Mid-life prizes

Don Parker didn't begin racing until he was past 40 and yet he became one of Britain's most successful drivers of the 1950s — a match for Stirling Moss no less in the cut and thrust of Formula Three. Mike Lawrence profiles one of the most unlikely stars of the sport

Next time you read that so-and-so has scored a record number of victories in Formula Three, reflect that in the 1950s, Don Parker won 126 such races. That is a record you can call a record and, incredibly, Don was nearly 40 years old before he even saw a racing car.

Formula Three has always been an important stepping stone for ambitious young drivers, and Don was faced by a horde of hotshoes. Among their number was Stirling Moss, whom he beat more often than any other driver except for Fangio. And yet Don turned down offers of works drives from Lister and Lotus because he didn't have enough confidence in himself. That might sound odd coming from the man who was British F3 champion in 1952-53 and '59, and who missed the '54 title by half a point. It's only when you discover more about his background that it begins to make sense.

Don was born in Kent in 1908. His father was a horse-trader, a marginal occupation, and any time he felt that an assistant was required he would call his son from the school playground. Don ran away from home when he was 12 and became a butcher's assistant. This, however, proved another brutal existence.

Fast forward to 1947: Don had taught himself mechanical engineering, had married, had had a family and was running a one-man general engineering business under a railway arch in Battersea. Just up the road, also under a railway arch, was Charlie Smith, who was running a two-man business. Charlie was a successful grasstrack racer on bikes and Don had begun to dabble in the sport. Smith had also built a pioneer 500cc car, learned from his mistakes, and he and Don began to build a second machine. The deal was that, in return for his help, Don would get the odd drive.

Charlie gave the second CFS its debut at the British Grand Prix meeting in late 1948, where it retired, and a couple of weeks later he was killed while practising for a motorbike race. Charlie's widow passed over the business to the employee, a chap called Jack Knight (yes, the Jack Knight), and she insisted that Don take over the CFS Special.

Don was tiny; he never weighed more than eight stones, and so he rebuilt the CFS to suit him. It was shortened and everything that could be was drilled for lightness. (Don was so obsessive about saving weight that he raced without socks or underwear!) He took the Parker-CFS to Brough, an airfield circuit, and recalled, "I looked at all the trophies in the organisers' tent and thought that they were beyond my grasp. I had never won anything in my life." He took home two of those trophies that day. It was the turning point in his life: he had found something that could give him recognition.

By the end of 1949 Don had won two races and twice beaten Moss: "I regard Stirling as the greatest driver there has been, but I had one advantage over him – I built my own cars so I knew them inside out. Stirling had one way of racing: he'd shoot off into the lead and stay there. Even when I set pole, and I often set pole, I'd not often be first away."

In 1950 half-litre racing became the international Formula Three. Hardly anyone with a home-made car stood a chance; to win you really needed a Cooper, preferably with a Manx Norton engine amidships. Norton would not sell these and so people began to buy whole motorcycles to get their hands on the engine. There was no way that Don should have been successful in a self-built car fitted with a JAP engine, but he won 10 races that year and was second in the Dutch GP. Even more remarkably he was third in the curtain-raiser to the Monaco GP, behind Moss and Harry Schell.

For the following year Don switched to a JBS chassis that, at the beginning of the season, had the edge over the Coopers. JBS stood for James Bottoms Special, and James made his cars primarily for his son, Alf, a noted grasstrack rider. When Alf was killed in the Luxembourg Grand Prix the project folded. That year Don picked up 12 wins, though none of them was in a major race. On the other hand he was the outstanding privateer and, before the year's end, was receiving works JAP engines.

Also in 1951, Don's life changed considerably. Though he was an unlikely lothario, he was attractive to women. A pretty 16-year-old met Don, by then divorced, at Goodwood, and she decided there and then that he was the man for her. Their relationship caused something of a stir in the paddock but, as soon as she was 21, Dora married her man — and they remained blissfully happy until Don's death in 1998.

Cyril Kieft also entered Don's life at this time. Cyril had been a high flyer in the steel industry, but when it was nationalised, he resigned, looked after a few private companies he owned, and decided that racing was the personal challenge he sought. The early Kieft 500cc racers weren't very good, but Cyril had, has, a big personality and so he made an impact.

