Saving Donald Campbell’s favorite British hot-rod

Barry Hayden

Although weights, measures, and currency are adjusted for a U.S. audience, colloquialisms and contextual references reflect this story’s origin on our sister site, Hagerty UK

Launched in 1936, the BMW/Bristol six-cylinder engine was originally designed by BMW’s senior engineers Rudolf Schleicher and Fritz Fiedler for the epochal 328 sports car. As my colleague and friend John Simister puts it in his book Legendary Car Engines, the story goes that this clever, pushrod-actuated, hemispherical-head “six” was handed to Bristol, the aeroplane maker, as part of its war reparations. That isn’t the entire truth, but my hat, what a lovely piece of kit this engine is.

The version of the famous long-stroke, triple-carbureted 2-liter six in front of me now was built at the workshops of Jim Stokes in Waterlooville, Hampshire. While it’s in a very soft state of tune, there’s heft and intent in the vibrato exhaust note; it’s ready for battle, even if that’s just popping down to the pub. As it growls and grumbles into warmth, I’m watching the rev counter and the tiny needle of the water temperature gauge.

Small wonder the first user of this car, an AC Aceca, demanded that its manufacturer fit this 120-hp Bristol BMW engine as soon as the mill became available, for it was a premier cru heart compared with the old 2-liter six-pot plodder, with which the AC Aceca was first born.

And this car was there right at the birth; the prototype, in fact, which stood on the AC stand in Earls Court for the 1954 Motor Show. Registered VPL441, this AC two-seat coupe would be an important car in its own right with an interesting history, but there’s a twist to the tale—a fast and famous former owner.

Donald Campbell AC Aceca rear three quarter driving blur pan
Barry Hayden

Before we get to that, however—engage first, lift the clutch, and pull away. The Bristol engine is known for its love of revs and the vulnerable center main bearings don’t like slogging low down in the rev range, so a modest bootful is best to get going, though this is someone else’s car and it’s up to me to look after it. Carburetion is notorious to get right on these cars and this one is a peach, pulling well from just below 2000 rpm, breathing deeply in the mid-range and then soaring above 5000 where the knitting-needle pushrod arrangement can get flustered.

Culshaw and Horrobin’s Catalogue of British Cars gives the Bristol-engined Aceca a top speed of 115.5 mph, 0-to-50-mph in 8 seconds, an average of 20.5 mpg, and a 17.8-second standing quarter, compared to equivalent figures for the first AC-engined Aceca: 105 mph, 9.4 seconds, 26.5 mpg and 18.9 seconds.

This example feels capable of all of the former figures—actually, a bit faster. Worth remembering that in its later years, this remarkable engine was highly developed for use in the Formula 2 Cooper Bristol, so the know how is there to get serious horsepower and torque, too, as the block can be stretched quite a bit.

Donald Campbell AC Aceca engine
Barry Hayden

Still dressed for Goodwood’s Revival meeting, this ultramarine-blue AC garners attention and admiring glances. Small wonder since the all-aluminum alloy coachwork design was rumored to be based on that of a Pininfarina study done for AC in the 1940s. Underneath was the Ace sports car’s John Tojeiro–designed, ladder-shaped tube-frame, with independent suspension, sprung with transverse leaf springs front and rear.

Tops, tails, and that all-important gap between the long bonnet and windscreen are critical with a small, two-door coupe. When they are right, they should appear effortlessly perfect, more surfboard than car, as if riding a wave of water rather than tarmac. Think Alfa Romeo’s Bertone 105/115 coupés, Triumph’s little GT6, or Ferrari’s 166 Inter GT—but not, perhaps, Hyundai’s Veloster or BMW’s M Coupe.

Donald Campbell AC Aceca side driving blur pan
After John Turner’s design for the Aston Martin 2/4 two-plus-two hatchback, the Aceca is the second such car to have a liftback. Barry Hayden

The Aceca seems to veer wildly between decades as you walk down its length. The egg-crate grille, simple over-riders (standard cars had twin tubular bumpers), and small windscreen are pure ’50s. The bonnet length is longer than it need be because of the transverse spring set-up, but that also means the engine is set back in the frame to improve handling balance.

Then, inside, there’s the upholstered fascia with its multitude of instruments and inset polished wood panels, all of which feels more like the ’60s. The B-pillars with that stunning fillet of wing just in front of the rear wheel shows the attention to detail of the great Italian carrozzeria, and the rear hatch is right back at you from the ’70s. As to that rear side-screen kink and the thick C-pillar, well, think about what the great Wilhelm Hofmeister was doing for BMW in the same period.

With 16-inch wheels shod with narrow Pirelli Cinturato CN36 tires of the right height and tread pattern, the ride is good if firm. If the worm-and-gear steering isn’t the last word in speed and precision, the loads are light and there’s not a lot of free play in this one. Corners are engaged with caution and thought, but you can carry speed through the turn, and the throttle also helps in the direction and attitude.

You probably wouldn’t want to be jabbing the anchors while heavily loaded up, but with big but narrow drum brakes all round, as owner Kevin Shilling says: “The brakes don’t really stop the car, they’re more about slowing it down.”

