He forged his reputation as an engineer, but people tend to forget just how accomplished a driver Mike Parkes was. We look back on the man, and his time in the racing spotlight with Ferrari | Writer Adam Cooper
Fifty years ago Mike Parkes enjoyed one of the most extraordinary debut seasons in the history of the world championship, albeit with a campaign that encompassed just four Grand Prix starts.
Handed a Ferrari race seat after the departure of John Surtees, he finished second on his debut at Reims. Three races later at Monza he qualified on pole, led seven laps and finished second again. Not bad for a 34-year-old rookie who had not raced a single-seater for four years – and who still regarded racing as a hobby that complemented his full-time job as an engineer.
The following April Parkes proved he was a force by winning the International Trophy. Sadly, seven weeks later a huge accident at Spa left him facing a lengthy period of rehabilitation and the realisation that he would never race an F1 car again. In truth he was fortunate to be alive – but his luck would run out a decade later, on a rainy Sunday evening on a quiet country road in Italy.
Parkes was perhaps one of the most intriguing men ever to race an F1 car, and at 6ft 4ins certainly one of the tallest. Driving was a big part of his life, but so too was engineering. One of the fathers of the Hillman Imp, he subsequently played a key role in developing Ferrari road and race cars, and then became one of the architects of Lancia’s successful Stratos programme. He was a complex character, quietly spoken and methodical in his work but someone who liked to have fun away from the track and had a keen eye for female company.
“He was very sociable,” says his younger sister Annabel. “He enjoyed being with friends, but like many men he didn’t open up too much about what he was feeling inside. He was very precise professionally, if you see all his notes.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Mike should gravitate towards things mechanical. His father John Joseph Parkes came from a line of civil servants, but having lost his own father very early became an accomplished pilot and a major player in both the aero and motor industries.
During WWII Parkes Sr was head of De Havilland’s Engine and Airscrew Divisions, and as such was in charge of 15,000 people. In December 1945 he joined Alvis as managing director and later chairman, with the task of rebuilding the company in the post-war years.
At that time his oldest child, Michael Johnson Parkes, was 14 and attending Haileybury College, where Stirling Moss was two years ahead. Cars and planes played a significant role in Mike’s youth, and he saw little point in wasting time with a stuffy university education. On leaving school in 1949 he joined the Rootes Group on an apprenticeship.
“Mike grew up in this atmosphere of cars and anything to do with engineering,” says Annabel. “It was a household where people were always mending things or taking them apart and putting them back together. It was mother who taught him to drive – there were plenty of abandoned aerodromes after the war.
“He wasn’t particularly academic, but he worked his way through school. If you read his reports they weren’t that great! He was very much a hands-on person. He didn’t want to go and do a university course.”
Spells in various Rootes departments were backed up by studies at Coventry Technical College. He also developed a passion for motor sport, and in 1952 made his first race start in an MG TD at Silverstone. It led to a family crisis.
“He’d been given the MG as a present on the condition that he didn’t race it,” says Annabel. “Then father found cups from races hidden away in a cupboard.”
“There was a little piece in the Coventry Evening Telegraph,” adds Mike’s brother Johnnie. “My father read it and Mike was summoned to account for himself!”
At that time he viewed racing largely as an engineering exercise: “Later there were two Frazer Nashes. Sometimes he didn’t have one, sometimes he didn’t have either, so racing depended on whether the car was available or in working order,” says Johnnie.
“He’d put down everything, notes about valve arrangements and gear ratios, what the settings were, what the lap times were. So from an engineering point of view he was taking it all quite seriously. He placed a lot of importance on that side, as it enabled him to be competitive.”
Mike’s mother passed away in March 1956 and he put racing to one side for a while. Later he returned with a more contemporary car in the shape of a Lotus 11, owned by Geoff Williamson. Then through family friend Alec Issigonis he became involved with David Fry, who was constructing an F2 car for Stuart Lewis-Evans. After the latter’s death Mike took over and raced it, contesting the F2 class at the 1959 International Trophy and even making an abortive attempt to qualify for the British GP.
“He was doing it virtually on his own,” says Johnnie. “He’d have it on a trailer behind his TR3; him and his girlfriend and maybe me going to Oulton Park. There wasn’t a lot of back-up.”
Mike was clearly adept at what we would now call networking, finding people who owned racing cars and wanted a good driver who could also bring development skills to the table. In 1960 he drove Gawaine Baillie’s Lotus Elite, but it was a meeting that year with Tommy Sopwith, at a dinner hosted by the Sunbeam Talbot Owners’ Club, that was to change his life.
