THE LIFE STORY OF PARRY-THOMAS
I Last month we gave some details of the activities of that great driver-designer, the late J. G. Parry-Thomas, up to the end of the last war. Here his later career is described, much of the information having kindly been supplied by S. T. Saunders, A.M.I.A.E., who was Thomas’s chief draughtsman, first at “The Leyland” and later at Brooklands.—Ed.I
pARRY-THOMAS was educated at the Central Technical College, London, a branch of the University of London, and from there went to Clayton and Shuttleworth’s. Last month we described his early career, details of which were kindly contributed, at our request, by Mr. Sumner. We left off at the termination of the 1914-18 War, when Thomas was about to design the famous Leyland Eight car. Mr. saundcrs, who continues his life story, recalls that from November, 1912, to the outbreak of war, Thomas had offices in Kensington High Street, and there developed the Thomas transmission. Of it he writes :—
” For the benefit of those who are not conversant with this system, it was an electric() mechanical drive for petrol vehicles ; it consisted of a generator driven through an epicyclic differential mechanism, an electric motor, and a top speed clutch which locked the whole mechanism for direct drive. The operation was roughly as follows :–The dynamo was connected by a clutch to the engine through the medium of the gearing, and the current was regulated by an electrical controller in similar way to c. purely electric car, the clutch being operated by a profile cc in on the shaft. The function of the gear was to transmit the torque reaction of the dynamo to the road wheels, whilethe current generated was fed to the motor, which also drove the road wheels. To make a simple comparison, imagine one wheel of a car lifted clear of the ground and replaced by a generator. The other rear wheel has a motor incorporated in the hub. The result would then be that the engine torque would be divided, through the differential, between the generator and the mechanical drive, the ‘slip’ being returned as electrical energy to the motor. To ride in the firm’s car, an elderly Delaha ye of approximately 12-14 11.p., was a revelation ; it could easily beat a 40-h.p. gear-driven car on acceleration. Among the other vehicles fitted with this transmission were a Belgian Pipe, a `B’-Type L.G.O.C. omnibus and a 200-hp. rail car for New Zealand ; the whole of this latter vehicle, with the exception of the engine (made by the Tyber concern), was designed in Parry-Thomas’s D.O. and incorporated many novel ideas in suspension and control. Another fine piece of work which the writer did not ‘see in being, the war intervening, was a road tre in built by Armstrong-Whitworth. This consisted of a tractor and several trailers, all of which drove on intermediate or electrical drive, while the tractor took charge on top. All wheels steered and it was possible, by means of an auxiliary steering gear mounted On the rear trailer, to back this train down a winding lane.” Next Thomas went to “The. Leyland,” as has been described. After the Armistice he designed the highly advanced Leyland straight-eight production car—he did not design the Trojan. The Leyland largely followed his aero-engine design and had triple-eccentric drive for the o.h. .;amshaft, leaf valve springs, torsional auxiliary suspension with anti-rolling bars and a suction-operated ignition switch, which cut the ignition as soon as the engine stopped. Other features were a starter switch operated by the gearlever, a suction control for the cooling fan to accord its .speed to engine requirements and suction servi) recr wheel braking, on which master patent all subsequent suction servo braking has de
pended. This car was known as “‘The Lion of Olympia” when it was exhibited in 1920, and we believe about sixteen were ultinu tely built, and that Mr. Swears, of Swears and Wells, the shoe manufacturers, was a keen Leyland owner. Sir Lionel Phillips was running a modified version before the war, of course. Very soon Parry-Thomas was at Brooklands with his Leyland, end it was not long before he attained a speed of 100 m.p.h. from a virtually standard example, after experimenting with carburation and firing order. With an unfaired 2-seater body, disc
wheels, uncowled Leyland radiator and a very high clussis line, the Leyland started its racing career. At the 1922 Easter B.A.R.C. Meeting it damaged its clutch on the line, but at the Whitsun Meeting it was second in three events and won the 100 m.p.h. Short Handicap at 94.25 m.p.h., travelling in a remarkably supple end silent manner. Before 1922 came to a close Thomas had gained three more seconds and two thirds, besides winning the Essex M.C. Lightning Long Handicap at 105.25 m.p.h.
