Those people who are interested in older mechanically powered road vehicles whilst generally having a broad appreciation of the overall scene, do tend to have special interests, which may be cars, motorcycles, lorries, specific makes within a category, motor racing, coachbuilders, personalities, and so on. It is therefore quite possible that, say, a ‘car’ person on seeing this photograph would not give it a second glance, but in doing so, they would miss something that has resonances in several areas of the old vehicle scene.
The lorry is a Leyland 30/40 hp, and the prominent clue which indicates that there is more to what we see beyond it being just another commercial vehicle are the words on the box at the rear. These read: ‘The Thomas Transmission’. This was an electro-mechanical system and its name was that of its designer, the 27-year old J G Parry Thomas, who is believed to be the individual on the left of the standing trio.
Thomas is of course best known for his time as Chief Engineer of Leyland Motors from 1917 onwards, the design and development of the Leyland 8 luxury car, and his Brooklands racing exploits and Land Speed Record activities, the pursuit of the latter resulting in his tragic and untimely death in 1927.
During the pre-First World War period a significant number of electric transmission systems were developed and Thomas’s was different enough to be Patented by him in 1910. The Automobile Engineer noted in its June 1911 issue that the “lorry carrying a very heavy load [3-tons] has recently completed a 2,000-mile RAC trial in a satisfactory manner … the fundamental idea of the transmission is very ingenious, but the operation is not very easy to explain.” That being the case, we’ll skip the 1,500 words needed to do so!
The system was also installed in a Delahaye and two Pipe motorcars. One of the latter survives and was put into running order in the 1950s by Arthur Stradling. Talking to a group of fellow old-car enthusiasts about it, he was asked what the system was like. It took a few moments to appreciate that his reply: “It’s absolutely shocking – made my hair stand on end;” was reference to inadequate electrical insulation. ‘Strad’, as he was known, not only had a mischievous sense of humour, but also exercised the car effectively enough on a number of occasions.