VETERAN TO CLASSIC - PERCY "E" THOMAS INTERVIEW

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“Tommy” Thomas – Earl Howe’s Mechanic

Earl Howe (1884-1964) was one of the most enthusiastic amateur racing drivers of the between-wars period. He enjoyed competing in all forms of racing — on British circuits, in Continental roadraces, at Shelsley Walsh and Prescott hillclimbs. With his jaunty cap, red button-hole carnation and blue golf umbrella he was a familiar figure in the paddocks at Brooklands and Donington, at the Brighton speed trials, indeed at so many motor-racing venues. To give an account of all the many and varied racing cars His Lordship owned, from the time when, as Edward Richard Ashedon, Fifth Viscount Curzon, he began the sport in 1928, and the many ordinary cars used by him, is quite beyond the full scope of a magazine article; so over to you industrious book authors.

One remembers the racing cars which the Rt Hon Earl Howe, PC, CBe, VD, RNVR, a Royal Navy Commodore in the war, drove with skill and determination, not dismayed if he did not win. Yet win he did, some important races, as when he was victorious at Le Mans in 1931 with Sir Henry Birkin, Bt, in the 2.3 Alfa Romeo, and in the 1 ½-litre class at Dieppe in 1932, and at Avus in 1932 and 1933 with the beautiful little supercharged GP Delage he bought from Sir Malcolm Campbell — until he braked too late and wrapped it, literally, round a tree at Monza.

Howe drove five more times in the Le Mans 24-Hour race, in 1929 with Bernard Rubin in a 4 ½ Bentley, in 1930 with a 1750 Alfa Romeo, in 1932 with Birkin again in a 2.3 Alfa Romeo, in 1934 with Tim RoseRichards in an Alfa, and in 1935 with an Alfa shared with the Hon Brian Lewis (Lord Essendon). Nor was the racing Earl a stranger to the Ulster TT. He ran his Type 43 Bugatti there in 1928 and 1929, crashed a 2.3 Alfa Romeo in 1931, but made amends by winning his class in it in 1932 (fourth overall), and being second in class in 1935 (fifth overall). Howe also drove his Mercedes, a Roesch Talbot and a 4 ½-litre Lagonda in the TT.

Then there were more Continental races, Howe finishing in the 1931 French GP in his new Type 51 twin-cam Bugatti in the company of the professional “greats”, driving a big 4.9-litre Type 54 Bugatti with Hugh Hamilton at Reims in 1932, and ending in this important race sharing an unlikely Marendaz Special with Tommy Wisdom. And Ettore Bugatti thought well enough of him to send from Molsheim (just in time!) a Type 59 with a non-supercharged engine which Howe and the Hon Brian Lewis brought home third in the 1935 BRDC Brooklands 500 Mile race, and a lightweight Type 571 with which Howe took the same placing in the 1935 Ulster TT. Then there was Howe’s legendary onslaught on the 1933 Mille Migia with a team of three K3 MG Magnettes, defeating the works 1100cc Maseratis.

At Brooklands Howe drove in long-distance races with Bugatti, ERA, Lagonda etc, and he was not averse to undertaking a one-hour officially-observed run for lagonda with a VI2 saloon (101.5 miles, including a tyre change). And so on. . .

A quite remarkable record for a driver who did not commence racing until he was 45, continued in this large number of varied events up the outbreak of the Second World War with a notably varied selection of makes and types of racing cars, and who drove fast on the road, with a few “unmentionable” incidents. Afterwards Howe became President of the BRDC, President, then Patron, of the Bugatti OC, the ERA Club’s President, and he served on many car-club committees and spoke on behalf of motoring sport in the House of Lords. Versatile indeed!

All the time the Earl was racing, one man looked after his cars, got them to the circuits, was in the pits during Howe’s long-distance events, and generally kept the wheels turning. He was Percy E Thomas, always known in racing circles as “Tommy” Thomas.

I was delighted to track him down to his Surrey home, to find out how this came about. For some years after his retirement Tommy resided in Wales, and was “lost”, as it were, so this meeting was especially welcome. I was made just that, as we chatted about the old days while overlooking the secluded garden, with doves fluttering about it, at the address where Mr and Mrs Thomas now live. Tommy, 88, has clear memories of his motor-racing days; otherwise his hobby is home wine-making. One of three brothers, he was brought up at Earlsfield in London, where his father had a garage and engineering business. He worked for his father and was thus brought up among cars. He had discovered the magic of Brooklands by 1925, cycling there for his first visit. Wanting to break into something outside the family business, he got onto his bicycle and rode to Kennington, to the London Taxi Depot near the foot of Brixton Hill, where the English Bugatti headquarters operated under Col Sorel and where D M K Marendaz built his Marendaz Specials.

