More about Parry Thomas with some appropriate asides

John Godfrey Parry Thomas, idol of the Brooklands crowds and talented Welsh racing-driver/designer, was my schooldays’ hero. Which is why I wrote “A Parry Thomas Day” last May, after another Journey to North Wales to look at the 27-litre Liberty aero-engined Thomas Special “Babs” in which he was killed at Pendine in 1927. After a lapse of over half-a-century since Thomas’ tragic death and one fulllength book about his career there cannot be much more information about him to be unravelled. But, being reluctant to let my long interest in Thomas evaporate, I decided to explore what few avenues of hitherto untapped sources remain.

The first relevant expedition was to visit Mrs. R. C. Morgan, a lady who, with her husband, had raced an Aston-Martin with a Hooker Thomas engine and who knew Parry Thomas well in those days. She now lives at Ruislip, in a charming farmhouse, shared by a son who runs a Mk. VI Bentley, and her splendid mastiff dogs. Although this was a run for me of some seven hours out and back, I was happy to undertake it in the comfort of a willing Rover 2600 and with the thought that, busy. Middlesex town that Ruislip now is, it is fortunately close to the M40 Motorway, so that there was no need to experience the nightmare of negotiating London traffic.

This interview opened with Mrs. Morgan telling me how she bought a new ABC in which she made her first visit to Brooklands, from Abinger Hammer, where they were then living. Naturally the little car was soon being driven round the track, until a piston in its flat-twin air-cooled engine tightened-up. The engine was then dismantled at the track, after which R. C. Morgan took the offending component, in a wolsley 15, to the ABC factory at near by Horsham. Here he expressed well simulated surprise when shown the seizure-mark on the piston and was able to persuade them to give him a new one.

The ABC was fitted with a fine copper fishtail, but retaliated by blowing this into the resemblance of a balloon. Seeing an advertisement for a racing side-valve Aston-Martin in one of the motor journals, and the price of this secondhand car being in the region of what the ABC had cost, she purchased it as a replacement. For no particular reason she named the car, which was a sidevalve GP model, “Green Pea” and she and H. C. Morgan had some good racing with it, at Brooklands and on the public road courses of those times. Also, at Boulogne they finished second in the 1 1/2-litre Grand Prix in 1923 and second in the 650 kg. race in 1925, ignition trouble delaying them in the 1924 race. The 1921 performance was particularly pleasing, because they were beaten only by Segrave in one of the “invincible” Talbot-Darracqs and in turn beat Eyston who was driving one of the twin-cam GP Aston-Martins, whereas “Green Pea” then had the side-valve engine. Incidentally, the name of their car was rendered on this occasion as “Petit Pois” for the benefit of the French, which did not prevent one English reporter misrendering it as “‘Sweet Pea”….

Mrs. Morgan worked on the cars and she and her husband became great Aston-Martin advocates, owning two others besides “Green Pea”. One of these had a twin-cam engine and it came to grief in a S. Harting hill-climb; the other was a two-door All-weather with an unpainted bonnet which they called the “Soup Tureen”. It is perhaps an indication of the small resources of Lionel Martin’s Aston-Martin Company at that time that when the latter was stripped down the engine of this car was found to have odd pistons and two of its con-rods drilled, whereas the other two were undrilled. Yet, recalls Mrs. Morgan, it ran without the crankshaft-period from which “Green Pea” suffered. Naturally, they got to know Lionel and Mrs. Kathleen Martin very well. Martin proved to be great fun when away from his business anxieties. One London-Land’s End Trial is recalled, in which they drove ”Green Pea” in company with the Martins in their more civilised clover-leaf Aston-Martin. The dust was terrible, remembers Marion Morgan, so bad that you had to grease your face next day instead of washing it, Lionel Martin dared them to remove the exhaust fishtail which was “Green Pea’s” only concession to silencing, tor the run home, which they did, to the consternation of village policemen en route.

