Ken Norris

Engineer on the speed-record attempts of Donald Campbell and Richard Noble
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The Independent Online

Ken Norris was the godfather of British land- and water-speed record-breaking. He first came to prominence in 1953 when Donald Campbell decided to carry on with his Bluebird endeavours despite the death of John Cobb when his jet-powered Crusader crashed on Loch Ness in September 1952. Campbell set out with Ken Norris, and Ken's brother Lew, to attack the 200mph water barrier that had claimed Cobb.

Norris had been apprenticed to the Armstrong Whitworth aircraft company at Whitley, where at the age of 23 in 1945 he managed the mechanical testing department. He also taught at Coventry Technical College - where his trademark moustache first appeared. "At one time I got up to give my lecture and all the students were laughing and nudging each other because they thought I was just one of them larking around, pretending," he explained. "I must have looked younger than most of them. So I grew the moustache."

While his brother Lew Norris was working already on Campbell's earlier Bluebird K4 boat, Ken Norris enrolled at Imperial College, London. He studied aeronautical engineering, while also taking business administration part-time at the London School of Economics. That was when he got involved with Frank and Stella Hanning-Lee's White Hawk record project, as they asked him to design them a 200mph jet-powered hydrofoil. "They only really had a drawing on a piece of paper," he recalled. "I suddenly realised that I was going to have to do everything, and was virtually imprisoned in this tiny room drawing away, until eventually it dawned one me that there wasn't going to be any payment."

Lew Norris had worked with their older brother Eric at Kine Engineering, a company part-owned by their relatives, the Meldrum brothers, where Donald Campbell was managing director. On New Year's Eve in 1952, shortly after Ken and Lew had set up Norris Brothers, an engineering consultancy in Burgess Hill, Sussex, Campbell approached them at a party at his house. "We had a bit of a romp, had the music on, laughed around a bit," Ken Norris said. "Then Donald said to Lew and me, 'Now that you're together, how about designing me a boat?' "

After conducting a grisly analysis of the forces that had killed Cobb, the Norrises created an all-metal hydroplane which became Bluebird K7. It won the water-speed record an unparalleled seven times for Britain between 1955 (202.32mph) and 1964 (276.33mph) before Campbell died at close to 300mph on Coniston Water on 4 January 1967.

"I got on with Donald straight off," Norris once said:

He was a friend more or less the whole way through, because I got to know him very well when we were analysing Crusader's crash. We worked overnight, in the dark, in the office above the garage at his house, and he would sit there smoking his pipe, watching every detail. He was working the projector, frame by frame, Lew was giving me some figures, I was writing them down.

Norris Brothers created the Bluebird CN7 car with which Campbell finally won the land-speed record at 403.1mph. Typically, the Norrises had insisted when they started the design in 1956 that the car had to obey the rules and drive through all four wheels, although later the Americans used pure-thrust jetcars.

Campbell crashed the first version at more than 300mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1960, but it said everything for the integrity of its design that he survived what was then the fastest accident on land. The fact that he finally broke the record on Australia's Lake Eyre in July 1964, despite terrible conditions and bitter disputes, owed a tremendous amount to Norris's calm strength and ability to soothe ruffled feathers and egos.

Ken Norris was always the ideal man for the job. Campbell's sister Jean Wales summed him up perfectly when she said of him, "A brilliant brain. And he cared. There was simply nothing to dislike about him." But, because he cared, he had many sleepless nights. When I spent time with him in the al-Jafr desert in Jordan with the ThrustSSC record team in 1996 and enjoyed many conversations about Campbell and record-breaking on the drive to and from our hotel, he admitted:

You felt these personal recriminations. Maybe I did something wrong. I'm sure I did, looking back. There were things I could have done, which might have saved Don. I might have stayed there for a start, that night at Coniston. And I might have been there to caution him more. But I wasn't. Maybe, technically, we hadn't got enough reserve banked up. Everyone knew that he mustn't get beyond so many degrees at the front. So don't go out if it's rough. But you still say to yourself, "Christ, why didn't I recognise that? Why didn't I think that?"

Norris recalled that, when they first considered the boat,

I knew we had to accept responsibility, and the challenge from the design standpoint. I said that you first had to convince yourself that you are capable, because you have this man's life in your hands. You've got to say, "Can I do it?" And that is always a pretty difficult question.

Norris proved a strong manager of Richard Noble's Thrust2 team in the Black Rock desert in Nevada in 1982, and again in 1983 when they regained the land-speed record for Britain at 633.468mph on 4 October. He was also a consultant on Noble's ThrustSSC project which saw Britain become the first nation to break the sound barrier on land at Black Rock on 15 October 1997. One of his abiding passions was to see another British water-speed record contender, and he was closely involved initially with Nigel MacKnight's current Quicksilver project.

Ken Norris was of small stature but towering integrity and intellect, and was completely self-effacing. In his days with Thrust in the Eighties, my wife fondly christened him "Mighty Mouse" for the way in which he sped around. As he was the best at driving in dead straight lines, Norris used the Jaguar fire tender to mark out lanes on the desert track, which Noble would then follow at 600mph. He would continually squat down to spear the playa with his harpoon-like load- bearing ratiometer to assess the surface's weight- bearing properties.

Norris had a fund of stories about his time in the business, and gave help and advice with total generosity. He was approached by many people, myself included, who wanted advice on their own record projects. Norris always gave kind words of support and encouragement. In his time, he had worked with the true heroes, the real achievers of the game: Donald Campbell, Richard Noble and Andy Green. Yet he never let any pretender feel that he had anything less than 100 per cent belief in their projects.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of the dream. Ken Norris took that philosophy to heart and never failed it.

David Tremayne