*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Born to a diamond seller Kent, England, Malcolm Campbell was headed for a life in the family business before fate intervened. While in Germany learning more about the business of retailing gemstones, he found himself drawn to the motorcycle races held in the countryside. Fascinated by the power and precision required to pilot the small bikes around the course, he returned to England with a need for speed. In 1935, after a series of records, he became the first human to drive a car more than 300mph.
Having grown up in London, Campbell was no stranger to the automobile. As the 20th century dawned, he was a teenager when the car’s popularity began to accelerate. Returning to his hometown after his education as a jeweler in Germany, he worked at insurer Lloyd’s of London and improved as a motorcycle racer. Beginning in 1906, the twenty something Campbell rose to fame on in the speed bike community by winning the prestigious London to Lakes End Trials three times in a row.
Driven by his success on two wheels, Campbell made the transition to four by getting behind the wheel at the Brooklands racing circuit in Surrey, the first automotive racetrack in the world, during 1910. Painting his car blue — as all of his future vehicles would be — Campbell continued to test the limits of his skills in the pursuit of better times and faster laps until serving as a soldier in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment during World War I.
The horrors of war did not slow him down. When peacetime returned, Campbell soon found himself driving cars as fast as he could. In 1924, he set the land speed record for the first time in his life — just over 146mph at Pendine Sands on the southern coast of Wales. Three years later, he would take it again, pushing his 350hp Sunbeam to just shy of 175mph just months before winning the first of two consecutive Grand Prix de Boulogne.
It seemed there was nothing that could slow Campbell down, as he took hold of the land speed records both in England and across the Atlantic in the United States (five times at Daytona Beach alone). Knighted in 1931, it seemed there was little more for the 46-year-old Campbell to achieve, but he continued testing the limits of his vehicles. After taking the land speed record eight separate times, he set his sights on something even more challenging: passing 300mph.
At the age of 50, the thrill seeker headed to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to see what could be done. Making two laps across the famous prehistoric lake bed, he averaged more than 301mph for two passes, earning immortality as the first to break the barrier. Undeterred by transferring from car to boat, he set speed records on the water, too — four different times, surpassing 140mph on his last attempt in 1939.
Known for his ability to make any vehicle move fast, regardless of type or surface, Campbell managed a significantly longer career than most of his competitors. In a profession wrought with young men killed in fiery accidents, he died of natural causes at the age of 63.