Lew Norris: Engineer and designer who helped Donald Campbell to set eight world speed records

Thursday 26 March 2009 01:00

If the designer Ken Norris was one of the modest, unsung heroes of land and water speed record-breaking, his brother Lewis was even more self-effacing. Yet the Norris Brothers were responsible for the design of Donald Campbell's Bluebird K7 hydroplane and Bluebird CN7 car, which between them set eight world records.

Lew was the first to make Campbell's acquaintance, working on the K4 hydroplane which Campbell had taken over from his late father, the illustrious Sir Malcolm, in 1949. In Campbell's unsuccessful early attempts on Coniston Water, Norris helped with design work on behalf of Kine Engineering, where he was a mechanical engineer and the workshop manager, his brother Eric was the accountant and Campbell was a director. Later, when the boat was reworked for 1951 around the newly discovered principle of "prop-riding" to enhance its speed, he was instrumental in designing a new propeller shaft.

At that time, Norris and his elder brother Ken were effectively rivals, as the latter worked with Frank and Stella Hanning-Lee on their White Hawk jet hydrofoil. However, they set up Norris Brothers in Sussex in 1952, and renewed their association with Campbell as he aimed at what he called the 200mph "Water Barrier".

"We were both out of work on the record-breaking side," Ken recalled. "Then I got introduced to Donald again on New Year's Eve in 1952. We had a bit of a romp, had the music on, laughed around a bit. Then he said to Lew and me: 'Now that you're together, how about designing me a boat?'"

Working with the Australian aerodynamicist Tom Fink, they created the jet-powered Bluebird K7 with which Campbell would break the barrier at 202.32mph on Ullswater in July 1955. He would break the water speed record six more times, lifting it despite numerous tribulations to 216.20, 225.60, 239.07, 248.62, 260.35 and 276.33mph between 1955 and 1964. No driver and boat combination has ever approached that remarkable tally.

Neither Lew nor Ken Norris was a man for self-aggrandisement, though the former's sense of humour was reflected as their success increased; where Ken opted for a blue Ford Consul company car, Lew chose pink.

Just before Christmas in 1955, Campbell invited the Norris brothers to dinner. "He kidded us about it," Ken remembered. "He said, 'what are we going to do about the land speed record, then, lads?' And then he toasted us, 'Here's to the land speed record!'" They jumped at the chance to create a 500mph car, and their conscientious, painstaking and ingenious approach set them apart.

Campbell survived a crash at 360mph with CN7 on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1960 and went on to break the land speed record at 403.1mph on Australia's Lake Eyre in July 1964 in a rebuilt version. But track and weather conditions – and the advent of pure-thrust jet cars – militated against him realising the car's ultimate potential.

In 1967 he peaked at 328mph on his final, fatal run on Coniston Water in Bluebird K7, endorsing the superb design job the brothers had done 14 years earlier. But in their absence he took one calculated risk too many. It fell to them to conduct the poignant investigation into how excessive speed in poor water conditions had killed their close friend.

Lew was always content to hold the fort back at the office, one of the reasons why his contributions to record-breaking could be overlooked. But his business and engineering acumen was showcased by the Worcester Valve Co. which made the Norris's most of their money, and Flotronic Pumps in Bolney, West Sussex, which is run by his eldest daughter, Jane.

Neither brother received the official recognition that their stellar efforts in record-breaking deserved, nor for their development of the automatic seat belt, which did so much for the safety of ordinary motorists.

"[He had] a brilliant brain," Campbell's sister Jean Wales once said of Ken Norris. "And he cared. There was simply nothing to dislike about him."

Lew Norris came from exactly the same mould.

David Tremayne

Lewis Norris, engineer and designer: born Sussex 20 September 1924; married Beryl (three daughters); died 15 February 2009.

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