While strolling the paddocks of the 2012 Goodwood Revival, I was struck by the enormous presence of the famous Bluebird K3 record breaking speedboat. As something of an enthusiast for record breaking, and the Campbell family in particular, I was delighted to learn this was not a freshly created replica, but instead the actual boat Sir Malcolm had used to set three World Water Speed Records during the 1930s. I had no idea this special craft even existed still.
Fast forward a few months and I once again found myself staring in wonderment at K3’s patinated hull; this time back at its home in East Sussex. K3 is the major centrepoint of an intriguing collection of cars, boats, motorcycles and assorted motor racing ephemera which forms the Filching Manor Motor Museum. It was a privilege to enjoy a rare peek inside this personal treasure trove.
While notionally a museum, the collection is informal and very personal – proprietor Karl Foulkes Halbard opens the lid of his toy chest to the public as scheduling allows, and when there is sufficient interest. The collection was started by his late father and enthusiastically carried on by Karl today. The site comprises the historic Filching Manor itself, as well as several sheds containing the museum pieces and a challenging karting circuit for the adrenalin-seeking visitor.
Our morning tour starts in the Manor itself. A dwelling has existed on the same site for a thousand years, with the current house dating back to the 15th Century. A fascinating medieval building, it has been variously extended over the years but remains a family abode, and retains a homely informality. A brief tour of the oldest section of the house serves as an introduction to the site before proceeding to the first shed to meet the remarkable automotive collection.
The shed is a dense Aladdin’s Cave of automobilia from a lifetime dedicated to collecting the unusual and the special. The Campbell family features strongly, with many of the objects carrying a link to the family and their many record breaking boats and cars. The items are far too numerous to attempt to list but the many personal effects include the steering wheels which Donald clutched as he sped to records on both land and water. Models, posters, signs and pedal cars abound. There are even a couple of engineer’s vices cast with the Bugatti logo emblazoned on the front. Despite the obvious Campbell theme, the collection is hugely varied. When did you last see a Beryl jet next to an Austin J40 pedal car?
The Campbell family connection – and the source of much of the memorabilia – was Paul Foulkes Halbard’s close friendship with legendary Bluebird mechanic Leo Villa. Even a pair of Villa’s spectacles resides in a cabinet in the shed. It is so fortunate that the items from Villa remain open for the public to enjoy.
The most significant Bluebird items are the wonderful K3 boat, its original Rolls Royce R engine and the Beryl jet which powered the K7 jet-powered boats to multiple water speed records, before Donald shifted to Orpheus power. These three were purchased as a set from – and you couldn’t make this up – Thorpe Park, the amusements park, where K3 had been exhibited outdoors for many years. Following the path up to the next shed and I was able to probe Karl to learn a little more about the remarkable items in his possession.
K3 was sold when it was superseded by K4 – a bigger, faster boat with a far more advanced hull. As an out-of-date model K3 was sold to a used car salesman who used her as a gate guardian outside his forecourt on the North Circular. There she remained for the entire Second World War, remarkably. Having been saved from scrap, she later ended up at Thorpe Park where she was simply a display item in the park. She was purchased by Paul Foulkes Halbard in the 1980s, with restoration always in mind.
Today this important boat exists in dry dock in her own workshop on the estate. The restoration has been a long and painful one, but K3 lives and she took to the water last year for her first runs in 50 years. Today, the all-conquering R37 has been replaced by a much less powerful Meteor engine – though this is still fearsomely powerful by any usual measure. The restoration employed the use of what Karl estimates is 70% of the boat’s original parts – quite amazing when one considers the life it had lead.
Equally satisfying is the sight of its monstrous original R engine adjacent. I confess to a certain fascination for this awesome powerplant. The R was devised in the 1930s as a pure racing engine to power Schneider Trophy seaplanes. In its most powerful form it was kicking out well in excess of 2,500bhp; awesome for the time. That it ended up in record breaking machinery is hardly a surprise.
Karl owns R37 – one of 19 built and of only three known to exist today. Of those, one sits without celebration in London’s Science Museum – it having been half of the extravagant powertrain which hurled George Eyston’s Thunderbolt to the Land Speed Record in 1937. The other is in the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon. Karl’s engine has a very significant history, however, having set Land Speed Records and Water Speed Records in Sir Malcolm’s hands. In Bluebird it became the first engine to power a car past 300mph. At the risk of resorting to hyperbole, it must be one of the most important engines in the world.
Karl retains a twinkle in his eye whenever the R is discussed and it’s evident he one day intends to see R37 run again – and maybe even in K3. It would no doubt be the only time an R would run again and with six hours between rebuilds, it’s hardly surprising that he isn’t rushing to get that particular project off the ground. It’s an honour to be in the company of these special items and it’s so comforting to know they are in the hands of a genuine enthusiast who treasures them and is committed to their enduring legacy.
Further fascination awaits us in the next shed. These old chicken sheds lined with asbestos sheeting are an earthy and incongruous home for such an important collection – and all the better for it. The collection comprises mainly pre-war motors and includes racers and sporting road cars. A giant chain-driven Mercedes Benz sits adjacent to stately Alvis and impossibly low-slung Cooper-Jap 500. It’s a heady and eclectic mix. Fans of motor racing couldn’t fail to be moved by Bugatti Type 35 – very much an original and still campaigned in sprints and VSCC events, as it should be. It sits next to a Brescia Bugatti which appeared at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2009.
Perhaps the most intriguing car in the shed – and apparently the one Karl is most keen to discuss is the Alesso. This is Juan-Manuel Fangio’s own racing car, designed and built wholly in Argentina. Looking something akin to Frankenstein’s vision of a Mercedes Benz W125, it is a big single seater racer powered by an enormous 7 litre flat-12 engine. That big engine is a huge lump, reminiscent of the flat-12 Tecno F1 units of the 1970s – but significantly larger. The car was intended for Argentinian unlimited racing of the period, hence the sizeable displacement. It apparently only competed three times, with limited success, but remains a fascinating tale of ‘what if…’ Karl is keen to see the Alesso run once again and moots that once the K3 project is complete he may turn his attentions back to Fangio’s racer. It’s possible we may yet see the Alesso out at Goodwood and other events. One can only speculate on what its vast engine might sound like at speed.
I won’t share every exhibit at Filching Manor – readers will be well served exploring the place themselves. It’s a wonderful collection and a great morning out. Walking back down from the sheds back to the car, one passes a gallows inscribed from 1640, a ground to air cannon and the undulating kart track. It’s an eclectic, eccentric museum and one to be savoured.
For information, head to: www.campbellcircuit.co.uk