A genius in The Hermitage

John Godfrey Parry Thomas was the second son to a curate and was born in Wrexham in 1885. He became an apprentice to the Leyland Motor Co and progressed to become its top engineer, also designing a very advanced X-layout aircraft engine and the famous Leyland eight-cylinder car. But when war was imminent Leyland decided not to put this into production, so Thomas left the company with two of the chassis he had designed.

After the war when Brooklands was reopened Thomas went to live there in the building known as ‘The Hermitage’, presumably erected during World War I, probably as residence for RFC officers. Legend arose after the war that Thomas lived alone in this large building (far right) but years later when I traced his housekeeper, she explained that this was not so as she and her husband lived there with their children when they came home on school holidays, and there was even accommodation for a maid. In later years Reid Railton also lived there. Her husband had occasionally helped Thomas with minor jobs on his very successful racing cars, the first being the Leyland-Thomas No1 in 1921, then the four-cylinder 1½-litre Thomas Special for the JCC 200-mile race which was limited to 1500cc cars, but the real effectiveness of his engineering work was his famous large eight-cylinder ‘Flat Iron’ Leyland-Thomas racing car. This was in the days when his cars were so successful; his Leyland Thomas No1, for instance, had some 25 wins between 1922 and 1926 and he had a further five victories in a Lanchester built by the Lanchester Co.

After Thomas was killed attempting to break the Land Speed Record in his aero-engined car ‘Babs’ at Pendine sands, H W Purdy and W B Scott continued to race the smaller Thomas Specials. I remember my first ever visit to a Brooklands race, the Sporting Life meeting in July 1927, when Purdy drove one of the Thomas Specials.

I was very excited at seeing it in the lead, until to my horror it came round low on the banking, as a road spring had broken. The race was won by John Cobb in the single-seater TT Vauxhall.