Can't get no satisfaction

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A natural driver, an intuitive engineer and an inspiring team leader, Mike Parkes was also blessed with looks, charm and boundless energy. But as Mark Hughes relates, his wide success did not bring him repose

Can a man be cursed by having too many abilities? Spending his life torn between what he’s got and what he thinks he wants, struggling to confine his talents and enthusiasms when the world is offering him a multitude of glittering rewards? Mike Parkes – engineer and race driver, Englishman and naturalised Italian, eligible bachelor with a yearning for family – was maybe such a man.

Snap-shots of his life, which ended in a road accident in 1978, include a young engineer at Rootes in the late 1950s delighting in burning the candle at both ends and playing a pivotal role in the creation of the Hillman Imp. There would be the same man taking the chequered flag at a British club race. Then a picture of him, now in his early 30s, trying not to look too elated after discovering he can hustle a works Ferrari round Le Mans faster than the regulars. That same driver, having spent a spring morning pounding round dusty Italian roads in a prototype Ferrari road car, sits in a quiet lay-by making notes. There he is on the podium at Reims in 1966, quiet satisfaction on his face after finishing second on his Grand Prix debut, but maybe also a trace of concern that he’s already 34 years old. Next he’s in a hospital bed, badly injured. Then he’s walking away from Maranello, having turned-in his engineering job after yet another plea to get back in a race car has fallen on an old man’s deaf ears. Finally there’s a man in his 40s, who helped develop one of the greatest of rally cars, planning at last to settle down, but concerned about what the future holds. So little time…

After leaving Haileybury public school, he began, in 1949, an engineering apprenticeship with Humber Ltd, soon to become part of the Rootes Group. Not long after, he made his race debut in an MG TD his father (then chairman of Alvis) had bought him for his 21st birthday – on condition the car was not raced. The morning after the race Mike detected a distinct atmosphere in the house, unaware the local newspaper had reported on his win. “I think father took it with a mixture of anger and pride,” says Parkes’ younger sister Annabel. Close friend and Rootes associate Tim Fry says, “I think if his father had tried to be stricter he’d have been told to get knotted. But very politely, of course.”

But racing was just one part of Mike’s love affair with all things automotive. “We all wanted to work on cars, help create cars and race cars,” recalls Fry. “But I’m not sure whether that’s the same thing as wanting to be a racing driver. He had that thing of wanting to be better than the rest of them, he made chances for himself and went out of his way to be good. But wanting to be a racing driver means it’s the only thing on your mind. Mike had more than that on his mind.” That probably explains why the gap between leaving Haileybury and making his debut as a Grand Prix driver was three years for Stirling Moss, 17 for Parkes.

The Rootes years passed in a blur of on-the limit work and play, with Fry and Parkes largely responsible for the development of the Imp but, in between, finding time to race, fly, party and generally goon around.

“We were very bored with the sort of cars Rootes were producing and with the arrogance of youth we went to the Technical Director and told him we could design just the car he needed. He just said ‘All right, get on with it!” Concurrently Alec Issigonis was freelancing at Alvis between stints on the Mini, and Parkes, Fry and he often met up. There is the suggestion of cross-pollenation : they would tease each other about details of the supposedly secret small car projects each were working on. “Issigonis threw a napkin over to me,” continues Fry, “and just said ‘draw something!’ So I sketched the rear suspension arm of the Mini that we weren’t supposed to know about, and he said ‘no, you’ve got that bit the wrong way up…'”

The two would work all hours, rush down to prepare the Lotus 11 Parkes was racing, then back to work, then race. Non-stop. Mike was also kept busy with girlfriends who tended to live in London while he was based in the Midlands. “He’d nip down there in the evening, come back in the early hours. Once he put his E-Type in a ditch through fatigue,” Fry recalls.

Parkes’ ability on the track meant people began offering him rides, notably Tommy Sopwith, whose Ecurie Endeavour team ran a squad of Jaguar MkIIs for him, Graham Hill and Jack Sears. This led to a highly successful association with Colonel Ronnie Hoare and the Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari 250GT.

When Parkes went to Le Mans in ’61 to over see the Rootes team of Sunbeam Alpines, he was invited by Ferrari to try a works 250GT. Still dressed in flannels, collar and tie, he was instantly quicker than the regular drivers, was offered a drive in a 250TR for the race and finished second with Willy Mairesse. His affair with Ferrari had begun. At the end of ’62 he left Rootes for a full-time position at Maranello as a development engineer cum race driver.

Delighted though he was, the language barrier meant he was lost outside the factory. Brenda Vernor was teaching English to Italian students locally, and Parkes sought her out to help with his correspondence. “I first saw him,” she says, “sitting in the sitting room at the house where I was boarding. I felt sorry for this tall, slim, good-looking man sitting by himself, unable to converse with the family of the house.

“The arrangement suited me because I was free from school most evenings and it gave me some little pocket money, though over the years our relationship did become more than boss/secretary, after which I wasn’t paid anymore!

“Deep down he was very sensitive but he also had a wonderful sense of humour, especially when he was racing with ‘Lulu’ Scarfiotti and Lorenzo Bandini – they’d get up to such pranks. Most of the people he worked with at Ferrari, other engineers and mechanics, loved him.”

Indeed the Commendatore himself came to form a rare bond with him. Some even said Parkes had unofficially become Enzo’s right hand man. “There was a definite spark between them,” says Annabel Parkes. I think it might have been because he was more than a driver – he was in the factory every day. There was a lot of joking. Mike introduced me to him as his sister and Mr Ferrari said ‘what, another one?’ and Mike replied `no, this really is my sister.”