In June the Leyland, a simple faired tail added, took several International Class B records, wilich it raised in October and yet again in November, when it also broke the World’s Ten Mile record at 114.84 m.p.h. Thomas worked hard in his Brooklands workshop, then known as “The Hermitage,” and now part of the famous Thomson and Taylor premises, and for 1923 produced the first of the immortal Leyland-Thomas ears, with isolated radiator and carefully streamlined 2-seater body. During the season he took three second and one third place and won the Summer Lightning Long Handicap at 115.75 m.p.h., the Essex M.C. 100-m.p.h. Handicap at 100.5 m.p.h. and the Essex Lightning Short and Long Handicap Races at 101.5 m.p.h. and 107.75 m.p.h. respectively. In spite of this busy programme, Thomas built a sister car for Capt. J. K P. Howey, which gained several successes, and he also took the World’s Five and Ten Mile and Class B half and one mile records, the half mile at 124.65 m.p.h. The Leyland had a capacity of 7.2 litres, but in addition to preparing it, and Howey’s car, Thomas had been busy with smaller stuff. For the J.C.C. 200 Mile Race he entered two Marlborough-Thomas cars, driving one himself and entrusting the other to George Duller. They had four-cylinder 70 x97-mm. (1,493-c.c.) engine, with o.h. valves, Delco coil ignition, two Zenith carburetters and torsion-bar suspension, probably the first time such suspension was ever fully exploited. In the race Thomas fell out after 45 laps and Duller after 60 laps. The cars had been hastily prepared and suffered from bad misfiring. It was during this year that Thomas formed his design office with Ken Thomson at Brooklands, and he also found time to take the Leyland to the Boulogne Speed Trials, where it averaged 112.5 m.p.h. By 1924 the Leyland had taken on the guise of single-seater, in which form the big white cars are best remembered. The engine now ran at about 2,0(K) r.p.m. at 92 m.p.h. and the fuel consumption was quoted as 15 m.p.g. at 110 m.p. h. ,although simple forced induction by means of a wind scoop enabled large chokes and jets to be used, the mixture being dis tinctly rich. The new bodywork represented a wind-resistance improvement of over 40 per cent. The Leyland-Thomas gave its designer-driver six wins, three seconds and a third place in B.A.R.C. and other outer-circuit races, the fastest win being at 120.15 m.p.h. It also enabled him to average 128 m.p.h. at Boulogne and to set a new Brooklands lap record, first at 125.14 m.p.h. and later at 1’48.36 m.p.h. World’s and Class 13 records were also captured, ranging from the flying mile at 129.73 m.p.h. to the ” Hour ” at 109.1 m.p.h. In all, the 13rooklands lap record was broken seven times. In the 200 Mile Race at the end of the year Thomas again entered the Marlborough-Thomas cars, one of which appeared at the Show as a sports model. He experienced frequent tyre trouble and
the body also disintegrated. Only masterly driving saved a disaster when a tyre left the rim at the Fork.
