Matters of Moment, May 1969

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• “Babs”

In spite of the controversy caused, Owen Wyn Owen has disinterred the 27-litre Liberty-aero-engined racing car “Babs” from the Pendine grave in which it was buried over 42 years ago, after it had killed J. G. Parry Thomas. The digging-up was watched by the local Army Commandant, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, the Deputy Lord Lieutenant, the Press, TV reporters and the public. The Army would not lend a crane but locals assisted with diggers and lifting-gear, enabling “Babs” to be removed on a trailer behind the Land Rover to a private workshop where a Speed Six Bentley and 1908 Argyll have been rebuilt and rebodied by Mr. Owen.

As the recovery of this vintage giant Zborowski/Thomas racing car from a grave which was water-logged with the tide has aroused widespread interest, the Editor drove to Capel Curig to investigate. He reports:-
Already the remains of “Babs” have been visited by many people, including Hugh Tours, who in his book about Parry Thomas said the car would never be disturbed after its burial, Brian Morgan, that connoisseur of restorations, and a well-known collector of F.1 racing machinery from Leicester. Confronted with the wreck, one cannot ignore the macabre query, does it throw any fresh light on how Thomas was killed? Yes and no. The o/s radium-arm is intact, which destroys John Bolster’s theory that it broke and threw the driving chain. The hubs and wheel-retaining rings are Rudge-Whitworth, which disposes of the story that Dunlop wheels were fitted, without Thomas’ approval, shortly before the last run. (The o/s front wheel is intact but reports that the Dunlop tyre had remained fully inflated for 42 years are untrue.) The cowling over the o/s chain is completely crushed against the chassis but shows no sign of having been penetrated, as it would surely do had the chain flailed through it and decapitated the driver, which was the verdict in 1927. So there is reason to think that Thomas may have been beheaded when “Babs” rolled over and back on to her wheels. Certainly the car is badly damaged at the o/s rear, the back axle being bent slightly forward until the sprocket has bitten into the otherwise undamaged radius arm. One fresh mystery has presented itself. The front axle is twisted back through about 45° on the n/s. yet after the accident the wheel and tyre on this side appeared almost intact, on a somewhat bent stub axle. The steering-arm is also missing on this side, the track rod being free. Yet how could the substantial Leyland Eight I-section axle twist without damaging the wire wheel and how could the steering-arm have been rubbed off, with the wheel in place? It seems unthinkable that steering failure precipitated the crash, for the Coroner would have referred to it. So unless the damage was done when the wreck was being towed by a tractor, it seems inexplicable.

Some other interesting items are revealed. The story that “Babs” was damaged extensively before being buried appears false. Mr. Owen says the bonnet top panel was too firmly jammed for this, so the damage to the o/s camshaft drive and rocker gear was presumably done when the car overturned. But there is evidence that the seat cushion was slashed before the burial. Naturally the car is in poor condition, the internals of the 1908 Benz gearbox corroded and the engine internals probably likewise. The carburettor chokes have been destroyed by corrosion. But it is surprisingly complete. Three of the front wheel discs (two outer, one inner) were recovered apart from the car, but two of the wheels are missing, and the o/s rear one is just a mass of twisted spokes around the brake drum (the theory is that this wheel collapsed and caused the crash). I was surprised by the flimsiness of the chassis and the unprofessional details–bent angle-iron secures the fairings, the long tail of the body is aluminium sheet over a crude framework of heavy steel tubing, clamped to the chassis, the clutch-linkage is primitive, and odd numbers of washers pack out the bolts of the inlet piping, etc.

Owen Wyn Owen has a problem. Is he to restore “Babs” as a museum exhibit, with non-original body panelling and cleaned up mechanicals? Or should he make her run again? Now that she is up, the latter is preferable. But a new Liberty engine may be needed, not to mention a new gearbox and wheels. Dunlop no longer make the right size tyres. I left him pondering this problem, saying “Babs” isn’t his but must remain in Wales and wondering whether the optimism he showed in a TV interview, that the car would be running again by 1971, wasn’t premature. For a full restoration much help will be needed, from the Industry and other benefactors. And even if restored, “Babs” will not perhaps be quite the memorial Thomas would have wished to be remembered by. . . .

I append a few notes on items about the car which were new to me, to satisfy sticklers for detail, and would say that one good things has come from this grave-snatching—for years model builders have been asking me for “Babs'” dimensions, which were never published, so I am now happy to supply them: wheelbase: 11 ft. 6 in.; overall length: approx. 20 ft. 3 in. The engine had coil ignition, with a coil-and-distributor-box on the front end of each o.h. camshaft, and a Liberty ammeter, the battery being mounted on the gearbox. Thomas sat biased on the o/s, the single-seater body being slightly offset, and had a box on his left filled with lead shot, with a fire-extinguisher on its lid, presumably to balance his weight. A small fuel tank is at chassis level, behind the oil tank over which Thomas sat. Oil temperature was apparently measured at the tank (dry sump?). Fuel pressure was raised with an Enots hand-pump (which has been found) and maintained by an engine-driven pump, with a two-way cock in the cockpit. Two transverse cylindrical air reservoirs seem to have been incorporated. There are two Zenith carburettors per bank for the V12 engine, one at each end of enormously long intake pipes on the inside of the vee, with the butts of these pipes arranged for water heating. The ram system to the intakes was not used for “Babs’” last run, nor are her stub-axle fairings in evidence. The radiator is by Delaney Gallay, slightly inclined, and there is a small square header tank down on the front of the engine. Traces of the n/s starting handle with its chain sprockets remain, but I think this was a Zborowski device and that Thomas relied on a push. The clutch is of very small diameter, the gearbox with its side-contracting brakes enormous. A small steering box is rather crudely mounted on the o/s side-member, the column being brought inboard; the steering wheel is broken off at the spokes. The circular plates along the bonnet sides, which had puzzled me in pictures of the car, covered access holes through which the bonnet sides were bolted down. The n/s chain is still intact on its sprockets but very stiff: the chain run is quite short. The engine has vertical shafts at the front of each block, which drive one o.h. camshaft per bank of cylinders. There are six short stub exhausts on each side.–W. B.

———

Castrol Ltd. and Carreras Ltd. are organising a Castrol-Guards Quiz Competition for teams nominated by Motor Clubs, on the lines of the TV “University Challenge” Quiz. There will be substantial prizes for the successful Clubs and participants, including a caravan equipped as a Club Control Vehicle with Tannoy system. The contest starts next September with Area Champions determined by February 1970 and the Semi-Finals and Final the following month. But entries close at the end of this month, so entry forms should be applied for NOW, from Roger Willis, Clubs Dept., Castrol Ltd., Castrol House, Marylebone Road, London, N.W.1, or Colin Osborne, Carreras Ltd., Berk House, 8, Baker Street, London, W.1.

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