For seven years Reg Parnell was the single most successful driver at the Sussex circuit, even winning in the troubled BRM. Gordon Cruickshank remembers a great privateer
Pick a driver synonymous with Goodwood. It’s not hard: Stirling Moss — a winner at the first meeting and on 21 other occasions. But if this was 1954, and Stirling had still to confirm his promise, you’d probably make a different choice: Reg Parnell — winner of the first Formula One race at the circuit, and of 14 other races thereafter, plus a string of lap records. A man whose Goodwood mastery seemed effortless.
Still, a good car always helps, and Parnell, a garage owner and haulier from Derbyshire, was able to afford them. He raced an MG and Bugatti before the war and, when hostilities started, had the foresight to put away a couple of fast machines for when peace broke out. But it was when he bought a brand-new Maserati 4CLT/48 that his potential showed.
When Goodwood threw open its gates in September 1948, the principal race was for Formula One cars — the Daily Graphic Goodwood Trophy. Parnell’s Maserati was the only F1 entry, which might look like he had it easy; but mild-mannered Bob Gerard wasn’t going to accept that his ERA was outdated, and harried him throughout. Nevertheless, it was Pamell’s race, and it opened a fast-track account.
The following year the fledgling circuit was overwhelmed by the 40,000 crowd that came on Easter Monday. Racing couldn’t begin until wayward spectators had been shepherded back from the track. Just as well, since Reg was flying: three races, three wins, and a new lap record. And now we could see it wasn’t just the car — he beat an identical Maserati in two of those events. In September he netted two more trophies, against ERAs, but it was in 1950 that his decisive style began to move him up a gear. Britain’s ‘world-beating’ BRM was on its way, and Parnell was the home-grown talent who would take it to victory.
But the great green hope wasn’t ready for Easter Goodwood, so in his own car Reg took 46sec out of Baron de Graffenried in another 4CLT/48. Now he was beating Continental names — not first-rank, perhaps, but it brought a huge honour: Alfa Romeo offered him a fourth Alfetta for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
By September’s meeting at the Sussex track, British hearts fluttered at the sight of the light-green BRM. Parnell’s too, perhaps, as he came to the Formula Libre Woodcote Cup grid in streaming rain. He was known as a tough competitor; could he find the delicacy to apply 400 peaky horsepower to soaking Tarmac? For a moment the huge wheels spun and the ERAs leapt ahead – but within the lap Reg had the race under control. And, with his supreme wet-weather talent, kept it. His eighth Goodwood win; BRM’s first.
But if that one was easy, the F1 race proved a thriller. Sure enough, Parnell’s new mount splashed past the field, but while he had to tickle his way round, Prince Bira could let rip with his Maserati’s full torque flow. For lap after lap the Siamese playboy harried the man who bred pigs for a hobby, until Bira got caught behind a slower Talbot. After this third Goodwood Trophy win, Parnell got to keep the cup for good, and Autosport dubbed him ‘The Emperor of Goodwood’.
Bira had his revenge at Easter 1951. Taking time away from the struggles at Boume, Reg collected yet another Chichester Cup with the 4CLT/48, but got a shock in the Richmond Trophy: Bira’s new V12 OSCA got there ahead of him — the first time Reg had been beaten in a scratch race at his private fiefdom.
Now he switched allegiance to Tony Vandervell’s modified Ferrari. Two more Goodwood wins for the Thinwall Special included beating world champion Giuseppe Farina, and while 1952 brought only a second and a third in the tricky BRM, Reg added a new angle: sportscar events for Aston Martin. After his DB3 burned out in the Goodwood Nine Hours, injuring team manager John Wyer, Parnell temporarily managed the outfit, opening a new horizon for the future. In the following year’s Nine Hours, he and Eric Thompson led a DB3S one-two.
In 1954 Parnell closed his Goodwood account at 15 wins, with a pair of Formula One victories and yet another lap record in his own Ferrari 500, before retiring to manage instead of drive. He had dominated the Sussex track, (as well as making fine showings elsewhere) with a blend of determination and skill which could well have carried him further. He was 38 at that first Goodwood race; had Hitler not intervened he would have got into his stride at the beginning of his 30s, not the end. Maserati might have built a 4CLT/40, and in that Reg might have caught the eye of one of the Italian teams, or even of Alfred Neubauer…
Of course, then Westhampnett aerodrome would not have been built, so whatever he did become, he would not have earned that unique 1950s honour — Reg Parnell, Emperor of Goodwood.