The British land speed record currently stands at 300.3 mph. It doesn’t look as if Richard Hammond will be the driver to break it.
If ‘driver’ is the word. News coverage of the Hammond story has stressed how unlike a car, in any familiar sense of the word, was the thing that Hammond tried and failed to guide down a track. Apparently there’s some form of steering, but apart from that you’ve got a jet engine and some parachutes and, er, that’s it.
No disrespect to the neurally-injured Hammond, but I can’t help feeling that’s not driving. Parry Thomas, now, there was a driver. He was also the chief engineer of Leyland Ltd, but it’s as a driver that he’ll be remembered, or deserves to be. He was the last driver to set the (world) land speed record on a racetrack (Brooklands, where else?); in one extraordinary contemporary film-clip, Thomas’s long-nosed 1920s racer scoots casually past everything else on the track, looking for all the world as if everyone else was standing still.
But there were limits to what you could do on a circuit, and Thomas (along with rivals like Malcolm Campbell) needed space. Hence his choice of the seven-mile beach at Pendine in South Wales, where in 1926 he pushed the record up to 169.30 mph and then to 171.02 (or, in some accounts, 172.33). His car Babs was a heavily-modified Higham Special, bought from the estate of the racing driver Louis Zborowski (killed at Monza in 1924); Thomas even fitted pistons of his own design.
Enter Campbell, who in January 1927 took the record back with a speed of 174.22 mph (or possibly 174.88). In response Thomas took Babs back to Pendine. On the 3rd of March 1927, at a speed of anything up to 180 mph, he lost control of Babs; the car skidded off course, turned over and crashed, killing him instantly.
Babs was buried in the sand, and since then the beach has never again been used for speed trials. There was some talk of mounting a British land speed record attempt there in 2007, supposedly to tie in with the eightieth anniversary of Campbell’s 174 mph; it may not come to anything, particularly after Hammond’s crash. Personally, I’d have thought another eightieth was a bit more pressing.
Babs was buried in the sand, anyway, but it didn’t stay there. In 1969 the car was dug up by a local enthusiast who wanted to rebuild it; my family lived in Pendine at the time, and I vividly remember the exhumation. I remember that my father, who was the Senior Administrative Officer on the local military base, was involved in some capacity – although, thinking about it now, it was probably a “here comes the SAO, look busy” kind of capacity. Eventually Babs was rebuilt, and it now takes pride of place in the Museum of Speed a mile or so down Pendine Sands. It’s well worth a look if you’re passing – and Pendine is well worth passing. (No, I mean it’s well worth passing that way in order to visit… never mind.)
I’d like to say that Parry Thomas was the last British holder of the land speed record, or the last to break the record in Britain, or the last to do so in something even vaguely resembling a car, or something – but history’s not that neat. Nevertheless, you don’t break land speed records these days in a car with a piston engine, and you certainly don’t do it in Britain. Parry Thomas’s death may not have ended an era, but it was very much of an era, and one which doesn’t seem much less distant now than Stephenson’s Rocket.
Footnote: the speed in the title comes from the Tea Set’s 1979 tribute to Thomas. I haven’t seen it anywhere else; all the sources I’ve seen set Thomas’s record-breaking speed either lower or higher. He was going pretty bloody fast, anyway.