Veteran Edwardian Vintage, April 1977

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A section devoted to old-car matters

“Babs” returns to Pendine

In conjunction with the opening of their new Community Hall, Pendine Community Council persuaded Owen Wyn-Owen to bring the 27-litre Liberty-engined Thomas Special “Babs” back to Pendine, so that it could make a memorial run along the famous sands, fifty years to the day on which J.G. Parry Thomas was killed there. When the car overturned on Thursday, March 3rd, 1927, while Thomas was attempting to regain his Land Speed Record from Malcolm Campbell’s Napier-Campbell “Bluebird”, the record having been raised by “Babs” to 171.02 m.p.h. in 1926.

It will be remembered that Wyn-Owen arrived at Pendine some years ago and against divided sentiments, disinterred “Babs” and subsequently restored her to running condition. The car has since been demonstrated at Brooklands, Valley Airfield, and elsewhere and has made a number of TV appearances, although the only time it has been run in top gear was, I believe, at the aforesaid aerodrome. I was only 14 when Parry Thomas was killed but can still recall vividly the shock of reading the sad news in the evening papers, although I had never seen the great Welsh racing motorist and engineer on the track.

I have naturally followed closely and with great interest Wyn-Owen’s restoration of “Babs”, a car built originally by Count Louis Zborowski and taken in hand by Parry Thomas after the Count’s fatal accident in a Mercedes at the 1924 Italian GP. So when Wyn-Owen invited me to attend the return to Pendine, I needed no prompting.

Arriving on the Wednesday afternoon, after a clear, fast journey in the BMW. we found schoolchildren clustered round the Beach Hotel, where the record-men used to stay, studying the plaque which commemorates their successes, as they were to write school essays about it. In the car-park, close to where “Babs” was housed in 1927 in a now nonexistent shed, stood Wyn-Owen’s yellow VW Beetle. “Babs” had left Capel Curig at noon, he told me, its trailer being towed by a Series 1 Land-Rover into which a twin-SU 3-litre Rover car-engine had finally been installed only the night before. It had not got to Pendine by the time dinner was served in the hotel, where a small party which included Richard Langworth of Car Classics, who had come all the way from America for the occasion, his photographer Nicky Wright, Wyn Owen and I were accommodated—the place was in the process of’ being redecorated and no-one remembered where poor Parry Thomas had slept on that last night, 50 years before— which was perhaps just as well… .

Around 9 p.m., as Wyn-Owen was growing anxious, “Babs” arrived and we all trouped out to see it put away in the Ashwell Garage,. which had remained open specially. After rain in the night Thursday dawned fine. But before “Babs” was ready, mist had enshrouded the beach. When its tarpaulins had been removed “Babs” was seen to look more like its former self, as the somewhat battered original tail was now in place, also the cowlings over the driving chains. It would be better still with a radiator cowl, bonnet, and cockpit-sides; Wyn Owen says he is looking for a capable panel-beater… .

The car’s Liberty aero-engine was in poor shape when dug up and for a time a WW2 replacement engine made use of, which only allowed for a single Lucas distributor, as the two Zenith carburetters at the front of the inlet manifolding were obstructive (“Babs” has two more Zeniths at the back of the engine). Then a more suitable engine arrived from America, as personal luggage aboard the QE2, and good use has since been made of this Lincoln-built Liberty engine. The 12 separate cylinders from it have been mounted on the original Packard-made Liberty crankcase, which means that the twin Delco Aero-type distributors could be remounted on the forward ends of the camshafts, and dual ignition restored to the two KLG plugs in each “pot”. The shell of the low-set Galley radiator is original (number 20558) and it is labelled “56 lb.” But Delaney-Galley made a new core for it. The tyres are 33 x 5 Dunlops, those on the front wheels “Reinforced for Heavy Service” 90s. Wyn-Owen sits on a rehashed, wooden floor. The dials before him comprise a non-original. Lagonda air-gauge, the original oil-temperature and water-heat gauges on the right, and a new oil-gauge (“if it just shows something, it’s OK”) to the left of the big, non-original tachometer, which reads in unbroken steps from “8” to “19” (“What limit?—! suppose not more than about 1,500 r.p,m.”). On the flour are the Delco switch-box with ammeter, and a Pyrene fire-extinguisher.

