How effective were they?
OWEN WYN-OWEN, who dug the 27-litre Thomas Special “Babs” from her grave above the Pendine Sands where she crashed and killed her brilliant designer-driver J. G. Parry Thomas in 1927, has been doing some creditable restoration work and the old racing car should soon be ready to run once more. If it does, perhaps at Pendine, where Mr. Owen will be expected to drive it along the sands, it will focus fresh attention on the longdeceased Welsh motor engineer. The resuscitated “Babs” will be examined critically as his creation. The fact is that, as Wyn-Owen would be the first to admit, although the great car twice broke the Land Speed Record, proving itself capable of over 170 m.p.h., it was a crude machine which must have offended Thomas’ engineering instincts. It had been built at an earlier era of motor racing for Count Zborowski and Thomas had adapted it for his purposes without spending much money on it—Cyril Posthumus says £780. Thomas would not have cared to hold it up as an example of his engineering skill and I think it is probably true that before his final, fatal record bid at Pendine he said that if “Babs” did not break the records he was aiming for it might as well be left in the Welsh seaside village, for it had no further purpose in Thomas’ future.
Parry Thomas was well known for other cars. His Leyland Eight production model and the Leyland-Thomas rating cars developed from it, the latter repeatedly breaking the Brooklands lap-record, and taking the World’s hour record and many other honours, are undoubtedly the yardstick by which his abilities should be judged. Fortunately British Leyland preserve an example of the Leyland Eight and Thomas’ formidable successes with these cars are well documented.
What, however, of another product of his design skill which emanated from his small workshops at Brooklands—the 1 1/2-litre straight-eight Thomas Special? At a time when Thomas may soon be assessed by the rebuilt “Babs”, I would like to recall his more serious efforts to build road-racing cars.
It was in 1926 that Thomas laid down the plans for his latest Thomas Specials. Although I have always regarded him as a track driver, more a racing motorist than a racing driver. Thomas had had some experience of racing on the road, in sprints and at Boulogne. It is obvious that in designing the straight-eight Thomas Specials he intended to bring road-racing into his scheme of things.
It was natural that Thomas should use a straight-eight power unit for his latest racing cars: this multi-cylinder configuration was the vogue at the time, being employed by Delage, Talbot-Darracy, Bugatti, Alfa Romeo and Alvis: in any case, Thomas had been using such an engine in his bigger Leylands from the commencement of his racing career. The 1 1/2-litre Thomas Special had a bore of 52 mm. and a comparatively long stroke of 88 mm. (1,494 c.c.). Instead of using the almost universal twin-camshaft valve gear Thomas was content to make one o.h. camshaft operate inclined valves, with rockers and leaf return springs as on his bigger engines. There is evidence that he experimented with various firing orders, because I have in my possession one of the Thomas Special crankshafts which conforms neither to the normal 2/4/2 nor to the 4/4 layout of crank-throws, and was, I presume a crankshaft not used for the eventual design. (It is a very curious affair, of 2/2/2/2 formation, with the crank throws paired as on a vertical-twin with the pistons working in unison.). The entire engine was rugged, seeming to owe a lot to the 8-litre Leyland Thomas in many of its aspects. Originally the crankcase was to be of aluminium but the less stringent 1927 GP weight limitations enabled cast-iron to be used although the paired cylinders and the water jackets were of light alloy, with steel (later, it seems, cast iron) cylinder liners. A detachable cast-iron cylinder head was used. At a time when racing engines resorted to roller-and ball bearings Thomas was happy with plain bearings, although apparently experimenting with the type of white metal used. Obviously he had to supercharge, and a Roots blower was driven from the front of the engine, sucking from the carburetter, and whereas other engineers were content to rely on the evaporation of the fuel to cool the supercharger, Thomas went to the extent of having internal water passages in his blower. The height of the engine prevented the use of the famous Thomas con.-rod drive for the camshaft, which was driven by a train of gears. In spite of its heavy build and single-camshaft-and-rockers valve gear, Thomas intended the engine to run at some 6,500 r.p.m., which was in keeping with the leading GP engines of that time.