Thomas was seen by Michel, the Bugatti sales manager, who told him he would check up on the lad’s references, asking for his address. Hopefully, Thomas rode home, to find the ‘phone ringing — it was Michel, so he was able to fill in his testimonials himself! That led to a job at Bugatti’s Brixton depot. There he worked happily for some time, until one day Malcolm Campbell, who was a frequent visitor there, in connection with the Bugatti sales business he ran from London’s west end, walked in. He asked the foreman whether he would release Thomas. This was arranged, and in 1927 Thomas went to work for Campbell, not at his workshop-garage at his house at Povey Cross where Leo Villa was in charge, but in Campbell’s shed in the Brooklands Paddock.

There Thomas worked on Bugattis of all types, riding down along the newly-opened Kingston by-pass from his parents’ home on his 16H Norton, which he later replaced with an Austin 7. This, as today’s owners of these famous little cars can endorse, was usefully simple to maintain. When Thomas thought the Austin’s engine was due for a de-coke and valve grind, he would ask Villa’s permission to leave early, drive home, have a meal, then position the Austin beneath the garage canopy and work on the engine, which would be reassembled ready for an early start for Brooklands the next morning. But perhaps Capt (later Sir) Malcolm Campbell was not quite the easiest of bosses. At all events, when “Bluebird” was being prepared for the LSR attempt at Daytona, Thomas was told he would be one of the mechanics, but Campbell later told him he wouldn’t be going, to reduce travel expenses. This rankled, but by good fortune, Lord Howe, as he then was, came into the Brooklands shed and asked Villa if he would mind if Thomas left to join him. This being acceptable, on New Year’s Day 1929 “Tommy” Thomas became head racing mechanic to the future Earl Howe.

His first task was to strip down the Type 43 Bugatti which, as Viscount Curzon, Howe had run in the 1928 Ulster TT, where it had retired with a split petrol tank, a similar mishap having cost Campbell his (uninsured) Type 43 when it caught fire in the pits and was burnt out.

“Tommy” had plenty of time to study the mechanical aspects of a type of car he was already acquainted with; in the race he rode as Howe’s mechanic. After 24 of the laps required of them on handicap, the exhaust system collapsed and they were flagged-off. Thus Thomas commenced his long association with the formidable succession of top-class cars His Lordship could afford to buy and race. The relationship worked well, Howe an excellent master; he always called Tommy “Thomas” and Tommy addressed his employer as “My Lord”. There was the advantage that Howe was wealthy enough not to have to impose a budget on any racing project and that he had a good knowledge of the mechanical side of his cars. Howe was calm and good-tempered, even in adversity. He raced as much for his love of the sport as with the intention of winning, but wins were a bonus! The racing cars were kept, not at his estate at Penn, as one might have thought, but in garages-cum-workshops in London’s Mayfair, at Pitshead Mews. At first they were trailered to races, but Thomas suggested to His Lordship that it might be better to have a van. So a Commer was acquired and fitted up with workshop facilities, with space for one racing car, and another on a trailer behind when necessary. Tommy remembers this Commer as rather heavy, with not much ground clearance. But it was one of the first racing car transporters to be seen in this country and served well. Incidentally, it would have accommodated sleeping quarters but they were never used, as Howe provided hotels for Thomas and his assistants — which those mechanics who have had to sleep in their transporters may like to note! When Bentley Motors closed down at Cricklewood some of the workers had come to Thomas hoping for a job; after Earl Howe had been consulted Sydney Maslin was taken on as an assistant to Thomas and later was joined by Stan Holgate, who went on the the Chula/Bira equipe.

Of all the cars he had under his care. Thomas’s favourite was the little Delage. M Lory’s design was as complicated as it was effective, but after going over to Paris to discuss it with the Delage engineers Thomas had no problems with it, although any parts required had to be made here, as Delage’s supply had long since dried up. Winner of the 1927 Championship of Europe, the car Howe drove won for him the 1 ½-litre class of the aforementioned races and was run at the Nürburgring.

After the noble Earl had wrapped it round that tree at Monza, Thomas recalls that he was outwardly quite unshaken, just walking away, although they had to cut the chassis in half to salvage the wreck! Thomas then used the engine in the ex-Senechal Delage that Howe had bought, and with the rebuilt car he was able to win his class yet again at Avus in 1933, after a race-long duel with Veyron’s Bugatti. The Delage also paid off at Brooklands, where apart from winning races it took the ultimate Class F Outer Circuit lap record at 127.05 mph.