Naturally, after gaining considerable success with “Green Pea” and having gone as fast as possible with a side-valve engine, they sought something more powerful and as they knew Parry Thomas they had one of his Hooker Thomas engines installed in “Green Pea”, which installation Thomas himself undertook at his Brooklands works. (The side-valve Aston-Martin engine was put into an Eric Campbell chassis for the JCC 200-Mile Race.) “Green Pea” ran successfully in this form in 1925 and was sometimes entered as a Thomas Special. It seems that this engine tended to run too cool, because one pieture shows the unusual radiator now fitted to the A-M blanked off at the bottom with a make-shift piece of board. The main difficulty was with the leaf valve springs used by Parry Thomas for all his engines. He argued that these were superior to coil springs because the damping was more progressive. But the top leaf of these springs used to break, at the ends where they engaged the valve stems, and long and bitter was the correspondence Thomas had with Kaiser Ellison, who supplied the steels from which they where made.

Mrs. Morgan remembers Thomas as being very kind, and nice to those he regarded as genuine. He would spend much time explaining technicalities to her. But in some ways he was a prim man; for instance, even at an informal tea-party, water had to be put into the pot, not into his tea-cup, and he could get very cross about what he saw as tomfoolery. As, for example, when George Miller and Bobbie Morgan had an informal race round the Brooklands sheds, the former in the Thomas Special, the latter on a push-bike, both ending up at high speed at the front door of Thomas’ bungalow “The Hermitage”. “Thomas was livid, white with rage,” recalls Mrs. Morgan, for he saw this as a stupid thing to do, with the Track at hand to race on. She remembers his wonderful grasp of mathematical and engineering problems but he insisted on dicing only one modification at a time to his cars, and then making a three-lap test on Brooklands before carrying out any further changes; this meant that his experiments took a long time to complete! On the occasion when he put the two outer wheels of the Leyland-Thomas over the edge of the Byfleet banking during a race, collecting a shrub in the process, to the consternation of those wtatching, Thomas came in seemingly unruffled, and explained that knowing the c.-of-g. of his car, the angle of the banking, and his speed, he knew he could get away with it… He had little time for women but his love of children was very genuine Mrs. Morgan told me of the time at his bungalow when, in the midst of a deep technical discussion, Thomas suddenly looked up at the ceiling, lost in contemplation, then asked her if she thought it high enough to take a swing which he wanted to put up for the enjoyment of the daughter of his housekeeper.

If he was a genius on the Track, Thomas’ road driving was not very good, apparently. Over at Montlhery he was lent an Amilcar for the journey to and from Paris. One evening the hotel donkey ran out from a hedge and Thomas overturned this little sports car in avoiding the animal; his explanation being that you might expect a dog to emerge from a hole in a hedge but not a donkey! When they were sitting over a map of the Boulogne circuit, discussing how they took the various corners, Segrave told Thomas that he knew nothing of that kind of driving…! In such awe did they regard Segrave that R. C. Morgan, asked the great man if they should reduce speed in the race to allow him to pass? “No, you don’t actually slow down”, replied de Hane, “but try to give me room”. So as the Talbot-Darracq came up they would pull down the camber, getting a cheery wave from mechanic Dutoit as Segrave went by. Such were the happy days of the ‘twenties, during which the Morgans ran two Gwynne Eights, “marvellous little cars”; E. A. D. Eldridge is remembered as towing his enormous Fiat “Mephistopheles” from its shed, round the Aerodrome road, behind his Gwynne, a comic Sight….

