Looking back with Tim Parnell

It is just 21 years ago this month that the motor racing world was shocked by the sudden death of Reg Parnell at the early age of 52. The man who had become an enduring landmark on the post-War international racing scene, both as a driver and, after his retirement, in the role of team manager, succumbed to a trivial freak of medical misfortune while being treated in hospital for peritonitis, leaving behind him a stunned motor racing fraternity and an understandably grieving family. Throughout the 1963 season Reg Parnell Racing had been racing a tram of Lola-Climax cars in Formula 1 and the burden of responsibility for sustaining the team’s name and reputation fell on his son Tim, then 31 years old.

Reflecting on the loss of his father as we chatted at the recent Grovewood Awards reception, Tim explained, “We really didn’t think anything was seriously wrong with my father because it was almost a standing joke that he seemed to catch a cold each Christmas. He loved to go out and knock around the farm in the open, driving the bulldozer or tractor, and he would invariably end up with a cold over the holiday. On this occasion it really didn’t seem to be getting any better so one of his local doctor friends suggested he went into hospital immediately afterwards because it looked a bit more serious. They diagnosed peritonitis, but they were treating him for it, so we didn’t really think any more about it. Then one day they had to put a drip-feed into his leg, an embolism formed in his blood and he passed away quite suddenly. That is all there was to it… just one of those unexpected things that can happen.”

Tim Parnell grew up in the Derby area where his father not only farmed but also ran the Standard Transport Company, a haulage business which was pretty successful. ‘When the War broke out my father wanted to join the RAF, but he wasn’t allowed to because of the haulage business which was needed for the War effort,” Tim explains. “Our trucks used to cart round shells and munitions, but my father also used them to collect together the most incredible selection of racing cars and stashed them away in a barn on the farm. Nobody wanted racing cars during a war, did they? So he picked them up really cheaply and we had about 35 of them in the end, including all the ERAs, with the exception of Rica’s, Hans Ruesch’s old Maserati and heaven-knows-what. I was only eight or nine years old and had a wonderful time playing in them with my friends . . . then the Old Man would come in to chase us all away, playing merry hell with us for messing around in them!”

After the War Tim was sent away to boarding school, but it was too much to hope that he wouldn’t be interested in racing cars himself, having been raised in such an infectiously enthusiastic environment. “My Dad wanted me to train to look after the farm,” explains Tim, “but I was determined to go racing myself, even though hr didn’t give me much support to start with. I started club racing in 1957 in a Frazer-Nash and then progressed to a bob-tail Cooper sports car . . . both bought on hire purchase, incidentally, after I’d persuaded the finance company that they were really road cars!” The Cooper was road-registered of course, TOF 264, so perhaps he was technically correct even though it wasn’t the full story by any stretch of the imagination. Tim enjoyed some minor club racing success and by 1959 he had acquired a Cooper Mk 3 Formula 2 with which he notched up a win at Mallory Park.

He was later to score a victory using a Cooper-Climax at the April 18th, 1960 meeting at the same circuit, beating Stan Hart’s Cooper-Climax and Brian Naylor’s JBW-Maserati.

The 1960 season saw young Parnell concentrate most of his efforts on a Formula Junior programme, contesting this fraught, highly competitive category at the wheel at a Lotus 18. “I should have won at Reims, but Mike McKee edged me out on the last lap, but I won at Aintree shortly afterwards”. Tim also managed a good third behind Peter Arundell’s works Lotus and McKee at Mallory Park on two separate occasions (June 6th and August 31st), using a BMC engine on the first occasion and a Ford-Cosworth unit on the second!

His father may not have been particularly keen, but there was seemingly nothing which was going to stop Tim trying his hand at Formula 1, even though there was little prospect of worthwhile success at the wheel of the four-cylinder Climax-engined Lotus 18 he used in 1961. Still, at least there were plenty of non-Championship events in which a novice could cut his teeth and have fun, a feature sadly lacking from the Formula 1 landscape in the 1980s. Once he realised Tim was being serious, Reg Parnell became very supportive of his son’s efforts and it comes over clearly that Tim had a healthy regard and affection for his father.

