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
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.