That was the car we examined as some 14 1/2 gallons of water were provided by a lady with a convenient stand-pipe and fed into the streamlined scuttle header-tank, and carefully bled from plug-holes in the top water-galleries. Shell oil was poured into two orifices in the end pair of rocker-boxes (valve stems and springs are exposed but the Liberty runs very clean), and about 35 lb. put into the back tyres.

The deserted village was by now beginning to fill-up. Old-timers who remembered the 1926/7 record attempts and had helped to bury the ill-fated “Babs”, modern sightseers, BBC TV and Radio crews had arrived, and I am glad to say that Parry Thomas’ niece, Mrs. Pamela Laughton, was present with her husband. Christopher Jennings, who had instituted the plaque on the hotel wall, and his wife Margaret who raced so well at Brooklands in Bentley and Frazer Nash cars, were there, Johnny Thomas’ open 6 1/2-litre Bentley, a very smart Morris-Cowley bull-nose two-seater; and a Scott motorcycle lent a vintage flavour to the proceedings, and the Church was represented by the Vicar of Laugharne and the Rural Dean, for, remember, Parry Thomas’ father was a Vicar.

As the time drew near for “Babs” to be started up, one thought of Thomas, ill with influenza, setting off, it is said, from Brooklands on the Monday, dining in Oxford, and, feeling better, continuing through the night along the roads of those days, in his vintage car, to arrive at the Beach House Hotel in the early hours of the Tuesday morning. On the Thursday came the tragic accident…. I have been told the car was an Invicta. Wyn-Owen happened to remark that he had heard that it had an experimental engine. Now in 1925 Thomas was due to race an Invicta with a four-cylinder FAST engine, but never did so. For the 1927 racing season he was rumoured to be preparing a straight-eight Invicta. Could he have used either of these cars to go to Pendine in, one wonders ? More likely, perhaps, that he made his last road journey in a normal 3-litre lnvicta, such as he had demonstrated shortly before at a CUAC speed trial; if the theory as to its make is indeed correct….

To return to 1977, it was a great pity that the Ministry of Defence proved unco-operative, refusing to allow “Babs” to penetrate beyond their red flags towards the old mile and kilometre course. This restricted Wyn-Owen to driving in a circle on the sands just below the Beach Hotel; even if no high speeds were contemplated (and there were many children running about on the beach), it would have been nice to have seen “Babs” disappearing in a cloud of sand and spray, as it had done in its LSR days. To compensate, the Police had been splendid, allowing “Babs” to be tow-started along the road, just as if we were in some remote French village. Soon the thunder broke from its twelve stub exhausts and “Babs” was on her way. It was both a pleasing and a sad experience to see Thomas’ old racing car again on Pendine sands, but I think the great Brooklands driver would have been delighted that so many small children were given a holiday to see it. Wyn-Owen told me he never got out of bottom gear; he estimated his speed as 50 to 60 m.p.h. This was fast enough however for Nicky Wright, who was given a ride, to get his cameras filled with sand and to become so wet he had to change his trousers! But I do hope that the kids were told that Thomas went three times as quickly in 1926, and for a full mile, at that..

