A Thomas-Special in retirement

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Details of one of the four-cylinder card now in New Zealand

Some light on what has become of the 1 1/2-litre Thomas-Special racing cars which the late J.G. Parry-Thomas designed and built has been given by a letter written to us by Sgt. G. Easterbrook-Smith, of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, whom readers will remember as a great Ansaldo enthusiast. His letter leaves little doubt that one of the Thomas-Special cars which Thomas raced in 1925 and 1926, and which resembled the Leyland-Thomas cars in outline and general design, has been saved from an ignominious fate and given a good home in New Zealand, where it went, it seems, about a year after its celebrated driver-designer was killed at Pendine. Douglas Kay is to be congratulated on saving it, and it is pleasing that the present owner appears to have taken some steps to correctly ascertain the car’s history and status, and that he has no exaggerated ideas as to its original capabilities. This car, known to the initiated as a Hooker-Thomas, we believe, was never very adequately described in the motoring Press, and it is curious that we should have had to wait until some 16 years after its retirement to glean reasonably comprehensive details of its specification. We are not certain whether Thomas built more than one of these cars, but, if he did, no trace, with the possible exception of some engine parts still at Thompson and Taylor’s, of another exists. He won the 1925 President’s Gold Plate Race with the single-seater Thomas-Special at 96 3/4 m.p.h. and the “News of the World” 100 Mile Handicap the same year at 98.23 m.p.h. In 1926 he captured the Class F One Hour record at 112.78 m.p.h., so that the maximum speed (remember, the car was unblown) must have been around 115 m.p.h. or more. Easterbrook-Smith’s letter, which gives a very good idea of the design of the car (which must not be confused with the later, straight-eight “flat iron” cars, both of which are believed to be at breaker Bradleys, at Edgware), follows:– 

Sir,

I have recently come into possession of one of the late J.G. Parry-Thomas’s racing cars. The car has been in New Zealand since as far back as 1928, I believe, but most details of its history are lacking.

The engine is a four-cylinder unit and bears the legend “hooker Thomas Special” cast in the aluminium camshaft cover. A brass plate riveted to the cover says “Type 1 1/2 L, Engine No. 5,” and a second plate: “Manufactured by Peter Hooker, Ltd., Walthamstow, London, England.”

I have reason to believe that the car originally had two crankshafts, giving swept volumes of 1,100 and 1,500 c.c., but the 1 1/2-litre shaft has vanished. [As originally raced, the capacity was 1,847 c.c. – Ed.] Valves, two per cylinder, are operated by an overhead camshaft, one cam only being provided for each cylinder. Multiple leaf springs are set transversely across the head, the valves are well and truly inclined and the camshaft is driven in the same manner as that of a 3-litre Bentley. Ignition is by coil, the generator being on the right-hand side of the engine and a similar drive on the left-hand side turns the water pump. By the use of adaptors, 14-mm. plugs have been fitted. A single Zenith carburetter is mounted on the right-hand side of the head, but there is a spare manifold with provision for two carburetters. Four separate exhaust outlets blend into a 2 1/2-in. dull-chromed pipe on the left-hand side. The flywheel is exposed, as is the drive to the separate gearbox, with its very short lever mounted centrally in the cockpit.

A comprehensive set of instruments includes a Jaeger rev.-counter, calibrated up to 6,000 r.p.m., oil temperature gauge, water temperature gauge, oil pressure gauge, ammeter and fuel pressure gauge. Fuel is carried in a large tank amidships, pressure being provided by a hand pump operated by the “riding mechanic.” Oil is carried in the large, heavily ribbed sump.

The wheelbase is 8′ 4″ and the track 4′ 2″, suspension being by torsion bars. The chassis is extensively drilled and is set particularly low; 21″ wheels are held on by four nuts each to 11″ brake drums. [If the wheels are disc and only rear brakes fitted, this sounds like the single-seater car. – Ed.]

An aluminium body in deplorable condition is fitted. The tail is very short, the differential and rear axle being fully exposed. I believe the car originally had a long tapering tail, but it climbed a tree at Henning’s Speedway at Auckland and wiped it off.

The car was discovered by Douglas Kay, who promptly bought it, under a pile of bedsteads and old iron in a shed and, as he was unfortunately posted to a station to which it would be impossible to take the car, it has come into my care until the day comes when it will be possible to spend on fast cars the time now used in keeping aircraft up in the air.

It is in really deplorable condition, having been in the hands of one vandal who was going to use it for a dirt track car and another who intended using the engine for a launch; but with a lot of loving care it should be possible to restore it to somewhere near its original condition. I believe its maximum speed in Parry-Thomas’s hands was in the region of 107 m.p.h. and its fastest speed in New Zealand has been 97 m.p.h., so it is a car with distinct possibilities.

If you or any of your readers could forward any particulars concerning valve and magneto timing settings, or, in fact, any information about the car, I would be very grateful.

A recent spot of sick leave led to a visit by Ansaldo to my friend Errol Ansell at Carterton, some 50 miles out of Wellington. Due to the use of unsuitable plugs, three cylinders only would play, which resulted in mounting the Rimutakas, a 1,000 ft. high climb, in low gear, a rather tedious business. At the summit I transferred my wife and that future female dicer, three months old Susanne Easterbrook-Smith, to Errol’s car, succeeded in persuading all four cylinders to work at once and then had a grand dice to Carterton. The car now has the 31″ x 4.50″ tyres and wheels of the 1923 2-litre sports Ansaldo fitted in place of the Model “A” Ford wheels at the rear only. This gives a much more reasonable gearing, bringing 70 m.p.h. within reach at 4,000 r.p.m.

Unfortunately, the magneto packed up well and truly, so I was forced to leave the car at Carterton and return to Wellington by train. The car is still up there, having new piston rings and the Arnott carburetter fitted, which should result in a useful increase in performance. Two very interesting cars were seen while on this leave. The first was a very beautiful 3 1/2-litre Alvis saloon owned by a most enthusiastic gentleman, who entertained us with descriptions of racing at Donington and Brooklands. The second was a very ancient Kissel, about the first American car I have ever found interesting. Its chief attraction was a very well-proportioned 2-seater sports body, left-hand steering plainly showing its American origin. The gear lever, amazing for a Yank, was short and stiff and the driving position felt very comfortable. The engine was a big six-cylinder side-valve unit and appeared to be of some 4 to 5 litres capacity. Unusual in an American car, the inlet and exhaust were situated on opposite sides, the carburetter bolting directly into the side of the block. I believe this car was originally bought on the conditions that it could climb both sides of the Rimutakas in top gear and cover a measured mile at 85 m.p.h., both of which conditions it fulfilled.

Another good car in the Wairarapa district is a 4 1/2-litre Bentley saloon, unfortunately in the hands of a rather unsympathetic owner. It is amazing how frequently good cars seem to gravitate to people who handle them unmercifully. Another example is the 1919 Indianapolis Stutz, which drags a harrow round a Taranaki farm.

I trust the particulars of the Thomas will be of some interest to you.

I am, Yours etc.,

G. Easterbrook-Smith,

Sgt., R.N.Z.A.F.

Wellington,

New Zealand.