to 2007, and that's when the NMM was able to begin the long, arduous engine-restoration process, a task that eventually required more than 2,000 hours and an untold number of volunteers. The results certainly seem to be worth it, as you can find out for yourself by checking out this video from Vintage Tyres, the company responsible for the Blue Bird’s new rubber: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Sw2Nctgjh0
(Photo courtesy of the National Motor Museum.)