Wednesday, April 18, 2012

From Puppets to Speed Records / Sir Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird

It's so cool to connect someones personal history with you, the blog readers. Here's how it went, the phone rang, Clint Campbell, of the Shafters Car Club on the other end. He goes on the tell me about one of their members that has a great story to be told, Milt Davies, whose dad was on the team of Sir Malcolm Campbell's record breaking run at Bonneville in 1935. Here's how it happened...through the memories eye of Milt.

Campbell poses for photos with his Bluebird in England before leaving for America, 1935. Getty Image

"My father, Giles Davies, answered an ad in the Salt Lake Tribune for help wanted as a puppeteer sponsored by Shell Oil at the Utah State Fair in July of 1935. The depression was on and people would do just about anything for a living. When my dad got to the Shell Company office in Salt Lake City, they asked him if he could work some puppets. He said: "Sure, let me have a crack at it!" Shell had set up a large booth just inside the entrance to the fair. As folks would enter, my father would start up one of his many puppet shows for the kids. He used both hand puppets and Marionettes and was the many voices of the characters. The marketing strategy was to have the kids stop long enough to watch the show and then a man would step out from behind the booth and talk about how great Shell oil and gas was to the parents. You have to remember that talking movies were just being perfected in those days and radio was king. There were no diversions like today with iPads, cell phones, Xbox, etc. and a puppet show was real draw!"

"Shell provided all the free oil and fuel (and some sponsorships) for racers on the Salt Flats in those days. Some say, those were the glory days of racing because things were so primitive and everything was "hand" built.When the State Fair was completed, my father worked his way into a job as a member of the pit crew for Sir Malcolm Campbell. My father had immigrated from England in 1909 from a small town near Liverpool and as an Englander, dad got along with all the British lads and could always understand their "strange" accent. Being very personable, the other racers really took a liking to him. He was always up for a joke or a gag or a good story. In addition to working on the Bluebird crew, my father flew in an Army Jenny bi-plane taking photos and sometimes flying the plane himself whenever there was a car on the Measured Mile. It was the racers first line of defense for medical emergencies because it could get to the racer faster than anyone else."

"During their time on the salt, the pit crews sought refuge under one of those big green army tents. Dad said that the heat coming off the dark green tent was scorching hot and had that sweltering waterproofing stench to it. The alternative was worse as September brings 100+ days on the Salt Flats with lots of sun. Naturally, they tried to make their runs in the morning when the wind was down and the air was more dense."

"However, prior to Bonneville, Campbell first tried to set the 300 mph record on Daytona Beach but only got up to 279, which still set a record, but not what he wanted. He then packed up the Bluebird and headed to the Salt Flats where he finally broke the 300 MPH barrier on September 3rd, 1935. His 2,500 HP Rolls Royce Merlin engine was screaming its guts out. His first run was about 297.++ and he completed the backup run at 304.++ within one hour to take the world's record with an average of 301.129. He immediately packed up the 6 ton Bluebird, salt and all, and headed back to England.  He held 7 records for speed before his death 1948."  

"My father also pitted for George Eyston who himself set the world's LSR in 1937 and 1938. I have a nice silver cigarette case with my father's initials engraved (GD) on the exterior of it and an inscription inside with Eystons name and the following writing: Souvenir of Worlds Records Salt Beds 1935 Geo Eyston. It has a rather Art/Deco look with engine turning on the interior which was the rage at that time. Apparently Esyton was racing at Bonneville in 1935 and that's how my father got the cigarette case."
"I also heard my dad talk a lot about John Cobb who took the record away from Campbell and Eyston. It was a friendly association between the racers and all were good sports."
"As a result of the mingling with these racers during the depression, dad ended up with a franchise for Cord and Perfect Circle Piston Rings. He had the dealership franchise for Utah and it served him well until 1939 when he moved back to Torrance, California. He traveled up and down the state supplying piston rings and gasket sets to automotive garages." - Milt Davies

Giles Davies is on the far left, pictured standing over the windshield with the white shirt and tie.

The silver Art/Deco cigarette case with the engraved "GD." Image © Milt Davies

The engine turned interior with "Worlds Record Salt Beds 1935" cigarette case. Image © Milt Davies

The team readies for a record breaking run at Daytona. Notice the roller tires and wheels in the forground.

The Bluebird on the sands of Daytona.

Sir Malcolm Campbell after setting a record of 279 mph at Daytona Beach. 

The Bluebird was readied in Wendover.

Time to make some money runs. The trip from Wendover to the salt flats.

The team at work on the salt of Bonneville.
This tire let go at 300 mph at the end of the first run. However there was enough time to turn the car around and make the required second run.

Campbell stands for interview after returning to England. Image Corbis

Being able to get invited into Milt's world like this, is what it's all about.

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