However, it was splendid to see “Babs” in throaty action again, at the scene of the car’s greatest triumph. Naturally, all mariner of theories were being bandied-about, as to the origin of the car and why it crashed, on that fateful day in March, 50 years ago. One person even suggested that because Thomas had driven a London ‘bus during the General Strike the workers had followed him to Pendine and sabotaged “Babs”! Others remembered that the steering track-rod was never found after the accident, so that a front wheel might have fouled the chassis ? The smell of clutch lining was mentioned, as indicating that the .engine was at full-bore when “Babs” overturned. But Wyn-Owen tells me the small Thomas clutch heats up very quickly, although coping with the torque of the big engine, and this was apparent even after his brief runs. Afterwards “Bab’s” was placed on display until the Saturday, and vintage gatherings and film-shows, as announced in the Post Office window, celebrated the car’s return to Pendine. I think had they been given sufficient notice, British Leyland would have sent their Leyland Eight down, to join Parry Thomas’ other creation. But full marks to Pendine Community Council for staging this nostalgic re-enactment. understand that they are now thinking-up means of persuading Owen Wyn-Owen to bring “Babs” back there again. You might sum it up as “May Babs Endure”.—W.B.

V-E-V Miscellany.

The Veteran Car Club has changed to a newspaper-type format from its former glossy magazine layout for its Veteran Car, with rather journalistic headings, (such as “Slaving Over a Hot Vet”, “When the Vets Joined The Great War Effort”,.etc., but there is an interesting article on how prewar British and European cars fared in Australia, by G. H. Brooks.

This year there will be International Veteran and Vintage rallies in Portugal on June 4th-11th this being the main FIVA fixture, in Germany from May 19th-22nd, in Spain from May 23rd-31st, in Luxembourg from June 24th-26th, another in Spain from July 15th-24th, in Austria from September 12-18th and in Greece from September 14th-19th, which is worth noting if you are planning holidays in those countries. The VCC has a main event in the London area on July 9th-10th. In Ireland the Gordon Bennett Memorial Rally is scheduled to take place on July 8th-10th. The Armstrong Siddeley OC’s magazine Sphinx has on the front cover of the current issue a nice picture of a 14 h.p. saloon-landaulette, like the first car in which the Editor of Motor Sport had a ride round Brooklands Track, although that was a hired white one, which soon burst a tyre…. The Austin Ten DC magazine arrives regularly, the last one containing a description of running and touring abroad with the Austin Light-12s, on the proverbial shoe-string. Some newly-prepared high-performance vintage PVT Sunbeams may be expected to appear in VSCC and STD events this year. While he was in this country from Australia, Alan Chamberlain found some more drawings in the Science Museum in London which will help him with his rebuild of the great racing Napier “Samson”, although it appears that much of the car was built first and drawings made afterwards. Douglas Fitzpatrick intends to exercise his great 21-litre Maybach-Metallurgique quite frequently in VSCC events this year, in pursuit of the Mettallurgique Trophy in the car’s 70th year and Robbie Hewitt is confident of having her ex-Joyce AC single-seater motoring with its original sixteen-valve o.h.c. engine, instead of the Riley Nine engine that was installed while this was being overhauled.

The Vintage Motor Cycle Club has a very full fixture list for 1977, its National events including the Mallory Park race meeting on May 8th, and the Banbury Run on June 19th while there is to be an International Assembly at Harrogate from July 1st-3rd. Grass track meetings continue, we like the sound of the veteran & belt-driver trial, scheduled for the Bristol area on July 3rd, but are surprised to note Oulton Park and Donington race meetings on the same day—July 23rd. The Armstrong Siddeley OC is again having its main event at Woburn in June and is taking note of Silver jubilee events—last year at Woburn a 1927 18-h,p. model was entered, rebuilt from its days as a breakdown truck. John Rowley is at work on a second Talbot 25/50 restoration.—W.B.

A Fragment Out of the Past

When I was very young I used to be a fairly frequent visitor to Croydon Aerodrome, in the days when fairly infrequent air-lines used to arrive and depart from the Continent. I mean as long ago as the Daimler Airlines’ DHs, the Handley-Page W8s, and the Farman Goliaths of Air France, the last-named featured recently in Aeroplane Monthly. In those times Croydon was really a combination of the war years Wallington and Waddon aerodromes, joined together. When aeroplanes were taxied across Plough Lane from the latter, to the hangars on the former, a man with a red flag held up such traffic as then used this country road. That is the point of this story.