Hr started the ’61 season with the Lombank Trophy race at Snetterton, finishing seventh, three laps behind Brabham’s victorious Cooper-Climax. Then on April 16th, he managed “what must be the most memorable achievement of my career when I led Stirling Moss for two laps in the Vienna Grand Prix at Aspern.” Although he admits that Moss’s engine was hopeless and, anyway, the acknowledged “ace of aces” won the race in Rob Walker’s Lotus 18. Tim faded to sixth at the finish behind such long-forgotten names as Wolfgang Seidel, Ernesto Prinoth, Bernard Collomb and Memo Boffa. Where are they now?

Later that season he retired from the British Grand Prix with clutch trouble, finished fifth and last!) in the Kannonloppet at Karlskoga in Sweden, 10th in both the Danish Grand Prix at Roskilde and the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Arguably his best race at the season was the 30 lap, 79 mile Lewis-Evans Trophy at Brands Hatch on October 1 where he finished third after starting from the front row of the grid. However, this was something of a second-rate line-up by contemporary Formula 1 standards, victory going to Tony Marsh’s BRM-Climax from Mike Spence’s Emeryson.

The Lotus 18 was replaced by a later 18/21 for the 1962 season by which time father Reg was running the Bowmaker Lolas driven by John Surtees and Roy Salvadori. Unfortunately Tim’s season was marred by a shunt during an outing at Brands Hatch “where I crashed at Druids and knocked myself about a bit quite badly. When I was getting over this Gary Hocking came onto the scene and my father was absolutely convinced he was a World Champion in the making. Surtees went potty when it was suggested that he run alongside him in the Bowmaker line-up, clearly recognising this motorcycle rival’s quality, so he took over my 18/21 for a few races. But it was obvious the bloke was a star, so my father had a word with Dennis Druitt of BP and suggested he get him lined up in another team where he could have a properly competitive car.” This was duly arranged and he was signed up to drive one of Rob Walker’s Lotus 24-BRM V8s in the Natal Grand Prix at Westmead on December 22nd, 1962. Sadly, the talented Rhodesian motorcycle ace crashed fatally in practice, so his potential on four-wheels was never realised.

Tim continued with his Lotus 18/21 throughout 1963, although he did have a handful of outings in a Lotus 24-BRM early in the season although this was later taken over first by John Campbell-Jones and eventually Masten Gregory. Tim “retrieved” it in time to race in the Solitude Grand Prix on July 28th, where there were no fewer than five entries from the Parnell family! Chris Amon and Mike Hailwood were running the 1962 Lolas, which Reg had taken over when the Samengo-Turner family withdrew the Bowmaker sponsored team, under the Reg Parnell Racing banner while Tim fielded his own 24 plus a couple of 18/2ls with four-cylinder engines for Ron Carter and Philip Robinson. Hailwood and Robinson were still running at the end, but too far back to be classified, while Carter, Amon and Tim himself all retired! His friend Andre Pilette also entered his 18/21 under the Derbyshire entrant’s banner and Tim finally rounded off his Formula 1 career with another outing in the Lotus 24, finishing sixth in the non-Championship Austrian Grand Prix won by Jack Brabham’s Brabham BT3 from Tony Settember’s Scirocco-BRM round the punishing, rutted Zeltweg airfield track.

Then came the tragedy of his father’s death, so Tim thought it appropriate that he should retire from the cockpit and set about making plans to continue running the team that bore Reg’s name. Truthfully he admits, “Looking back I was a total greenhorn. I mean, how could I follow an act like my father’s? But I thought it was only fair to give it a go and I had plenty of generous support from Dennis Druitt at BP. We decided to use ex-works Lotus 25s with BRM engines because I got the impression that Coventry Climax were just a touch reluctant to continue their level of support without my father in charge. I mean, Wally Hassan and Leonard Lee were always very good to my father – helping him with experimental engines and various other bits and pieces – but I think they were privately glad mat I switched to BRMs. Honestly, though, I don’t think Hassan and Lee have ever got due credit for the contribution they made to British motor racing.”

Chris Amon, who had originally been recruited by Reg the previous year after Parnell Senior spotted his talent during me Tasman Series, stayed with me team and was joined by Mike Hailwood while Peter Revson came along to handle Tim’s own Lotus 24 from the· previous season. It was a frustrating year because me BRM V8s never performed well in the Lotus chassis “but mere was no question about Amon’s talent”, in Tim’s view. As far as Mike the Bike was concerned, Tim admits that “I used to have a few rows with him about trying to run on two wheels and four during the same season. I don’t care who you are, you can’t jump about from bikes to cars and back again and make a success of it.”

