A “Parry Thomas” Day
John Godfrey Parry Thomas, the great Welsh racing-driver and engineer, was killed attacking the LSR on Pendine sands; in South Wales, in the 27-litre Liberty-engined Thomas Special “Babs”, on March 3rd, 1927, fifty years later, to the day, Owen Wyn-Owen, who disinterred and rebuilt the crashed car some years ago, brought “Babs” back to Pendine for a demonstration run – as recorded in MOTOR SPORT last year. This year no such re-enactment happened, so we decided to have a sort of “Parry Thomas” day of our own. Consequently, the Rover 3500A set off early one Saturday morning just after the Ides of March, bound first for Bwlch-y-Cibau.
This involved driving from Cross Gates along the winding road to Newtown and then up the fast highway, past the tourist-attraction of Powis Castle to and through Welshpool. Our destination located, I asked at the village shop (where the young Parry Thomas may well have been an eager customer?) for the old Vicarage, where, his father, the Rev. J. W. Thomas, having been appointed Vicar of the adjacent church, the work of Sir Gilbert Scott, Thomas was brought up, from 1888, at the age of three, until he went to London to study, 14 years later. The modest house is approached up a drive beside this church, and the lad in charge, when I asked for permission to take a photograph, knew without prompting that “Parry Thomas, the racing driver”, had spent his boyhood there.
In fact, the bo who was to become the Idol of Brooklands Track was not born there. His father had been a Curate at a Wrexham church at that time. From Bwlch-y-Cibau Thomas went to Oswestry School, presumably as a boarder, because it would have been too far away, especially in the 1800s, for daily journeys. The Rover was diverted through both these towns, but on a busy Saturday morning, in this yellow-lined age, it was deemed impractical to try to locate the father’s first Church, which might have led us to Thomas’ birthplace, or the school Thomas attended, although, pausing for petrol just outside Oswestry, the lad who served us said that Oswestry School is now a Grammar-school, taking both day pupils and boarders. When I asked if he knew that a famous racing-driver had probably gone there he asked if I was referring to a local Porsche driver. Thus irrevocably do the years roll on . . .
Beyond Wrexham we turned West, in order to visit Wyn-Owen and “Babs”, stopping fist at The Geological Museum of North Wales and its Geological Trail, on the gaunt hilltop of Bwylchgwyn Quarry. The ladies bought souvenirs, while the Rover was photographed beside the bigger of the pit winding-wheels that form some of the interesting outside exhibits. Then it was over the famous 1-in-8 Horseshoe Pass (the new signs give it as a 12% gradient) and into some slow traffic, towards Betws-y-Coed, in Snowdonia. This was the only time that March day, apart from some ridiculously ill-adjusted traffic-lights at a bridge into Oswestry, that we were held up to any extent, and most of the time on the Betws road, we pressed on behind an ambitiously-driven VW Polo, reminder that, additional space and comfort than performance. There must have been a vintage happening, too, in the Wrexham area because we spotted a Sunbeam sidecar-outfit and a bull-nose Morris tourer.
After lunch we went to look again at “Babs”, standing mute, but the epitome of latent brute-force power, in Wyn-Owen’s workshop. She has not been run for some time, and when last exercised at Valley Aerodrome lost 1st and 2nd gears, due to a broken layshaft, cured by inserting an A35half-shaft therein and welding it up. But it is interesting how every time one looks at the unclothed monster, something fresh seems to emerge. The aged chassis-frame, made by Rubery Owen, from, Wyn-Owen tells me, one of their standard channel-sections of the time, has holes which indicate that Parry Thomas moved the big Liberty engine back in the frame when fitting his smaller, multi-plate clutch in place of the original Higham Special scroll clutch. You can also see how the original Clive Gallop-designed radiator sat on the front cross-member. It was replaced by Thomas with an inclied Leyland radiator, before the present, low-set Delaney-Gallay radiator was fitted to “Babs”. incidentally, this small Thomas clutch overheats all to easily, which may be why only two standing-start records were ever attacked by “Babs”; in 1926 she set the two-way s.s. kilo World’s record to 86.9 m.p.h. and the s.s. mile to 98.87 m.p.h., Thomas having to use the car’s handbrake to slow “Babs” at the end of the measured distance – records ignored, incidentally, in Hugh Tours’ splendid book about Parry Thomas.