It should have been the dream job for Parkes and certainly he was happy, but a part of him remained unfulfilled. Even though he had spent over a decade in love with his work as an engineer at Rootes and racing only as a side line, by his mid-30s he had become more ambitious about his driving. Emboldened by a tally of victories in sportscars – the Sebring 12 Hours in ’64, Monza 1000km in ’65 and ’66, the Spa 1000km in ’66 – he yearned for an F1 chance and campaigned heavily to the boss. It smacks of a conflict between the driving and engineering sides of him; he could do both, but being ambitious in one tended to take him away from the other. The equilibrium was disturbed, and the fall-out was volcanic.

Parkes’ F1 opportunity finally came in mid ’66 thanks to John Surtees’ walk-out after a row with team manager Eugenio Dragoni. To this day, it is one of Surtees’ contentions that Parkes used that situation to further his own racing ambitions. He doesn’t mention him by name, but it’s clear who he is talking about when he says: “Someone in the team coveted my position and because of that teamed up with Dragoni when I fell foul of him. This person had made himself fairly close to Mr Ferrari.”

The two always had an uneasy relationship, probably aggravated by the fact that while Parkes the engineer was also a racer, Surtees the racer had engineering knowledge. Brenda remembers the day their relationship finally ended: “It was at the airport after Le Mans. John was in front of us at the queue for the check-in counter. Mike went over to say hello and John turned on him.”

Parkes was nominated as Surtees’ replacement in the Formula One team, even though it entailed lengthening a car to fit his 6ft 4in frame. He followed up a second place on his debut in France with pole for the Italian GP. Afterwards, sitting on the front tyre of his car, photographers jostling to picture the new hero of Monza, he sipped a cup of tea. He finished second in the race to team-mate Scarfiotti.

But long-time Ferrari designer and a good friend of Parkes, Mauro Forghieri, doesn’t share Parkes’ own belief that he was a potential F1 champion. “He was a good sportscar driver but I think because of his tall figure, was too heavy for F1. Really, he was a GT driver and I don’t think he could be compared with the pure F1 drivers we had at the time, like John Surtees or Chris Amon.”

Nonetheless, in the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone in 1967, Parkes passed Jackie Stewart’s H16 BRM and won the race comfortably. At Spa, he was again closely following Stewart in the early laps of the Belgian Grand Prix when the BRM’s breather blew oil over the Ferrari’s tyres. Parkes spun into the guardrail but the car overturned, throwing him out of the cockpit before dragging him along behind it. “The girl with him swore blind she was his wife,” says Fry, “so that she could go with him in the ambulance. It was she who stopped them cutting his legs off.”

He was in a coma for about a week. “His brain had bounced around inside his skull,” says Parkes’ brother John. Their father had him transferred to Luton and Dunstable hospital so the family could look after him for three long, frustrating months. “He went back to work but the bones didn’t heal properly and he had to come back for another three months while they did bone grafts,” John says.

When he returned full-time to Ferrari in ’69 it was to continue with his engineering work and to manage the sportscar programme. It was not, of course, what he wanted. “He was more determined than ever,” says Brenda. “He wanted to get back into racing; it was as though the accident hadn’t happened.”

The boss, however, was adamant he didn’t want Parkes back behind the wheel, saying he was too valuable an engineer for the factory to risk. It was after yet another plea from Parkes that Ferrari made him what Sopwith describes as “a staggering offer. It was all but offering him the position of being Ferrari’s heir, and the money was fantastic. The only condition was that he give up racing. We were down on our knees begging him to accept it. I remember saying to him ‘you’ve done it, you’ve proved how good a driver you are, now move on and take this.’ But the idiot still wanted to be a hero driver and he turned it down. I think that was the biggest mistake of his life.”

In 1971 Parkes severed his links with Maranello to race a privateer Ferrari 512S, and later a Pantera, for Scuderia Filipinetti with middling results. When, in early 1974, the team disbanded after the owner’s death, Parkes moved to Lancia as a development engineer for the exciting new Ferrari-engined Stratos rally car. No-one had yet designed a supercar for the forests and Parkes’ dual skills – being sufficiently quick to get representative feedback but also understanding the engineering implications – were crucial in making the car one of the most devastatingly successful of all time.

Sandro Munari did much of the winning and his co-driver Piero Sodano confirms that Parkes was instrumental in the team functioning so well. “He had a great understanding of the drivers and they in turn respected him very much because he was a kind of legend.”

With the Stratos programme ending by 1977, Mike was getting restless again. He was no longer racing and his life was at a crossroads. “I often saw him cry,” says Brenda, “and he’d been crying the weekend he was killed. He was depressed and no longer happy at Lancia. I think what was worrying him was that he wasn’t getting any younger and was afraid that he wouldn’t find another job that interested him.”

There were changes afoot in his personal life too. He planned to marry an English woman, Penelope Dowson, and had asked Sopwith to be his best man. Maybe, at 47, he was finally thinking of settling down. Fry remembers being taken aback by something Parkes had said on a visit back to England. “He had everything I thought I wanted – a smart flat in Modena, an aeroplane, a fast motorbike, a Ferrari, Bentley, Cooper S and a hot Imp. But he went upstairs, looked wistffully at the children in bed, came down and said ‘good heavens, you have done well, Tim.’ “

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