Let’s come back to the famous owner here. The question is: Does a famous owner bestow greatness? And in this case, does a celebrated coachwork color do the same? If I told you that not only was the first long-term user of this prototype car the notable speed record–breaker Donald Campbell, but that it is also painted in the actual paint left over from his K7 jet-powered hydroplane in which he met his end, would you swoon like an Edwardian lady?

In order to match the original paint during its restoration, contact was made with the team restoring Campbell’s water speed–record boat, recovered from Coniston Water in 2000. A small section of the hull not being reused was sent for scanning to match the colour, before a small amount of the hull’s paint was removed, ground to a powder, and added to the new paint to be applied.

One man, according to Shilling, was so moved by the experience of sitting in the passenger seat that he wept. The car most closely associated with Campbell is his 1966 Jaguar E-Type Series-I, 4.2-liter coupe registered GLM37C (and later DC7) and painted in opalescent silver blue. Poignantly, after his death in January 1967, the Jaguar was left parked outside Pier Cottage on Lake Coniston for a few days before it was taken away and put on sale.

Campbell wasn’t the best of bets for a carmaker seeking to capitalize on fame, either. After scouring my battered copy of his 1955 book Into The Water Barrier, I can find no mention of the little AC coupe, which he should have been driving up and down between his home in Reigate, Surrey to Coniston in the period. Nor was it, according to Shilling, who has conducted extensive research into the car and written his own book, Reckless! The Fall And Rise Of AC “Bluebird,” actually owned by Campbell; it was loaned to him by AC’s owners.

Shilling takes up the story.

“By all accounts Campbell used the car for three years, which is the longest he had kept any car for. He had the car sprayed Bluebird blue and used the car with the full consent of the Hurlock brothers, as a marketing ploy to promote AC (Acedes) Ltd, to the wider public.”

Quite a smart piece of marketing by Shilling, too. Associating his old AC with the Campbells, the greatest of record-breaking families, specifically Donald, Sir Malcolm’s son, and possibly the bravest water and land-speed record holder, with the most haunting and moving story.

Donald Campbell AC Aceca rear driving blur pan
Barry Hayden

Shilling’s background in financial communications not only gave him the wherewithal to buy and restore the old car but also enabled him to go racing and historic rallying in such Blue Riband events as the Mille Miglia retrospective and the Goodwood Revival. It gave him the knowhow to rebrand stuff, such as this car, which he has named “AC Bluebird,” after a mechanic’s throwaway comment in Stokes’s workshop. There’s a logo, merchandise (hats, jackets, and tees), and website to go with the car.

And Shilling, who admits he must have spent well over £200,000 restoring and preparing the Aceca for events—almost as much as he bought it for—admits that the outlay won’t have done the car’s value any harm, either. He claims he’s been informally offered more than a million dollars for his AC. To give a sense of perspective here, you can currently find what looks like a tidy, matching-numbers, Bristol-engined AC Aceca offered on Car and Classic with an asking price of £140,000.

In July 2003, Shilling’s VPL441 went under the hammer at Bonhams’ Goodwood sale. Contentiously described as being “sold to” Donald Campbell, the catalog explained that it had been “rediscovered” in Devon in 1985 and restored over a five-year period, with more than £30,000 spent on it, which helped it to enjoy some concours success in subsequent years. It sold for £31,625.

Donald Campbell AC Aceca garage
Barry Hayden

Shilling says he’s had some kickback from the AC Owners’ Club members about the remorseless machine that this AC has become, and I understand that. For those who’ve spent what seem like months lying on freezing garage floors restoring, mending, and maintaining their cars, keeping the reputation alive, Shilling’s seemingly bottomless check book may be hard to stomach. But Shilling’s nobody’s fool. Though he doesn’t make this point, a rising tide raises all ships; if he really does sell his blue AC for over a million bucks, perhaps that could rub off on the value of all Acecas.

In the end, this is a really nicely restored and maintained, important little coupe, which is a pleasure to drive and has been set up so that an amateur driver can have some fun and not scare themselves witless. What Donald Campbell thought of it other than it being free wheels we can only guess at. I say good luck to Shilling and his car; even if it’s cost him a small fortune, it’s been an adventure, and he’s been having fun doing it. And surely that’s the whole point of classic cars, isn’t it?


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    What a cool little car with an even cooler little engine! Plenty of provenance, too. Glad to see photos of it being driven. Nice article.

    Recall seeing one of these in British green 40+ years ago at a local import dealer I had bought a 70 mgb roadster in 1971 from… I’m 71 now that beauty has stuck in my mind all these years. Was just a used car then.. Coulda, woulda shouda…!!!

    The story includes the passage: “…the story goes that this clever, pushrod-actuated, hemispherical-head “six” was handed to Bristol, the aeroplane maker, as part of its war reparations. That isn’t the entire truth…” I have heard the war reparations story countless times and assumed it was true. If it isn’t, it would be good to get the complete background on this engine.

    Good point, Jay – if that’s just “another story for another time”, when might we get that story, Andrew?

    According to Wikipedia, Bristol Cars bought the rights to the engine and manufactured it under license. Where the confusion starts is that Bristol had to get permission from the War Reparations board to cut the deal.

    “Although weights, measures, and currency are adjusted for a U.S. audience, colloquialisms and contextual references reflect this story’s origin on our sister site, Hagerty UK.”

    Pft…well, what fun is that?

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