World’s coolest boats: Bluebird K7 was as cool as it was fast

Each month we pick out an iconic boat that can lay claim to the title of world’s coolest boat. This month, we take a closer look at Donald Campbell’s Bluebird K7.

The irony is that when disaster struck on Coniston Water in January 1967, both Bluebird K7 and its owner and pilot Donald Campbell were already world speed record holders. Son of the legendary Sir Malcolm Campbell, who died of natural causes in 1948, Donald had big shoes to fill.

His father had claimed nine land speed records and four water speed records, culminating in a 141.74mph run on Coniston Water in 1939 in Blue Bird K4 – a propeller-driven hydroplane.

Fiercely patriotic, Donald feared that the USA was about to field a faster boat, and bought back Blue Bird K4 (it was sold when his father died) in an attempt to push the record for the world’s fastest boat out of reach.

Unable to gain the necessary boost from the modified K4, Campbell commissioned a new, more advanced jet-powered hydroplane in 1953 called Bluebird K7 to challenge the record, now held by the American Slo-Mo-Shun IV.

Bluebird K7 was a very different craft to Blue Bird K4. As well as having its two sponsons at the front rather than the back, and being built out of aluminium and steel rather than wood, it was powered by a turbojet aeroplane engine producing a huge 4,500-pound-force (16 kN) of thrust instead of a piston engine and propeller. Designed by Ken and Lew Norris, it proved to be an inspired combination.

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Campbell set seven world water speed records in Bluebird K7 between July 1955 and December 1964, gradually increasing the speed from 202.32mph to 276.33mph.

As if that weren’t enough, he decided to take on the land speed record too, eventually setting a speed of over 400mph in 1964 in Bluebird CN7, after surviving a 350mph crash four years earlier.

In fact it was chasing sponsorship for an 800mph rocket car (Bluebird Mach 1.1) with the intention of breaking the sound barrier that, in part, encouraged that fateful last run in Bluebird K7.

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Campbell in the cockpit of Bluebird K7 on Ullswater, 23 July 1955, when he set his first world water speed record of 202.15mph. Photo: Getty

Campbell felt that if he could just get the water speed record past 300mph, the publicity generated would produce a sponsor.

On Wednesday January 4th 1967, having already successfully negotiated one run at an average speed of over 297mph, he turned Bluebird K7 around to complete the course in the other direction as required by the rules.

After entering the measured mile at a record speed of over 330mph, Bluebird K7 took off and somersaulted, fatally disintegrating as it crashed back into water. Donald Campbell’s luck had finally run out but the legend of Bluebird K7 still lives on.

Bluebird K7 specifications

Built: 1953
LOA: 26ft 3in / 8m
Beam: 10ft 6in / 3.2m
Power: 4,500Ibs thrust / 3,840hp
Top speed: 320mph / 278 knots

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