Sopwith invited Mike to drive his Jaguars under the Equipe Endeavour banner, and – in association with the recently formed Maranello Concessionaires – his Ferraris. In 1961 Parkes proved a regular winner in both, and he quickly became a big name on the national scene. He also shone in Formula Junior.
In April he went to the Le Mans test day as an engineer with Sunbeam. Ronnie Hoare arranged for him to take some laps in a works Ferrari and a sensational performance led to a seat in the race itself, sharing a 250 Testa Rossa with Willy Mairesse. They finished a superb second. Mike was now well and truly on his way.
In 1962 Parkes and Mairesse finished second in the Nürburgring 1000Kms, while he continued to star on the domestic scene, notably with Maranello’s 250 GTOs. Mike also made his F1 race debut with a Bowmaker Cooper in the non-championship 100-mile event at Mallory Park, earning fourth behind John Surtees, Jack Brabham and Graham Hill.
All the while he pursued his day job with Rootes, latterly focusing on the development of the Imp – very much his baby. Then at the end of 1962 his life took a different direction when he was invited to join Ferrari as both a development engineer and GT race driver. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I think he was quite frustrated at Rootes,” says Annabel. “Engineers weren’t paid very well. When my brother left school in 1961 Mike said, ‘There’s no future in being an engineer, you should be an accountant!’ That gives a measure of how disillusioned he was.
“It was a dream to go to Ferrari. I think he just saw it as a wonderful opportunity. There was a much more favourable tax situation, and he was paid as a consultant. He didn’t have many things that tied him to this country.”
“After our father remarried in 1958 Mike wasn’t living at home,” adds Johnnie. “And he probably didn’t feel all that welcome. It certainly wasn’t as it had been before.”
Parkes arrived at Ferrari in January 1963. Initially he didn’t speak Italian, getting by on the French he’d learned at school. He soon came to love life in Modena, though, and acquired an apartment. He also began a long-term relationship with English teacher Brenda Vernor.
In his first year as a Ferrari employee he finished third at Le Mans with Umberto Maglioli. The following season the pair won the Sebring 12 Hours, and Mike then scored a solo victory in the 500Kms Spa GP. However, a testing crash at Modena left him with back injuries and curtailed his ’64 season.
On his return in 1965 he won the Monza 1000Kms with Jean Guichet. He won Monza again in 1966 with John Surtees, and also triumphed at Spa that year with Lodovico Scarfiotti. In sports cars he was absolutely
at the top of his game.
It was after Le Mans, and the controversial departure of Surtees, that an F1 opportunity opened up. The team had already made a special ‘Parkes’ chassis – 4cm longer than normal – in anticipation of an extra entry at Monza. It was now hurriedly built up and readied for the French GP.
At Reims Mike qualified third, eventually finishing second behind champion-elect Brabham. He missed the British GP, then spun off at both Zandvoort and the Nürburgring. However, he caught everyone’s attention by taking pole at Monza. He finished 5.8sec behind team-mate and winner Scarfiotti after in effect riding shotgun and keeping Denny Hulme at bay.
Outside his intense life at Ferrari Mike put his remaining energy into flying, having gained his licence and acquired a twin-engined Beechcraft Baron.
He began 1967 with second places at Daytona and Monza with Scarfiotti, followed by a superb win in the International Trophy. He didn’t race at Monaco a week later, but was present when Lorenzo Bandini crashed. He shared a win with Scarfiotti in a staged dead heat in the non-championship Syracuse GP, finished fifth in the Dutch GP and took second at Le Mans with Scarfiotti.
Then came Spa. Mike qualified ninth, but on the first lap he was soon up to third, running behind Jackie Stewart. The BRM H16 was dropping oil and Parkes lost control at Blanchimont. Team-mate Chris Amon watched from behind as Mike spun to the left, ran up the banking and rolled several times. Initially his lanky frame was only partially ejected, which made his injuries worse. Both legs were badly broken, the ligaments were torn, he was concussed and had a broken wrist.
“My father and I went to Belgium straight away,” says Annabel. “We didn’t know if he’d survive. We stayed there for about 10 days, and eventually he came round. What they were really concerned about was he might have a brain haemorrhage.”
After 12 days in Liège he was flown back to the UK and attended by surgeon Lawrence Plewes, who had looked after Parkes Sr following a flying accident in 1943. The Canadian’s first job was to save Mike’s legs and subsequently he implemented a complex programme of bone grafts, pins and plates. The engineer in Mike found the whole process a useful distraction from his terrible situation.
