google10fa0980c6101c7f.html The Many Faces of Death: Partial Decapitation in Pursuit of the Landspeed Record - J.G. Parry-Thomas, UK


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Monday, November 14, 2011

1 Partial Decapitation in Pursuit of the Landspeed Record - J.G. Parry-Thomas, UK

John Godfrey Parry-Thomas
John Godfrey Parry-Thomas (6 April 1884 – 3 March 1927) was a Welsh engineer and motor-racing driver who at one time held the Land Speed Record. He was the first driver to be killed in pursuit of the land speed record.

Parry-Thomas was born in Wrexham, Wales, the son of the curate of Rhosddu. The family moved to nearby Oswestry when he was five years old, and he was educated at Oswestry School. He went on to study engineering at The City and Guilds College in London.

John was fascinated with engineering and studied electrical engineering at the City & Guilds Engineering College in London in 1902. There he first struck a friendship with Ken Thomson, who would become his assistant at Brooklands (Thomson later went on to head ‘Thomson& Taylor’ and work extensively with Sir Malcolm Campbell in the later development of Blue Bird).

By 1908 he had designed an infinite-ratio electrical transmission (now viewed to be 70 years ahead of it’s time!) and a partnership with Leyland saw it used in a London bus, railcars and a tramcar. Parry-Thomas was also much in demand on government advisory boards during WWI.

The Switch From Chief Engineer To Motor Racing Driver
After numerous jobs, Parry-Thomas became chief engineer at Leyland Motors, a company whose main products were commercial vehicles. He filed for and received a number of patents, in the fields of electrical and automotive engineering. After the First World War he and his assistant Reid Railton designed the Leyland Eight luxury motor car, which was intended to compete with Rollys-Royce. Aiming to make a perfect vehicle, the Leyland Eight was both magnificent and extremely expensive; in 1921 the car was available to the public at a cost of £2,700 for a five seater tourer. The imposing motorcar, the Leyland Eight, was dubbed the 'Lion of Olympia' when shown at the 1920 Motor show in London. The cars were expensive and only eight were built. John Parry-Thomas tested each Leyland Eight to 100 mph before delivery at a time when the WLSR was only 124mph!  His experience of driving this car around Brooklands in 1920 persuaded him to give up his career with Leyland and become a full-time motor-racing driver and engineer.

Altogether, 14 cars were made, including 2 for the Maharajah of Patiala and one for Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary leader. The cars were all fitted with different bodies and it was a Leyland Eight that Parry-Thomas used in his early competitions in 1922.

By 1925 Parry-Thomas realised that commercial success required a higher profile than Brooklands could offer, and switched his attention to the Land Speed Record.  The split was friendly and Parry-Thomas was given several chassis and a quantity of spares. He went to live in a cottage in the grounds of Brooklands circuit. The racing world at this time had many famous characters including Count Zborowski who later died at Monza in 1924. Parry-Thomas was able to buy a potential record breaking car, the Higham Special from Zorowski's estate. It was fitted with a 27,059 cc Liberty aero engine, Benz gearbox and featured a chain final drive.

J G Parry-Thomas driving 'Babs' down the slipway to Pendine Sands on the 3rd March 1927
(Parry-Thomas Family Private Archive)
He took it to Pendine Sands for a crack at the landspeed record. This was in October 1925 but the weather precluded any chance of a record breaking run. To cap it all Henry Seagrave posted a speed of 152.33 mph. In April 1926 Babs was transported back to Pendine at Shell-Mex's expense for another attempt. After a couple of warm-up runs Parry-Thomas achieved a speed of 169.30. A day later he pushed the record over the 170 mph mark. Campbell was among those who sportingly congratulated Parry-Thomas and, in the nature of the challenge, he prepared his own car for another attempt on the record. In January 1927 he achieved a top speed of 174.883 mph.

1926 was undoubtedly his greatest year - as well as numerous race wins he twice broke the mile & Km WLSR then went on to break another 8 speed records in October. 12 successful record attempts in 5 months. He even found time to offer some friendly advice to his friend Sir Malcolm Campbell in February 1927, concerning a gearbox problem in the new 'Blue Bird'.

As the competition for the record increased Parry-Thomas wanted another crack at it; he knew Henry Seagrave was to attempt a run for 200 mph, in Florida and he wanted to regain his own world land speed record (WLSR) that had been broken just weeks earlier by Malcolm Campbell on Pendine Sands.  He arrived back in Pendine suffering from influenza and turned down a lucky black cat charm from a little girl, announcing "I will put my faith in my maker!", and with the assistance of Shell and Dunlop staff began to prepare the car for a run on the beach.   
His Liberty-engined car, Babs, used exposed chains to connect the engine to the drive wheels, and the high engine cover required him to drive with his head tilted to one side – the right.

After the usual start and warm up procedures had been followed, Parry-Thomas set off up the beach on a timed run. On his final run the right-hand drive chain broke at a speed of 170 mph (270 km/h), causing a fatal head injury.  The car skidded, turned over and over and then slewed round to face the sea. The scene for those first to arrive was not pretty, Parry-Thomas was still in the car, he had a deep cut to his neck, partially decapitated and burned. The car was on fire and in order to retrieve the body from the blazing wreck two of Parry-Thomas's crew had the unpleasant task of breaking the legs of the corpse before the fire prevented them reaching it. 

Parry-Thomas was buried in St Mary's Churchyard in Byfleet, Surrey, close to the Brooklands Circuit. His car was buried at Pendine Sands close to where he died. Some 40 years later, and not without controversy, it was recovered and over the next 15 years restored by Owen Wyn Owen at the time a member of Bangor University. It is now on display at the Pendine Museum of Speed, Carmarthenshire and occasionally at Brooklands Museum.

Babs being buried on Pindine Sands March 1927.
Photo credit

Babs being dug up in March 1969.
Photo credit

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