Bluebird K7 is wheeled across the salt of southern Lake Eyre. Image Credit: Jeff Carter

On this day: World Land Speed Record broken

  • BY Natsumi Penberthy |
  • July 17, 2014

On 17 July 1964, Donald Campbell broke the world land-speed record on Lake Eyre, clocking an average speed of 649km/h.

Natsumi Penberthy

Natsumi is a writer for Australian Geographic. She loves nothing better than digging up quirky stories in the veins of science, nature and history.

"FAR OFF ON the shimmering, glaring white salt, a siren wailed. Bluebird was on its way! For an astonishingly long 60 seconds, there was absolute silence," wrote iconic Australian photographer Jeff Carter in his book Four-Wheel Drive Swagman (1969).

Jeff goes on to recount the surreal, nervy anticipation as British daredevil Donald Campbell sped his vehicle Bluebird K7 down a 32km track on Lake Eyre, 50 years ago today, on 17 July 1964.

Bluebird K7 was moving at half the speed of sound towards a huddled group Jeff dubbed the "Kamikaze Squad" – all photographers, including Jeff, who were set up less than 10m from Bluebird’s planned path, a steering-wheel jerk away from death. Jeff admits that in the excitement they edged even closer.

"Then the eerie, whistling scream of Bluebird's huge jet engine reached us," Jeff wrote. "A split second later we could see the familiar blue speck, apparently floating above the horizon in the eternal mirage... Bluebird rocketed past us in a shockwave of heat and noise, fluttering us like autumn leaves as we hung grimly to out teetering tripods."

Donald Campbell clocked an average speed of 649km/h that day, breaking his first and tragically only world land-speed record.

Donald Campbell’s Australian track

Donald's father, Sir Malcom Campbell, had been a favourite son of his home country Britain, breaking nine land-speed- and four water-speed records – all in vehicles named Bluebird; a tradition which his son would continue.

By the time Donald arrived in Australia in 1962 he'd already broken seven water-speed records, and arrived in Sydney exuding a obvious glamour few Australian celebrities could compete with.

Donald had been drawn Down Under by the lure of flat, concrete-hard salt. At that point Lake Eyre's salt pan hadn't been softened by rain in two decades. But, fatefully just as Donald arrived showers began to sprinkle his planned track, and the record attempt was postponed.

His lasting legacy and final fatal run

Two years later anticipation fueled by waiting local and international media would finally climax.

On the blindingly white, and by then thankfully dry, expanse of Australia's "dead heart", the dashing speedster finally stole the world land speed record.

Donald veered close enough to scare the foolhardy Kamikaze Squad and afterwards Jeff says he just winked, and said: "Close enough for you?".  

Donald also broke the water speed world record on Lake Dumbleyung near Perth, Western Australia, on the last day of that year.

Nobody has ever matched taking the world land- and water-speed records in a single year. 

But three years later his craft flipped as he attempted another water-speed record on Coniston Water in England.

While Donald died in 1967 his body was recovered by divers in 2010. His remains were buried with his family.