"Uncle" Reg Parnell (1911 - 1964) - The Emperor of Goodwood

Send This Page To A Friend
Fade To White
'Uncle' Reg Parnell (1911 - 1964) - The Emperor of Goodwood

Reg Parnell
Reg Parnell.
Born in Derby in 1911, Reg Parnell was introduced to motoring at the age of 15. Although two years under age, he drove his family's trucks and private buses, and in his spare time he performed odd jobs around the garage. In 1934 Reg spectated at Donington Park in Derbyshire and immediately decided to try racing for himself. For UK£25, he bought an old 2-Iitre Bugatti single-seater, but it broke its back axle in the paddock at its first meeting.

Swapping the 'Bug' for the 'MG'

But buying spare parts for the 'Bug' was way too expensive, so Parnell sold it to help with the purchase of a MG Magnette K3. The MG was extensively modified - it had a centralised single-seater body, Lancia independent front suspension, a twin-cam McEvoy cylinder head, a two-stage Zoller supercharger and two-leading-shoe Lockheed hydraulic brakes.

Kay Petre

Wins were secured at Brooklands and Donington Park until an incident on the Brooklands banking during practice for the 500-mile race in 1937. Parnell slid into Kay Petre's Austin and, although Petre was seriously injured and she put the incident down to 'bad luck', the RAC revoked Parnell's racing licence for two years (he was not popular with everyone owing to his press-on-regardless driving style and his admission that, although he loved its thrills, he went motor racing primarily to win money).

The BHW Bugatti

Parnell's licence was restored in 1939 and Parnell was back with a 4.9-litre Bugatti-engined single-seater known as the BHW, with which he was particularly successful at Donington Park. He also began the construction of his own car for voiturette racing (the pre-war version of Formula Two). Known as the Challenger, it was to feature a specially constructed, twin-stage super-charged, six-cylinder, 1.5-litre engine, double-wishbone front suspension, and torsion bars coupled with a de Dion axle at the rear; however, World War 2 intervened.

The War Years

Parnell spent the war years completing the Challenger (but using a straight-eight Delage engine in place of the partially completed, home-brewed six) and building up a comprehensive collection of racing machinery. This included Alfa Rorneo, Riley, ERA, Delage, MG and Maserati models. In 1946, with motor racing resuming, Parnell owned and raced a Maserati 4CL, an ERA A-type and several Rileys and Delages. The Challenger was, however, sold. It was a year of poor mechanical reliability, although his Maserati was second to 'Prince B. Bira's' ERA in the Ulster Trophy at Dundrod by only a second.

The British Racing Driver Club's Gold Star

In 1947, as Britain's most successful driver, Parnell won the BRDC's Gold Star. He began that year by winning two ice races in Sweden with his ERA A-type and later won the Jersey Road Race in the Maserati. He acquired one of the ERA E-types and, but for a broken de Dion tube, would have won at Ulster. The following year Parnell again won the BRDC Gold Star. He was third with the Maserati in the inaugural Zandvoort meeting in Holland and with a new Maserati 4CL T/48 (which replaced the luckless ERA E-type) he finished fifth in the Italian Grand Prix. He won the Goodwood Trophy at the first-ever race meeting at the Sussex track and was second at Penya Rhin in Spain.

Reg Parnell
Reg Parnell, pictured in 1962.

The Emperor of Goodwood

In 1949 Parnell maintained his winning ways with the Maserati, gaining many successes at Goodwood (he became known as Emperor of Goodwood) and raced at almost every circuit in Europe; he also drove in the early-season South American races. The following season Reg received a tremendous accolade. He was invited to drive the fourth works Alfa Romeo 158 in the European Grand Prix at Silverstone and finished third. Later in the year, he was signed to drive for the Aston Martin sports-car team, taking a DB2 to first place (fourth overall).

The Thin Wall Special

Driving Tony Vandervell's modified Formula One Ferrari 375 (known as the Thin Wall Special) he left the star-studded field standing in conditions so bad the race had to be stopped after I I laps due to flooding, He was second to Farina's Alfa Romeo at Dundrod and Goodwood and won at Winfield in Scotland. In 1952, he enjoyed class wins at Silverstone and Boreham driving for Aston Martin; at Goodwood he unhesitatingly took over duties as team manager for Aston Martin when a pit fire seriously injured John Wyer.

For Parnell, it was a foretaste of things to come. The 1953 season was a particularly successful one: Parnell was fifth in the Mille Miglia (driving on the ignition switch after a broken throttle had to be wired up in the fully-open position), second in the Sebring 12-hours, first in the Goodwood 9-hours and second in the Tourist Trophy, each time driving for Aston Martin.

The New Zealand Grand Prix

In 1954, in addition to his Aston Martin commitments, Parnell drove his own Ferrari 625 in Formula One events, winning at Goodwood, Snetterton and Crystal Palace. Next season he secured more victories for Aston Martin , but in 1956, following an unsuccessful sortie to New Zealand with an experimental single-seater Aston Martin, Parnell crashed Rob Walker's Formula One Connaught B-type at Crystal Palace on Whit Monday, suffering a broken collar-bone and a badly cut knee. He recovered and took his Ferrari to New Zealand, winning the New Zealand Grand Prix and the Dunedin Trophy, early in 1957.

Retirement at 45

Then came the news: Reg Parnell, at the age of 45, was to retire from active motor racing. He was appointed team manager to Aston Martin and performed his new duties well. After seven years as a team driver, it was no 'sympathy' job. Parnell was able to use his enormous experience to the full and had the knack of picking out future top drivers. In addition to overseeing Aston Martin's World Sports Car Championship season of 1969 - the year the marque also won the Le Mans 24-hour race, after many seasons of trying - he encouraged such newcomers as John Surtees (the motor-cycle World Champion) and Jim Clark.

Yeoman Credit

When Aston Martin withdrew from racing at the end of 1960, Parnell moved to Yeoman Credit (later Bowmaker) who sponsored a Formula One team. His drivers were John Surtees and ex-Aston man Roy Salvadori. When Bowmaker withdrew at the end of 1962, Parnell opted to continue as a privateer, purchasing the ex-Bowmaker cars and the premises at Hounslow, Middlesex. After a visit to the early-season New Zealand and Australian races in 1963, Parnell signed 19-year-old New Zealander Chris Amon to lead the team and also gave encouragement to motor cyclist Mike Hailwood.

For 1964, Parnell commissioned Les Redmond to design a new car to supplement and eventually replace the ex-works, BRM-engined Formula One Lotus 25S he had purchased for the season. However, following an operation, Parnell died on 7 January. Only 53, the seemingly indestructable, ever-smiling Parnell was gone. R. H. H. 'Tim' Parnell, his son, took over control. Tim Parnell finally disbanded the team in 1970 when he was given the job as team manager to BRM; at the end of 1971 - he left BRM to devote his full time to farming in Derbyshire.
Reg Parnell wrestling the wheel of Tony Vandervell's Ferrari-based Thin Wall Special
Reg Parnell wrestling the wheel of Tony Vandervell's Ferrari-based Thin Wall Special.
Latest Classic Car Classifieds