Veteran Edwardian Vintage, April 1981

A Section Devoted To Old-Car Matters

Out Of The Past. . . .

When I was exercising that enjoyable motor car, the BMW 628Csi, in Lancashire not long ago I called on Tom Robinson, who used to work for Parry Thomas. I can hear some of you remarking, before you go any further, “Not more about Thomas!” My retort to that is that long books have been written about other British racing drivers of this period, Segrave, Campbell, Don, etc. so why shouldn’t we recall all we can about a man who was not only a very successful racing motorist and Land Speed Record holder in his day, but who designed and built the cars he raced and broke records with? (If you are smart you will reply that a book has also been written about Thomas. . . !)

Mr. Robinson, now 80, was with Leyland Motors when Parry Thomas was busy on his advanced Leyland Eight touring car and his eight-cylinder aero-engine. The latter blew-up after a very short time on the test-bench and was not proceeded with. Robinson felt he would like a change and long after Thomas had established himself as the greatest of the Brooklands drivers he met him in the Leyland works and was inspired to write to Thomas, asking for a transfer. Thus it came about that early in 1926 he went to work on Thomas’ racing cars, sharing “digs” with Jock Pullen in Byfleet. His first job was to help assemble the 4.9-litre Ballot that R.B. Howey raced and in which he was killed at Boulogne later that year. Parts for it would arrive at the works in crates, at a time when Bert White was the storekeeper. Thomas also sent many parts to Invictas, at Cobham.

Up at Leyland, Robinson had known Thomas well. He remembers him as always looking ahead, so that if asked about a job being worked on he wouldn’t be much help until he returned to see what progress had been made. This could be awkward at times, but the big Welshman was well liked by the workers. He played cricket for the Leyland Motors’ team, and in the Brooklands days would have games of Badminton with his staff in the big workshop. Not much overtime was worked there, unless a rush job was on, as when Thistlethwayte damaged the gearbox of the 1 1/2-litre “Flat-iron” Thomas Special he was to drive in the 1926 British Grand Prix. A bad gear change had torn the back axle out and hasty repairs were necessary. Thomas, who always had a slide-rule in his hand at such times, worked out exactly how long this should take, boring-out new bearings, etc.; but in the event Thistlethwayte non-started, Robinson worked on these very low Thomas Specials, and confirms the story that before the bodies were fitted the chassis could be run upside down, as well as the right way up! He came to like the complicated straight-eight engine, which had apparently been intended for a Navy chaser-vessel.

In the Leyland Eight days in Lancashire Robinson went out on test on these chassis, of which he says only about ten were made. On one occasion his foot got caught under the brake pedal when he was out with Newton Iddons as they were approaching an S-bridge in Church Road, mild damage resulting to the car. He remembers being sent to Windover’s, the coachbuilders, around the time of the 1922 Motor Show, in a Leyland lorry, taking them the engine and gearbox of the Leyland Eight chassis they had been putting a body on, the young fitter having to find “digs” and remain to install the power unit. Parry Thomas had a marvellous “ear” for odd noises that might develop in a test chassis. The story was remembered of Thomas, on the cricket-field, placing half-crowns on the top of a wicket, to encourage the bowler to really try to get him out — “he lost quite a bit of money that way!”

Of his year at Brooklands, Robinson remembers how peaceful the place was in the evenings and on Sundays; after the racing cars had been locked-up you would often hear a nightingale singing in the woods. . . Thomas gave his mechanics plenty of time to get the cars he was racing ready for him. He used to go out for test laps in the big Leyland-Thomas with the flat platform behind the seat devoid of the long tail. That would be fitted later and was said to give him an extra five m.p.h. He usually went out alone, but might take Joe Stone or Ken Taylor with him. Mr. Robinson thinks the narrow escape Thomas had when he put two wheels of the Leyland-Thomas over the top of the banking was what caused him to turn the very slightly vee-ed Leyland Eight back axle upside down, so as to give the racing car better grip and a fractionally wider rear track.

So time passed happily, Tom going home over the rickety wooden bridge over the banking known as the Aerodrome Bridge, or more simply “Postman’s Bridge”. This was, of course, on the flying side of the Track and once a lady-pilot gave Robinson a newspaper from a bundle she had just flown over from Paris, no doubt to prove that her Moth had crossed the Channel. Once they were coming into Brooklands in an old Studebaker when the old wooden bridge over the Wey collapsed and the car fell in; it was pulled out with a Trojan. Incidentally, the first “Flat-iron” Thomas Special was constructed entirely on the marking-out table, its wheels never touching the floor until it had been completed.

