British cast that showed its promise in F1's first championship race


Alfa Romeo might have dominated the event, but the British contingency laid the foundations for the country's motor racing future

The start of the 1950 British Grand Prix

The start of the 1950 British Grand Prix

Getty Images

Twenty-one men started the inaugural Formula 1 world championship race – the 1950 Grand Prix of Europe – at Silverstone 70 years ago: four were French; two were Italian; and Argentina, Belgium, Ireland, Monaco, Switzerland and Thailand provided one apiece.

The rest were British: nine – with two held in reserve.

Theirs was a makeshift gentlemen/players XI befitting a country reeling from WWII: a Yorkshire-born farmer based in Herefordshire; a chartered accountant with a pub or three in Edinburgh; a Dublin-born garage proprietor from Gloucestershire; a company director from Mickleover, Derbyshire; a furniture maker born in Bolsover – also in Derbyshire – but operating out of Brightwell Baldwin, Oxfordshire; an Eton/Sandhurst-educated war hero; a Bristolian of private means; the owner of an East London furniture factory; two other garage owners – one from Sheffield, the other from Leicester; and a farmer/garagiste/haulier from that hotbed of Austerity motor racing, Derby.

Reg Parnell at Silverstone, UK.

From Derby to Silverstone via Milan: Reg Parnell was the only homegrown hope for victory at the 1950 British GP

Getty Images

The latter was ‘senior pro’ Reg Parnell, whose locked-down cache of pre-war racing cars, a glut of ERAs in particular, were pivotal to the UK sport’s gradual post-war revival.

On this occasion, however, his ambition, prowess and contacts – he had tested an Alfetta as long ago as 1946 – had earned him a seat at the top table: as ‘guest’ in the four-man Alfa Corse.

Only he of the home talent, therefore, stood any chance of winning. He qualified fourth – 1.4sec slower than team-mate ‘Nino’ Farina – and finished third, almost a minute behind the same man.

Parnell had impressed with his speed and style – said to ape that of Juan Fangio’s rather than laid-back Farina and the muscular Luigi Fagioli – and he left with his reputation enhanced, the only blemish being a radiator grille stoved in by an errant hare.

Related article

The other Brits were ‘tortoises’ in comparison.

The best of them – as he had been in the corresponding (non-championship) races of 1948 (third, behind two Maserati 4CLT/48s) and 1949 (second, behind another 4CLT/48) – was Bob Gerard.

Despite – or some wags reckoned because of – severe shortsightedness, this Leicestershire repairer of commercial vehicles was Parnell’s nearest rival: his team was well organised thanks to his capable racer wife Joan and manager Frank Woolley (not the Kent and England left-handed all-rounder), and his modification/preparation of ERA R14B was sound and thorough.

His driving, in turn, was consistent and strategic, his duels with ‘Cuth’ Harrison – his more flamboyant Sheffield counterpart in the more ostentatiously modified R8C – thrilling burgeoning crowds much in need of a thrill.

(They had joined forces to finish fourth behind a trio of Alfetti in the 1947 Belgian GP.)

Bob Gerard driving an ERA in the 1951 Festival of Britain Trophy at Goodwood

Bob Gerard at the wheel of an ERA at the 1951 Festival of Britain Trophy

Getty Images

They were back at it again – in front of 150,000 – battling for sixth place on this sunny day at Silverstone, Motor Sport sagely noting: “Gerard was content to tail Harrison, away in the background, but the note of his ERA spelt reliability and his driving looked safe as houses.”

Faster ERA drivers in more modern (1939!) E-Types had suffered early baths.

Farmer Peter ‘Skid’ Walker had qualified 10th – 5.8sec behind Farina – but suffered gearbox failure after just five (of 70) laps, three of which had been completed by his friend Tony Rolt, Military Cross with bar.

Peter Walker at the wheel of the first BRM in 1950

Peter Walker would go on to Le Mans success

Getty Images

This pair had been the bright young things of pre-war British motor racing in ERA B-Types, but they would have to wait until Jaguar broke new technological ground to have their days of days at Le Mans in 1951 and 1953 respectively, co-driven by Peter Whitehead – another pre-war ERA mate – and Duncan Hamilton respectively.

Leslie Johnson had bought the ERA kit and caboodle in November 1947, as it morphed into BRM, and relocated it from Bourne in Lincolnshire to Dunstable. Though rarely in the best of health after a sickly childhood, this understated, modest man from no-frills Chingford had caught the eyes of Tazio Nuvolari and Raymond Sommer no less with his skill at the wheel – and had given Jaguar’s XK120 a winning debut at Silverstone in 1949.

Having matched Gerard’s time in practice to qualify 12th – 6.6sec behind Farina – he had very little time to prove his worth on this occasion, an exploded supercharging after just two laps causing him to abandon ship as the car was blazing and still rolling.

David Hampshire, Parnell’s near neighbour, friend and team-mate did make it to the finish, ninth – six laps behind Farina and three behind Gerard and Harrison (in that order, note) – in a Maserati 4CL of Scuderia Ambrosiana.

From the archive

This Milan-based team – its badge incorporating the black and blue of Inter – had gained a British feel post-war thanks to a back-scratching arrangement between co-founder Count ‘Johnny’ Lurani and Parnell that aimed to circumvent stringent financial restrictions: a maximum of £25 didn’t get you far if you wanted to race on the Continent.

Scotsman David Murray drove the team’s other 4CL but retired because of engine failure.

Another retiree was Geoffrey Crossley – the only member of the XI still in his twenties and its most inexperienced – whose Alta suffered transmission woes. A genuine amateur – albeit with a much admired Chevy transporter and pressure-fed refuelling system (which failed on the day) – his enthusiasm for this costly hobby would soon wane – a hopeful return in 1955 proving unsuccessfully brief.

Joe Fry and Brian Shawe-Taylor, who combined to bring the former’s 4CL home 10th, would also be soon lost to the sport: Fry, a distant scion of the famous chocolate clan and a great supporter of the UK’s burgeoning 500cc racing scene, would be killed two months later at Blandford hillclimb in cousin David’s fearsome and fragile Freikaiserwagen; and the career of the promising Shawe-Taylor, whose R6B had been deemed unfit by Silverstone’s scrutineers – yet would take him to eighth place in the 1951 British GP! – was cut short by an injurious collision at Goodwood later that same season.

Stirling Moss after a victory in August 1950

Moss – shown here later in 1950 – showed his pace in the 500cc race

Getty Images

But British motorsport was more robust than it looked. These men who had lost their best years and/or conceded career momentum to the war had/were learning the hard way. It was they who paved the way for the next generation – Stirling Moss (20) and Peter Collins (18) finished second and third in the 500cc F3 support race aboard Coopers – and whose wisdom and experience supported them and their tyro ilk along the way.

Gerard would become Cooper’s dealer in the Midlands; Johnson, sadly dead of a heart attack before the decade’s end, would build the ERA G-Type (he meant well) for Moss; fuss-free and fast Walker would be Moss’s preferred co-driver at Jaguar; Murray would found Ecurie Ecosse and win back-to-back Le Mans for Jaguar; and Parnell would manage 1959 sports car world champions Aston Martin.

Those make-do-and-mend ‘F1’ makeweights were crucial to Britain’s becoming motor racing’s heavy hitter. It might not have seemed like it on 13 May 1950, but those old, perpendicular ERAs were the foundation for an increasingly sleek new era.