I was extremely interested when Mrs. Morgan unrolled drawings of the 750-c.c. Thomas Special on which Parry Thomas had been working up to the time a his fatal accident. This project has always been shrouded in mystery. The facts, which I can now reveal, are that after they had moved to their house in Stanmore, where they had installed a line private workshop, they and two ex-Vauxhall Motors’ mechanics decided to build two cars using one for themselves for racing, and disposing of the other to Capt. Ward, another Aston-Martin enthusiast, who intended to use his on the road. Thomas was to be responsible for the engines, which were fourcylinder power units; in fact, half of a “flat-iron” straight-eight, and the Morgans intended to assemble the cars at Stanmore. Thomas did the drawings of these chassis, dated 23/7/26. The design incorporated a completely underslung Rubery Owen frame, using reversed-1/4-elliptic back springs. The engine drove to a separate David Brown gearbox, gear and brake levers being on the right, and a torque-tube took the drive to the back axle. Instead of the spur reduction gearing to lower the transmission, as used by Thomas, a David Brown underslung worm-drive back-axle with a horizontal circular casing was planned. The front axle was of Kayser Ellison steel, with Perrot front brakes, using cable operation. After Thomas had produced a design to the Morgans’ requirements there were doubts as to how the engine would work out, without Thomas’ constant attention to it. Also, there were doubts as to whether the 750-c.c. engine would be adequate for the weight of the cars, and Thomas’ death killed the project. One chassis was complete except for the front axle mounting, however. –W.B.

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 What it was like to work for Thomas at Brooklands front 1924 until his death in 1927 is hereafter extremely well portrayed, for the first time, in the following notes by Mr. R. H. Beauchamp, AMIMechE, now retired and residing in Cornwall, with whom I was put in touch by John Perrett (see Motor Sport, May 1978). At last we know, from Ralph Beauchamp’s contribution, rendered all the more nostalgic because it was written on numbered foolscap sheets from one of Thomas’ old calculation-books, what it was like to work for Parry Thomas, and we gain an insight into how his Brooklands establishment was run and the rather surprisingly large number of employees he had, some 30 including the girl typists in London. Mr. Beauchamp’s notes complement Mr. Perrett’s memories of working at the Track under the great Reid Railton at a later period:

The period I spent at Brooklands working for Parry Thomas from 1924 to 1927 began when, having just finished a five-year training course with D. Napier & Sons Ltd. of Acton Vale, I noticed a situations vacant advertisement in The Engineer for a junior draughtsman and applied for the post. An interview that followed at Spring Gardens in London was with Mr. Ken Thomson of the Thomas Inventions Development Co. Ltd., and this first contact with him was to last for 25 years. At the time I Was living with my parents at Brentford and one Sunday morning made an exploratory visit to the Track with my brother in his long-stroke Sunbeam motorcycle and sidecar. Unfortunately in the rain and when taking a left-hand bend, the front vee-block brake failed to slow the outfit and when searching for the rear foot brake this pedal apparently had disappeared! Not wishing to turn the outfit over the only object that showed some possibility of stopping us was a telegraph pole and this was struck plumb between the bike and sidecar. Hanging hard onto the right handlebar until the last second I was catapulted into the base of a hedge and woke up at home with concussion and a cracked sternum. My brother survived by pushing the front of the sidecar out with his knees. This unfortunately delayed my acceptance of the position with the Thomas Inventions Co. until I was able to buy my first 350-cc. sidevalve AJS with which to journey the 17 miles each way from Brentford to Brooklands. The delay was graciously accepted by Ken Thomson via his secretary, Miss Nora James, and I was soon established in the Drawing Office the firm had at the Track. The building’s then occupied were built during the first World War for use by the RFC and were leased by the Brooklands authorities to the Thomas-Inventions Development Co. They consisted of five separate buildings, as shown on the sketch. The Drawing Office was at one end of a Tyre Store used by the Dunlop Co.

This building was, I believe, used by the RFC as a photographic development section, as two zinc-covered troughs were visible, one on each side of the outer office, with a water supply which was eventually used for the development of the many blueprints made of the detail-drawings of the new racing-car project.

