The phrase ‘resurfaced’ has never applied so literally to a car. Keith Howard explains why
John Godfrey Parry Thomas, holder of the Land Speed Record for nine months in 1926/7 (and 10 days in 1924), was cut from a very different cloth to his more famous contemporaries Segrave and Campbell. They were drivers only; Thomas designed, built and raced his own cars and was one of the finest automotive engineers of the era, as his luxurious Leyland Eight attested.
But it wasn’t only engineering talent which distinguished Thomas. He lacked the cash and industry backing that would realise the Sunbeam ‘Slug’ for Segrave and a succession of Bluebirds for Campbell. Which explains how he came to campaign an LSR car that was, in engineering terms, beneath him.
Babs began life as the Higham Special, designed by Clive Gallop for Count Louis Zborowski, creator of Chitty Bang Bang. It was typical Brooklands fare: a lightweight but floppy twin-rail chassis with, in this case, a 27-litre Packard Liberty V12 aero engine. Despite its prodigious capacity the normally-aspirated 45-degree V12 delivered only 400 or perhaps 500hp after Parry Thomas’s modifications (14.8-18.5hp per litre), but in a streamlined body it would be sufficient, the Welshman hoped, to approach 200mph — and do it quickly, before Segrave could put the record beyond his reach.
In April 1926, on home soil at Pendine Sands, Thomas wrested the record from Segrave, raising it by no less than 20mph to 170.624mph over the measured mile. The following February Campbell bettered him, but by less than 4mph. With Segrave’s Daytona campaign imminent, Thomas took to Pendine’s sands once again in March ’27 after a bout of ‘flu, determined to write his name in LSR history one last time.
He succeeded, but not in the way he intended. Nobody had died attempting the LSR before, but on Thursday March 3, just after entering the measured mile on another run, Babs slewed, cartwheeled, landed back on its wheels and caught fire. Rescuers found Parry Thomas still in the cockpit but partially decapitated. He was buried in Byfleet, close to Brooklands; Babs too was interred, behind the dunes at Pendine.
And there it would have stayed but for the determination of Owen Wyn Owen, an engineering lecturer at Bangor Technical College, to exhume it as a monument to Parry Thomas. He eventually did that in March 1969. He talks here both of the car and the controversial process of recovering and restoring it.
“The Liberty aero engine had a very complex manifold with two carburettors in the middle of vee,” says Owen Wyn Owen. “Parry Thomas changed that. He put in two long copper pipes with a (Zenith) carburettor at each end, so there were four carburettors, two at each end of the engine. He trying to improve the engine’s output, I suppose. He changed the pistons as well. He raised the compression I think, because his pistons have a bit of a crown them. I have them in the workshop. When I rebuilt the engine I put in Liberty tank engine pistons because they have conventional oil control rings. Parry Thomas’s pistons had no oil control rings, I expect because he was trying to reduce engine friction. This is probably why he oiled the plugs so much and had misfiring problems.
The chassis is very light and had no torsional stiffness whatsoever, I should think. It has two side members and a few cross-members but no bracing of angles, so when the car crashed it buckled in all shapes. The front nearside was pushed to the offside and the rear went the same way, so it would appear that the car went end over end when it crashed, although it didn’t smash the tail. It went from wheel to wheel, corner to corner.”
“A lot of damage was done to the car before burial. The seat was slashed, the instruments smashed. Someone had bent the handle of the fuel tank air pressure pump. Maybe they took it out on the car because it killed him, then buried it to deter souvenir hunters.”
“Weight distribution is about 50:50. Parry Thomas must have paid a lot of attention to this because alongside him in the single-seat cockpit was a box and behind him on top of the fuel tank were two long pipes, all of which were filled with lead sheet and shot. So I think he must have weighed each corner of the car carefully. I’m sure he worried about traction because the tyres on the car were smooth, with no tread at all.”
“There are no brakes on the front and two sets on the rear, neither of which stop the car very well. Brake drums on the rear wheels are operated by the handbrake lever on the right side of the cockpit. The two inboard pulleys (between the gearbox and drive sprockets) are for external band brakes, operated by the foot brake, which is pretty useless. Parry Thomas put the Leyland Eight front axle on Babs without brakes, but apparently the later Eights did have front brakes. I met a chap from Leyland in Bangor and he said he’d have a look around for front hubs when he got back. Sure enough he phoned to say he’d found one, which he sent to me. It had a brake drum on it, so I had to machine off the flange that carried it to match the other side.”
“When I first started up the car, some Shell representatives came up because I’d found oil in the car when I dug it up and sent them a sample. They gave me a voucher for five gallons of petrol but I used that much to fetch it! They were very helpful though. The gearbox is off a Biltzen Benz and there are no oil seals in it at all. I asked them what I should put in it as I didn’t want oil everywhere. ‘We’ve got just the stuff,’ they said. I forget what it’s called but it’s grease mixed with soap. You put a bucketful of it in, and when the engine is started at first the gearbox throws it all over the place. But the soap then separates and forms a seal around the shaft. It works well. The final drive reduction is only about 1.1 and the chain drive is geared 1:1, so (in fourth gear) the back wheels almost run at engine speed. The car is geared to about 80mph per 1000rpm, so if Parry Thomas had been able to get 2500rpm out of the engine he’d have broken the 200mph barrier.”
“When the car crashed in 1927, the Dunlop people removed one front wheel and took it back with them. There was only one wheel on the car complete with its tyre when I dug it up. I was hunting for replacements when I heard, through Autosport I think, that a firm in London rebuilt old wheels. They told me to send the original front wheel to them, which I did. It turned out that they had bought all Dunlop’s old stock and they found a wheel which matched the one from Babs. They respoked it for me and it’s back on the car. It is very possible that it’s the wheel Dunlop took away with them from Pendine.”
Owen Wyn Owen recalls Vic Berris visiting him shortly after the car was recovered to draw this cutaway for Autocar. “The engine was in one piece, of course, but the chassis was all dismantled and I kept telling him. ‘This piece goes there, that piece goes there’, although I wasn’t even sure myself. So the drawing was a brilliant piece of work. I was surprised at one error, though. The vee angle of the engine Is 45 degrees — there were bulges in the front of the bonnet to accommodate it — but Vic Berris showed it as very much less. Also the rev counter drive is shown coming straight out the back whereas in the actual rev counter it follows aircraft practice and comes out at 90 degrees. He also shows the drive chains sloping down at an angle whereas in actual fact they are pretty horizontal. But those are minor mistakes in the circumstances.”