Thomas, John Godfrey Parry
- Jo Payne
John Godfrey Parry Thomas (1884–1927)
Thomas, John Godfrey Parry (1884–1927), holder of land speed records, was born at 6 Grove Park, Wrexham, on 6 April 1884, the second son of John William Thomas, a curate, and his wife, Mary Parry. In January 1888 his father became vicar of Bwlchycibau, Montgomeryshire, and the family moved and remained there for the next sixteen years. He attended Oswestry School, and then in 1902 went to pursue a course in electrical engineering at the City and Guilds Engineering College in London, where he met Kenneth Thomson, his later collaborator. At the end of the course he spent some months doing research on induction motors under William Edward Ayrton (1847–1908), professor of electrical engineering, at Central Technical College, South Kensington, before becoming an apprentice in 1905 with Siemens Brothers & Co. Ltd, then with Clayton and Shuttleworth Ltd.
In 1907 Thomas set up on his own, with financial help from his mother, and began experimenting on electrical transmission for motor vehicles. Kenneth Thomson's brother Hedley was persuaded to put up money to form two companies, Thomas Transmission Ltd and Thomas Foreign Patents Ltd, and over the next four years he developed the Thomas transmission, which was successfully fitted to various vehicles—buses, trams, railcars—and also began his long association with Leyland Motors Ltd, using their extensive workshop facilities as he outgrew his own. By 1914, however, it became apparent that the Thomas transmission, though efficient, was too expensive to be practical, given the improvement in diesel engines and the size and cost of the parts involved, and the companies were wound up.
During the First World War Thomas advised the government on the design of aero engines. He was a member of a commission on tank design in 1917, the year in which he returned to Leyland, now with the title chief engineer. There he developed aero engines, but Leyland dropped the project after an unfortunate incident: the representatives from the Air Ministry arrived two weeks earlier than anticipated for a demonstration, and the engine seized. Back on auto engines, Thomas enjoyed the freedom of his new project: to design a luxury car without consideration of cost. His best-known model was the Leyland Eight, priced at well over £2500, of which only fourteen were produced (two went, with an engineer to explain them, to the maharaja of Patiala, and one to Michael Collins in Ireland, where it later took a bullet through the windshield). Some of its design features led to torsion springs, anti-roll bars, and vacuum-assisted brakes. One of the reasons, however, for his lack of commercial success was that as a designer he took on too much of the development work himself, rather than leaving it to draughtsmen and assistants, which slowed progress.
In 1921 Thomas asked Leyland if he could race their cars, and after some dispute and on the understanding that it would serve to advertise their product, the directors agreed. His first race—at Brooklands circuit on Easter Monday, 17 April 1922—was a disaster: clutch trouble meant that he stalled on the start line. His Leyland bosses were also less than impressed, as Thomas had stripped the car down from full regalia to racing essentials. By the end of this first season, however, he had gained three first places, eight seconds, and three thirds. The handicap style of motor racing at that time meant that many drivers were also attracted to record-breaking, and Thomas began working to that end; in November 1922 he broke his first record, for the 10 miles flying start, at 115 m.p.h.
Thomas was spending more and more time at Brooklands circuit, and in early 1923, as a result of this and his commercial failings as a designer, Leyland issued an ultimatum, following which the two parted company. He moved into a bungalow inside Brooklands, where he could devote all his time to racing and record-breaking. He achieved some success with the modified Leyland Eight, but the turning point came when he purchased, for £125, a converted Higham special which had belonged to the late Count Zborowski. It consisted of a V12 Liberty aeroplane motor in a chain-driven chassis; Thomas added four Zenith carburettors and his own design of pistons, modified the body and tail, and christened it Babs, after a friend's daughter.
When he was ready to attempt the land speed record, Thomas went to Pendine (Pen-tywyn) Sands on the Carmarthenshire coast, where Malcolm Campbell had set a record of nearly 151 m.p.h. in July 1925. Thomas's first record attempt at Pendine, in October 1925, was aborted owing to bad weather, and before he could make another attempt, Major Henry Segrave raised the record to 152 m.p.h. in March 1926. On returning to Pendine in April 1926, Thomas became the first man to break two world land speed records in two consecutive days (27 and 28 April), first to 169 m.p.h., then the next day to 171 m.p.h. Whereas Campbell had spent £9500 on his Bluebird, Thomas spent only an additional £800 improving Babs to achieve similar success. During the next year he made modifications to Babs and to the Leyland-Thomas, which was his rebuilt version of the Leyland Eight. He raced the Leyland-Thomas throughout the season, and won in his last race at Brooklands on 2 October 1926, and the same week broke records for the 500 km, 500 miles, and three-hour run in that car.
On 1 March 1927 Thomas returned to Pendine with Babs, determined to beat Campbell's new record of 174 m.p.h., set in February that year, and possibly to reach 200 m.p.h. before Segrave had the chance at the end of March at Daytona. The weather was poor, and Thomas was recovering from flu, but on 3 March 1927, a cold wet day, he decided to go ahead. His first two runs were discounted because the timing device was inaccurate, but he reached almost 180 m.p.h. on his first legitimate run. The record depends on a two-way average, and he was on the second run when the offside driving chain broke, the rear wheel was torn off, and the car overturned, travelling over 300 yards upside down before coming to rest. Thomas was killed almost instantly, the first man to die in a land speed record attempt.
Thomas was buried with his goggles at St Mary's Church, Byfleet, Surrey, on 7 March 1927 after a private service at the Hermitage, Brooklands. Babs was buried under Pendine Sands, along with Thomas's leather coat, slit up to discourage souvenir hunters, and his driving helmet. In 1969 Babs was excavated and restored by Owen Wyn Owen, a lecturer in engineering at Bangor; it had been thought for many years that Thomas was partially decapitated by the driving chain, but Owen found that it was more likely that Thomas was killed by injuries caused when the car overturned.
Throughout his career Thomas failed to get on with the press, and was considered misogynistic and sullen. He never married. He was a tall, stocky man with a heavy jaw, and had a sharp tongue, but was highly regarded by those who knew him well. At Leyland he was generous to employees and genuinely interested in their welfare. He loved children, organizing races and choosing prizes for them at the staff sports day, and after his death it was discovered that he had made regular donations to Great Ormond Street Hospital and Belgrave Hospital for children. Autocar set up a memorial fund, and endowed a Babs cot at Great Ormond Street. Although his name is not now the first remembered, he was commemorated on a Royal Mail stamp in 1998 as part of a series celebrating achievement in land speed records. Babs, meanwhile, is now on exhibition in winter at the National Museum and Gallery of Wales in Cardiff and returns to Pendine Museum for two months each summer.
- H. Tours, Parry Thomas: designer–driver (1959)
- M. Berresford, Parry Thomas and Pendine (1985)
- W. Boddy, The world's land speed record (1964)
- P. J. R. Holthusen, The land speed record (1980)
- C. Posthumus and D. Tremayne, Land speed record (1985)
- P. Llewellin, ‘When John drove Babs in the fast lane’, The Independent (26 Sept 1995)
- b. cert.
- MacGregor, photograph, 1925, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
- photographs, repro. in Tours, Parry Thomas (1961)
- photographs, repro. in Berresford, Parry Thomas and Pendine
Wealth at Death
£5951 17s. 4d.: resworn probate, 29 April 1927, CGPLA Eng. & Wales