Reg Parnell was one of the great characters of pre and post-war motor racing in Britain. He raced for Alfa Romeo team in the very first World Championship Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950, finishing third and then beat the full Alfa Romeo works team to win the Silverstone International Trophy in 1951. He was a test and works driver for BRM and later became the team manager at Aston Martin overseeing the famous 1-2 at Le Mans in 1959. He died when he developed peritonitis after a routine appendix operation.
Reg Parnell was one of the great characters of pre and post-war motor racing in Britain. His family ran a garage business in Derby and when Donington Park opened in 1933, Reg went to watch. In 1935 he bought an old Bugatti but this was soon replaced by an MG Magnette. Then in 1937 he lost his racing licence after an accident in practice for a race at Brooklands. He was overtaking Kay Petre when he lost control, crashing into her Austin and causing it to roll. Petre suffered serious injuries. This meant that he was unable to race until 1939. It was during this time that Reg started buying and selling racing cars which he continued to do during the war years that took away a large part of what should have been the prime of his career.
He returned to the tracks in 1946 and, though it was not easy to race abroad after WWII, Reg somehow managed to compete quite frequently in Europe, often as the only British entrant. Racing a Maserati 4CLT/48 and an E-Type ERA which he had bought from Peter Whitehead, he also had some good results in British national races, particularly at Goodwood.
These successes led to an invitation to drive for the Alfa Romeo team in the very first World Championship Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950. Parnell qualified fourth and finished third in an Alfa Romeo 158 behind his teammates, Guiseppe Farina and Luigi Fagioli.
Whilst racing his Maserati under the Scuderia Ambrosiana badge, he became involved with BRM, initially as a test driver of the the original V16 in 1950 and then in 1951 as the team's lead driver. However BRM did not make many appearances and though he remained under contract to them, he continued racing his Maserati, first with a win in the Chichester Cup at Goodwood and then a retirment at San Remo.
As the BRM was taking so long to develop, Tony Vandervell, who was part of the BRM consortium, decided to buy three Ferrari Grand Prix cars. Parnell was asked to drive the third car, a Ferrari 375 with a 4.5 litre unsupercharged V12 Ferrari engine. Parnell entered the BRDC Daily Express International Trophy race at Silverstone on 5 May 1951. Racing against the Alfa Romeos of Giuseppe Farina, Juan Manuel Fangio, Consalvo Sanesi and Felice Bonetto.
In the first heat Fangio took the lead from the second row and was 5 seconds ahead of Bonetto at the end of the first lap, with Parnell right behind in third. On lap 4 Parnell passed Bonetto and set about catching Fangio, eventually finishing just 3 seconds behind him. Farina won the second heat but by the time the final started the conditions had deteriorated and though there was hail, lightning and heavy rain, the race was started. With poor visibility and the track under as much as 6 inches of water in places, Parnell passed the Alfas followed by Duncan Hamilton in his Lago Talbot.
After just six laps, the stewards decided it was too dangerous to continue and stopped the race early. Parnell took the win at an average speed of just over 65mph.
Two weeks later he raced in the Festival of Britain Trophy at Goodwood. Reg won the first heat and broke the lap record on his first lap from a standing start. In the final he won again with Farina, in a 4CLT Maserati, second.
Four weeks later at Dundrod for the Ulster Trophy, Farina was back in an Alfa Romeo 158. At the start Farina took the lead with Parnell second. Farina had to stop for fuel whereas Reg didn't need to. As Farina pulled away from his fuel stop, Parnell took the lead but just over a lap later Farina re-passed him to take the win.
BRM were finally due to race in the French Grand Prix at Reims but once again failed to show up. Reg therefor drove the Thinwall Ferrari again finishing a fine fourth. Parnell drove the car again at Goodwood, finishing second and then won the Scottish Grand Prix at Winfield with the long nose version of the car.
A few outings for BRM followed and from 1952 onwards he made a couple of appearances in continental races with a Ferrari 500. Meanwhile he had become involved with Aston Martin. He became the team manager and oversaw the famous 1-2 at Le Mans in 1959 when Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby led home Maurice Trintignant and Paul Frere. Parnell then led the team into F1 but at the end of 1960 the programme was abandoned.
He later became involved in the running of his own team under the Yeoman Credit banner, with Roy Salvadori and John Surtees, and, in 1962, with the formation of the Reg Parnell Racing Team, he also got Lola into Grand Prix racing.
Sadly, in January 1964, at the age of just 53, he died when he developed peritonitis after a routine appendix operation. Then when a drip was attached to his leg, a thrombosis formed that went straight to his heart.