When John drove Babs to a life in the fast lane

The world's most powerful car is set to make its public debut at the London Motor Show next month. Propelled by two jet engines, which develop a total of 106,000bhp, the seven-ton projectile is designed to capture the land speed record - set at 633mph in 1983 - then hurtle on to break the sound barrier and reach 850mph.

The car's appearance at Earls Court heralds the start of a long test programme. If all goes to plan, the attempt will be made in 1997, probably in the US. The driver, Andy Green, is an RAF officer.

Masterminded by Richard Noble, who holds the existing record, the Thrust SCC Project has attracted more than 80 sponsors, many from the aerospace industry, and represents an investment of about pounds 5,000,000. The record attempt will involve 25 people.

It is fascinating to compare this budget and ballyhoo with what happened exactly 70 years ago. A solitary Welshman, John Godfrey Parry Thomas, was preparing to become the fastest man on wheels, driving a secondhand car for which he had paid next to nothing. At that stage his target was the 150mph record established during the summer by Malcolm Campbell and his 18.3-litre Sunbeam. The setting for the attempt was Pendine Sands, the six-mile beach on the Welsh coast between Saundersfoot and Laugharne.

Born in Wrexham in 1885, Parry Thomas went to Oswestry School and was nicknamed "Bullocks One" because his father was the vicar of Bwlch-y-Cibau. He became the chief engineer at Leyland Motors and was given a free hand to create the world's finest car. The Leyland Eight was a technical triumph, but too expensive to be anything other than a commercial failure. Parry Thomas left Leyland in 1922 and moved to a bungalow inside the super-fast Brooklands track at Weybridge, Surrey. He quickly became one of Britain's most popular and successful racers.

Record-breaking made headlines in those days, when road-going cars capable of exceeding even 50mph were rare. British contenders who had dominated the "speed king" scene since the Great War included Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave, whose supercharged, 4-litre Sunbeam is still raced in Vintage Sports Car Club events.

Determined to break the record, but lacking funds, Parry Thomas paid pounds 125 for a colossus called the Higham Special. Renamed Babs, after a friend's young daughter, this was one of several monsters built for swashbuckling Count Louis Zborowski. Although it looked and sounded impressive, the Higham Special was little more sophisticated than a 19th-century combine harvester. The burly Welshman spent another pounds 650 to make Babs a serious contender. He fitted four Zenith carburettors, improved the suspension and steering, and constructed a long-tailed body that resembled a gigantic insect.

Campbell and his Bluebird had proved Pendine's suitability, but the 152mph record attacked by Parry Thomas in April 1926 had been set a month earlier on the beach at Southport, Lancashire, by Segrave and the Sunbeam. "Bullocks One" favoured the land of his fathers. The engine misfired and belched black smoke from its 12 exhausts, and patches of soft sand made Babs weave from side to side, but the record was hoisted up to 169mph. The car ran better the next day, leaving Segrave, Campbell and other hopefuls to contemplate beating 171mph.

Sure enough, Campbell and his new Bluebird inched the target up to 174mph the following February. Pressure on Parry Thomas was increased by the knowledge that Segrave was heading for Daytona Beach, Florida, with a new, twin-engined Sunbeam whose 22.5-litre engines combined to deliver almost 900bhp.

Parry Thomas was recovering from influenza when he trailered Babs to Pendine on l March 1927. He hit a bump at almost 180mph, was bounced out of his seat - there were no belts in those days - and nearly lost his goggles.

Conditions were far from ideal on 3 March, but Parry Thomas made four preliminary runs before being clocked at over 170mph. He had just completed the mandatory second run - then, as now, world records depended on the two-way average - when the car went out of control, rolled over and virtually decapitated its driver. The cause of the accident is unknown, although there are several theories, and a broken timing wire made it impossible to tell if Parry Thomas had beaten Campbell's record fractions of a second before his death. "Bullocks One" was buried in Byfleet churchyard, near Brooklands. The battered remains of his car were dragged to the dunes at Pendine and dumped in a pit.

In 1969, all of 42 years after the disaster, Babs was exhumed by Owen Wyn Owen, an engineering lecturer and a dauntless vintage car enthusiast from North Wales. He set about what must be the most audacious restoration project in motoring history. The great car now runs again, blasting flames from its exhaust pipes, and makes occasional public appearances. It was one of the stars of this year's Retromobile exhibition in Paris and, a few months later, delighted the crowds at the Vintage Sports Car Club's speed hillclimb at Loton Park, Shropshire. In the words of one ecstatic spectator: "This is the greatest comeback since Lazarus."

The London Motor Show will be at Earls Court, Warwick Road, London SW5, from 19 to 29 October.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform