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Thursday, 02 October 2014

The world’s fastest tractor

JANUARY 4 in 1967 passed into history as the day Donald Campbell died on Coniston Water but it also marks a triumph in British engineering ingenuity as a boat was enabled to exceed 300mph on tractor fuel.

The same tractor vaporising oil once used by Furness farmers – made from a mix of kerosene, petrol and diesel – was coursing through the jet engine as Bluebird flipped over and crashed on the second of two timed runs.

One of the Bluebird team volunteers who became more familiar with the smell of TVO than most was Dick Ransome, of Torver.

For the water speed record trials from November 1966 money was tight and the days of generous national sponsorship deals were in the past.

The aviation fuel they would have preferred had to be substituted for the cheaper and more easily obtained TVO which came from the West Cumberland Farmers depot at Lindal in 45 gallon drums.

Mr Ransome would sometimes go out in the team’s Land Rover to collect the fuel and he and a pal got to transfer it into Bluebird with a hand pump.

He said: “It took forever to fill the thing up. It was an arm-aching job.”

The contrast was startling with the late 1950s when Mr Ransome first helped out by topping up batteries and doing odd jobs.

He said: “It all looked well organised.

“There was a row of telephone booths for the press and a fuel tanker on site.

“There was a canteen for brews and a substantial boathouse.

“Everything had the smack of professionalism.”

Donald Campbell made an immediate and lasting impression on him.

He said: “He was kindness personified but he was quite a scary kind of guy when he was the wrong side out. He wouldn’t tolerate fools.

“He was a bit of a hero in my eyes. It was a pleasure to do odd jobs and he always thanked you.”

Mr Ransome got his insider’s view of the Bluebird team by accident. He was already well established from helping out on days off from the Ribble bus company but then was forced to take time off when he slipped and broke his knee.

He was in hospital for a week and hobbling about in a plaster cast but could still help with Bluebird while he recovered.

Mr Ransome said: “Campbell’s engineer Leo Villa knew I had served my time as a fitter and charged me with making parts for the mountings and so on out of aluminium.”

He used to get to the workshops thanks to lifts from writers following the speed trials, Harry Griffin and Arthur Knowles.

Mr Ransome recalled that the 1966 speed trials “didn’t get off to a very good start.”

Bluebird reached Coniston on a low loader from Surrey and got stuck in a muddy field on the way to the slipway at Pier Cottage.

Local garage owner Eric Hadwin had to inch boat and low loader out of trouble using his ex-Army Morris Commercial recovery vehicle.

The team wanted to a jet engine of the type used in a Folland Gnat – the plane made famous by the Red Arrows.

They had to buy an entire aeroplane and strip the engine out.

It was happy running on the TVO fuel so a top technician from Bristol Siddeley was brought in to adapt the engine’s fuel metering.

Mr Ransome came to the rescue and saved the team from a time-consuming engine re-build due to a long arm and a steady hand.

He said: “The phone went and Leo Villa said: ‘We have got a problem and you have got long arms. We have dropped a spanner and it is teetering on the edge of the bilge. Would you come down and give us a hand?”

A mirror was used to successfully guide him to his target.

He said: “We all went for a drink to the Crown to celebrate.”

Mr Ransome said: “I would spend my days down at Bluebird, taking some sandwiches and a flask of coffee.

“It was a blessing for me because it just kept me occupied. It was nice to feel associated with the thing and to do something useful.”

After one day at the workshops he had missed his bus and got a lift and break-neck speeds in Donald Campbell’s E-type Jaguar.

“He told me he would run me home. The front passenger seat was let down and he sat me in the back with my leg up on the seat.

“He would still extend that kindness to you for bits and pieces you had done.”

Another amazing piece of ingenuity linked with the Bluebird project involved the use of some roofing lead from a local farm.

Leo Villa had been sending Bluebird out with sand bags tied to the stern by rope as a unique method to get the boat’s trim correct.

Having establish how much extra weight was needed, left-over lead was obtained from roofing work at Sunny Bank Farm.

The lead was cast into weights in a tin to the equivalent of the sand bags. As each problem was solved another seemed to come along.

Mr Ransome said: “There were bird strikes. A seagull was hit during a November run which put a dent in the outrigger streamlining.”

On another occasion the boat hit a duck on the other outrigger and sprung the rivets apart.

Leo Villa came to get some pop rivets off Mr Ransome to repair the damage but it never got done.

Despite all this the boat was slowly getting into shape to achieve something special.

He said: “The boat was man enough to do the job.

“If a thing looks right it usually is – and Bluebird looked right.”

It is said that Campbell took the boat out on Christmas Day for an unofficial run and exceeded 300mph.

He said: “The timekeepers had all gone back to Switzerland for Christmas.”

Clearly there were financial issued behind the scenes.

He said: “We knew he had no money.”

Mr Ransome thinks the pressure was intense on Campbell to break the 300mph barrier in time to announce it at the opening of the Boat Show.

The last thing Campbell said to him was: “I think we will have the record in the next few days.

“We will have a party and you will be invited.”

Mr Ransome was to miss the tragic last run of Bluebird on January 4 as he had a hospital appointment at Kendal to get his cast taken off.

He said: “At 8.30am I heard the engine start up. I thought he’s going for the record and I’ve missed it.”

News of the crash broke into radio broadcasts.

He said: “The following day I went down the east side of the lake and it was jam-packed with people looking.

“I don’t know what they expected to see but they were just looking.

“It was a horrible conclusion to what should have been a very interesting and successful project. A bad end.”

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