By 1925 Thomas had extracted even. more speed from the Leyland-Thomas. He gained three wins at Brooklands, the best at 120.15 m.p.h., and a second and tao third plaees, being a match for the handicappers with a vengeance. He also set the Brooklands Lap Record to 129.7 m.p.h. and took nine World’s and six Class 13 records, including a s.s. mile at 88 m.p.h. and the World’s ” Hour ” ia 110.68 m.p.h., a tyre change notwithstanding. The previous two years Thomas had tried twin rear wheels and the cooling effects of a wet track during record attempts, in order to reduce tyre troubles, but by 1925 he had decided that wheel spin in the wet was more detrimental than heat and that twin rear wheels reduced speed. About this time he published a number of works on Thomas torsional suspension, which was a feature of the -Leyland-Thomas ears. He took the Leyland to Montlhery, on one occasion removing two pistons and running it as a ” six ” in order to get within a capacity limit ; he alsoset a, Montihery Lap Record Of 132.5 m.p.h. in 1924. Apart from his big car, Thomas had now produced an unsupercharged, four-cylinder, 1 Pare, single-seater Thomas ” Special.” It had a very striking body, modelled on that of the Leyland-Thomas, finished white with pale blue undershield, and the long tail was so rigid that the rear wheels of the car could be made to leave the ground by lifting the tip of it. The chassis was built up of Maticet and Blin units, but the engine was of Thomas’s own creation. This car first appeared in the 1925 Easter 00-m.p.h. Short Handicap, but it was not placed. Using a 1,847-e.e. engine, the car Won the President’s Gold Plate Race at 96.75 m.p.h. and the “News of the World ” 100 Mile Race at the same meeting at 98.23 M.p.h., which suggests a nice appreciation of the handicapping. A 11-litre version of the Thomas engine was supplied to Morgan for installation in his Aston-Martin ” Green Pea,” in which form the car won a 75-m.p.h. Long Handle:4i at 90.64 m.p.h. and gained a gave Thomas two wins at 98.75 and lands most imposing ears. The result. was that it lapped at nearly 110 m.p.h. and taken under his care the Rapson singleseater Lanchester Forty, one of Brooksecond place. Parry-Thomas had also
98.47 m.p.h. respectively, and a second place, that season. Some appreciation of Thomas’s versatility and industry can be formed when it is mentioned that, apart from his exploits with the LeylandThomas, Thomas-” Special ” and Lanclicster track cars, he had a hand in designing the Arab k• ad Spurrier-Railton sports ears and had already begun to plan a car to attack the Land Speed Record (then standing at 150.9 m.p.h.), a road-racing car, and to modify the Stcndard Riley Nine for racing purposes. He had also found opportunity in 1924 to assist Rapson and Duller with the Lanchester long-distance records, taking the longest spells at the wheel during the 12-hour run, which was suceesstul at 05.7 m.p.h. The year 1926 was Thomas’s last full season. Perhaps one of his greatest
achievements was the capture of the Class F Hour Record with the fourcylinder Thomas-” Special,” at 112.78 m.p.h. The Leyland-Thomas was also in fine form and took no fewer than five first places and four seconds, the fastest win at 121.2 m.p.h. It also set up a Brooklands standing lap record at 110.19 m.p.h. and raised four World’s and three Class B records, including the World’s ” I tour ” at 121.74 m.p.h. and the 1,00e-kilos. Class B record at 109.77 m.p.h. Incidentally, the Leyland was not considered to have got going properly until the season was well advanced ! Even so, the fastest win represented the highest average ever for a Brooklanes race, and the Class B f.s. kilo. record was taken 1..t. 131.74 m.p.h., all the class records being established at Montlhery. Using the Lanehester at Brooklands in 1926, Thomas gained two wins, both at nearly 101 m.p.h., and one third. In the ” Evening News ” 100 Mile Handicap he for once forsook his usual stable and drove Barela y ‘s T.T. Vauxhall and finished third, breaking the Class E 100 Mile record at 101.82 M.p.h. in the process. As has been mentioned, Thomas had decided to attack the absolute speed record, but, deeming a specialised car unnecessary for this major, but to him straightforwi. rd, task, he acquired the 27 litre Liberty engined Higham” Special ” which Zborow ski had used at the Track in 1923. The chassis was chaindriven and reputed to have a Benz gearbox and 1905 G. P. Mcrcédès stub-axles. Thomas tit led an inclined radiator, cowled it in rather on Leyland-Thomas lines and lifted a shorter tail. A preliminary run was taken at the 1926 N.