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The first car that rattled the Alfetta's cage



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Reg Parnell


Ferrari 375 "Thinwall Special"




1951 International Trophy


Over the years, Reginald Parnell, born on 2 July 1911, was to become one of the pillars of the British motor racing scene both pre and post-war. A true pioneer, he started racing in 1935 with an MG Magnette. His driving style was quite wild, and he ended up being stripped of his racing licence by the RAC after being found guilty of an accident where Mrs Kay Petre was seriously hurt. That meant in effect that, during 1938, Parnell found himself unable to drive his cars, and he discovered that lending them to other drivers was also an excellent way of being involved in motor racing. So somehow his later abilities as a team manager were probably originated in that period.

During the war years, which probably took away a large part of what should have been the prime of his career as a driver, he went on buying and selling racing cars in quite a speculative way. Many famous and less famous racing cars went through his hands, and whilst making him a name in the business, it did not prevent him from driving as soon as the end of the war hove into view. In the immediate years after the war he raced in continental events with a Maserati and an ERA he had bought from Peter Whitehead, and such was his success that he was invited to drive a works Alfa Romeo at the very first World Championship race at Silverstone, in 1950. Apart from being a milestone, as he was the only British driver ever to be selected to race with the all-conquering factory, he did an excellent job by driving the 158 to the podium. Whilst racing his Maserati under the Scuderia Ambrosiana badge, with which a very long lasting relationship existed, he then became involved with the BRM adventure, first as test driver of the original V16 and then as driver of the machine, in the few events in 1950 where BRM dared to appear. Under contract as driver for 1951, but knowing that the car would not be ready to start the season, Reg Parnell continued racing his Maserati, first with a win in the Chichester Cup at Goodwood and then having to retire at San Remo.

After this race, and having returned to England, racing enthusiast Tony Vandervell of the Vandervell Thin Wall bearing company approached him. Vandervell was running his own Ferrari 375 as the Thinwall Special using his own thinwall bearings which were to become the established norm for engine bearings in the future. Vandervell could quite genuinely be called a "character". His father was C.A. Vandervell, who founded the giant CAV electrical group, he was wild as a youth, did not attend to his school work too closely, and loved motor cycles; he dabbled in racing in the 1920s with a Talbot and competed in the Senior Isle of Man TTs with Nortons. Tony was set to work at CAV and he generally picked up a liberal engineering and electrical training in the company. Although it was not apparent at the time, he was also developing a good sense for business. However, rather than pass on the CAV group to his son, Vandervell senior sold the electrical business to Joseph Lucas, within which group CAV is still a major player. This move did not go down well with Tony, and he left Lucas to go out on his own in the grammophone and radio business, but this was scuppered by the slump of 1929. By a tortuous route partly linked to a contact he had made in racing, he became a director of a company called O&S. When he first heard about a new development in bearings using thin shells developed in Cleveland, Ohio, he crossed the Atlantic and on the voyage met up with the chief experimental engineer for Studebaker, which was already experimenting with these new Clevite bearings. Armed with his business card as an introduction, he went straight to the Cleveland Graphite Bronze Company and eventually persuaded them that he could finance the purchase of the expensive and specialised equipment needed to produce these new bearings, provided he got the sole European rights. Thus armed, and with the backing of his father, who realised that his son had found a promising new development, the huge investment was made and Vandervell Products Ltd was created, a company that was to make Vandervell a multi-millionaire like his father.

By the time the Second World War ended - during which Vandervell had equipped military vehicles with his thinwall bearings - Tony was one of the first people approached by Raymond Mays to join the consortium to fund the development of the BRM. He did so, but the evolution of the BRM was taking so long that he decided to buy one of the Italian Grand Prix cars of the period, first to race and second to allow the BRM technicians to inspect their opposition at close quarters. Alfa Romeo would not sell one of their Tipo 158 Grand Prix cars, so Vandervell turned to Enzo Ferrari, who was using thinwall bearings in his Grand Prix cars.

