The racing world has seen some devastating scenes, from Niki Lauda’s horrific accident to Alex Zanardi’s painful crash. But both these drivers showed strength and commitment to make amazing comebacks to the sport. John Godfrey Parry-Thomas too would have dusted himself of and got back behind the wheel — if only he had a second chance at life.
An incredibly underrated driver who was also an engineer, Parry-Thomas was as well-known for the gruesome way he met his maker as he was for his achievements.
Born in 1884, Parry-Thomas was always inclined towards engineering as a child, and went on to study it in London. At the age of 24, he designed the infinite-ratio electrical transmission — which was considered years ahead of its time. He joined Leyland Motors as chief engineer, while his transmission was used all over London in trains, buses and trams.
When Leyland Motors ventured into the luxury-car segment in 1917, Parry-Thomas was asked to design a car that was intended to compete with Rolls-Royce. The massive and extremely expensive Leyland Eight went on sale within the next few years, although only eight models were built due to its high cost.
In 1920 while working at Leyland, he drove the Eight around Brooklands and this ignited his passion for racing. By 1925 he had given up his career with Leyland and bought the Higham Special, powered by a massive 27-litre Liberty V12 aero-engine and named it ‘Babs’.
He took Babs to Pendine Sands in 1926 for a land-speed record attempt. After a few warm-up runs he achieved a record speed of over 270kph. He didn’t stop there — 1926 was definitely his year. While breaking the world land-speed record twice, he broke another eight speed records in October.
In 1927, while trying to regain the land-speed record from Malcolm Campbell, Parry-Thomas suffered a horrific injury. After his usual warm-up run, he set out for a timed attempt when things turned nasty. The exposed chains that connected the engine to the driven wheels of Babs snapped off and flew into his neck and head. He was partially decapitated, bringing about a disturbing and infamous end to Parry-Thomas’s life.
Babs was buried at the site of his death at Pendine Sands but the car was recovered years later and restored. It’s often on display at the Pendine Museum of Speed, Carmarthenshire and at Brooklands Museum.