On race days Thomas would drive over from his works, win a race, and drive back again, unless he had another one to compete in, shunning the cameras and the publicity that others loved. He may not have been able to drive when he first went to Leyland’s, or so rumour has it, but it wasn’t long before he was driving Spurrier from London to Preston in 4 1/2 hours, over the narrow 1920s roads. He was said to have upset a milk float on one such run. Thomas drove a London ‘bus during the 1926 General Strike, when the pickets, knowing of his many kindnesses to children, told their mates that no stones were to be lobbed at the big, leather-coated man on that ‘bus! The Leyland-Thomas was very reliable, responding well to a push-start, and its engine was seldom taken down between races, but  Thomas had a big-bore spare engine he sometimes used, 95 mm. against 89 mm. (used by J. E. P. Howey – Ed).

Then came the sad day when Parry Thomas departed from Brooklands for the last time to his death in “Babs” at Pendine on March 3rd, 1927. The news came through to those left behind working in Thomas’ premises at Brooklands and a complete silence fell over the place. Uncannily Togo, Thomas’ Alsatian who had guarded the workshops and who used to delight in leaving dead rats he had caught outside Thomas’ Brooklands bungalow “The Hermitage”, had been missing while Thomas was away and on the fatal day set up a terrible howling, being quite inconsolable. All the workshop staff attended the funeral in Byfleet. Afterwards a group photograph was taken outside the entrance to the workshops from which “Babs” and Thomas’ more successful racing cars had emerged. Mr. Robinson being on the right hand side of the other worker of that name (see Motor Sport, September, 1978), before all dispersed, some to go to T & T’s. Sir Henry Spurrier, head of Leyland’s, was at the funeral and seeing Robinson he asked him “Are you coming back?”. Which is how Tom went back to the Leyland production line, to become Foreman of the injection-pump department. – W.B.

V-E-V Miscellany

In the February instalment of “The War-Time Diaries of an RFC Officer” I referred to “X” as having used a Vincent car for a short time in 1918, saying this was a make mysterious to me. John Bland has written to suggest that the car “X” used was a Vincent-Hollier. These were made in Michigan from 1915 until 1921 by the Lewis Spring & Axle Company, and “X” had one of the earlier ones, as seems likely, it would have been a V8. The later Falls-engined six-cylinder Vincent-Hollier did not appear until 1917 and it is unlikely that one would have been shipped over here during the latter part of the war. So here was another rare motor car driven by “X”. The winter issue of the Bugatti OC’s magazine Bugantics contained an interesting illustrated account of the one Bugatti built, it is said, without Ettore Bugatti’s knowledge, and intended to be a development of the Type 57 Bugatti, with independent suspension of all its wheels, and a vee radiator grille. The car was apparently the work of Jean Bugatti and Costantini and they used the 3.3-litre twin-cam engine but made to run quietly by having chain-driven camshafts. Called “The Creme de Menthe,” a pillarless four-door saloon body was made for it and, on a test, 119 k.p.h. was averaged on the run from Molsheim to Paris. After some 250,000 km. of testing, a camshaft-drive-chain broke and the valves hit the pistons, causing the project, which dated from 1934, to be abandoned, late in 1937. The story broke in the Swiss journal Automobil Revue and had it not been accompanied by a photograph of this rare Bugatti taken by Robert Braunschweig and drawings of it given to him by Hugh Conway, we would have suspected a hoax! The only puzzling thing is that Braunschweig took his snap at the age of 20, when he had gone to the Swiss Grand Prix which he was, he says, reporting for The Autocar, when he found the car standing behind the pits. It seems odd that Ettore never heard of it, after it had been thus publicly displayed. Can anyone add anything? The same issue of Bugantics had a photograph of the much-modified Buick-engined Type 57S Bugatti (ugh!) owned in America by Bunny Phillips and a picture of another Type 35 GP Bugatti that ran at Lyons in 1924 and which has been restored.

The BOC has recently elected four new Bugatti-owning members. Its Prescott hill-climbs of interest to this column include the Classic Meeting on June 6th/7th, the Members Garden Party on July 19th and, of course, there is the VSCC hill-climb on August 1st. Among the awards won by BOC members in 1980 were the Victor Ludorum to C. Cramer, the Coppa Costantini Trophy to D. Andrews, the Staniland Trophy to A. Hopkins, the Newton to Cramer, the Brackenbury to Ian Preston, who also won the Rolt Trophy and the Jean Bugatti Cup, the Brescia Cup to T. J. Cardy, the Bachelier to J. Marks, the Monro Marshals Trophy to P. Tottman and the Elizabeth Junek Trophy to Joy Rainey.

An article on vintage brakes appeared in last February’s VMCC Journal. The new President of the VSCC is Tom Threlfall, to whom warm congratulations. Two noted motoring writers, the great American historian Beverly Rae Kimes and Michael Bowler, of classic car associations, have both resigned their Editorial occupations recently, after 17 and 8 years, respectively.

The Farnham Herald had a pictorial feature some time ago about the cars of the Farnham pioneer John Henry Knight, who had his petrol car on the road in 1895. The accompanying story tells of the first Knight car being a tiller-steered three-wheeler, converted into a four-wheeler, with a third car thought to have been a peat-fired steamer. This is said to have been towed in 1915 to the Reliance works in Farnham, in West Street, later a St. John’s Ambulance depot, a book warehouse and a printing works, to be worked on by George Parfitt, Ernie Norris and W. Purchase. Apparently it wasn’t a success but perhaps the petrol shortage in WW1 caused it to come out of retirement and it is believed to have been used in an Armistice carnival. Mr. Parfitt worked on Mr. Knight’s cars and his later bomb-thrower and brick-laying machine. Mr. Knight drove his early cars on the roads of his Barfield estate, getting work done at the Reliance Garage, which also serviced steam-waggons. The pictures with the Herald’s article not only included Knight cars but a Benz Ideal, a Locomobile steamer, what could be an early Peugeot, a De Dion Bouton, a later large Renault, two unidentifiable veterans, one a six-seater using spring rear wheels made by the Wood Spring Tyre Co. Ltd., a product patented by Mr. Knight. There is also a line-up of at least eight veteran cars at Barfield, led by a De Dion Bouton and a very early larger-type Benz.

Owen Wyn-Owen was not pleased that I referred to his “Babs” as looking rather ragged on its last TV appearance and he tells me that when it next appears it will be fully-clothed in new body panels (although one hopes the original tail will be preserved). He has many other restorations of personal cars in hand and his most recent acquisition was a Mathis in poor condition, found in Twickenham. Which reminds me that I was able to purchase some time ago a silver fruit bowl that had been won at Brooklands in 1920 by B.S. Marshall, which he gave as a wedding present to Edgar Duffield, the motoring writer. The amusing thing is that, driving a small Mathis, the race was won at an average speed of only 63 1/4 m.p.h.

The premier FIVA International Rally will be that in Sicily, from May 7th-8th, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu is the new President of the FIVA, which is right and proper. The Continental season on vintage and historic-car racing opens at Monza on April 12th, and we note in the fixture list a meeting at Montlhery on July 4th/5th. The Brooklands Society Trophy Race for such cars is due to happen again at Thruxton on May 4th. Some Model-T Ford parts, old lamps and horns and two 90 mm. Rudge-Whitworth wheels were discovered at a small Barmouth garage recently. – W.B.

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A Rolls-Royce Rally

A big rally is to be held on June 7th in the delightful grounds of Bowood Court, near Chippingham, the home of the Earl of Selbourne. Interesting and unusual vehicles are wanted and if anyone has any ideas we can put them in touch with one of the organisers. Proceeds go to the Army Benevolent Fund. — W.B.

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Old No. 7

A limited edition of 500 full colour prints of an airbrush painting of this famous car by Phillip Lemon has been produced. Each 17″ x 23″ print was signed by Sammy Davis, who drove the car to victory in the 1927 Le Mans 24 Hour race after crashing badly at the White House Corner, before his death. The price is £47.75 (including post and packing) part of which will be going to Sammy’s widow, Susie and the prints are available from Lemographics at 41 Lonsdale Road, London SW13 9JR. Lemographics also have an increasing range of pen and ink drawings, 12″ x 8″ of vintage and classic cars at £3.95, including postage and packing.