HEROES: REG PARNELL

AS ACCOMPLISHED A TEAM MAN­AGER AS HE WAS A DRIVER, PARNELL IS ONE OF THE UNSUNG HEROES OF AS­TON MARTIN’S GLORY YEARS

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS BRUCE COX MAIN IM­AGE BRIAN JOSCELYNE

Once banned from rac­ing for reck­less driv­ing, Reg was a key man for As­ton

Reg Parnell es­tab­lished him­self as a true As­ton Martin hero thanks to his suc­cesses first as a team driver and then as team man­ager. He also had the unique dis­tinc­tion of be­ing banned from rac­ing for life for dan­ger­ous driv­ing but then hav­ing his li­cence re­in­stated and be­com­ing Bri­tain’s most suc­cess­ful F1 Grand Prix driver in the early post-war years!

Derby-born Reg started rac­ing in 1935 (at the age of 24) and was soon re­garded as one of Bri­tain’s fastest driv­ers, though per­haps rather too reck­less. When he lost con­trol at Brook­lands and col­lided with the car of woman racer Kay Pe­tre those sus­pi­cions were con­firmed for many, and the RAC pun­ished him with a life­time ban. For­tu­nately, he suc­ceeded in get­ting his li­cence re­in­stated on ap­peal, though the out­break of the Sec­ond World War soon after­wards put a stop to all motorsport.

As owner of a trans­port busi­ness, Reg was ex­empted from mil­i­tary ser­vice and he put his en­tre­pre­neur­ial skills to good use by pur­chas­ing and stor­ing around 30 un­used and un­wanted rac­ing cars, which he sold when the con­flict ended and rac­ing re­sumed. This wheel­ing and deal­ing, along with the con­tacts he made, gave Reg a great choice of ma­chin­ery in the im­me­di­ate post-war years, and he won nu­mer­ous F1 races (al­beit non-cham­pi­onship ones) in cars as di­verse as a Maserati 4CLT, the BRM V16 and the Fer­rari Thin­wall Spe­cial.

The ul­ti­mate recog­ni­tion of his skills came when he was asked to drive the fourth works Alfa Romeo in the in­au­gu­ral World Cham­pi­onship F1 race at Sil­ver­stone in 1950 and fin­ished in an ex­cel­lent third place.

On the sports car front, Reg joined David Brown’s new As­ton Martin team in 1950, at first driv­ing the new DB2 coupé. He fin­ished sixth over­all and sec­ond in the 3-litre class at Le Mans on his de­but, and later led a 1-2-3 DB2 sweep of the 3-litre class in the Tourist Tro­phy on the roads at Dun­drod in North­ern Ire­land.

The in­tro­duc­tion of the new DB3 sports racer in 1952 brought suc­cess at the Good­wood Nine Hours de­spite the first of two As­ton Martin pit fires at the Sus­sex track. As a me­chanic fu­elled Parnell’s car, petrol spilled over its tail and was ig­nited by the hot ex­haust. Team man­ager John Wyer was badly burned so Reg, left with­out a car, took over the job of managing the pit and was re­warded by see­ing the race won for As­ton Martin by Peter Collins and Pat Grif­fith.

One of Reg’s own best drives was when he drove a DB3 to fifth in the 1953 Mille Miglia – the best-ever re­sult for a Bri­tish car. He achieved this de­spite a bro­ken rear sus­pen­sion com­po­nent that al­lowed the en­tire rear axle to move around lat­er­ally! And not only that, the car’s throt­tle ca­ble broke when mak­ing the dan­ger­ous cross­ing of the Ap­pen­nine moun­tains. Reg solved that prob­lem by sim­ply wiring the throt­tles wide open and us­ing the ig­ni­tion switch to mo­men­tar­ily cut the en­gine when need­ing to slow for the many cor­ners!

That 1953 sea­son was one of the best for Reg and the DB3. It be­gan with a class win and sec­ond over­all in the Se­bring 12 Hours (driv­ing with Ge­orge Abe­cas­sis), con­tin­ued with vic­tory in the Bri­tish Em­pire Tro­phy on the roads around Dou­glas in the Isle of Man, and cul­mi­nated with one of the big­gest vic­to­ries of his ca­reer when he won the Good­wood Nine Hours with Eric Thomp­son. Many more wins fol­lowed, in both the DB3 and the later DB3S.

Reg re­tired as a driver in early 1957 and, when John Wyer as­sumed a more el­e­vated role in the AM hi­er­ar­chy as tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, be­came the race team man­ager and took over Wyer’s fa­mous mega­phone to shout or­ders from the pit counter. As an ex-racer him­self, he was very much a ‘hands on’ man­ager in the DBR1 years, in­clud­ing the 1959 World Sportscar Cham­pi­onship and Le Mans-win­ning sea­son.

That was also the year of an­other Good­wood pit fire, this time in the TT. With the Sal­vadori/ Moss car de­stroyed and the AM pit un­us­able, pri­va­teer As­ton driver Gra­ham White­head self­lessly re­tired from the race and gave up his pit so that a soot-black­ened Parnell could shep­herd the team to vic­tory and the World Cham­pi­onship. He did this by sub­sti­tut­ing Moss for the fi­nal stint in the car that Jack Fair­man was due to take over from Car­roll Shelby. Stir­ling duly clinched the ti­tle for As­ton, slash­ing through the field to win by 32 sec­onds.

Sadly, Reg Parnell – ‘Un­cle Reg’ to his driv­ers and me­chan­ics – was dead less than five years later, at just 52. He died in Jan­uary 1964 af­ter con­tract­ing peri­toni­tis (blood poi­son­ing) fol­low­ing what should have been a rou­tine op­er­a­tion for ap­pen­dici­tis.

V

Be­low Un­cle Reg, mega­phone in hand, con­grat­u­lates Car­roll Shelby, who’s just com­pleted a stint at Le Mans, 1959

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