The Last Leyland Eight

The Leyland Eight, designed by J. G. Parry Thomas and named “The Lion of Olympia” when it made its debut at the 1920 London Motor Show, has several claims to immortality. It was the first British production straight-eight, aimed quite openly at competing with the 40/50 Rolls-Royce for top luxury-car supremacy. It embodied an almost unbelievable number of technical ingenuities, including an overhead camshaft valve-gear with triple-eccentric drive, leaf valve springs closing inclined tulip valves, and a single cam for each inlet and exhaust valve, very deep chassis side-members and torsion-bar suspension, with anti-roll bars, Thomas being the first designer to appreciate the need for these with supple springing, vacuum-servo brakes and many clever minor aspects of its specification. And from the production Leyland Eight, built by the famous lorry makers in Lancashire, stemmed very directly those splendid Leyland-Thomas racing cars which gained for their creator more race victories and successful record bids than were achieved by any of his rivals in the years 1923-1926.

The full description of Parry Thomas’ ambitious Leyland product has been published too many times to require repetition here— those interested, but not conversant with it, are referred to “The History of Brooklands Motor Course” or Motor Sport for March and April 1974. The Leyland Eight was, perhaps, too complex for even the well-established commercial vehicle manufacturer to persevere with. (I have heard a rumour that they regarded the novel suspension as too complicated, even dangerous, and wanted to put Thomas’ fine engine in a conventional chassis, which he refused to countenance.) Or it may be that Parry Thomas held all the important patents embodied in it, and would have asked for royalties on these which would have made the car prohibitively expensive— as it was, the chassis price first suggested was a cool £2,500, later reduced by £625, no doubt in desperation to secure orders. At all events, announced at the end of 1920, after war-time planning had been done on it, the Leyland Eight lasted only until 1923.

There are conflicting views as to how many of these remarkable cars were made, but I am content to abide by the figure of approximately 18, quoted to me in a letter from the then-Assistant General Manager of Leyland Motors Ltd., H. Spurrier, in 1931. (I still have the catalogue and reprints of the Autocar and Motor write-ups that came with this letter.) I suppose a count can be made. At Olympia in 1920 they showed a chassis and a decked touring car, the chassis conveyed there from Leyland on a solid-tyred Leyland truck. At the 1921 Olympia Show the exhibits were a chassis, with the engine size increased from 89 x 140 mm. (6,967 c.c.) to 89 x 146 mm. (7,266 c.c.) but still with a single Smiths carburetter, a tourer priced at £2,700, and a saloon. (The chassis was priced at £1,875; a 40/50 Rolls-Royce chassis cost £1,850.) When Leyland showed their white elephant for the last time, in 1922, the stand contained a Vanden Plas saloon and a Wendover coupe. (Also, to Thomas’ disgust, the first Trojan.) That makes seven Leylands, if we assume that the same tourer was not shown two years running, which seems unlikely, as Thomas apparently used the first Leyland Eight, with the decked touring body, for his initial competition appearances, before it was sold to the Tennant family. There was another tourer, licensed in Lancashire and a smart two-seater licensed in Swansea. This was not, I think, the two-seater used by Thomas for his first races at Brooklands. Score, nine. Two were sold to the Maharajah of Patiala, Thomas’ assistant Reid Railton travelling to India with them. Michael Collins was shot in one during the Irish troubles. The Tennant family had more than one, I believe, as did Sears. There was probably at least a demonstrator and a development car and if Mr. Spurrier included the Leyland-Thomas racing cars in his total, of which Thomas turned the two-seater into his first, after he had left Leyland’s in 1923, wrapped it round a tree at Boulogne speed trials in 1925, built another to replace it, and made a sister car for J. E. Howey, that takes us nicely to “approximately 18”.

