Just imagine discovering a large box of unpublished photographs of Land Speed Record attempts in an antiques shop. For author Mike Varndell, it was the catalyst to create a dream tribute to his heroes.
The British are Coming, published by Transport Bookman Publications, is the result: a handsome landscape title packed with hundreds of unpublished images, with subjects ranging from Parry Thomas to Andy Green.
The words are limited because Varndell preferred to focus on first-hand reports by the speed legends involved or key team members, but the photographs say it all about these valiant high-speed quests.
From Thomas’ aero-engined titan blasting along Pendine, prior to its horrific accident, to Bluebird Electric’s successful challenge on the same Welsh sands, the photo selection is as much a tribute to the loyal crews involved as the famous drivers.
Varndell has been involved with the motor industry since leaving school, but focused his spare time on helping first Richard Noble, and later Don Wales (pictured below on the left with Varndell). It was his support of Wales, the grandson of Malcolm Campbell, on Bluebird Electric that alerted Varndell to his limited knowledge of LSR history.
“Working on the project I kept getting asked questions about the Campbell family,” says Varndell, “So I decided it was time to read up. Don was very encouraging. When I found the box of photos, it was the Campbell images that first caught my attention.”
Initially a 50-page booklet was the plan, but Varndell’s quest to search out more images meant that the collection and project expanded. The Leo Villa archives, the Brooklands Museum, Castrol, and C K Bowers & Sons, where Wales once worked, all helped to fill gaps.
The long-gone photography business in Isleworth was once a regular visitor to Malcolm Campbell’s home and workshops. Before the business closed, Varndell discovered some remarkable shots of Bluebirds being built.
It’s a challenge to choose highlights from the book, but a special interest in John Cobb, meant I focused on the unseen images of his magnificent Reid Railton-designed machines.
Mountains of tyres in the baking heat of Utah; sun-tanned English crew in pith helmets on yet another cigarette break; and the stunning Mobil Special being towed through the streets of Wendover are just a few of the evocative photos featured.
Complementing these images is an interview Varndell discovered that Cobb made from the Utah State Hotel skyscraper before he went down to a celebration dinner after his successful 1947 attempt.
“There was one bad spot at 415mph on the return run to the north and then it felt really rough. It was as bad as the outer circuit at Brooklands,” explained the reserved Cobb after the 394mph achievement.
“The boys are calling me down to the dining room now and it’s pouring with rain outside. The salt is now unusable for further records, so we were just in time,” added Cobb at the time.
Looking at the portraits in the book, you can picture the tall, broad fur broker speaking alone in his high-rise room with storm clouds brewing up outside over the Newfoundland mountains.
Now the book is finished the patriotic Varndell is planning a reunion of record cars and teams at Brooklands in October: “It’s going to be an amazing day and I’m stunned by the support. I’ve sourced as many union jack flags as possible so the historic venue should be ablaze with red, white and blue.”
Not surprisingly, key LSR figures such as Richard Noble fully appreciate Varndell’s enthusiasm, the very volunteer spirit that has driven such speed quests through the ages. And Noble has cancelled an important meeting to be at Brooklands on 13 October.
The British are Coming costs £49.99 and is available from Chaters.