‘Babs’ & Wrexham
‘Babs’ is the affectionate name of the racing car, designed, built and driven by J.G. (John Godfrey) Parry Thomas of Wrexham. It was the car in which Parry Thomas in 1926 set the world land speed record of 171 mph on Pendine Sands in Carmarthenshire.
Parry Thomas was killed the following year while driving the car in an attempt to regain his title from Malcolm Campbell. At his sixth attempt, the car span out of control, cart-wheeled three times and Parry Thomas was killed. ‘Babs’ was buried beneath the sand dunes adjoining the beach.
Forty-two years later, the car was excavated and painstakingly restored by Owen Wyn Owen, an engineering lecturer at Bangor University and car restorer based at Capel Curig, Gwynedd.
‘Babs’ now spends her time on display at the Museum of Speed on Pendine Sands and at various classic car rallies around Britain.
Brought to Wrexham by Dr Geraint Owen, son of Owen Wyn Owen, himself a lecturer in automotive engineering and historic car enthusiast; the car belongs to a trust comprising Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Pendine Community Council and Dr. Geraint Owen, as the son of the late Owen Wyn Owen.
The Wrexham Daredevil
J. G. (John Godfrey) Parry Thomas was born at No.6 Spring Road, Wrexham on 6th April 1884, the son of the curate at the nearby Rhosddu Church. Parry Thomas went to school in Oswestry and later studied electrical engineering in London.
During the First World War, he worked as an aero-engine designer — a pioneer in an industry still in its infancy. In 1917 he was appointed Chief Engineer at Leyland Motors where he helped design the Leyland Eight motorcar.
In 1923 he switched careers, joining the exciting world of motor racing and becoming a professional racing driver at Brooklands in Surrey. His dedication was perhaps symbolised by his living in a bungalow inside the racing circuit.
Nicknamed ‘Daredevil’ Thomas, he set his sights on winning the land speed record, but not having the financial backing available to his rivals; Parry Thomas had to rely on his own brilliance at engineering, car design and behind the wheel.
‘Babs’ – The car
In 1924 Parry Thomas purchased a Higham Special sports car from the estate of Count Zborowski, a racing driver who had been killed in that year’s Italian Grand Prix.
Parry Thomas believed the Higham had the potential to be the fastest car on earth and he set about transforming the car into the speed machine he felt it could be.
The Count had taken the car to 116 mph but over the next two years, Parry Thomas worked on the car, improving the 400 bhp, 26.9 litre, V12 American Liberty engine and adding new pistons of his own design. He lowered the chassis and streamlined the body shell of the car to ensure the optimum in aerodynamics. Parry Thomas painted the finished car white and christened it ‘Babs’ after his favourite niece.
On April 27th, 1926, Parry Thomas broke the world land speed record when he raced ‘Babs’ across Pendine Sands and into the history books. He drove the car two ways the required distance (over a mile) at a speed just in excess of 169 mph (272½ km/h).
Parry Thomas felt the car could do more and after a night of tinkering with the engine, he returned to the beach the following day, 28th April, and beat the record speed he had set the day before, recording an average speed of 171 mph (275 km/h). The boy from Wrexham had become the fastest man on four wheels.
Parry Thomas had two great rivals in his desire to hold the world land speed record, Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave. Each sought to outdo the others by improving his car and so edge ahead in the race to glory.
On February 4th, 1927, Campbell managed to average nearly 175 mph (281 km/h) in his 'Bluebird' on Pendine Sands. Meanwhile over in the United States, Segrave was readying himself for the delivery of his Sunbeam, a car in which he was convinced he could drive across Daytona beach at more than 200 mph.
Parry Thomas felt he had one last chance to etch his name into the annals of speed and in a re-engineered ‘Babs’, he returned to Pendine on March 1st, 1927. Rain prevented any attempt at a new record for two days, but on 3rd March Parry Thomas was able to take ‘Babs’ onto the beach. To beat Campbell’s record, Parry Thomas knew he was testing both ‘Babs’ and himself, certainly to the limit, perhaps to destruction.
Tragically on his sixth and fastest attempt, the car flipped, cart-wheeling three times and crashed, killing Parry Thomas in the process. Crowds of onlookers watched on horrified at the turn of events. It is not known at what speed Parry Thomas was driving in the seconds before his death, but many believe Parry Thomas and ‘Babs’ were travelling at over 180mph. The car was buried at Pendine in the dunes; while the Welshman was laid to rest in a churchyard not far from Brooklands, the racing circuit that he had made his home.
In 1967 Owen Wyn Owen, helped by other enthusiasts, keen to see the resurrection of Parry Thomas’s brilliant racing machine, pinpointed the car’s final resting place. Owen sought and gained permission to dig up the remains, whose condition was the subject of much speculation. After the car dug up and safely removed in 1969, Owen began the slow and careful process of restoring ‘Babs’ at his garage in Capel Curig, Gwynedd. Owen’s intention was to ensure as much of the original car was preserved as possible and where this was not feasible, appropriate authentic replacement parts were used.
The car was restored to full working order, though it did initially require ‘bump starting’, while being towed at 60mph, which is challenge enough in itself.
‘Babs’ remains the star attraction at the Museum of Speed on Pendine Sands each summer and the car’s rebirth is a fitting tribute to and witness of the courage and ingenuity of one of Wrexham’s most daredevil of sons, J. G. Parry Thomas.
Acknowledgements: Dr Geraint Owen, The Encyclopedia of Wrexham by W.Alister Williams, and The Fastest Men on Earth by Peter J. R. Holthusen.
J. G. Parry Thomas Memorial Gallery