I never saw Parry Thomas race but he was definitely my boyhood hero. When he was killed in “Babs” at Pendine I was 14; I remember my mother coming on the day of the accident into the room where I was reading the evening paper. She asked if I felt ill, because I had gone so pale . . . To drive a Leyland Eight in later years, would have been fitting, for one so very much a Thomas admirer. Alas, all had disappeared even before the war, including the two Leyland-Thomases. No. 1 was raced after its creator’s death by Mr. and Mrs. W. B. Scott, was then fitted with a Vanden Plas touring body, was raced again by Reg. Munday, who blew it up in spectacular fashion at Brooklands, and it was destroyed by enemy action during the war. The Howey car was given a fabric coupe body and four-wheel-brakes, was rescued by Dudley Froy, the racing body from No, 1 fitted, and Torn and Elsie Wisdom raced it, selling it in 1934; it was broken up in Eastbourne during the war, along with the singleseater Lancaster Forty that Thomas had raced. However, there remained a car built up by Thomson & Taylor Ltd., at Brooklands in 1927-1929, from parts they had retained from the Thomas days, and which they supplied to the Hon. David Tennant whose parents were, I have always understood) Leyland Eight owners. The car might be said to embody the best of the Leyland Eight and the racing Leyland-Thomas cars. It was given a sporting two-seater body, variously ascribed to Vanden Plas and Barker. Mr. Wren, who worked for the Tennants, has told me that this car has H-section instead of the former flimsy tubular con-rods, and an improved crankshaft. As Parry Thomas was known to be preparing a new Leyland-Thomas for the 1927 season (he still held the Brooklands lap record, at 129.36 m.p.h. when he was killed in March, set up in 1925) it is probable that T & Ts used the engine intended for his new car. The body is said to have cost £1,500, the special exhaust system £365. If the Scotts had not outbid him, Tennant would have had No. 1 Leyland-Thomas . . . The car he had instead was registered in London, which makes sense as The Hon. David Tennant had a garage in Lexham Mews, as well as stabling his cars at Wolfsford Manor in Wiltshire.

In due course Tennant passed this great car on to Sir Lionel Phillips, Bt. This young gentleman agreed to let me try the Leyland and drove me down the Kingston Bypass to Brooklands in it, where, in spite of winter repairs, I was able to record a 0-60 m.p.h. time of 12 sec., and a 0-70 m.p.h. figure of 19 sec. I do not propose to bore you with a full account of this memorable day—it’s all in the February 1938 issue of Motor Sport. Alas, before I could have a drive the gear selectors gave trouble, so again ambition was thwarted . . . But I had seen something of the car’s performance, acceleration figures apart, when we did 75 m.p.h. on the run down to the Track and 90 m.p.h. round the Byfleet banking. Indeed, in one of these popular MCC High Speed Trials there Sir Lionel had averaged 97.85 m.p.h. for the hour run, on a wet course, from a standing-start.

After the war the great car was discovered by Dick and John Marshall and they used it in sprint events, such as Elstree and Prescott, netting awards in the unlimited sports-car class. By the 1950s, however, it was languishing at their garage and I told Sir Henry Spurrier, Managing Director of Leyland’s, who went to Walton-on-Thames to look at it and acquired it for his apprentices to refurbish. Newton Iddon, who had served a four-year apprenticeship in the Leyland Eight department, and had therefore known Thomas, was put in charge of the project. He reported no bearing or back-axle wear and only 0.003 In. maximum cylinder-bore wear. A new clutch pressure-plate was required, however. Iddon reported that the engine had the original bore and stroke dimensions, which seems odd, as by 1926 Thomas was using the 7.2-litre size in his Leyland-Thomas, and Howey’s had an engine of 95 x 140 mm. (8,468 c.c.). This last Leyland Eight, however, used the four updraught trifle-diffuser Zenith carburetters and eight separate exhaust outlets (dropping for road use into an enormous silencer) and a racing camshaft, as used by Thomas from 1924 onwards. This was said to give 200 b.h.p. at 2,800 r.p.m., against 120 b.h.p. at 2,500 r.p.m. of the production engines, and the same power is claimed for the T & T hybrid, although it uses a slightly lower compression-ratio than did Thomas’ Track cars, of about 7 to 1.

When the registration was complete the 1929 Leyland was seen to be cream instead of its former black, with the bright parts chromium-plated. It was viewed with interest by Leyland employees, before being placed in the Company’s Museum. It appeared for a Diamond Jubilee outing in 1957 and in 1962 Ron Barker had a short drive in it when writing it up for Autocar, but the clutch was slipping very badly and a steering-arm was found to be cracked. The British Leyland Corporation inherited the car and it duly found its way into their Leyland Collection, now housed in the Donington Park Museum.

