Brooklands Record-Breaker Brought Back to Life at Hill Climb

Tuesday 19 January 2016

A recreation of J.G. Parry-Thomas? record-breaking Leyland-Thomas that took almost 25 years to complete will make its competition debut at the Chateau Impney Hill Climb this July.

The 23-year build has been a labour of love for owner David Haywood who inadvertently started the project in 1992 after hearing about an engine that hadn’t sold at a steam engine auction. “I got wind of something that had failed at auction that had been held quite close to Leyland. When I phoned about the engine, I was number 26 on the list – everybody wanted it.”

The 7.3-litre engine, which was still mounted in a frame that included part of the car’s chassis and original ID number, had been held in a private collection at the Museum of Motive Power in Lytham.

READ MORE: Wilton brings the spirit of Brooklands to the Hill Climb in her Kay Petre Austin 7 replica

“In the end, I said ‘okay, how do I get to the top of the list? I had just finished casing a six-foot long, dry-steam model locomotive - it was a very, very rare gauge. I said to the guy with the engine, ‘if I send some pictures up by express and you’d like it, we don’t have to talk money.’ So in the end, we swapped!”

David’s barter and trading approach to acquiring the engine set the tone for the rest of the build but initially, he didn’t realise the heritage of the engine until he took the ID number and started to research further.  

With the extensive help of the Leyland Society, David discovered that the engine was the first racing engine developed by J.G. Parry-Thomas, the famed Welsh engineer and racing driver who, at one point, held the world land speed record.

Parry-Thomas was chief engineer at Leyland Motors in late 1917, and was tasked with creating a touring car that could compete with the Rolls Royce.

His creation was the Leyland Eight, the first British car with a straight-eight engine. Although the car, dubbed the ‘Lion of Olympia’, was highly praised by the press when it was unveiled at the 1920 Motor Show, the Leyland was £400 more expensive than the nearest Rolls Royce competitor and would eventually prove to be a colossal failure, with only 18 cars ever manufactured.  

In 1922, Parry-Thomas suggested taking the Leyland Eight to the track in an effort to boost sales. Despite the Leyland board insisting that the car should run in full touring trim, Parry-Thomas modified the car for racing and took it to the Easter Monday Meeting at Brooklands. This was the first of many outings that year and Parry-Thomas had a moderately successful first season, with numerous top-three placings.

Although the Leyland Eight failed to make waves in the consumer world, Parry-Thomas left Leyland on good terms. Armed with several complete Leyland Eight chassis and an extensive collection of spare parts given to him by the Leyland board, he moved to Brooklands race circuit itself, where he went on to develop cars for competition.

It was there that he developed the Leyland-Thomas. Using parts from the Leyland Eight, including David’s engine, the car would go on to break several world speed records.

“In 1922, Parry-Thomas broke sixteen world speed records, including the standing quarter and the running quarter, the standing half-mile and the running half-mile with this particular engine,” explained David.

It was this quest for speed that would ultimately lead to his demise. Following the death of Count Louis Zborowski during the 1924 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Parry-Thomas bought the 27-litre Higham Special from the deceased racing driver’s estate. He rebuilt it, basing the body loosely on the Leyland-Thomas design and named it Babs.

He used the car to set the world land speed record in April 1926 at Pendine Sands in Wales and returned there in March 1927 in an attempt to regain his record, which had been broken just weeks earlier by Malcolm Campbell. Sadly, Parry-Thomas was killed instantly when the car overturned and rolled at speeds in excess of 100 mph. Following the inquest into Parry-Thomas’ death, Babs was buried in the sands at Pendine for over 40 years before it was uncovered and restored by engineering student Owen Wyn Owen, and is now housed at the Pendine Museum of Speed.

SEE MORE: Click the video player below to see footage of the original Leyland-Thomas 

With the bit now between his teeth in the quest for parts, David managed to unearth the original back axle of the Leyland-Thomas.  When he started to dismantle it, he discovered it had an unusual 2.46 to one ratio, making it an Outer Circuit axle.

“While the engine itself won’t rev much more than 3,000rpm, there’s massive, massive torque thanks to the back axle. And with the big wheels they used to use in those days, they managed to get it up to a really big speed.” Looking further into this unusual facet of the car, he discovered that the original Leyland-Thomas had broken the Outer Circuit record at Brooklands in 1924.

With both Leyland-Thomas cars lost during the Second World War, it was a mammoth challenge to recreate the car as faithfully as possible to the original and get it working, despite having acquired the original chassis drawings and hundreds of photographs of the car in period.

“All sorts of things didn’t work and there was a lot of heartache,” said David. “Mark one, mark two, mark three … I had to throw them away. But now it’s running, it’s going, and it’s a lot of fun!”

SEE MORE: Click the video player below to see the Leyland-Thomas recreation in action

Despite locating as many original parts as he could, David simply couldn’t restore the car in its entirety using what was available. Rather, he had to fabricate a large number of parts from scratch, including the body – a faithful recreation of the streamlined 1924 track body Parry-Thomas broke the Outer Circuit record with.

And while David attempted to get as many parts from the original Leyland-Thomas cars as possible, including a trip to the last spares shed at Leyland, in some cases, Lady Luck was very much looking down on him.

“Even though the car wasn’t running, I took it to the 2007 Brooklands centenary so it got a little bit of exposure. I’m glad I did it because I found the original Leyland-Thomas eight-branch exhaust. A man at the event had loaned it out in 1954 to someone to cut up to make a four-branch exhaust. When I spoke to him about it, he said ‘I wonder if he’s still got it’. A week later, he called me and said yes, so I traded it for some Riley parts. That was an amazing find.”

With the car now at the end of the 25-year rebuild programme, David has been keen to put it to the test, and has visited a number of venues and circuits linked to the original Leyland-Thomas.

As well as taking it to the Kop Hill Climb, where Parry-Thomas competed in 1924, David has also headed to the continent, driving the car at the legendary Linas-Montlhéry circuit in France that the Leyland-Thomas opened in 1924

However, the Chateau Impney Hill Climb will be the car's first competitive outing, as well as David’s first time competing, and we look forward to seeing the Leyland-Thomas put to the test.

  • Leyland-Thomas, Chateau Impney Hill Climb, Droitwich
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