% hitsun Meeting, after failure to run at Easter, but the car was not hurried, and, after Thomas had decaltd to drive in place of Cobb, a second was taken in the Lightning Short Handicap. Thomas rapidly made up Cobb’s 3-see. start in the Leylaia-Tlionias. He said he had reached 1 oi m.p.h. on the railway straight, using the rear brakes to the full for entering the Byffeet banking, i.nd he was considerably bruised. Cobb drove the car later, but experienced trouble. It. was, of course, called “Babs,” it is said because a mechanic, with humorous intent, had chalked this name on the huge Liberty engine when Thomas had it out of the car. It was rumoured that this V12 27-litre engine had been using mult icarburetters and was giving some 600 b.h.p. Thomas gained a second place with it at the August I3.A.R.C. Meeting. Before this the car was taken
to Pendine and took the World’s “Land Speed Record “—in actual fact, the World’s f.s. kilometre record—at 169.23 m.p.h. and the mile at 168.07 m.p.h., be aging Segrave’s figure by 17 m.p.h. This was a magnificent effort for a virtually out-of-date car—the record book refers to it as a ” Higham.” Not content with this perfomiance, Thomas brought ” Babs ” cut again on the following day and pushed the World’s kilometre record to 171.0’2 m.p.h. and the mile record to 170.624 m.p.h. ; the date, to be precise, was April 28th, 196. In May, at Brooklands, ” Baths ” took the Worki’s s.s. kilo. and mile records at 86,9 and 98.87 m.p.h. respectively. At the end of the season she captured the Class A five mile, 10 kila. and 10 mile records at speeds from 122.9 to 11:4.25 m.p.h.—actually rather slower than the Leyland-Thomas’sClass B figures. On her first appearance ” Babs ” had the airship-shape Higham tail and a normal, if immense, bonnet. Later the front works assumed a more LeylandThomas appearance, awl a long, tapering tail was used. When the Americyn driver ” Snowie ” Brownie visited Thomas we published a picture of Mrs. Brownie in the car in its original form, and a later picture, showing John Cabb handling it at Brooklands, shows the difierences clearly. Meanwhile, the two “flat-iron ” 11-litre supercharged Thomas-” Specials ” were taking form ; Thomas also had a 750-c.c. design up his sleeve. Intended for road as well as track events, these ears had
52 x 88-mm. straight-eight engines with alloy blocks and steel liners. A single spurgear driven oh. camshaft operated two inclined o.h. valves per cylinder and, as on the Leyland, leaf valve springs were. used. The supercharger was waterjacketed and an additional header tank was carried in the scuttle. The clutch was a multi-plate of Thomas design and there was only one universal joint in the transmission. Lubrication was dry sump and plain main bearings were used. The chassis was underslung, the side members passing below the axles, and suspension was by normal leaf springs. The driver sat beside the propeller shaft and. hand and foot brake operated on all four wheels. The cars were unready for the British G.P. and, we believe, had gearbox trouble at Boulogne. In the 1926 J.C.C. 200 Mile Race Thomas finished fifth, in 3 hrs. 5 mins. 22 secs:, at an average speed of 65.37 m.p.h.—his first long-distance and “road ” type of race. Some pit-stops were necessary, but only the two Talbot’s, two Bugattis and -three Amilcars finished ahead of Thomas. Incidentally, two years later Mrs. Scott and Chase took some Class records with one of these cars, including the Three 1-lours record at 96.6 m.p.h., while in 1927 Purdy won a short handicap with his, at 107.18 m.p.h., was second at about 111 m.p.h. in a 100 mile race, and in the J.C.C. “200 ” finished second behind Malcolm Camphell’s Bugatti it 68.31 m.p.h. Came tragedy—Thomas made an unsuccessful attempt early in 1927 to improve on his World’s kilometre and mile records with ” Babs ” and, in doing so, lost his life. He modified ” Bobs ” considerably, narrowing the frontal area by accommodating the upper part of the engine in a separate portion of the bonnet, enclosing the side driving chains and sprockets, and refairing the cockpit. It was estimated that ” Babs ” had cost him about £900, in contrast to the several thousands which cars like Segrave’s Sunbeam and the Napier-Campbell were absorbing. Thomas went to Pendine again. Several days be bad to wait on account of bad weather conditions. One night he went to bed complaining of a chill and in the night called for extra blankets. The next day, although the sand was still in poor condition, he decided to wait no longer. The first runs