Filed under: History
My post on the Sunbeam Slug reminds me of another Brit Record Car that didn’t fair so well… And there was a dangerous component that both the Slug and “Babs” shared, that was fatal for the latter car’s driver. Babs has been briefly mentioned on the HAMB before, but for those who are unfamiliar with the aircraft-powered beast or her driver, John Parry-Thomas, it’s an amazing and tragic story. Thomas was truly an automotive genius in his time with skills in mechanical engineering, vehicle design, and being a superior racer.
Before she became “Babs”, Chitty Bang Bang #4, also known as the ‘Higham Special’ was the property of another ledgendary racer, Count Louis Zborowski, who drove her extensively, until he crashed while racing in Italy (in another car) and died. Using a 450 hp V-12 Liberty aircraft engine of nearly 1650 cubic inches paired with a gearbox and chain-drive from a pre-war Blitezen Benz racer. After the Count’s passing in 1924, Thomas received the #4 Special and went completely through it, modifying with Zenith carbs, his own pistons, and optimizing to make it true land speed record machine. He then rechristened her “Babs” and ran the car to a record 170.02 mph as the largest capacity race car ever to run at Brooklands .
Here’s where the tragic part comes in. Part of Babs original design used exposed chains to connect the engine to the drive wheels, and the tall hood required Thomas to lean his head to one side of the car to see ahead of himself- To the right. During a record attempt at Pendine Sands, Wales in March of 1927, the right-hand drive chain broke at a speed of 170 mph, whirled round like a steel whip, hitting Thomas and partially decapitating him. After the fire was extinguished and Thomas’ body removed, the car was buried where it landed, on the beach at Pendine. There is still controversy as to whether Parry-Thomas was literally decapitated, and whether the stray drive chain was responsible for the accident; The car was dug up and completely restored 42 years later, and an investigation of the recovered wreckage suggested instead that the rear right-hand wheel had failed, overturning Babs.