Then there was trouble with the Board of Trade. In those early post-war years Britain was a bureaucratic nightmare, which made it difficult if not downright impossible to import foreign goods. However, the Board accepted Vandervell's argument that he had to have this Grand Prix Ferrari in Britain in order to research bearing production for high-speed racing engines, and they granted the permit without customs duties and tax provided that the car was only used for research, was re-exported at the end of one year and did not race! Vandervell balked at that and went back to the Board, who then said it could race provided that the British Motor Racing Research Trust and not Vandervell Products entered it. Incensed, Vandervell decided to pay the tax and the duty so that he was free to use the car as he wished.

There were essentially three Thinwall Specials - as the Ferraris were called - and Parnell was asked to drive the third. This was a Ferrari 375, but with the 4.5 litre unsupercharged V12 Ferrari engine that was fitted to the chassis of the car Vandervell had used in 1950, and with de Dion rear suspension. Parnell was asked to race the car in the BRDC Daily Express International Trophy race at Silverstone on 5 May 1951 (our picture). As there was a full complement of four Alfa Romeos present with Giuseppe Farina, Juan Manuel Fangio, Consalvo Sanesi - Alfa Romeo's test driver - and Felice Bonetto driving, the opposition was the best available. Vandervell wanted to see how his new Ferrari would fare against them, as there were no factory Ferraris entered.

In practice Fangio broke the lap record, set the previous year by Giuseppe Farina, also in an Alfa 158, but as he had borrowed Bonetto's car for this effort the surprised Bonetto found himself on the front row of the grid with Fangio relegated to the second row due to his practice time with his own car. In the first heat and in the excitement of the moment Bonetto literally stood on the start line with wheels spinning, and Fangio shot past him from the second row into the lead. He was 5 seconds ahead of Bonetto at the end of the first lap, with Parnell right behind Bonetto. Four laps later Parnell swept past the Italian and began to trim Fangio's 12-second lead. Fangio responded with a quick lap, but Reg Parnell kept pushing and eventually finished just 3 seconds behind him. Farina won the second heat and broke the circuit record, but ominous black rain clouds began to form and by the time the cars lined up for the final the heavens opened and the circuit was awash. There was hail, lightning and heavy rain, but the race was started nonetheless.

Drivers had a tough time with hardly any visibility, and at places the track was covered from side to side in 6 inches of water. Bonetto's plugs were flooded and both Fangio and Farina in their Alfa Romeos were struggling, although still averaging 60 mph in conditions that would never be tolerated in a modern Grand Prix. Parnell, in the Thinwall Ferrari, was in his element and he not only caught up with the leaders but also passed them to take the lead, followed by the equally brave Duncan Hamilton in his Lago Talbot. All this happened in just six laps, then the stewards decided that enough was enough and put out the chequered flag, giving Parnell one of his greatest wins at an average speed of over 65mph.

After the race Reg said, "It's a pity it was stopped as I would have liked the race to have continued. I was a minute ahead of the Italians and I am sure they would not have made this up. It was like aquaplaning in an ice-cold tub, but in the cockpit it was very hot and steamy so that at 80mph I only had a dim outline of the comers and only the outlines of spray telling me that another car was in front."

Tim Parnell, who was at the event with his father, says that very few people know that Reg actually spun the car during the race - no television monitors in those days - and Reg Parnell himself kept quiet about it. However, the following week he went into the Steering Wheel Club in London to find a large blow-up photograph of him spinning, which had been caught by just one photographer, so his cover was blown!

Parnell's victory made everyone sit up and take notice, and of course gave Tony Vandervell something to get excited about; he immediately entered Reg for the Festival of Britain Trophy at Goodwood a couple of weeks later. This time Farina was driving a 4CLT Maserati, as Alfa Romeo had not entered a car for the event. Reg won the first heat and created a sensation by breaking the outright circuit record on his first lap from a standing start! In the final he won again after a tremendous battle with Farina, where they took turns at breaking the lap record. It ended up in Parnell's hands.