When Wyn-Owen wanted to dig-up “Babs” from her Pendine “grave” he had to get permission from a relation of Parry Thomas and this was given by a young nephew, also named John Godfrey. It will be remembered that the gearbox casing of “Babs” was beyond redemption when the car was being rebuilt and a new casting had to be made, of which Wyn-Owen still has the patterns. A minor mystery intrudes here! When Count Louis Zborowski built the great car originally, as his Higham Special he is said to have used for it a gearbox taken from the old 200-h.p. Benz, a car so dangerous round Brooklands that even the creator of the Chitty Bang Bangs had ceased to use it for racing. This was confirmed to me by Col. Clive Gallop who was the engineer responsible for this Higham Special/”Babs”. it has been repeated ever since. Indeed, Gallop told me that as the giant car was being reversed out of its shed for the very first time the fierce Mercedes scroll clutch tore the reverse-gear shaft out of the aged gearbox casing. So disappointed was the Count that he sent Gallop immediately by aeroplane to Mannheim, where the very last of these massive pre-war gearboxes remained available. (Aviation experts will perhaps be able to work out a likely schedule used on that occasion by Gallop, remembering that the year was 1923 and that, as Wyn-Owen confirms, he had to bring home a gearbox weighing some three cwt!). The interesting thing is that when Wyn-Owen examined the gearbox in the 200-h.p. Ben in the Birmingham Museum, he discovered that it has a casing more square, and quite unlike, that of the gearbox in “Babs”. Now I know that this is a long-wheelbase, if you like “touring” 200-h.p. Benz, whereas the kind that alarmed even Zborowski (more on account of metal-fatigue than handling peculiarities, maybe) was a short-chassis racing, or “Blitzen”, Benz. But I had thought that the specifications of both were mainly identical. Now this gearbox unsimilarity casts a doubt perhaps Benz authorities will give the matter some thought; or could it be that memory was at fault and that when the front axle from another of Zborowski’s discarded racing cars, a 1908 GP Mercedes, was used in the construction of the Higham Special, they also used the gearbox from that car, which would have tied in with the employment of one of the Count’s favoured scroll clutches? But in that case, why the journey to Mannheim for the last available replacement? (Thomas discarded the aged Mercedes front axle with alacrity, replacing it with a Leyland Eight axle, on which you can see the holes for attaching that car’s torsion-bar units. And if anyone doubts whether the later Leyland Eights had front-wheel-brakes, Wyn-Owen will show you one, taken from the front axle of one of these cars which British Leyland found for him, when he was having difficulty replacing the odd-sized splined-hubs on “Babs”, which eventual cunning adaptation of some Minerva hubs solved.)
Leaving this to the Mercedes/Benz experts, let me say that we left Capil Curig five minutes or so fater the end of the TV commentary on the Wales/France Rugby Match, the inhabitants of the hotel were very happy with the result thereof! The journey home was a fine example of the magnificanet scenery in which Wales abounds, and the excellent motoring conditions its roads still afford if you choose the right route and time of year. It’s too late now, for the holiday traffic will be flowing. But I suggest to anyone who enjoys deserted roads and fine views that they do as we did, and drive, before the Ides of March next year, from Betws-y-Coed via Ffestiniog, Dolgellau, Mallwyd, Cemmaes Road to Llanidloes and then over the B-road via Tylwch, where the old clock-tower at the cross-roads causes such confusion to over-big modern transporters (and where, if the road-signs, worded with Welsh illogicality, were to be literally obeyed, everyone would wait forever). On this sunny Saturday afternoon this route produced no traffic to speak of and many long straights down which almost any car (even “Babs”?) might have been driven at its maximum speed. The Rover 3500 vee-eight was in its element, as a comfortable, fast-cruiser, and did the run in less than 2½-hours, in spite of a longish pause to refuel. – W.B.