There was nothing at all peculiar about the exceedingly low-hung chassis which Thomas used, except that he was more extreme in this than others. It was then thought that good road holding was gained by having the lowest possible centre of gravity and that wind drag was increased if air was able to eddy about beneath the car. Delage and Talbot used low chassis frames for 1926, the Talbot’s axles passing through slots in the side-members, Delage using an underslung back axle and a chassis frame upswept at the front, and Thomas simply followed the trend, as did Eldridge for his Special. True, the Thomas Specials were abnormally low, both from the ground clearance (5 in. beneath the seat) and overall height aspects. (It was said that the car could run on its wheels upside down and that to annoy Thomas the mechanics would turn it over on the workshop floor: this was not possible in racing trim but could well have been, with the scuttle and headrest removed.) To achieve this lowness, the inclined radiator had a scuttle header-tank and pump circulation and dry-sump lubrication was used. Both axles were above the underslung punt-like frame, with half-elliptic front and quarter-elliptic back springs. Four wheel brakes were actuated by pedal and by a tiny push-on hand lever, with cable-and-rod and Perrot linkage. The radiator was enclosed and the body given a humped scuttle and king tail, in the Leyland-Thomas tradition. It is said that the Thomas Special bodies were made of iron to bring the minimum weight into line with GP requirements but in view of the massive construction of the mechanical parts this sounds improbable and may not have applied for the full life of the cars.
The construction was in the best tool-room tradition. Mr. A. G. M. Clark, who owns one of these chassis, has told me that in items such as the brake compensating gear, the mounting brackets, spring shackles, etc., the workmanship is worthy of Parry Thomas, in contrast to the crudities of “Babs” frame. The fully-floating back axle had double reduction gearing and the Thomas 31 in. diameter multi-plate clutch was also well suited to a transmission line which had to lie above the side members. It was with the gearbox, mounted on the front of the torque tube, that Thomas seems to have had some trouble. There was a weakness which eliminated the cars when they first appeared and although this was ascribed to a machining error (unlikely, if Taylor was on the lathes) one wonders whether for economy Thomas had tried to adapt Leyland Eight parts or whether his former occupation with going up through the box but seldom needing to change down for corners made him unwary of difficulties in this direction. (The N-pattern gear gate used would seem to endorse this theory!).
I have never been able to obtain power output figures for these Thomas Specials, and Thomas may never have put them on a brake. Their massive build seems to have made them unduly heavy, compared with current GP cars. The late Laurence Pomeroy quoted the dry weight of the 1926 Talbots as 14 1/2 cwt. and that of the 1927 Delage as 15.8 cwt. When Parry Thomas used his car for record-breaking late in 1926 it weighed out (dry?) at slightly more than 17 3/4 cwt:, which was more the weight of an earlier 3-litre GP car. This was far more than the originally announced weight of just over 15 cwt. and at the 1926 GP minimum was approx. 121 cwt. it is difficult to see why Thomas had to add weight (those iron bodies?), especially as for 1927 the minimum weight requirement was raised to approx. 14.6 cwt.
It was this project, among others, that Parry Thomas was working on in his Brooklands workshops early in 1926. There is no doubt that he intended to use the new Thomas Specials for road racing: it was said that he hoped to have one ready for that year’s French GP at Miramar, and an engine ready for a racing boat. Neither materialised but two cars were ready for the British GP to be run at Brooklands over a 287-mile course with artificial corners. These entries were in the names of T. Thistlethwayte with Gallop at its driver and Thomas himself. Thistlethwayte was a wealthy amateur who was feeling his way into motor racing and had previously entered a 3-litre Bentley at the Track, for R. B. Howey to drive. He will be remembered for his later spirited handling of a 36/220 Mercedes-Benz in the TT and elsewhere. Gallop had been Zborowski’s racing manager until the Count had been killed in 1924. Later he went to Birkin’s racing establishment but in 1926 he was no doubt a freelance in the racing game and was probably adviser to Thistlethwayte. Parry Thomas could probably only afford to lay down his new road-racing cars if a customer for one of them could be found, for although they may not have cost £10,000 each, as did the 1926 Talbots, and were more on a par with the Eldridge Special and Halford Special in this respect, Thomas lived off his racing and record-breaking fees and was not a rich man. Presumably he was glad to have Thistlethwayte as a customer, as he had J. E. P. Howey as a customer for a Leyland-Thomas and the new owner was willing to let his Manager drive in such an important race. The first Thomas emerged in July. 1926 but was at first run sans supercharger, while the other was merely a chassis. Some reports say Gallop was to drive one entry, Thistlethwayte the other but the entry list shows Thomas with a non-supercharged car, Gallop with the blown one. I imagine that time had defeated completion of the second complex blower and that Thomas intended to humour the customer. In the event neither car started, machining errors in the gearboxes being blamed. I find myself wondering, however, if this was an excuse in the “blown gasket” category, for Thomas, perhaps with further sales in mind, would not wish to damn his new engine, had he found it disappointing at this stage, whereas slight gearbox defect would be less damning and probably easy to suggest to drivers discouraged by the odd gear-gate of these Thomas Specials.