I remarked to their John McLellan that, if the clutch-slip was cured, I would like a drive. He assured me that it was, so the BMW was directed towards Derby, in happy anticipation. The day turned out to be excessively wet. But, functional-protected and wearing my ancient flying helmet, I was game to get on with it—I forgot to enquire whether that cracked steering-arm had been replaced. It was the Leyland that objected. It was misfiring so badly that even on the downhill rim towards the old Melbourne Loop at Donington I could not get much more than 55 m,p.h. in third and unless second gear was used, it wouldn’t drag itself up the other side. A longer piece of track would have cleared things, perhaps, but I feel that the ignition system needs a lookover and that it was decidedly lucky for those involved that a certain heavy-jowled Welsh racing driver in a Fair Isle pullover did not come strolling over, asking what was amiss . . .!

In view of the car’s miserable condition I cannot tell you much. The lower gears engage smoothly if the long-travel clutch is fully depressed, and there is now no trace of clutch slip. You start the engine by putting the gear lever in a slot between the reverse and firstgear positions, forward in a conventional 4-speed gate, the lower gears being to the left, on the r.h. change. As you engage the clutch the engine is rotated via the gearbox reduction ratio. Never have I experienced heavier steering. It was necessary to use real muscle power to make the front wheels break away, before a corner could be negotiated on the very restricted lock. This may have been all right for the Outer Circuit but seems wrong for a road car. The Melbourne Loop was the worst possible place to try this car; the chap who rode with me will agree, for using all the road I hit a puddle which rose up as spray and drenched him. . . . There are non-servo 4-wheel brakes with unribbed drums, the front ones with Perrot-operation, the levers for the cables being mid-way along the shafts. They were heavy brakes but more or less worked. The handbrake is inboard, on the right-hand side.

The car follows most of the Leyland-Thomas facets—thus the rear torsion bars are not fitted but the back-axle is splayed. The centre-lock wheels have 6.00 x 21 Dunlops, and there are double-Hartfords at the back. The windscreen folds fiat but the one-time aeroscreens have gone. The tail is now inscribed with a Thomas tribute—”Leyland-Thomas, 1919-1927″. It lifts to reveal two Nife batteries against the bulkhead, a horizontal spare wheel and a big fuel tank, its fillercap with bar being concealed by the tail when this is closed. Ignition is by coil to eight plugs inclined rearwards in recesses in the o/s of the head, the firing order being labelled as 1, 3, 5, 2, 8, 6, 4, 7, differing from that of the production engines. There is no cooling fan. The four low-set Zeniths feed into alloy two-branch manifolds on the off-side, and the exhaust drop-pipes on the opposite side of the engine are flexible. The headlamps are Marchal.

Climbing in by the n/s door, you are confronted by a 3-spoke steering wheel which, by a complicated Thomas arrangement, is nearly vertical, the opposite to that of a Leyland Mini. Its massive boss is a quadrant for the three control levers, for throttle, ignition, and mixture. These are labelled, respectively, Open-Close, Advance-Retard, and Weak-Strong. The horn button is in the centre. There is no choke control. The passenger has a grab-handle and from left to right along the dash you have an ammeter, a vertical strip-type petrol gauge reading to 23 gallons , the Ki-gass, a Tapley performance-meter, a 120-m.p.h. Jaeger speedometer registering to 120 m.p.h. with total and trip mileometers (the former said 00884), with, above, a Smiths oil gauge calibreted in steps of 20 to 160 lb., a Jaeger tachometer going to 6,000 r.p.m., with the water thermometer above this, a dash-lamp, and on the extreme right, the circular switch-panel for ignition and lamps. At idling revs, the oil pressure read 60 lb./sq. in. Plaques on the dash commemorate that Jubilee of 20 years ago and quote the following data: 35 c.v. Leyland Thomas. 1778 kgs. MT No. TT 20. Chassis TT 22.

As the rain gave over the batteries went sour and push-starts were needed. So we called it off. I have since heard that this ancient giant is now hitting on all eight, so maybe, another day. . . .—W.B.