Obviously the 2.3 Alfa Romeos were much favoured by Howe, but when new Alfa models were almost impossible to obtain, he invested in a 2.9 single-seater GP Maserati, which was third at Dieppe, fourth at Albi, in 1934. Then there was the 3.3-litre Type 59 Bugatti, with which Howe seems to have got rather better results than the other British drivers who bought these cars direct from Molsheim. His Lordship was also very fond of the big Mercedes-Benz, both for touring and racing. With the ex-Caracciola TT-winning 38/250 (UW 302) he made fastest lap in the 1930 Phoenix Park GP at 77.2 mph, finishing third, improved on this in 1931 with a record lap at 91.8 mph. fractionally quicker than Caracciola in 1930, did his quickest lap at the 1931 Autumn Brooklands Meeting at 118.3 and at Shelsley Walsh, where he was a keen competitor, making ftd there in his Type 51 Bugatti in 1932, in 44.0s, got down to a time of 46.2s in the sports class in 1934 in the sports Mercedes.

When going to races Howe would lead, with Thomas following with the transporter. When he drove the 4½ -litre Bentley with Rubin at Le Mans Howe would only go after W O Bentley had agreed to allow Thomas into the Bentley pits. And a small point, but of interest in view of how top tennis players now consume bananas for energy: Howe did this in his long races. He was about to leap into the Alfa’s seat at Le Mans on one occasion and roar away when Thomas noticed a bunch on the driving seat and was just in time to shout “I wouldn’t sit down yet, My Lord!” To support Howe’s aforesaid Mille Miglia team of MG Magnettes, Penn-Hughes and Thomas took Howe’s Mercedes-Benz with a spare MG engine, back axle etc on board; this “back up lorry” was driven so fast it was nearly as quick as the MGs, it is said without using the blower during the 1000-mile run. The big Mercs were fine cars, Thomas says, but the supercharging system was complicated, involving many control rods, and, as the blower forced air through the twin carburetters, it was necessary to pressurise the fuel-tank, Autovac and both float chambers.

At an age when many would have thought racing beyond them, Earl Howe drove hard, and had a few crashes. At Montlhéry in 1933 a stone broke his visor, injuring an eye, and his Bugatti left the track, there was the aforesaid horrific Delage prang at Monza, he “lost” the Alfa he was driving in the 1931 TT at Bradshaw’s Bray, crashed his K3 MG in 1934 on a repeat Mille Miglia performance, and then in 1937, in the Brooklands Campbell Trophy race, Howe misjudged the Vickers’ Bridge and hit the paraper with his ERA. This was R8B, purchased in 1936, which Howe drove in many continental races (his best place third at Peronne, with other successes in England). He was badly hurt, but recovered to race the ERA again in 1937, having been second in the 1936 200 Mile race. Before the accident he had taken two second places and a third in South Africa; in 1938 he was first at Cape Town. R8B was then converted to C-specification and its owner ran it until May 1939, again taking it to Africa, before a mild crash at Brooklands. It was then sold to Reg Parnell.

Although the ERA had done reasonably well in previous races and was leading the field, hotly pursued by Bira’s 2.9 Maserati, at the time of the accident, Thomas says it never compared with the 1927 Delage and he regarded the Bourne effort as rather a joke. After the accident Berthon and the other ERA boys had crowded round the damaged car to the exclusion of Thomas’s own chaps.

Apart from tending the racing cars, Thomas had Howe’s road cars to look after. At one time the Mayfair garage contained some 11 of them, from an lsotta-Fraschini to two A7s. His Lordship used a fabric saloon A7 (in the family colours, of course) for town work and going to the House of Lords, as he would later Fiat 500 Topolinos. His 1937 Type 57SC Bugatti Atlante coupe (DYK 5) is well remembered. All these cars had to be kept in immaculate order, as were the racing cars, in Howe’s blue and silver paintwork, unless a European race required a green paint-job, or red for the Italian cars. Howe was a director of Barkers the coachbuilders, so they were entrusted with painting his racing cars.

For Tommy Thomas this exciting period of his life ended with the war, and marriage to the daughter of Howe’s chauffeur. He took up design work, at first for the Jamesons (remember the two-stroke racing cars?) but later moved on to Napier’s, working on the sleeve” valve flat-16 2400 hp Sabre aero-engine. Then, in well-deserved retirement, Mr and Mrs Thomas drove in a Jaguar to revisit some of the European venues at which the cars “Tommy” had so faithfully looked after and tuned had raced. WB

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