were of no -avail, as the timing apparatus failed to register. It was m hen ” Babs ” was making a return run over the measured distance that a. driving chain broke, locking a wheel, causing the great car to overturn before it cut through the casing and through the side of the body, decapitating poor Thomas, who was dead when lifted from the flaming wreckage. The writer well remembers the newspaper headlines of that evening, which were the most sensational ever used to proclaim the death of a famous character. He felt a profound shock on reading the news, although only a boy of 14. “Babs” was buried in the sand where she had come to rest, but it is said that sacrilegious persons have since dug her up for souvenirs. “The Autocar ” opened a memorial list and used the proceeds to endow a cot in Thomas’s name at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children—Thomas’s love for children was well known and he maintained a cot at this hospital. It is said that tears sometimes rolled down his cheeks at the sight of little .children suffering ; all children could make instant friends with this not easily approachable man, and Howey’s small daughter, in her toy Packard, was a frequent visitor to his Workshop. So a great driver and designer went from amongst us. Thomson and Taylor’s premises at BroOklands remain as a Memorial to the man mho first worked behind that mysterious door bearing the simple brass nameplate—the firm is, of course, a development of the Thomas Inventions Development Co. No longer did the big figure in the Fair Isle sweater go about, closely accompanied by his wolfhounds, ” Bess ” and “Togo,” the former fierce as a wolf to strangers and never friendly, even to Saunders, accepting him only on sufferance as one of ” the boss’s men.” No longer did Thomas’s “Grand Sport” Amilcar leave the Track, as like as not en route for Queen’s Club, where its owner used occasionally to enjoy a genie of tennis as his only relaxation from his whole-time work at Brooklands. Others drove his cars. but it was not the same. Thomas was the BroOklands exponent par excellence. He regarded beating the hsaidicappers as a means of putting his design theories to the test. The ordinary glamour of racing appealed to him not at all. The Leyland-Thomas would invariably be driven straight out of its shed at the Byfleet side of the Track, win its race, and return, not so much as dallying for the Press photographers in the Paddock. If anyone knew every Brooklands bump, Parry-Thomas did. He inevitably drove really at the rim of both bankings, once removing an overhanging shrub with the rear wheels,
and his famous swoops down off the Members’ Banking below slower cars have seldom been practised, certainly never so effectively executed, by other drivers. Usually he drove in flannels, sweater and leather helmet. He was an “explosive ” character at times, not universally popular, but respected and regarded as a friend by all who worked with or for him. His very intimate knowledge of the Track is, perhaps, best shown by the match race he had in 1924 with Eldridge’s 211-litre aero-engined Fiat. The Fiat led at first, but it was Thomas who came up to pass and go on to win.
This race, incidentally, is not included in the recorded results given previously. At the time of his death Thomas was working on a 1,000-h.p. 1200 V12 twostroke, supercharged, sleeve-valve aeroengine. He had also practically Completed a sports version of the Riley Nine, Which had come on the market that year, seeing virtues in the advanced-design, inclined o.h.v. push-rod engine. The modifications he made embraced a shortened chassis, inswept at the rear ; altered rear spring mounting, wheelbase shortened by 1′ 4″, raised axle ratio, Special camshafts, h.c. pistons, raised oil pressure, pump cooling and twin Sokx carburetters. Reid Railton ran this car at the 1927 Autumn B.A.R.C. Meeting and it proved its merit by winning its first race at over 91 m.p.h. by a clear mile. Duller and Staniland drove it later and it eventually lapped at 100.61 m.p.h.
The foregoing is a fairly complete study of Thomas’s career, although both Mr. Saunders and ourselves have been unable to carry out as much research as we would have wished in obtaining and checking details. Enough, however, has been set down to show why the name ParryThomas is so well remembered and so highly respected, both in our world and in outside spheres. Of the great driverdesigner Mr. Saunders writes, with every justification :—” He accomplishes much who attempteth much, for even if he fall by the way, yet shall his name live on.”