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Learn a lesson about that chain

2012-07-16 07:32

LARGER-THAN-LIFE RACER: Babs, the rather special chain-drive land-speed record car from the 1920's, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed five years ago. Image: DAVE FALL


With all the will in the world there was just no way I wanted to go for a motorcycle ride this past weekend – recreational or otherwise. A most unusual scenario in the Fall household, I can tell you.

If you also live in the Mother City you’ll know why – rain, and more rain, on top of cold wintry conditions – little point in getting soaked to the skin for nothing, I reasoned.

I don’t have the luxury of a garage these days – just a space - and I really wanted to do some long overdue maintenance work on the bike – at the very least the rear chain was certainly in need of adjustment, along with a good greasing. No matter, that job could be postponed until the weather improved.


These days I tend to enjoy the simple things in life while taking the easy way out, so a warm corner in the flat and a good book to read always make for perfect company. In our flat there’s lots to read and the book that caught my attention was about a larger-than-life racer called John Godfrey Parry-Thomas who was born in Wales back in 1884.

He was an exceptional scholar and went on to study advanced engineering at Leyland Motors (not to be confused with British Leyland!) - where he landed a job as chief engineer. Heading up the design department was another talented man called Reid Railton and together they worked on the Leyland Eight, an enormous luxury car that they hoped would steal sales from Rolls-Royce.

Dubbed the “Lion of Olympia” at the 1920 British Motor Show, only 14 “Eights” were assembled - due in part to their enormous cost.

What was interesting about the Leyland Eight was the sheer speed that could be attained from it. Parry-Thomas had developed a superb infinite-ratio transmission that was electrically operated by push-button - about 70 years ahead of its time - and each car was road tested by PT and guaranteed to reach 160km/h... all the more amazing because at that time the land speed record stood at  198km/h.

Parry-Thomas had really caught the speed-bug.


Deciding to follow a full-time racing career, he left Leyland and bought a car he thought had real potential: Count Zborowski’s Higham Special. (The count had died while racing at Monza in 1924 in one of his Chitti cars). Under the bonnet of newly christened Babs was a 27-litre (27 059cc) Liberty aero V12 engine and a Blitzen Benz three-speed gearbox, with final drive, a sprocket and chain, having a potential top speed of close to 300km/h.

Speed records came easily to Parry-Thomas and his main competitors of the day, Sir Malcolm Campbell and Henry Seagrave. At one meeting Parry-Thomas even took time out to offer friendly advice to Campbell who hadf been plagued with gearbox and final-drive woes - how ironic was that to turn out for Parry-Thomas.

Official land speed records around that time had been conducted on the beach at Pendine Sands on the Welsh coast. In March 1927, and with lots of help from Dunlop and Shell, Parry-Thomas prepared to wrestle back the LSR and perhaps crack 320km/h (200mph) while doing so. Babs seemed up for the job in hand and with all the warm-up procedures followed, the timing clocks were set.

Alas, Babs went into a high-speed skid, the car somersaulting many, many times “slewing around to face the sea before finally coming to a halt” said an eyewitness. Poor Parry-Thomas was found dead in the car, partially decapitated by the immense drive chain that had jumped its sprockets during the crash.

The coroner of the day returned that his death was accidental while Babs was buried in a big hole alongside the beach circuit at Pendine where it had come to a halt. But that wasn’t the end of her.


42 years later, in March 1969, it was time for another Welshman, Owen Wyn-Owen, an engineering college lecturer and keen vehicle restorer — and an admirer of Parry-Thomas — to oversee the digging up of Babs and undertake a complete restoration of the speed-record car. That's her in the picture...

Amazingly, although the body and chassis was badly twisted and decomposed, the front wheels still turned and even had air in the tyres. Among the notes found to help him recreate Babs, Owen Wyn-Owen stumbled across drawings that suggested that plans were imminent to convert Babs from chain to conventional driveshaft propulsion.

So, if there’s a moral to this story it’s this: don’t neglect YOUR motorcycle chain! It must be adjusted, kept clean and be lubricated regularly. I’m not saying you’ll lose your life if you don’t but it’ll certainly hit your wallet for some new sprockets and chain – unless you ride one of the bigger BMW’s of course!

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