The office inner-sanctum was occupied by Geoff Cullen who was the Chief Draughtsman, and a junior draughtsman called Johns and myself occupied the outer office, together with the blueprint machine. We understood that the object was to provide design drawings of a completely new racing and record car which was to be powered by a 750-c.c. four-cylinder engine, with an alternative 1,500-c.c. straight-eight engine. My first task was to cope with details of its valve gear, and this was to follow the Leyland pattern of overhead camshaft with two-valves-per-cylinder in hemispherical heads and with the usual leaf valve springs, but without the twin cam arrangement for “positively” operating the valves as in some Leyland experimental valve gear. I believe my first contact with Parry Thomas was when busily engaged in detailing a tulip-type inlet valve. I was somewhat surprised to find a bulky figure in a Fair Isle jumper and wearing “gym” shoes and slacks appear by my side to see how things were going. He seemed to appear only seldom in the drawing office but his quietly spoken words were always authoritative and to the point.

The work proceeded apace. Here I should say that whilst I was with the Napier Co. who at that time had an extremely able and talented Chief Designer in Mr. A. J. Rowledge, who was responsible for the T.75 Napier car, a competitor of the Rolls-Royce, and also the range of famous broad-arrow formation Napier “Lion” Aero engines I was grateful to Mr. Goodwin, BSc, and his assistant Mr. Barnes, and to Mr. Carne of the Napier Stress Section who had my attention drawn very closely to the importance of the, theoretical side of precision engineering, when I certainly was made aware of the necessity. of exact calculation of items such as the !minion of inertia and modulus of section of rectangular and circular sections, leading on to a insist useful fundamental Data and General Formula Hook built up by that Department. As I was also in close .touch with the Workshops, this was a really helpful penod of my engineering initiation, but sometimes, and perhaps because of, Thomas’ infrequent appearances the overall picture at times became somewhat disjointed. I remember it was once discovered that the camshaft was being driven at 0.66 times engine speed. Fortunately Thomas found that sufficient width had been left in the camshaft gear train to halve the width and increase the module of the driving gears and so compound them to give the correct ratio! The engine design was unusual, with a cast iron cylinder head and separate cast  iron crankcase, coupled with wet cylinder liners, and with pairs, of cylinders surrounded by alummonn water jackets. This arrangement later gave Ken Taylor, the hard-working and able man who was to build the cars, some cause for concern with the head and block gaskets. Eventually an annealed copper gasket for the cylinders, with separate reinforced rubber joints for the water jackets, provided a satisfactory answer, although the studs with their loose sleeves operated by tommy bar were a far from easy method of clamping-the head to the block. To assist in expediting thc work I recall that Ken Thomson was enlisted, in his “spare time” from his financial managerial duties, to do quite a bit of work on the gearbox in the drawing office and also I believe in the progressing of work during manufacture. ondersiood later that he underwent a fair amount of “friendly” commem regarding the rigidity of  the gearbox selector mechanism from Parry Thomas (who was a physically tough character) when in fact the drag of the Hele-Shaw type multi-plate clutch Wa, really suspect!

There is one item of these Thomas Specials that was pure Parry Thomas and that was the design of the pistons, which logically had a truncated cone structure joining the piston head, via the gudgeon-pin bosses, to a separate skirt. In this was the compression rings were carried in a separate top land, with an oil control ring in the lower land. The explosion loads were carried directly on to the gudgeon-pins and the tapered torso of the cone also assisted cooling of the piston head by oil splash. These pistons were patterned by the Edmore Pattern Works at Hanwell and sand cast by Miralites of Mortlake. In spite of their complicated shape I do not recall any major trouble ever being expertenced with them. Incidentally, as with almost all other machined parts, they were produced in the Thomas workshops by machinists Platten, Robinson and Bryant, whose final shining product was always a delight to behold.

The engines were tested on the bench in the test shop adjoining the Workshop, with the power being absorbed by a two-bladed external, but shrouded, air fan (designed by J.G.P.T. himself, by a new recruit, Lew Motley, and it was good to hear the sound of the open exhaust whilst we were working on other details. We all had an ear cocked when the note ceased, wondering whether the stop was an involuntary’ one or whether some adjustment was required. But generally the testing proceeded satisfactorily.

Motley’s spring-frame ABC motorcycle was a familiar sight around the works at this time, usually with his evening clothes strapped on the carrier. He was frequently seen breakfasting in the office at about ten o’clock on a grapefruit in consequence of late hours, but this was not questioned as we were all rather used to staying over the official time of a 5.30 p.m. works stop, particularly toward the end of the project, as well as appearing at the track during such times as Easter and Whitsun Meetings, etc., in almost any usefull capacity but particularly as timekeepers and pit assistants. This demonstrated the spirit of enthusiasm that Thomas and Taylor had generated throughout the works, which persisted in spite of (or because of) Ken Thomson’s vague promise of a bonus in the event of success of the venture.

Johns and I found some light relief at lunchtime in taking J.G.P.T.’s dogs Bessy an all-black Alsatian, and Togo, her black and tan son, across the verge of the Aerodrome to chase rabbits that emerged from the sand-hills by the road inside the Track. It was really astonishing to see how quickly these sizeable dogs could run and twist and turn, in their frequently successful chase of young rabbits. On one occasion they both caught the same rabbit, with disastrous results for it. As the dogs were given fair quantities of fresh meat each day I imagine the exercise was good for them and it also allowed us the benefit of some fresh air across the ‘Drome. (I well remember taking an illicit short tut that way from the Byfleet side of the Track to the Paddock, when I had no car. Ed.)

Whilst we in the Drawing Office were continuing with the chassis items, the work in the Shops was being pursued on the lap-record-holding Leyland-Thomas and the Thomas Special and Marlborough or Hooker-Thomas engines, with Jock Pullen in charge of the Running shed, and Lew Stone, Jack Sopp, Howard and Simmons dealing with fitting, in the main workshop. These skilful fitters also had the assistance of young apprentices and one of them, Paul Wyand, was later, after leaving us, to develop into a very solid figure and to be found precariously perched on the roof of is car with a Motorsport News camera at the ready. moving around the environs of the Track.

Another solid figure was Bert White, an ex Navy Cockney, who besides being responsible for the running of the Stores was responsible for grinding and polishing cylinder heads and valve ports. The marvellous care taken with these items must have played a large part in Thomas’ consistent results with his various cars in races and record bids.

I well remember one autumn night of real pea-soup fog, when all employees’ cars or ‘bikes were left at the works and Bert White headed the band of workers, joined one to the next by a long rope, across the Sewage farm by narrow elevated tracks. This journey to the West Weybridge Station was concluded satisfactorily, although there was sometimes a bit of shunting when the leader stopped to check the route. We were all grateful for the accidents that did not happen, due to his remembered knowledge of his daily route.

At about tins time, when flying at the Track was becoming increasingly popular, there was often a diversion caused by people like Dudley Watt and Joe King competing one with another in flying between the hangars. Eventually, I believe, they both succeeded separately in flying around the Track and under the Byfleet pedestrian bridge. I certainly know that Dudley Watt was successful in this, as I saw this attempt in his SE5. Quite electrifying! There was talk of flying through the hangar. Fortunately I don’t think this was ever attempted but it may have been the reason why a new dope-shop was much later built outside the hangar. The dope shop was later accidentally burnt down, as described in J.B Perrett’s article in the May issue of Motor Sport.

During the design development of the “flat iron” cars there was a change in the personnel of the office staff, when Mr. A. Saunders took over the job of Chief Draughtsman from Geoff Cullen. Johns and I were both sorry to see Cullen go as he was a cheerful, bold character, as one would imagine an ex-RFC pilot to be. Whether his retirement was due to the result of World War I injuries or due to some misunderstanding with the requirements of the protect I was never quite clear. But the task continued with “Pa” Saunders in charge of the Drawing Office.

