There is good news for those who enjoy watching historic documentaries on TV. The BBC is to show, later this year, such a film, about the World’s Land Speed Record, making use of existing video-tapes, but also introducing some live coverage, taken this year.
Among the latter part of the programme will be a feature about “Babs”, the 27-litre Liberty-aero-engined Thomas Special in which Parry Thomas was killed at Pendine sands 53 years ago, while attempting to regain his own record of 171.09 m.p.h. Owen Wyn-Owen has exercised “Babs” on a number of occasions since he disinterred the old racing car from her 1927 grave and rebuilt it. To see it in action on this most recent occasion we assembled one freezing March morning at a suitably-deserted stretch of Welsh beach.
The Producer, Jeff Goddard, arrived in a Citroën GS. Raymond Baxter, who was doing this part of the script and commentary, in his recently-acquired Saab 900 Turbo, his first foreign car, with which, he told me, he is very satisfied, seeing it as one way of conserving fuel without sacrificing performance. The camera and sound crews came in those excellent workhorses, two Ford Cortina 2.0 GL saloons. “Babs” arrived on a trailer behind a Land-Rover powered with a 3-litre Rover car engine and Wyn-Owen drove up in his well-known yellow VW Beetle. I was pleased to see that a start has been made on a body for “Babs”. Although she still wears the damaged original tail, Wyn-Owen has recently made up a new radiator cowl in aluminium to the correct shape and has fitted bonnet side-panels, although the car still lacks a bonnet-top (this will eventually be secured by fastenings reached through holes in the bonnet sides, as in Thomas’ time) and cockpit sides.
When the time came to fire-up, the old LSR car responded easily enough to the loud staccato from its 12 stub-exhausts after a short tow behind the Land-Rover, on a bar with an ingenious self-release. Alas, the weak aspect of the car is the small multi-plate clutch with which Thomas replaced the former Mercedes scroll clutch. This overheats very easily after which it engages with a jerk. This soon caused the key on the n/s driving sprocket to shear, which has happened before. However, I took the mechanics in the Rover 3500 to the Ffestiniog Railway workshops, where a new key was expeditiously made up — and within half-an-hour or so it was being refitted. Where in England would one have received such prompt and willing service?
“Babs” then made many runs up and down the beach, looking very much as it did all those years ago when it was so vitally important to Parry Thomas that he break the LSR, but with such a tragic result. Wyn-Owen scorned helmet or goggles, but Raymond Baxter wisely wore these for his ride as an intrepid passenger. The top speed was estimated as 60-70 m.p.h., and Owen admitted that to save the clutch he had never changed out of bottom gear! The helicopter from which he was being filmed couldn’t fly at much below 60 m.p.h., which seemed to confirm the speed.
It was a very enjoyable occasion, with only a small enthusiastic gathering of onlookers, and the Police very helpful and knowledgeable. I only hope everyone present spared a thought for that great Welsh racing motorist, J. G. Parry Thomas, driving “Babs”, not at 60, but at over 170 m.p.h. . . . — W.B.