Four weeks later Reg was back in the same car at Dundrod for the Ulster Trophy. Farina was expected at this event with his Maserati, but clearly the drubbing he had suffered at Goodwood had had its effect and he arrived with an Alfa Romeo 158. Once again Parnell and Farina swapped fastest laps in practice, but the Italian, sitting back in the cockpit with arms outstretched, had the better start and took the lead with Parnell running second. This was partly a tactical move, because Farina knew that he would need a fuel stop, whereas Reg could run the race without stopping. As Farina pulled away from the pits after his fuel stop Parnell shot past into the lead, but just over a lap later Farina ate up Reg's 3-second lead, passed him and won the race, Reg taking second.

Although Parnell had signed a contract to race the Thinwall Special with Vandervell, he was also still under contract to BRM, and this took precedence. At last BRM announced they would race in the French Grand Prix at Reims with Parnell, so Tony Vandervell offered his car to Brian Shawe-Taylor, one of Britain's good racing drivers of the day. However, as BRM again failed to show up and as Shawe-Taylor was clearly not up to the job, Vandervell offered the Thinwall to the now unemployed Reg Parnell, who in the face of a full Grand Prix field, finished in fourth place. Parnell drove the car again at Goodwood, taking second place, and finished his season with Vandervell by winning the Scottish Grand Prix at the bumpy airfield circuit at Winfield with the latest version of the Thinwall Special with a long "nostril" added to the bonnet to give a ram effect.

Parnell's career as driver, after these events and a couple of outings for the BRM outfit was restricted from 1952 onwards to a couple of sporadic appearances in continental races with a Ferrari 500, whilst becoming extremely involved with the Aston Martin factory, both as driver and as team manager, taking the Astons into Formula One. He later became involved in the running of the Yeoman Credit Team (see our story on BRP) and with the formation of the Reg Parnell Racing Team, also got Lola into Grand Prix racing. His legendary ability to identify talent gave Jim Clark, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood and Chris Amon, to name the best-known ones, their first taste of Grand Prix driving. Sadly, in January 1964, at the age of 53, he died as a result of a peritonitis that was diagnosed too late and, when treated with a drip attached to his leg, created a blood clot that went straight to his heart and that was the end.

Reader's Why by Greg England

Reg Parnell struggles through a downpour to win a rain shortened 1951 International Trophy Race at Silverstone.

The British born Parnell started racing in 1935 in an MG. He had some success driving a Bugatti before the war. After the war, Parnell had with some good runs in British national events while driving a Maserati. These successes led to him driving with the Alfa Romeo team in the first WC Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950. Parnell qualified fourth and finished third, behind and on the same lap as his teammates Guiseppe Farina and Luigi Fagioli.

Guy Anthony Vandervell had ordered a Ferrari Tipo 125 Grand Prix car to be used to prepare the team for the upcoming BRM car. The initially delivered Tipo 125 had a 1.5 liter supercharged V-12 and was raced by Raymond Mays and Ken Richardson in the 1949 International Trophy race. The car carried the “Thinwall Special”, named for Vandervell's bearing company. The car proved a handful and was crashed by Richardson. Vandervell returned the car to Ferrari and took delivery of a second Tipo 125. This car was driven by Alberto Ascari in the 1950 International Trophy race. Ascari spun in the rain and failed to finish. Vandervell again returned the car to Ferrari, who rebuilt the car and added a 4.5 liter unsupercharged V-12 engine. This car ran for the first time with Reg Parnell driving at the 1951 International Trophy race at Silverstone. Parnell managed to finish second in his first heat race.

Then in the final, the skies opened up and due to the downpour the race was stopped early, after only six laps and with Parnell and the “Thinwall Special” ahead he was declared the winner. Parnell would win the Festival of Britain Trophy at Goodwood and finish second in the Ulster Trophy race at Dunrod later that year.

This success led Vandervell to enter the French GP at Reims where Parnell finished fourth. Parnell would drive a BRM in the British GP and Vandervell entered his Ferrari for Peter Whitehead. The BRM would finish fifth five laps in arrears, but two laps ahead of Whitehead. Parnell and the BRM qualified eighth in Italy but failed to start due to an engine failure.

Parnell would not race overseas again and moved into team management. He would manage the Aston Martin team before moving to the Yeoman Credit team and then the Bowmaker Racing team. He started his own team in 1963 running Lolas and Lotuses. Parnell would die in January 1964 following complications from a routine surgery.