- As part of ITV Wales' series, Wonders Of The Coast Path, Sean Fletcher witnessed racing car ‘Babs’ roar down the beach where she broke the land speed record back in 1926. Behind the wheel is her owner Geraint Wyn-Owen, exactly fifty years after his father exhumed the car’s crashed remains from the very same beach.
Pendine Beach in Carmarthenshire is seven miles of flat sand that is most famous for being used as a battleground for the land speed records.
They had previously been broken on the road, but once speeds of more than 100 mph were reached, beaches were used to avoid accidents.
Due to the smooth sand that Pendine provided it was deemed the best place in Britain to attempt Land Speed record breaking in the late 1920s.
English aristocrat, Sir Malcolm Campbell and Welsh racing driver and engineer John Parry-Thomas battled it out time and time again on Pendine Sands to capture the land speed record.
“Malcolm Campbell had set the record in his first ‘Bluebird’ car in March 1926. Thomas bought ‘Babs’ for £125 and broke the record of 171mph in April 1926", the now-owner of 'Babs' Geraint Wyn Owen explained. "Malcolm had the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird manufactured at a cost of £10,000 and managed 174 mph.”
“So an extra £9500 in 1927 got you another 3mph further up the record”
Parry-Thomas may have been the underdog but with his nickname ‘Daredevil’ Thomas, he was determined to hold the record even without the financial backing his rival had.
A pioneer in the electrical engineering industry and in great demand, the 42-year old was on the government advisory boards during WWI while working as an aero-engine designer. A number of his designs were considered to be years ahead of his time but in 1923, Parry-Thomas decided to switch careers and dedicate his life to motor racing.
He set to work on improving an aircraft engine and adapted the shell of the car to his own design. Determined to regain the record having lost it to Campbell, Parry-Thomas returned to Pendine in March 1927 with an improved Babs.
"On the morning of March 3rd, Parry-Thomas went to the beach setting exceptional times - the press reported 180mph", Geraint said.
"Unfortunately a spectator walked through the timing beam, so all bets were off for that run because you had to do two runs, one up, one down.’ Geraint explained.
Parry-Thomas went for a second attempt and during his return run, he lost control and the car flipped killing him instantly. As a mark of respect, Thomas’ crew buried his car in the sand dunes at Pendine.
In 1969, Geraint’s father Owen Wyn Owen was granted permission to dig up Babs.
“My cousin and uncle went with my father and dug a huge hole. Bits of the car were in terrible condition and bits of the car weren't so bad. Being buried for 42 years in salt water wasn't the worst of it, it was the accident damage.” Geraint said.
“He basically had the foundations of a running car within two and half years. I’ve got brief memories of the first day it ran. It was up a main road in the middle of Wales and a policeman turned up and said ‘You can’t possibly drive this up and down the road with all these cars going by... I’ll shut the road!’”
Just as his father painstakingly restored the car, Geraint Wyn Owen has maintained its appearance and preserved the authentic inner-workings of the 94-year-old car.
Geraint told Sean that he thinks Parry-Thomas wouldn’t be so impressed with this sight.
“I think he would be quite dismissive of people like me who like big petrol engines at the front of cars that make a great big noise. That’s my thing and I’m quite happy with it, I’m not sure he would necessarily agree.”
“He would probably say you are all wasting your time on an old car. He was always looking forward not looking back.”
- To discover more coastal stories tune in to ‘Wonders of the Coastal Path’ on ITV Cymru Wales on Mondays at 8.30pm. The programme will also be available online at itv.com/walesprogrammes.