Parry Thomas, track idol

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In more recent years the stars of Brooklands were Sir Henry Birkin in the blower 4 1/2 Bentley, Oliver Bertram in the Barnato-Hassan, John Cobb in the lap-record Napier-Railton and Chris Staniland with the Multi-Union. But in the formative years of MOTOR SPORT it was the Welsh wizard, John Godfrey Parry Thomas, who was the idol of the Weybridge Track. This vicar’s son, engineer, tuner, constructor and driver of fast racing cars, designed the Leyland Eight with the intention of out-classing the 40/50hp Rolls-Royce, in which it might have succeeded, if never as elegant, had Leyland Motors not abandoned the project before it was developed.

Thomas went to live inside Brooklands and in 1922 turned his advanced design into a racing car. In less than five full seasons at the Track he had won 38 races and scored 25 second and 14 third places. By 1924 Parry Thomas had turned the Speed Model 7.2-litre Leyland Eight into the sophisticated streamlined Leyland-Thomas No1 and had built a sister car for J E P Howey to race. Most of his successes were at the wheel of these big heavy Leylands, but he also raced the small Marlborough Thomas, a four-cylinder Thomas Special, the straight-eight Thomas Specials and Lionel Rapson’s single-seater Lanchester 40. He got to know Brooklands to perfection and in a close finish could pull off the steep banking to pass below a rival or go right to the top, on one occasion putting a wheel over the edge, returning with a shrub embedded in the Leyland-Thomas’s suspension. Yet apart from a had crash at Boulogne in 1926, where he had made FTD the year before, he never had an accident until the sad fatality in `Babs’ at Pendine sands in 1927, when trying to raise his own 171.09mph LSR in the primitive chain-drive 2.7-litre monster.

His Brooklands successes are proof of his track mastery, and he also won a race at 131.89mph, and took two seconds at Montlhery, simply cutting out two of the Leyland’s eight cylinders when a smaller engine was specified. He also took awards at hillcimbs and broke records, having almost a monopoly of World records by the end of 1924. Tyre problems intruded on long-distance runs: he once even got a fire engine to flood part of the track to cool the tyres, but this reduced speed due to wheelspin, so he relied on rehearsed rapid wheel changes until Dunlop produced racing tyres which lasted, enabling him to progressively raise the World’s hour record to 121.74mph.

The big Welshman would test Russian tyres for high fees, deliberately skidding the Leyland Thomas to burst them. He won the great Match Race against Ernest Eldridge’s 300hp FIAT, and his little ‘flatiron’ Thomas Special put the class hour record to over 112mph after his earlier one had won a 100-mile race. In Fair Isle sweater and leather helmet and invariably starting from scratch, Thomas knew how to outdrive most of his competitors. At Montlhery he once partnered Segrave in a GP Sunbeam, and had other successes with a TT Vauxhall. To endorse his reputation, by 1925 the Leyland Thomas held the Brooklands lap-record at 129.36mph and had been timed to do a flying start kilo at 132.99mph.

I was just 15 when our evening paper told of his death, and I was completely devastated.