In the meantime a consortium consisting of Dean Delamont, John A Cooper (technical editor of The Autocar) and Ray Martin, a bright young mechanic, had been working on the Ultimate Formula Three car. Ken Gregory, Stirling's manager, was this project's catalyst and Moss was the designated driver. According to Cyril, he stepped in when they needed money. The resultant car was named the Kieft CK1 and Moss and Gregory joined the board of Kieft Cars. Stirling won with it first time out, at the Whit Monday Goodwood meeting, and the success of the project seemed assured.

But Stirling's many commitments meant he could drive for Kieft only occasionally and so Cyril went looking for a regular works driver — and lit upon Don Parker. This unlikely match would dominate 500cc Formula Three during its glory years. Kieft provided the hardware, and because he was a director of Norton Motorcycles, Cyril not only arranged a supply of engines, he also secured Steve Lancefield to tune them. (Lancefield and Francis Beart were the two top tuners of Norton engines.)

For his part Don took a kit of Kieft parts and built his own car. This is an important point because the prototype CK1 was built by Martin, while production Kiefts were made in Bridgend by men skilled in metal but whom had not previously made cars. CK1 was a brilliant design in principle but it had to be made to very fine tolerances, which were achieved only by Martin and Parker. Stirling discovered the difference in 1952 when he wrote off the prototype. He tried a customer car, complained that it simply was not the same and, before the end of the year, had resigned from Kieft Cars.

By contrast Don had a brilliant season. At the British GP meeting he and Stirling, both in Kiefts, ran away and hid from a quality field. Don was ahead by a fraction on the run-in to the chequered flag when, with about 400 yards to go, his drive chain snapped. Elsewhere that year he scored 22 victories and secured the premier British Formula Three championship.

For the 1953 season Don fabricated his own wishbones from Reynolds 531 tubing (he was so light that he didn't need the beefier units usually specified). It is not going too far to call Don's cars Kieft-Parkers. He started 44 races that year and finished in the top three of 42 of them. He won 30. And this was at a time when Formula Three was at the height of its popularity. The massive grids included a dozen men who would go on to drive in Formula One; they were no match for Don, though. Not bad for a 45-year-old mechanic preparing his own car.

Shell came running with a contract for 1954 and part of the deal was that Don would be provided with Nortons tuned by Beart. Not long into the season, however, he began to believe that Beart was nobbling his engines. Why should a tuner do such a thing, if indeed Beart did? Don believed it was because Moss drove for Beart in F3 and would drive the Beart-Climax sportscar in '55. Whatever the truth of the matter, Don took charge of his own engines and always remembered how sweet it was to win the Francis Beart Trophy at Oulton!

Les Leston was Don's main rival in 1954. They battled all year and Don believed he had clinched a hat-trick of titles at Cadwell Park in October. Then an additional race was announced. It was at Brands Hatch's first Boxing Day meeting; Leston finished third, Parker was fourth, and so Les took the title by half a point

The wins had come harder in 1954. Part of the reason was that the Kieft was an ageing design, part was because of the rift with Beart, and part was because the opposition was so much stronger. One reason for that was that others began to race like Don did; he was a hard competitor who took no prisoners. All his contemporaries – Moss, Leston, Jim Russell say so, but none has ever accused him of being unfair.

That season was the apex of 500cc Formula Three. From 1955 most young hopefuls switched to the 1100cc sportscar class. Don didn't, and took 10 F3 wins that season still quite an achievement for the only front-runner who built his own car and prepared his own engine. Included among these was his 100th victory, at Cadwell Park. It was typical of the man that he didn't keep his score, and it was only late in life that he was told about this.

For 1956 Don switched to a Cooper; it was fitted with a Norton engine prepared by Robin Jackson. He stayed in 500cc racing until '59, which is when he clinched his third title, at the age of 50. By then, however, Formula Three had lost its international status to Formula Junior and had become something of a backwater. Don had always expected his racing to pay for itself. He had, in fact, made a handsome income from racing, but now it was beginning to cost him and so, with nothing else to prove, he retired from F3.

He had amassed that staggering number of victories in this competitive category, but would he have been able to make a successful transition to larger cars?

Consider this: on several occasions he entered his tow-barges in races and won in them. One was a Jensen 541, the other was a Jaguar XK150S – and both were bog standard. These were cars that did not often appear on race circuits; indeed, Don may have been the only man, in Britain at least, to win with either. He could have made the switch, no question.

Eventually Don retired to the South Coast where he indulged his passion for fishing. He died in 1998, aged 89, and many of his friends who attended the funeral had no idea that he had been, by a country mile, the most successful F3 driver in history. That tells you everything about the man who was known simply as 'The Don'.