An entry of both cars had been made for the light car race at Boulogne, rather more than two weeks after the British GP, drivers: Thistlethwayte and Thomas, but although Thomas had the Leyland-Thomas there, the 1 1/2-litre cars were not taken over. A month later both were entered for the JCC 200-Mile Race at Brooklands, with its imitation road course. Busy with a number of racing projects, Thomas was still attempting to get the cars ready. He had apparently modified the gearboxes, altered the oil circulation and, when Thistlethwayte decided to drive his car instead of entrusting it to Gallop, the seat had to be hastily altered, a difficult task as the tanks in the hall had to be changed in shape. There was still no blower for Thomas, who elected to start nevertheless. On the morning of the race Thistlethwayte managed to snap one of his car’s stout, half-shafts and was obliged to withdraw but the car’s creator had greater success. In spite of pit-stops to change plugs and add oil, Thomas finished 8th, and 5th in his class; at a speed of 65.37 m.p.h., rather more than 10 m.p.h. down on that of Segraves winning Talbot. He would have been 9th had Moriceau not dug his Talbot into one of the sandbank corners and the Thomas on its first racing appearance was beaten by two of these “works” straight-eight Talbots, two four-cylinder Bugattis and three of the Amilcar Sixes in the 1,100 c.c. class.
Thomas atoned for this at the Essex MC Brooklands Meeting early in October. After performing brilliantly in earlier races with the Leyland-Thomas, which he also demonstrated to Prince Feisal, he brought the little, low-hung Thomas Special out for the 50-mile handicap. The handicaps ranged from a start of 9 min. 48 sec. for a.s.v. Amilcar to a scratch dispatch for Harvey’s Alvis. Thomas was given 75 sec. advantage over the Alvis, in company with three fast Bugattis, a 2-litre GP Rolland-Pilain and Poppe’s 2 1/2-litre racing Rover. He worked his way through a field to win by a mile from Oats’ OM and Vernon Balls’ Amilcar, at an average speed of 106.19 m.p.h. The car was running unblown and that its performance’ was highly satisfactory can be judged when it is remarked that the International Class 50-mile record belonged at this time to the Eldridge Special at 109.84 m.p.h., running on the faster Montlhéry track. Better, however, was to follow. Having got the measure of his new creation. Thomas brought it out on the last day the Track was open in 1926, to attack the important Class-F hour record, the World’s hour record being his already, at 121.74 m.p.h., with the big Leyland. The little car ran faultlessly and proved very light to control. It got the record, held by Eldridge at just over 107 m.p.h., at 112.77 m.p.h., taking the 100-kilo. and 100-mile records on the way, but at lower speed, showing that the further it ran the faster Thomas was extending it. The engine now had its supercharger, which sucked from a Soles carburetter which mixed Shell aviation and benzole fuel. Thomas-used-Dunlop tyres on Rudge wire wheels, a Marelli magneto, Shell oil and had settled for Hoyt white metal in the bearings.
The last racing appearance of Parry Thomas was thus in one of his 1 1/2-litre Thomas Specials, for he was killed at Pendine in “Balms” in March 1927. Had he lived, he would undoubtedly have improved the already effective little cars. He was known to have been planning a 1,100 c.c. version of the straight-eight engine and to have a 750 c.c. engine and chassis on the stocks, no doubt thinking that smaller engines would be useful for the long-distance Brooklands races and perhaps for record-breaking. He had acquired the car he supplied by Thistlethwayte and this was probably the supercharged version used for the successful hour-record run, the Thomas which won the Essex MC 50-Mile Race having perhaps been the second, non-supercharged car which Thomas previously had kept for himself.
