The "Babs" Controversy

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On May 3rd the Carmarthen Times published a front-page story headed “Violation of a Dead Man’s Wish—Killer Car Must Be Left in Sand Dunes”. The car referred to is the 27-litre Liberty-engined Thomas Special “Babs” in which J. G. Parry Thomas was killed on Pendine Sands in March 1927 when trying to break Malcolm Campbell’s 174.88-m.p.h. record with the Napier-Campbell. After the tragic accident, caused perhaps by the collapse of the o/s back wheel, “Babs” was buried near the sand dunes flanking the course. Thomas’ body was brought back to Brooklands and buried at Byfleet Church.

Now, 41 years later, Mr. Owen Wyn Owen of Bangor University, a V.S.C.C. member, has requested permission to dig up the remains of the car, and has started a fierce controversy. The Editor reports:—

Pendine, May 11th.

Quietly but determinedly the Welshmen of Pendine, where the sands run straight for some seven miles, hard enough to drive a car on (at 1s. a time—no racing permitted), are divided over this matter, the subject, apparently, of much correspondence between Mr. Owen and the Army authorities who now occupy the land where “Babs” is buried; there have also been discussions at Parish Council meetings.

At the Beach Hotel, where Thomas and the other drivers stayed during record attempts, the bar contains a forceful reminder of just how historic is the beach outside—pictures of Thomas, Campbell, the Mollisons with their trans-Atlantic D.H. Dragon, the unfortunate Djelmo, Eyston’s M.G. “Magic Midget”, not forgetting members of the Carmarthen & Dist. M.C. & L.C.C. with their motorcycles in 1923. On an outside wall of the hotel a plaque, put up by Buckley’s Brewery, commemorates the Pendine Land Speed Records and Thomas’ accident and the burial of “Babs”, “where it still remains”.

The Proprietor of the hotel is against disinterment of the car. He refutes the suggestion that it should be made into a permanent monument to the great Welsh driver, a campaign which is being run by the New Inn up the hill. “Who will pay for its shelter? Pendine needs new toilets first!” he tells you. . . .

At the Proof and Experimental Establishment of the Ministry of Defence, where “Babs” lies at rest, they face a difficult decision. Should they allow the car to be dug up, taken away for restoration, then returned to Pendine or a Welsh museum, perhaps to go on show to aid charity? Or should they turn a deaf ear to Mr. Owen’s entreaties? The situation has been complicated by sensational and inaccurate stories put out by the local Press. “Babs” is said to have been buried at the dead driver’s request. This seems most unlikely. Thomas was not a man to contemplate disaster. And after his death four of his other racing cars were openly sold, and had an honourable career at Brooklands. As I have always understood it, the car was left in the sand dunes by those who were with Thomas at the time of the crash, partly as a mark of respect (his helmet and leather coat were reported as buried with the car) and partly because, with the Thomas Special wrecked, its driver dead, and Segrave likely to go for a 200-m.p.h. bid very soon, there seemed no point in transporting “Babs” back to Weybridge. There are rumours now flying about that the car spent several weeks in the Ashwell Garage before its engine was removed, acid poured over it, and its burial arranged solely by the villagers. This is refuted by a report, in The Motor of March 8th, 1927, that the car was buried on the day of the inquest, which is quoted as the day after the accident. I think Thomas’ friends damaged the engine with a hammer (the wheel clouter?) and slit his coat, to prevent vandals making any use of them immediately after the tragedy.

Another stupid rumour going round is that “Babs” killed three pioneer record-breakers, named as an American, a Polish Count and Parry Thomas, and that she was buried as a lethal “killer”. This is completely untrue. Presumably the fact that Lockhart was killed trying for 200 m.p.h. in a Stutz in America about this time and that Count Zborowski, who created “Babs” (as the Higham Special, in 1923), was killed the next year in a G.P. Mercedes at Monza, has led to these wild and inaccurate accounts.

When the Ministry of Defence took over the ranges at Pendine “Babs” was almost entirely covered by concrete, in the course of an installation (not deliberately, as some are saying). This caused Hugh Tours, in his book about Thomas, to say “In spite of rumours to the contrary, there was never any attempt to dig up the car in later years and now . . . ‘Babs’ will never be disturbed”. But it so happened that part of the car was uncovered recently when some cables were installed and, in view of Mr. Owen’s request, some more digging has been undertaken, to see what condition the car is in. Part of the chassis frame, the n/s splined hub, sans wheel, the driving chain intact on both sprockets, and adjacent brake rods, radius arms, cowling, etc., were uncovered (the car being upside down, as rolled into the “grave”) and found to be astonishingly well preserved. It was then that the story broke, with extensive Press and TV coverage.

If “Babs” is dug up, this will he under the authority or the Establishment, on the clear understanding that it would be for the purpose of having the car restored and returned to Pendine; excavations would be supervised by an archaeologist on the site. If this happens there are hopes of putting “Babs” on a headland facing down the historic course over which Parry Thomas made his last 170-m.p.h. run. Whatever is done must be done with respect. I do not share Mr. Owen’s optimism that “Babs” could be made to run again, unless a very large sum of money was spent, and not necessarily then. Wheels would have to be made, tyres obtained, and where can Liberty engine parts be found, or a replacement for the driving chain that decapitated Thomas?

As so much interest has now been created, and “Babs” already partly uncovered, the solution might be to proceed with the excavations, on the understanding that the car would be quickly returned to the sands if expert opinion pronounced it as quite beyond resuscitation as a memorial to Thomas. Maybe the decision will rest with Thomas’ sister who, as apparently his sole living relative, will, I believe, be consulted.

Sentimentalists, of which I am one, will want “Babs” to lie undisturbed. But archaeology does not countenance sentiment, if anything useful is to be gained by disinterment. It is as delicate a problem as any racing car has presented since motor racing began.—W. B.