The high spot of mat year was Amon’s fifth place in the Dutch Grand Prix “but he was beating Bandini’s Ferrari at· Watkins Glen before he retired”. For 1965 BRM asked Parnell if he would run Richard Attwood because they wanted the Englishman “kept warm” in case me works team should need to call on his services, so that meant mat Amon was out of the equation. Mike Hailwood stayed on for a few races before he decided mat he was wasting his time and when Attwood crashed quite badly in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, me ebullient Innes Ireland was hired to replace him. Amon rejoined on Hailwood’s departure, but for a few races it was Attwood and Ireland until Tim fired “bloody Innes because he was late turning up for practice in Mexico… couldn’t find me circuit or something!” and Bob Bondurant took over for that last race of me 1½-litre Formula 1.

By the end of 1965 Tony Rudd was busy at BRM developing his elaborate H-16 engine for the forthcoming 3-litre Formula 1 which was due to start the following year. In consequence he had no time to go out and run me 2-litre BRM P26ls in me Tasman series, so he asked Tim Parnell if he could manage it for him. Although this meant three months away in one stint, Tim was happy to accept and remembers the trip with some obvious affection.

“The trouble was that after Jackie Stewart had outfumbled Graham Hill to win me ’65 Italian Grand Prix relations between the two men were a bit sensitive and I had to preside over this tension. They were both very particular about spares, taking me attitude ‘that’s my gearbox, my engine, my chassis … ‘ but we took every race with me exception of Warwick Farm where Jim Clark’s Lotus was the winner.” Stewart won four of the races, Hill two and Richard Attwood one.

In 1966 Parnell Racing ran Mike Spence in a 2-litre Lotus-BRM for much of the season, the car being painted in a succession of different colours to accommodate the whims of John Frankenheimer who was producing the film Grand Prix throughout the year. Tim’s wife Ginny recalls “the car was sprayed so many times mat when they finally wanted it repainted white at Monza mere was so much red paint already on it that it turned out pink!”

Now closely involved with BRM, Tim collaborated with me factory in a programme which was designed to advance the careers of some young British drivers, the idea being to bring them forward to me level where they could take over in the front-line works team if need be. Piers Courage and Chris Irwin were the two most likely lads and they shared the second P26 l during me 1966 / ’67 Tasman series where Jackie Stewart was in me lead car. Courage’s spectacular antics, including spinning in the middle of the field on the opening lap of his first race in a BRM, resulted in several accidents and it looked as though Irwin might be me better long-term bet. It was originally planned that the Parnell team would have an H-16 mid-way through the ’67 season, but continued problems with this complex engine’s development meant that Tim had to stick with a 2-litre P261 and that similar capacity Lotus-BRM for much of the year.

However, with the advent of the more reliable V12, Parnell Racing got a BRM P128 for the 1968 season and Piers Courage restored his accident-damaged reputation at the wheel of this car (as recounted in some detail in the November, 1984, issue of Motor Sport). Sadly Chris Irwin’s racing career came to an end when he crashed badly at Nürburgring at the wheel of a Ford F3L prototype and sustained very serious head injuries.

Towards the end of 1969 Tim Parnell was invited to take up the post of full-time team manager at BRM, Tony Rudd moving on to join Lotus after a frustrating time trying to develop a second-generation version of the H-16. When Tim arrived on the scene the somewhat prickly John Surtees was close to the end of his season with the team “and when we went down to Monza for pre-Grand Prix testing we were putting engines in and out of the chassis so many times that the mechanics didn’t know where they were. I mean, I think we had seven engine changes before practice even ‘ started.” Surtees was a difficult man to satisfy.

Sadly, Sir Alfred Owen, the instigator and driving force behind not only BRM but the Owen Organisation as a whole, suffered a stroke soon after and was thereafter unable to take any active part in the team’s administration. This task now fell to Sir Alfred’s sister, Jean Stanley, and her husband Louis, an imposing man of stately bearing who contrived to stamp his own idiosyncratic personality on the team over the few years BRM had left as a vaguely credible Formula 1 force.