After Thomas’ death Harold Purdy, a regular competitor in Alvis and Bugatti cars, took over the supercharged Thomas Special and W. B. Scott, also a Bugatti exponent, bought the non-blown car. Before this Malcolm Campbell had entered the blown Thomas Special for the Star Gold Star 25mile handicap at the 1927 BARC Whitsun Meeting, presumably with the idea of trying it out as a possible purchase, before he obtained one of the GP Delage cars. If the evidence of a black-and-white photograph is any guide it seems that Thomas had repainted the car in his usual white and blue finish from the British Racing Green worn for the previous season’s long-distance events but it was now blue with yellow wheels, which sounds like a Malcolm Campbell colour scheme. Whatever the reason for Campbell’s association with the air of his LSR rival, he was not destined to appear in the race. Rain had caused a few days’ postponement so perhaps the famous driver was unable to be present.
Purdy now took over and entered the car for the Sporting Life 100-Mile Handicap, in which he found himself on scratch with Cobb who was driving Pickles’ TT Vauxhall of twice the engine size. I can still see these two battling it out in close company, and, being a Parry Thomas admirer above everything, I remember my disappointment when after 21 exciting laps, a back spring broke on Purdy’s car, the undershield grated on the Track round the Members’ banking, and he had to retire. The blue Thomas Special had sometimes led the Vauxhall, had tailed it on other laps, and as Cobb won at nearly 112 m.p.h. it is apparent that the Thomas was up to its hour record form.
The two rivals met again in a 50-Mile Handicap at the Autumn Brooklands Meeting. Purdy had dropped out of an earlier race, but in the big race the Thomas was going better than ever, and it fought a tremendous battle with Cobb’s Vauxhall, first one leading, then the other, Purdy swooping off the banking to pass below slower cars. He snatched second place from Cobb by the narrowest of margins, but could not catch the winning Alvis. Cobb and Purdy started together and lapped at over 115 m.p.h.
By the time of the British GP, Scott had, after much toil, got his Thomas running (his wife had been driving Thomas’ No. 1 Leyland-Thomas) although in a war-time article The Motor mistakenly assumed that Purdy and Stott shared the same car and failed to differentiate between the blown and non blown versions. In fact, both drivers entered Thomas Specials for the Grand Prix but retired early, Scott with clutch slip and Purdy after being plagued with oiled plugs. In the JCC 200-Mile Race, however, Purdy’s Thomas Special was again on form and finished 5th, and 2nd in the 1,500 c.c. class, at 68.31 m.p.h., behind Campbell’s victorious Bugatti and three of the 1,100 c.c. Amilcar Sixes. Scott’s car was not fit to run and he was allowed to substitute his Bugatti. At a Charity Meeting in November Purdy won the 100 m.p.h. Long Handicap at 107.14 m.p.h., the Thomas getting round at 108.98 m.p.h. on its fastest lap. Thus in the year in which their creator was killed the Thomas Specials justified his faith in them.
This good showing was maintained in 1928, Purdy’s lapping at 115.29 m.p.h. at the Charity Meeting, while by August it was lapping at 119.15 m.p.h., which gave it second place in the 100 m.p.h. Long Handicap. Incidentally, the wheels were now cream and in some races discs had been fitted to them. At the Autumn BARC Meeting Mrs. Scott entered her non-supercharged car, painted black with green wheels, but it non-started and Purdy, too, was in trouble, which persisted all the season, the Thomas spitting out its blower release-valve at the final Essex MC Meeting, while in the 200-Mile Race it was shunted into the railings almost as soon as the race began by an errant Bugatti, and the chassis frame was bent. Although more occupied with their GP Sunbeam and Amilcar, the Scotts used their Thomas for a successful attack on Class-F records, during which, the driving shared with Mrs. Scott by Capt. C. R. Chase, it proved able to average 94.76 m.p.h. for three hour’s, collecting five Class-F honours on the way, the 500-mile record at better than 951 m.p.h.
