Veteran Edwardian Vintage, June 1985

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Remembering Parry Thomas

Pendine Community Council held a rally on Easter Saturday to commemorate the birth of racing-driver Parry Thomas, who was killed on the Carmarthen beach in 1927 attempting to regain his Land Speed Record in “Babs”. In the yard of the Beach Hotel where the great car had been garaged the VMCC put on a fine display of old motorcycles, which included an ex-Pendine sprint Triumph (the Welsh Open Speed Championship were contested on the sands up to the mid-1950s), a BSA that won a gold medal in the 1934 Experts’ Trial, a 1912 single-speed Alldays-Matchless, and Johnny Thomas’ 1903 Bowden, powered by a 211 cc FN engine, of the type which was used originally by Bowden Cables to demonstrate their control systems.

Owen Wyn-Owen brought the restored “Babs” on a trailer behind his Land-Rover and the other Parry Thomas car present was the sv Aston-Martin “Green Pea”, which had had a Hooker-Thomas engine installed when it was raced by RC. Morgan and his wife. It now has the correct A-M engine, endowed with the twin Solex carburetters ordered by the Morgans to improve performance with the original power unit, but an outline of its old cowl adorned the radiator, and it still has the special Marles steering-box (fitted by Thomas, about six inches further forward, as the original box would not clear his engine) used to improve the steering-lock of the racing sv AMs. I was told that various Thomas numbers can still be seen on some of the chassis fittings. One of Thomas’ old ex-RFC mechanics and Mrs Betty Jones, who was the schoolgirl at the Beach Hotel who presented Thomas with a good-luck mascot just before the fatal run, were also present. (Legend says that Thomas thanked her but handed the mascot to a mechanic, saying “I do not place my faith in false idols” — but the thought occurs that maybe he considered it could have got jammed beneath one of “Babs’ ” pedals.

Supporting cars lined up behind the Beach Hotel, where the Brewers laid on hospitality, included an open 41/2-litre Bentley, a 41/2-litre Lagonda saloon, various A7s, an Austin 20 that was very much like the one in which I used to be driven along the Welsh lanes as a boy, except that it had 4WBs, a Ford 8 and early Consul and a very smart Delage with Carlton dh-coupe body and the 31/2-litre six-cylinder sports engine of which, apparently, only 20 were made. It was a good day out, including for us a fast drive in a Lancia Delta Turbo, over part of the route of the 1924 RAC Small Car SM Days Trial (since widened) to Beulah, where some of those competitors became bogged-down in the water splash (since bridged). But if organiser Johnny Thomas does it again, could we please have a parade along the famous sands? A book about Parry Thomas and Pendine has been commissioned by the Council from Mark Berresford, and it contains two pictures of the great Welsh driver I have not previously seen. — W.B.

Was it true?

In the article “Long-Life Racing Drivers. last month I told the story of a pioneer racing motorist who was asked to drive a comparatively frail small-engined racing car of the early post-WW1 period and used it so roughly that its steering-wheel came off in his hands and he flung it away in disgust. It nicely emphasises the difference between the giant racing machines of old and the later, highly-sophisticated Grand Prix cars, but is patently untrue — or is it?

The tale was told originally by none other than Sir Henry Segrave, in his book “The Lure of Speed” (Hutchinson, 1928), a book believed to have been written by Segrave himself, not “ghosted”. He claims that the incident took place during practice for the 1922 French GP at Strasbourg to a driver of the Old School, “who had not driven for some considerable number of years. He treated his car as if he were driving one of the old Darracqs of 1907 or 1908, which you could not, figuratively speaking, have broken with a sledge-hammer”. This driver started for practice one morning before the 1922 GP, Segrave says, as he was standing beside him. He describes how the gear-lever was seized and the man “endeavoured to engage first speed with a wrench and the lever came completely away in his hand!” This was repaired and, according to Segrave, he was able to struggle as far as the first hairpin bend. “Three-quarters of an hour later we saw him walking mournfully back to the pits. We asked him what had become of the car. `Eh Bien‘, he exploded ‘Ze car, she is dead — dead in a field. cettre sacre voiture! I like not these cars made like watches! Give me ze old cars whose chassis did not bend like rubber when you drive them!‘.” Segrave qualifies this by saying that apparently at his first corner he had tried to skid the car round “as was frequently done in the old days”. The result was that the steering wheel came completely off in his hands and the car charged through a hedge and landed in a potato field. . . .

It still sounds like a myth to me but Segrave says some of the Sunbeam mechanics who were at this corner told him that the old driver was so furious that he stood as in a trance, holding the wheel in his hands. Then, his Latin temperament getting the better of him, with a terrific oath he hurtled the offending steering-wheel as far as he could into the field after the car. (After he had calmed down he apparently spent the best part of an hour searching for it.) ,

Segrave said this served to make his point that the successful racing driver of his time was a much more highly developed, organism than his prototype of 20 years earlier.

So, if it really happened, who was this racing Hercules? Segrave’s reference to 1907/08 Darracqs might suggest Louis Wagner or Victor Hemery, both of whom had driven that make in the early days. In the 1922 GP, with Guyot, they were driving for Rolland-Pilain, one report referring to all three as “all veterans of another age. But Segrave also mentions the drjver’s Latin temperament, so he was presumably an Italian. This being the case, one might assume the story applied to Felice Nazzaro. However I do not think this very famous driver, who had won the GP and other great races for Fiat back in 1907 and was about to do so again in 1922, would have had any difficultly in adapting from the giants to the voiturettes, nor, apparently, did the allconquering, Fiats have any practice problems. Nor do I think that Nazzaro would have gone in search of that errant steering-wheel himself, because drivers of his calibre are looked after by their mechanics., . . .

Incidentally, whoever the aged warrior was, he must have been quite athletic, if he spent “the best part of an hour” searching for the steering-wheel he had discarded, yet was seen walking back to the pits about three-quarters-of-an-hour after leaving them, because Enzheim hairpin, where his unhappy accident had happened, was some 11/2 miles from the pits. . . .

If we accept that the great Nazzaro was not the culprit, who does this leave? The only other Italians to start in that 1922 GP were Count Mazetti and Guilio Forestidriving in the Ballot team. Mazetti was hardly a veteran driver but Foresti seems to fit, assuming that he had in fact driven the great racing monsters in the Edwardian age. In speaking of him, Leo Villa confirmed that he pronounced “The” as “Ze” and he was very strong – it may be remembered that after the intendedLSR 10-litre “Djelmo” had overturned on Pendine Beach in 1927 and flung Foresti out he staggered away from the overturned car with a lacerated scalp (no crash-helmet) and a dislocated shoulder and seeing someone who had fainted from the shock of the accident, took him in his arms and continued towards the first-aid people. In the GP Foresti drove a Ballot but retired with engine trouble 16 laps from the end. He worked with Villa for Malcolm Campbell the following year.

However, I still think the story is apocryphal and nothing I have read about that 1922 French GP has made me think otherwise.  WB