Tim guffaws loudly at mention of the Stanleys, recalling his time working for them with a mixture of amusement and pleasure. “Big Lou”, in his view, was a real character and, in some ways, much maligned by his critics. Tim feels that he was tremendously capable when it came to getting sponsorship – “we tend to forget that he was the one who brought in both Yardley and Marlboro for the first time!” – but that he was perhaps less effective in keeping those sponsors once he had attracted them. Behind the scenes he was a generous man, and Jean Stanley is remembered with some affection by all those who worked with BRM.

On the racing front, the 1970 season saw BRM field a highly competitive line-up with Pedro Rodriguez and Jack Oliver in the sleek Tony Southgate-designed, Yardley-sponsored Pl53s. “Oliver was quick, but my goodness, did he have a fiery temper… and he was so hard on the cars. Pedro was tremendous, of course, one of the best… do you know, he was the only driver I ever met who honestly thought he was going to win every race in which he entered. He loved the wet too. When it rained he would just giggle with glee. He didn’t mix with other drivers much because he told me he didn’t want others to know what he was thinking. What’s more, we had more fan mail for Pedro at Bourne than any other BRM driver ever… that includes Hill, Stewart and all the others!”

Of Pedro’s death, a week before the 1971 British Grand Prix, when he crashed a privately owned Ferrari 512 in a minor sports car race at Norisring, Tim Parnell shakes his head with obvious regret. “We did everything to persuade those people that Pedro didn’t want to come and drive for them that weekend. We told them that he’d got the British Grand Prix coming up the following weekend, but they kept on offering him enormous sums of money and he eventually went. I was worried, I must admit, but it was typical of Pedro that he should be going flat-out, running in the lead, when he had his shunt. Then later that year we lost Jo Siffert, another great driver, in the Brands Hatch accident, and I don’t think BRM ever recovered from those two blows so close together.”

However, before BRM’s inevitable downward slide into sad oblivion, there were a few more highlights to enjoy, notably the splendid Monaco victory scored by Jean-Pierre Beltoise in the pouring rain in 1972. “He was a good driver and the thing you’ve got to remember is that, effectively, he only had one good arm,” remembers Tim, referring to the limited movement the gallant little French driver had in one elbow, the legacy of an accident much earlier in his career. Apart from a lucky win in the John Player Victory Race at Brands Hatch late in 1972, that Monaco success was the last victory BRM would score.

Marlboro kept sponsoring the team into 1973, giving Tim Parnell the opportunity of studying a great new talent at close quarters. A buck-toothed Austrian kid talked his way into the team with only limited sponsorship to, back up his ambition. This was Niki Lauda, of course, and from the start Parnell realised that he was suffused with an unusual degree of commitment and determination.

“He was unbelievable when it came to testing,” Tim smiles, “He would arrive at a Silverstone test before us, do 200 laps and then just stop for a toasted pate sandwich at lunchtime and do another 200 laps in the afternoon. Most drivers like to get out of the cockpit between stints, perhaps to stretch their legs, but not Lauda. He stayed strapped in the cockpit as often as not. I’ve never seen such a commitment. He was absolutely desperate to make it and it came as no surprise to me at all when he did. When he left us he went off to Ferrari where he could test at Fiorano all day and all night if he wanted to. If ever there was an example of the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’, then it was Niki Lauda.”

Clay Regazzoni, Helmut Marko and Peter Gethin are also recalled with pleasure by Tim Parnell, but by the end of 1974 the hand-to-mouth manner in which the BRM team was operated no longer held any attraction for the bluff, burly Derby dweller. Tim well recalls just how well Chris Amon performed at Watkins Glen, at his very last race as BRM team manager, but by then there was no future for either of them with the Bourne organisation. He returned to his dairy farm and his garage business which have occupied much of his attention ever since, although he briefly had a stint looking after Mallory and Oulton Park for MCD in the mid J970s. In the last few weeks he has taken up the post of General Manager at Donington Park, so his links with the sport seem set to continue.

Tim Parnell may never have scaled the competitive racing heights achieved by his illustrious father, but his down-to-earth enthusiasm for motor racing enabled him to make a worthwhile contribution to BRM fortunes on the management side, an historically appropriate distinction bearing in mind Reg Parnell’s early efforts for BRM in the 1950s. This large, pleasant and good-humoured man carries his years extremely well and seems to have aged very little in the last ten years. He has a refreshing sense of humour and looks back on his Formula 1 career, both in and out of the cockpit, with an engaging lightheartedness. -A.H.