Purdy persevered during 1929, obtaining a third place in a Lightning Short Handicap.
The Scott car had been taken over by E. M. Thomas, who ran it in the BRDC 500-Mile Race, to retire after a fire and transmission trouble, after lapping at just below 106 m.p.h. Purdy seems to have failed to start in the “500” but his car had recovered something of its former prowess by 1930, winning two races at the Opening Brooklands Meeting, when it once again lapped at over 115 m.p.h. At Easter the lap speed rose to over 118 m.p.h. but Purdy was unplaced. Things went even better for the now ageing Thomas, still in its blue paintwork, in 1931. At the Easter Brooklands races it lapped faster than ever before, at 122.67 m.p.h. in the Founders’ Gold Cup race, and at Whitsun Purdy was third in the Gold Star Handicap. The 122.67 m.p.h. lap did not earn him a place but it compares with the Class lap-record set that year to 127.05 m.p.h. by Earl Howe’s GP Delage. I know this Delage received attention at T. & T’s, so it may well have been taking advantage of modern fuels, running at gas pressures higher than those originally used, whereas the Thomas was more likely to have been unaltered since the day it was conceived and its double-reduction back axle could not have been conducive to absolute maximum speed. Yet its top pace compares very favourably with that of other 1 1/2-litre and larger cars. It was faster than any Bugatti of the vintage era and beat the Halford Special by over 12 m.p.h. Parry Thomas had nothing to excuse in his conception of a track-cum-road-racing 1 1/2-litre car. This in spite of the fact that, apart from the aforesaid transmission drag, the leaf valve springs were less suitable to a small engine running at over 6,000 r.p.m. than they were to the low-speed engine of the Leyland-Thomas. Moreover, Thomas had built the cars in a small works with limited capital, so that it is hardly surprising that the Delage was appreciably faster.
At the beginning of the 1931 season T. & T’s advertised two Thomas Specials for sale, at £350 each, (they had offered one of them with 1 1/2-litre engine for £500 in 1930) one having curious air scoops on its frontal cowling. It is interesting that one was quoted as having a 1,100 c.c. engine, which suggests that the smaller engine had been completed and was presumably offered as more acceptable than the non-supercharged engine of the Scott car, or perhaps in lieu of a damaged 1 1/2-litre engine in one of the cars. And if today this sounds like a giveaway price, at the time £350 would have purchased a 2.3 blown Bugatti or a nearly new TT Riley Nine. Purdy did not immediately sell his car, if indeed it was one of those advertised, for at the BARC Inter-Club Meeting a couple of flying laps at 120.01 m.p.h. gave him first place in the Racing Long Handicap at 111.74 m.p.h. and at the August Bank Holiday races the Thomas Special, running without its supercharger, contrived to do a lap at 110.43 m.p.h., which was sufficient to win the London Lightning Long Handicap from Dunfee’s Ballot and Birkin’s blower-4 1/2 Bentley. It is interesting that the little Thomas was somewhat quicker on its standing-start lap than the 3-litre Ballot, after which they were absolutely equal on lap speeds; a “moment” on the way to the finish probably lost Dunfee the race. Even in non-supercharged form the Thomas’ race average was 103.61 m.p.h. The car ran in the same trim at the Autumn Meeting, and did a surprising lap at 111.92 m.p.h., without any reward.
By 1932 the Thomas Specials were becoming rather old for Brooklands racing. Purdy entered his, still in atmospheric-induction form, either because the blower was worn out or he was angling for a better handicap, for a Gold Star race. He was a non-runner. By the autumn R. J. Munday took over and entered the car, now primrose with black wheels, for the 500-mile race, but was a non-runner. The car was entered for two races at the 1933 Inter-Club Meeting, its capacity declared as 1 1/2-litres but the dimensions of its straight-eight engine changed, which I am inclined to ascribe to an incorrectly filled-in entry form or a misprint. It failed to turn out for either of these races and, using instead his Munday Special and Leyland-Thomas for racing, Munday installed a 2.7-litre Perkins diesel engine, a Hillman Minx gearbox and a Sunbeam crown-wheel and pinion in the “flat-iron” and broke c.i. records with it in both blown and un-blown form in 1935. This Munday-Diesel was run in one outer-circuit race during 1935: it lapped at just over 69 m.p.h., un-blown. Its wheels were now primrose to match the body and it was surely the only diesel car to actually race at the Track? Munday also optimistically entered for the 500-Mile Race, but after half-an-hour at 90 m.p.h. he retired. After the war the car was found by Angus Clark, minus its engine, and is as far as I know now owned by his son.