Like any driver, Mike wanted to get back in the car as soon as possible – he even harboured thoughts of making the Italian GP, where he’d been on pole the previous year. But his rehabilitation was to prove so complex and painful that he didn’t get to Monza until 1968, and then only as an observer, walking with sticks. It wasn’t until November that year that he made a full-time return to work at Maranello.
In 1969 he ran the endurance programme. He knew that at 38 F1 was over, but he wanted to race sports cars again in 1970. However, Enzo Ferrari felt him too valuable an asset. Rather than accept a compromise the commendatore suggested that Mike join Ferrari customer Georges Filipinetti as driver/manager. He duly agreed to do so, moving the Swiss operation to a base at Formigine, between Modena and Maranello.
Mike earned some solid results in 1970 – fourth at Daytona with NART, and at the Nürburgring with his own team – and he felt that he was driving as well as before his accident. However, he struggled to come to terms with the fact that Filipinetti was a small organisation, with limited resources. Life after Ferrari was always going to be difficult.
Georges Filipinetti’s death in May 1973 led to the team’s closure, so Mike was left looking for a job. In June he took part in and won a GT event at Imola with a De Tomaso Pantera. He’d long been determined to log another win, and the victory – however minor – allowed him to draw a line under his driving career.
By then Mike had begun a relationship with Penny Dowson, who worked in the travel industry. Some 16 years his junior, she was the goddaughter of Alec Issigonis. “He kept asking me to marry him,” she recalls, “then saying ‘Perhaps we can’t because I’ve got to get a proper job.’ He’d always said he wouldn’t get married until he stopped racing, and he wouldn’t stop racing until he won a race. My argument was, ‘Now you’ve won a race’.”
After a period on the sidelines Michael joined Lancia in 1974, working alongside future Ferrari F1 bosses Cesare Fiorio and Daniele Audetto on the WRC programme. He rented a flat in Turin, but he maintained his Modena base – where he also kept his dogs, his Imp and a 1952 Bentley that he’d restored – and he would commute between the two cities.
Penny meanwhile travelled with him to rallies, providing catering for the team. Mike was on six-month contracts, and he continued to use a lack of job security as an excuse to postpone any wedding plans. By the summer of 1977, however, he was ready to make a commitment.
“He came over in July with a beautiful ring,” she says. “He’d been to South Africa and claimed he’d mined it himself! We were then officially engaged and we planned a wedding for November. We went to see all sorts of people, all his old friends like Ronnie Hoare. Everybody was very happy for us.”
Typically Mike carefully slotted the wedding date into his busy work schedule, choosing the Sunday after the RAC Rally.
In late August the couple made a trip to a historic car event in Switzerland. Mike said goodbye to Penny at Geneva Airport, as she had to return to London for work, while he headed to Modena for a brief stopover.
Lancia’s summer break was coming to an end, and it was time to get back to business. On the evening of Sunday August 28 Mike climbed into his Beta HPE and headed to Turin, a trip he had made many times before. It was raining heavily and, with traffic backed up approaching the city, he left the autostrada and headed cross-country to Riva di Chieri. It was a little after 11pm.
“It was a road he knew, a sort of short cut to find your way into Turin,” says Annabel. “There was a very long straight and then quite a sharp bend to the right at the end. The trouble was the camber was wrong, and the drainage didn’t work very well. On the inside of the bend it formed an enormous puddle. The car started to aquaplane and there was a lorry coming the other way. Mike had a quite a few road accidents, he was a bit like a cat with nine lives… It could have happened so many other times.”
Mike was killed instantly. Had the HGV not been there the Lancia would have slid harmlessly into a ploughed field.
The following morning Penny learned the tragic news through a call from Cesare Fiorio – it was her 30th birthday. She found herself with the tragic task of using the wedding guest list to inform people of funeral arrangements.
What would Mike have done had he lived? If he was feeling any frustration at Lancia it’s worth recalling that, not long after his death, the company turned its attention to sports car racing, his first love, while the Group B rally cars that followed would also have fired his imagination. Or perhaps he would have done something completely different.
“He was thinking about all sorts of things,” says Annabel. “Maybe he sensed that it couldn’t last forever with Lancia. He was thinking of staying in Italy, and becoming an importer of solar panels. Another idea was selling Learjets in Europe. He was probably looking around for something where he could be independent.”