Tristan Shale-Hester takes a Jaguar E-Type to Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb to pay tribute to the legendary Campbell family

I’m in the passenger seat of a Jaguar E-Type Series 1, deafened by the sound of multiple classic car engines idling around me.

My father sits next to me, barely managing to fit under the giant steering wheel. He leans out of his window and shouts at the Porsche 356 next to us: “Do you want to go first?”

Having completed the German sports car’s complicated starting procedure, Don Wales looks over and politely makes the same offer to us.

I respond by yelling: “You really should go first, you actually know what you’re doing.” After all, Wales is not only the grandson of the legendary Sir Malcolm Campbell, but he also holds a number of speed records himself for steam-powered vehicles, electric cars and even lawn mowers.

My comment makes Wales smile, as he comes back with some classic British self-deprecation: “I don’t know what I’m doing, I can only drive in straight lines.”

The story of how I ended up in this situation is one that begins in 1988, when Anthony Hopkins starred in Across the Lake, a TV movie about Donald Campbell’s last 60 days, ending with his fatal crash on Coniston Water in 1967 as he attempted to break the 300mph barrier in Bluebird K7.

In the film, Hopkins drove an
E-Type which had been given a coat of blue paint over its original green colour to make it look like the car that Campbell actually owned.

In reality, this E-Type belonged to a film production company and appeared on screen on other occasions, including in cult BBC TV comedy series Red Dwarf.

It was shortly after this that my uncle spotted the Jag sitting outside a building in Birmingham. It was love at first sight, so he approached the company and bought the car.

He went about respraying the blue E-Type in its original Jaguar factory-spec green. He then enjoyed the car for the rest of the 1990s, until he sadly lost his life to cancer.

In 2017 my father, who had inherited the E-Type, received a message from his long-time friend Mark Constanduros, who is now the commercial manager of Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb.

Constanduros explained that 2017 would be the 50th anniversary of Donald Campbell’s death. As a result, Shelsley Walsh was planning to hold a celebration of the Campbell family at its Classic Nostalgia summer event.

As part of this, there was going to be a parade of cars with links to the Campbells, and Constanduros wanted us to bring the E-Type.

So on a cloudy July day my father and I hopped in the E-Type and set out on the 170-mile journey from West Sussex to Worcestershire. Despite the three tiny windscreen wipers struggling to cope with even the lightest rainfall and the Jag’s cooling system nearly reaching boiling point we made it to the venue without incident.

We were greeted by an incredible selection of cars also taking part in the Campbell parade. Talking with some of the owners, I heard wonderful stories of how they came to be at the event.

Lorne Jacobs, owner of the Napier Bluebird replica, had built the car himself over the course of seven years, using a 700bhp W12 aircraft engine his grandfather had bought in 1932.

John Day had worked on his friend’s Bugatti T37 for a number of years, patiently waiting for the chance to buy it. Eventually his patience paid off when a valuation figure was mentioned over dinner in Paris, and he was able to secure the car for this price.

Meanwhile, Constanduros told me the owner of the Ford V8 Woody discovered Sir Malcolm Campbell had owned it only after buying it, meaning the car suddenly soared in value.

Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb opened in 1905, making it the world’s oldest operational motorsport venue. The steep track, which covers a distance of little more than 0.5 miles, has played host to countless car events like this.

Among the vast array of activities taking place over the two days, our minds were focused on the Campbell car parades that would be happening twice daily. Although none of the cars in this event were expected to break any speed records, my father was quite worried about driving up a world-famous hill climb in front of a large crowd of people in a car with a tricky gearbox.

Maybe this slight fear was part of the reason why, as we were about to set off on the first parade, my father offered Wales the chance to go first in the Porsche 356 that belonged to his grandfather.

The matter of who would go first was quickly settled as the marshal gestured at Wales to line the Porsche up on the start line, with us following. We followed his instructions and set off slowly at the bottom of the hill, but as we approached the first corner, Kennel Bend, my father made a smooth shift into second gear and floored the accelerator.

The big cat’s 3.8-litre straight-six engine rumbled and suddenly the Jaguar let out an almighty roar through its rear exhaust pipes. My father started muttering under his breath, urging the cars in front to get a move on. This set the tone for the rest of the parades that weekend.

In addition to the four parades, the Atalanta Bluebird was unveiled in honour of the Campbell family’s achievements.

Atalanta Motors was founded in 1936 as a sports car manufacturer and used advanced technology for the time. World War Two caused production to cease after only 22 cars had left the factory, though the company was recently resurrected to produce vintage-style cars, with the Bluebird its latest offering.

To help find the correct shade of blue for the Bluebird, Atalanta enlisted Don Wales’ help. He told the story of how he chose the colour and what he thinks of the car.

“I’m always asked, ‘What is Bluebird blue?’” he said. “I was given a colour chart and, just by chance, I picked out the colour I thought was the best blue and it was Pantone Blue 301. My grandfather was the first person to do 301mph, which was his land speed record, so we’re using that on the Atalanta.

“I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be a great car and I can’t wait for it to be released later in the autumn.”

On the Classic Nostalgia event and the tributes to his family, Wales said: “I’m always staggered by the amount of people who come up to us at events like this, and you can feel the love and respect that they have for both my uncle and my grandfather.

“It’s staggering how so many people are connected in some way to the family, and for us to be at events like this to continue the family name and chat to people really is very humbling.”