I knew that aeroplane level-crossing and as told it was the only one of its kind in the World. Later, when the field took on the status of Croydon Airport, alas now defunct, the landing area was extended and part of Plough Lane obliterated. But I always remembered this unique “level-crossing.” Then, back in 1960, I had found the wide gates used at Newcastle-upon-Tyne for admitting wartime fighters from Town Moor to Duke’s Moor during testing. We put a picture of them in Motor Sport. This was surely the first aeroplane level-crossing ? Then I read “Air Road to the Isles” by the late Capt. E.E. Fresson, OBE (David Rendle, 1967) in which he described going to the aerodrome at Monksmoore, just outside Shrewsbury, in 1928, to take a job as a joy-ride pilot, using Le Rhone-engined Avro 504s, with F.J. V. Holmes’ organisation. The book mentions his surprise, on that occasion, of seeing the licensed Ground Engineer, Bert Farminier, deep in a hole, digging the foundations for new gate-posts at the place where “the ‘planes were moved across the road to the flying-field from the hangars”.

This sounded like the third aeroplane level-crossing in the World! So the other day, having fuel-consumption checks to make with a VW Polo, that. splendid little car which, with the Golf, has renewed my Volkswagen enthusiasm, I decided to investigate. I could not find Monksmoore on any map. But enquiry at a village Post Office a few miles from Shrewsbury brought assurance, from a charming and helpful post-mistress, that it was part of the town itself; she knew nothing of it as an aerodrome. Reluctantly we entered Shrewsbury, busy on this fine Saturday morning, and were directed courteously by a traffic warden to the suburb we were seeking. Naturally, we got lost, and broke off to visit Sleap aerodrome, just outside Wem, where the Shropshire Aero Club aviates from a grass field in 1920s style, and Don Brake Linings sometimes do high-speed vehicle tests on what was once a wartime runway. We then had lunch at a nearby pub and tried again. This time we came over English Bridge (having entered the town via Welsh Bridge) and after a few more enquiries, arrived at the area we were seeking, now called Monkmoor. It seemed mostly new housing estates and Hospital. But there was an open space, large enough for 1920s aeroplanes to have used. Driving up a lane of deep, rain-filled pot-holes, between two of these fields, we came to some older cottages. A gentleman shovelling manure for his compost-heap said, yes, Holmes had had an aerodrome there, on the field behind us, but he knew of no crossing, and the hangars have been demolished. Another, older pedestrian we asked didn’t recall an aerodrome. But looking closely, we did find a pair of gates, where the other field had but single gates. Could these, perhaps, have been on the site, in the corner of the bigger field, where those gates Farminer was working on were situated ? The location didn’t seem quite right…

But never mind! We enjoyed a fine cross-country run back into Wales, during which the quiet and fuel-thrifty Polo eventually ran its tank dry. Any comments ?…W.B.

Lapel Badges

A Belfast reader has sent us a photograph, which unfortunately will not reproduce, of the collection of car and motorcycle lapel badges he has made since 1925. These are manufacturers’ badges, as distinct from Club badges, and we well remember trying to obtain some as a boy, and the excitement of netting a winged-Bentley pin-badge. Our correspondent says he intends to present his collection to the NMM in the near future and meanwhile would be glad to receive any rare badges that may be available (letters can be forwarded). Under the glass his colour photograph reveals Allard, Hudson, Overland, Delage, Chevrolet, Citroen, Daimler, Chain-Gang Frazer Nash, Audi, Jaguar, Scott, James, Gwynne 8, Mercedes-Benz, FN, Humber, Leyland, Alvis, BMW, Vega, AC, Ford, Bentley, DAF, Vulcan and others too numerous to mention, many of them obtained under interesting circumstances from famous personalities.—W.B.

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