I guess it was the 90th anniversary a few weeks ago of the passing of JG Parry Thomas that made me wonder what kind of column I might have written in 1969 on receipt of the news that the car in which he died was to be dug out of Pendine Sands. If I’d been able even to construct a sentence back then, I expect I’d not have been too complimentary.
MAR 31st 2017
Thank Frankel it's Friday: Should "Babs" have been left buried at Pendine?
The event needs little explaining to an audience such as this. Suffice to say Parry Thomas was attempting to wrestle the Land Speed Record back from Malcolm Campbell when, for reasons oft-speculated but still not definitively known, he lost control of ‘Babs’, his Higham Special powered by a 27-litre war-surplus Liberty aero engine, at something over 170mph. The car flipped and rolled, landed back on its wheels, did a half spin and stopped having suffered remarkably little damage. The same could not be said for its intrepid driver. Aged just 42, he’d spent the previous two days in bed, waiting for both the weather and his influenza to clear and now he was sitting bolt upright in the remains of his car and clearly already beyond helping, thanks to a head injury many but not all attributed to its flailing drive chain.
Whether it was Parry Thomas’s stated wish that Babs be buried under the sand I do not know for sure, but some guidance is perhaps provided by the death of another driver just six months earlier. Then it was a 25-year old Australian called Captain R.B. Howey who met his maker, this time against a tree in a race outside Boulogne. Howey was a popular figure in racing, a regular at Brooklands and successful too: in the year he died he won both the Gold Cup and Gold Star races in his straight-eight Ballot.
After he died, his body and the wreck of the Ballot were put on a cross-channel steamer, but only one of them would reach dry land. Half way across, the ship was stopped and the Ballot gently eased over the side, consigned to the deep by the man to whom the job had been entrusted: one JG Parry Thomas.
I don’t know if Parry Thomas and Howey were great buddies – it seems unlikely given their age gap and the fact that Howey’s apparently charming character would have contrasted with that of the famously reticent, borderline dour personality of Parry Thomas – but I do know both the Ballot and the Higham Special were bought from the estate of the late Count Zborowski so there seems to be a connection there. So maybe Parry Thomas also wished his car also to be buried as close as realistically possible to where it fell.
And there it stayed for 42 years until Owen Wyn Owen finally gained the necessary permissions to dig through the nine inches of MoD concrete to reach what turned out to be a remarkably well-preserved wreck. The car was on its back having been pushed into its grave by a tractor and heavily corroded. But essentially it was complete save damage done during the accident and fire then ensued. There is footage of someone turning one of its wheels, its tyre still inflated.
Over the years, my view of whether it was right or wrong to dig up Babs has changed and, on balance, I’m now glad it was brought back to life and has brought unforgettable memories to all those who have since seen it run, at Goodwood and elsewhere, myself included.
To me there is a crucial difference between this exhumation and that of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird from the icy depths of Coniston Water. Parry Thomas’s car may have been buried on Pendine Sands, but Parry Thomas himself came home to Brooklands and was buried at Byfleet Church. Campbell, by contrast, went down with his craft having left clear instructions that, were something to go wrong, ‘skipper and boat stay together.’
But to me, a sight even more emotive than seeing Babs hauling itself up the Goodwood Hill is to visit Pendine. It’s best to go when it’s still quiet at around this time of year; you can still see the same little slipway that brought Babs onto the sand. Then look up the beach and consider the courage that would have been needed to drive such a car at any meaningful speed there, let alone try to make it go faster than any other car had gone before. If you want to become lost in wonder and awe, there are few better places on this island in which to do it.
Image courtesy of LAT
Join our motorsport community
Get closer to motorsport at Goodwood! Join the GRRC Fellowship to be first in the queue for event tickets, to attend the GRRC-only Members' Meeting and to enjoy year-round, exclusive benefits.