The Scott’s car had been of less interest to them after they had obtained a straight-eight GP Delage and later they gave up racing. Their Thomas found its way, still in their colours, to E. A. Bradley, who had a breaker’s yard in the Edgware Road, London. He brought it out at the 1935 Whitsun Meeting, in supercharged form-maybe Munday, having no further use for the Roots blower for his car, had passed it on to the new owner of a Thomas Special? The passage of time or a driver unfamiliar with Brooklands took its toll and the lap-speed was under 100 m.p.h. Bradley tried again in 1936 but even changing the black wheels for cream and then painting the entire car black failed to help and the Thomas was a regular non-runner. By 1937 the Thomas was again green, with white wheels (or had Bradley acquired both cars?) and he was, I believe, using multiple carburetters instead of the supercharger, which improved the lap-speed to fractionally over 108 m.p.h. The jig-saw is now becoming difficult to piece together, because at the Autumn Brooklands races of 1937 Bradley had a green Thomas with cream wheels and supercharger and it was right back on tune, lapping at 113.97 m.p.h., although unplaced.
The car came out again for the first Brooklands Meeting of 1938 but only lasted for a slow standing-lap. Bradley is said to have disposed of it to someone in Canada but confusion may have arisen over a Marlborough-Thomas, in which case the chassis discovered in this country after the war and alleged to be that in which Thomas was planning to install a 750-c.c. engine could be that of the ex-Scott Car.
That concludes this saga of the Thomas Specials. They may not have set the racing scene on fire but I maintain they were a greater tribute to the engineering genius of Parry Thomas than is “Babs”, which may soon focus fresh attention on the Welsh racing driver on account of Wyn-Owen’s meticulous restoration of an admittedly equally-fascinating motorcar.—W.B.
Thomas Special Successes
1926 JCC 200-Mile Race (3. 0. Parry Thomas. 5th in 1,500-c.c. Class at 65.37 m.p.h.
1926 Essex MC 50-Mile Handicap (J. G. Parry Thomas): 1st, at 106,19 m.p.h.
International Class F Records (J. G. Parry Thomas): 100 miles at 112.0 m.p.h.; one hour at 112.77 m.p.h.
1927 BARC Autumn Meeting 50-Mile Handicap (H. Purdy): 2nd.
1927 JCC 200-Mile Race (H. Purdy): 2nd in 1,560-c.c. Class’ at 68.51 m.p.h.
1927 BARC Charity Meeting 100-m.p.h. Long Handicap (H. Purdy); 1st, at 107.14 m.p.h.>
1928 BARC August Meeting Long Handicap (H. Purdy): 2nd.
International Class F Records (Mrs. W. B. Scott and C. K. Chase): 200 km. at 94.24 m.p.h.; 200 at 94.83 m.p.h.: 500 km. at 94.97 m.p.h.: 500 miles at 95.68 m.p.h.; three hours at 94.76 m.p.h.)
1929 BARC Autumn Meeting Lightning Short Handicap (H. Purdy): 3rd.
1930 BARC Opening Meeting Surrey Short Handicap (H. Purdy): 1st, at 98.2 m.p.h.
1930 BARC Opening Meeting Surrey Long Handicap (H. Purdy): 1st, at 107.4 m.p.h.
1931 BARC Whitson Gold Star Handicap (H. Purdy): 3rd.
1931 BARC Inter-Club Meeting Racing Long Handicap (H. Purdy): 1st, at 111.74 m.p.h.
1931 BARC August Meeting London Lightning Long Handicap (H. Purdy): 1st, at 103.61 m.p.h.
(NB.—These cars ran in both supercharged and non-supercharged forms.)