A high-performance supercar or superboat that is environmentally friendly sounds too good to be true. However, the Bluebird team is working on an electric-powered car that will hit about 250 miles per hour (around 400kmh) despite it weighing around one ton (about 1,050kg). Constructed of lightweight steel and carbon components, it will be driven along by lithium battery technology. The plan is to develop a road-going replica of this vehicle in 2013 or 2014.
Simultaneously, the team is developing an electric race boat, designed as a three-point hydrofoil and powered by a 150kw electric motor that will move it through the water at about 70mph (more than 110kmh). A commercial interpretation of this craft, either as a single or twin seater, could be ready by spring 2013.
In 1912, Malcolm Campbell, an enthusiastic motor racer and engineer, attended the Theatre Royal in London’s Haymarket to see a play called The Blue Bird by a Belgian author called Maurice Maeterlinck. The fantasy story about the search for happiness so affected him that he immediately drove home, woke up the local hardware store owner and bought every pot of blue paint he had. He painted his racing car blue and named it Blue Bird. It was the first in a long line of astonishing record-breaking craft to proudly carry the name.
On land and on water, Bluebirds, as they became known, set speed records that were a credit to the quality of British engineering and the spirit of British adventurers. In 1925, Malcolm Campbell topped 150mph (240kmh) on land for the first time. By 1928, he had moved the land-speed record to almost 207mph (333kmh). The 300mph (480kmh) barrier was passed in 1935. His son, Donald Campbell, set a new world record of 403mph (almost 650kmh) in a Bluebird in 1964.
On water, the levels were pushed ever-higher also. In 1937, Campbell Senior achieved more than 127mph (204kmh). By 1939, 141mph (227kmh) had been topped. In 1955, Campbell Junior raced at more than 202mph (325kmh). By 1964, he had moved the world water-speed record to more than 276mph (444kmh). On 4 January 1967, Donald Campbell was killed in an horrific crash while attempting to hit 300mph (482kmh) on Coniston Water in the Lake District of north-west England.
Today’s generation of the Campbell family still feels the need for speed but, since the mid-1990s, Don Wales, Malcolm’s grandson, and his cousin, Gina Campbell, Donald’s daughter, have been backing electric power, not aviation fuel or rocket engines. Their Bluebird Speed Records initiative is a sophisticated engineering project that is helping prove that ’green power’ can still provide ’mean power’ to delight speed freaks and racing junkies.
Martin Rees, Bluebird’s project director, explains: “Don needs to be applauded for his early adoption of the technology. Back in the mid-1990s, when we first got into it, it was seen as a dead-end technology. But between 2015 and 2020 we will all see a significant upturn in the availability and usability of electric vehicles. Petrol heads like me love the sound of a screaming V8 engine, but we know we shouldn’t be doing that sort of thing anymore.”
One aspect of the Bluebird team’s work is to develop new technologies, to turn an idea into a product that is a commercial certainty. Geographically, the project is split between south-east England, which is the design and engineering base, and Pembroke in west Wales, where it has a testing centre.
Bluebird is not alone in wishing to develop high-performance cars and boats under an environmentally sensitive banner. In California, both Fisker Automotive and Tesla Motors are working to make electric-powered cars both high performance and luxurious. Even the big guys are getting involved: the electric-powered Chevrolet Volt was named European Car of the Year 2012.
An even higher profile for battery-powered cars will be achieved following the recent decision of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the global governing body of motor racing, to approve a new series of races with the code-name Formula E. This envisages electric-powered supercars racing around major city centres. As well as planning to enter its own works team, the Bluebird project is hoping that it will be an approved constructor to the new series and therefore will supply vehicles for other competitors also.
Meanwhile, Bluebird is working on its latest versions of record-breaking craft and on commercially available interpretations of them. In 2014, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Donald Campbell holding both land and water speed records, the Bluebird team is aiming to attempt to set new world-speed records for electric-powered vehicles. These exotic creations will be the blueprints for the specially built commercial versions.
Martin Rees, project director, says: “Custom-built electric-powered supercars and fast boats are a real possibility for us to produce. We can use the technology we are developing for our world-record attempts to create one-off cars and craft for individuals who love speed, but also are environmentally aware. Anyone working with us will be sharing in a 100-year heritage. All our cars and boats will be made in the UK. But they don’t have to be painted blue.”