The story of the REAL Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

It looks like Sir Peter Jackson’s movie museum is going to go ahead in central Wellington. Possibly including the ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ car built by Alan Mann for the 1968 movie of the same name, which Jackson owns.

When I was a kid, my sister had the Dinky toy version of that car. Jackson, however, has the real thing – the actual car built for that movie. It’s street-legal – it’s powered by a Ford V6 motor with Borg-Warner transmission. Five other Chittys were also made for the film, but they were partly props – such as a shell built over a hovercraft for the water sequences.

Everybody of A Certain Age remembers that movie, I suspect. But not too many people – I also suspect – realise that Chitty Bang Bang (just one ‘Chitty’) was a real racing car. When Ian Fleming (yes, THAT Ian Fleming) wrote the original book, he used the name of Zborowski’s car for his fictional magic vehicle.

Count_Zborowski_With_Chitty_Bang_Bang_1_At_Brooklands
Count Louis Zborowski in ‘Chitty Bang Bang 1’ at Brooklands, around 1921. This huge Maybach-engined racer sported a chain drive. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Motor racing got before the First World War. It was a heroic time – brave men with leather helmets and goggles driving aero-engined monsters with virtually no brakes and thin tyres around tracks at up to 100 mph or more.

Most of the drivers were household names – Malcolm Campbell, Kaye Don, Henry Segrave, John Cobb and others.  And there was Count Louis Zbrowski, whose cars were dubbed Chitty Bang Bang. The last, ‘Chitty 4’, also known as the ‘Higham Special’, was purchased by John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in 1925 and rebuilt to break the world land speed record. He named it Babs – diminutive, I suppose, for ‘Baby’ or ‘Barbara’.

By this time the record breakers were aiming for 180 mph, three miles a minute: and Malcolm Campbell was known to be building a car to hit that mark, the Napier-Campbell Bluebird. The vehicle reputedly cost him around £10,000 to build – a fortune in 1920s money. (Just to complete the Chitty circle, the car’s designer, C. Amherst Villiers, later developed the ‘Blower’ Bentley and became a good friend of Ian Fleming.)

Napier-Campbell Bluebird at Pendine 1927
Malcolm Campbell in the Napier-Campbell Bluebird at Pendine sands in February 1927. Although he peaked at 195 mph, his average speed through the timed ‘flying mile’ was 21 mph lower. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Apart from being a racing driver, Parry-Thomas was an engineer with a slew of patents to his name and thought Babs – which had cost him about £300 – could do the job. He fitted pistons of his own design, carburettors, and streamlined the bodywork. In April 1926 he managed 169.3 mph on Pendine sands and, two days later, topped 171 mph.

Just to underscore the point that this was a sport, Parry-Thomas also offered his rival Campbell some engineering advice on Bluebird‘s gearbox, which had been built to Villiers’ design and was troublesome (along with aerodynamic detailing and the cockpit access, as it happened). Bluebird was finally race-ready by early 1927, and in February that year Campbell took the record at just over 174 mph.

That was within Babs‘ reach for a counter-challenge: but by this time Sunbeam were building a 1000-hp car to top 200 mph, which Parry-Thomas knew Babs couldn’t match. However, he apparently thought he might reach 180 mph first. He added further streamlining to Babs, and in March 1927 – even as the Sunbeam car and its driver, Henry Segrave, were on their way to America’s Daytona beach – he took Babs to Pendine sands. Parry-Thomas was unwell (you can see him coughing at 0:30-0.34 in the video below) but with the Sunbeam expected to run within weeks there was no time to lose.

On the very first timed run Babs slewed, flipped, and caught fire. Parry-Thomas was killed instantly. At the time it was thought the drive chain had broken; but analysis since has shown that the right rear wheel collapsed. Parry-Thomas was buried at St. Mary’s churchyard, Byfleet. His car was buried at Pendine.

But that wasn’t the end of Babs, nee Higham Special, nee Chitty 4. In 1969 the car was dug up and restored, using a Liberty engine sourced from a motor boat. It’s been a regular performer since at Goodwood. And here’s the car this year, back on Pendine sands – record breaker, historic racer, and the last of the real Chittys.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

 


24 thoughts on “The story of the REAL Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

    1. It was an awesome time, with some awesome people clearly involved – I guess motor racing is still pretty heroic, but the 1920s were truly an era for greatness.

      1. We were lucky with his flight museum in the South Island we flew in to see it but they hadn’t open yet. One of the caretakers saw us but let us in for a private pre opening tour 👍🏻

        1. THAT would be totally awesome! I went through it myself, as a ‘tourist’, and had a chat with one of the curators – but only as a member of the public. It was a simply amazing museum even so!

    1. I can never remember the difference between them – as a kid I had die-cast toys from both manufacturers, all of them desirable! My SPV is Dinky (ie: Meccano), as is my Thunderbird 2, I suppose Meccano got to Anderson first for the license deal. I still have them. They were sent out to us often by cousins in the UK. I always felt a bit ripped off because we wanted, but never got, the Corgi Yellow Submarine. Later, I really wanted the Dinky Eagle Transporter…

      http://projectswordtoys.blogspot.co.nz/2012/12/dinky-spectrum-pursuit-vehicle.html

      1. Corgi were always the better models! Dinky certainly had the licence for Anderson during the sixties and seventies — I had the SPV, Joe 90’s car, SHADO Mobile, Eagle Transporter. Corgi acquired the Thunderbirds licence more recently, maybe the 90s.

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        1. Yes, there was definitely a Corgi SPV made some stage along the way. The reason I got the Dinky SPV, incidentally, was that as a kid I was always rather envious of other kids at school who had some of the other Anderson-derived Dinky toys, mostly from Captain Scarlet (though I have a vague recollection of somebody with the Joe 90 car). My mother told my father ‘get Matthew something that DOES something for his birthday’ – whereupon Dad, who didn’t know anything about Captain Scarlet, found the SPV and bought it on the basis that it had a LOT of moving parts. Some of which got lost instantly, I still have no idea where the missiles it could launch went – I used to fire the thing off and they’d disappear (as I recall they were the same as the ones in Lady Penelope’s Rolls Royce, which I also never owned, but other kids at school did…)

          1. Yes, indeed. Corgi produced some classic CS vehicles alongside the ones from the new animated series, which were available as “twin” packs – SPV and Rhino, for example.

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    1. The movie, with all it contained – including the car – were wonderful! I saw it on first release as a kid, am pretty sure I saw it once on TV in the 1970s, but to this day can bring to mind at least two of the songs (‘Toot Sweet’ and the theme song, which needless to say is now going through my head…)

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