Saturday, 28 January 2017

87 Parry-Thomas at Pendine, 1926

Parry-Thomas at Pendine, 1926

We venture beyond Swansea and peninsular Gower for an example of history that was hidden for four decades from 1927, before being revealed.  This piece of history is the racing car named Babs that was buried in Pendine Sands after a fatal accident in an attempt to break the land speed record.  The six-mile stretch of Pendine Sands was where Wrexham-born J.G. Parry-Thomas set the British land speed record at 170mph in 1926, only for it to be surpassed by Malcolm Campbell the following year before Parry-Thomas’s fatal attempt to recapture the record.

Formerly chief engineer with Leyland Motors, John Parry-Thomas co-designed the luxury Leyland Eight car (only 14 were made), which was designed to compete with Rolls-Royce.  Having experienced driving the limousine around Brooklands in 1920, he gave up his career with Leyland to become a full-time motor-racing driver and engineer.  He achieved some success on the circuit, winning 38 races in five seasons and setting numerous records, before in 1925 concentrating on the land speed record.  Following the death of 29-year-old Count Zborowski in November 1924 at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Parry-Thomas purchased from his estate a Higham Special powered with a huge 27-litre Liberty V-12 aero-engine, the fourth of the Count’s aero-engined cars named 'Chitty Bang Bang'.  Parry-Thomas rebuilt the racing car with four Zenith carburettors and his own design of pistons, and new bodywork to improve aerodynamics, naming it Babs.

On 28 April 1926 at Pendine Sands, where Malcolm Campbell had achieved record speeds the two previous years, Parry-Thomas achieved a new land speed record of 170 mph (273 km/h).  But in February 1927 Campbell in Bluebird pushed the record to 174 mph. Parry-Thomas faced the challenge of trying to regain the land speed record - which might soon be out of reach, since Henry Segrave in a supercharged V12 Sunbeam was aiming for 200mph on Daytona Beach in Florida.            

Just weeks after Campbell had set the new land speed record, Babs was back on Pendine Sands on 3 March 1927.  Parry-Thomas was not well, recovering from flu which had turned to bronchitis, yet he chose to decline medical advice.  Lynn Hughes of the Museum of Speed at Pendine suspects that a coughing fit may have caused him to lose control of Babs, for he was killed through injuries sustained while the racing car rolled and slid along the beach at more than 100 mph.  43-year-old Parry-Thomas was buried in Byfleet, Surrey, close to the Brooklands Circuit, while Babs was buried ignominiously in the dunes at Pendine Sands.  Later that month Henry Segrave did attain 200mph at Daytona Beach: three years later he was killed at Windermere when seeking the water speed record.

Having being buried in Pendine Sands for 42 years, the racing car was controversially exhumed and recovered in 1969, and restored over the next 16 years at Capel Curig in Snowdonia by automobile restorer Owen Wyn Owen, a lecturer in engineering at Bangor.  The project attracted much skepticism, for many considered the wrecked car unsalvageable and beyond restoration to working order.  A new body had to be constructed, and many new replacement parts made from original designs.  Babs was successfully restored, and was run at the Centenary of the opening of the Brooklands Circuit in 2007, and now is usually on display from July to September at the Pendine Museum of Speed (opened in 1996), and during the winter at Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, Surrey.
While many readers will have seen film of Donald Campbell’s fatal accident at 300mph at Coniston Lake when seeking the water speed record in 1967, thankfully there is no film footage of Parry-Thomas’s tragic death forty years earlier on Pendine Sands. 

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