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Doing 250kph down the Autobahn or a well-laid highway can give you the thrills (or the chills) today. But imagine doing the same speeds on a beach nearly a century ago in pursuit of a world land speed record! This is the relatively unknown tale of a car lovingly called ‘Babs’.
Babs started out life with the legendry Count Louis Zborowski, famous for his massive aeroplane-engine race cars called the ‘Chitty Bang Bang’. The final car ever made by the speed junkie Count – Babs, originally named Chitty 4 or the Higham Special – was powered by a 450hp, 27-litre, V12 Liberty aero-engine. Yes, 27 litres of oil-spewing, flame-throwing, mechanical goodness! The car also employed a chain drive from the 1909 Blitzen Benz and is said to the largest-capacity race car to ever participate at the legendary banked Brooklands Circuit in the UK. That said, sadly, before the Count could set any records with it, a racing accident killed him; and the car was sold through an estate sale to John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in late 1924 for a then princely sum of £125.
Rudimentary instrumentation and no safety features was the norm.
Parry-Thomas then decided to rebuild the car with four massive Zenith carburettors and a set of bespoke pistons and renamed it ‘Babs’. The first ever record attempt by Parry-Thomas was in 1925 at the Pendine Sands, a beach in Wales famous for world land speed record runs in the early part of the 20th century. However, it underperformed and did not break any records, which prompted Parry-Thomas to work on the car again and bring it back for a second time in April 1926.
Babs at Pendine Sands, prepping for a world-record run.
On the first run, the car clocked a speed of 272.46kph and then an even faster run at 275.23kph on the following day, becoming the first-ever car to crack the 250kph (and 275kph) mark. This broke the 245.15kph land speed record set by Henry Seagrave in a 4.0-litre Sunbeam Tiger called ‘Ladybird’. In February 1927, Malcolm Campbell, in the Napier-Cambell Blue Bird, broke the record set by Parry-Thomas and Babs. This prompted Parry-Thomas to go back and reclaim it.
Sadly, however, it was not meant to be. Parry-Thomas was killed in a horrific crash in March 1927. His death occurred on the return run through the measured mile, after already having smashed Malcolm Campbell’s record. Since the second run was never completed due to the crash, the record did not stand. What is even more unfortunate is that the return run on which Parry-Thomas had his accident was a rerun after someone accidentally cut the timing beam that measured the speed on his first return attempt.
Babs was excavated from its sandy grave in 1967.
The story doesn’t end there. After an enquiry into Parry-Thomas’ accident revealed that the right rear wheel might have given way, Babs was buried at the sand dunes at the Pendine Sands, with its seats slashed and glass dials smashed out. But in the mid-1960s, Welsh restorer Owen Wyn Owen decided to find the burial site of the record-breaking race car and excavate it, with the aim to restore it and ensure it runs again. While there were a lot of naysayers and with the authorities granting permission on the condition that a living relative of Parry-Thomas gives his or her approval to exhume the car, Owen finally excavated Babs in 1967.
A period picture of Babs about to hit the beach at Pendine Sands.
After a sympathetic restoration, using as many original bits as possible to keep the car as faithful as it had been in its glory days, Babs was back on the road by the early 1970s – an incredible feat, considering it was buried in a beach and in constant contact with salt water.
Babs being driven by its owner at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Since the restoration, Babs has been a part of several demonstration runs, like the Brooklands Centenary in 2007 and the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The race car is currently on display at the Pendine Museum of Speed.