Towards the autumn of 1926 the first 1,500c.c Thomas Special was finally ready for a test run as a complete vehicle. I well remember a fine sunny day when the car was Pushed up between the hangars to take advantage of a downward slope for a push start. The car was duly pushed off but all that happened was that the rear wheels locked and the car came to a standstill. Apparently one of the top bolts securing the crankcase to the chassis had been left too long and had penetrated into the timing-gear train and successfully locked it! This was soon replaced and the first run proved satisfactory.

At that time the Drawing office was beginning to be busy again with “Babs”, so that I was not in close touch with the work on the “flat-iron” cars that Ken Taylor had to undertake. But it is my impression that, apart from carburetter tuning and general adjustments, very little else was done to the car. The carburation of this car was interesting in that the car as first built obtained its air when the bulk of the supply had first passed through the sloping radiator. It can be seen from the first photograph taken of the finished car outside the works that the near side of the bonnet was not pierced for air supply to the carburetters. Later, however, the two carburetters were fed from ambient air from outside the bonnet. In October 1926, only about two years from the start of the project, the car won its first race at some 106 m.p.h.  (The Essex MC 50-mile Handicap, which Thomas won at 106,19 m.p.h. -Ed)

All this I think shows the design-powers and guiding genius of Parry Thomas himself, his partner Ken Thomson, and his Chief Mechanic Ken Taylor, for their gathering of a small team together to achieve such good and effective results over such a short period of time. R.H.R.

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The next expedition in pursuit of Parry Thomas detail was made in the luxury of the Editorial Rover 3500. It took me to Edgbaston in the heart of Birmingham, which sounds frightful, but which turned out to be a very pleasant suburb of quiet tree-lined roads, once part of the Calthorpe Estate from which, as it was built in that area, the Calthorpe car took its name. I was to meet Mrs. Pamela Laughton and her husband, as she is a niece of Parry Thomas.

When “Babs” was disinterred by Owen Wyn Owen Mrs. Latighton was in Australia, but the astonishing news filtered through to her and after she and her husband returned here, to live near Dolgellau, they visited Pendine when the old car was run there again in 1977, fifty years after Thomas had been killed in it at that venue, trying to recapture his LSR from Sir Malcolm Campbell. More recently Mrs. Laughton contributed to a fund set up by a contemporary magazine for the re-bodying of “Babs” what has become of this? Although she was only young when her uncle was killed, and did not see him race but she went to Brooklands shortly afterwards and thought it wonderful – she endorsed his love of young children. “He would arrive in a big car a Leyland Eight I imagine – crammed with children and take us all to the seaside for holidays” – where Pamela Laughton spent much time riding horses.

There is much controversy as to why the biggest of the Thomas Specials was called “Babs”. Mrs. Laughton thinks it may have been so-named after the actress, Sally Ann Howes, so-called as a child, whom Thomas admired. It is thought that at one time he was friendly with June, Lady Inverclyde. But he was adamant that his dedicated and dangerous life left no room for marriage. When the question of digging-up “Babs” was mooted the Laughtons were in Australia (prior to that Mrs. Laughton had been in Canada, so had been out of touch with home affairs), and it Was it nephew of Thomas, another Godfrey, who gave consent. At first the Laughtons were against the re-appearance of “Bab’s” but now Mr. Laughton thinks it is likely to bring Parry Thomas’ name before the public and the ordinary run of motorists, whereas before he was less well known than Campbell and Segrave. Mrs. Laughton’s brother. Gordon Jones, kept Thomas’ Press-cuttings books, which he lent to me when I was writing my Brooklands History, and was associaled with the Gordano car. Incidentally. Mr. Laughton is an Aston Martin enthusiast, having owned six in succesion, his present one being a DB6. He has also had many Austins, such as Cambridge, Hereford, two Maxis, etc. His charming wife recalls that her mother took over Parry Thomas’ Amilcar and, unable to find its reverse-gear, used to ask those who parked in front of her to move as she could not otherwise proceed… W.B.