Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

| 18 Dec 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

He was the first of his kind. Alas, he was also the last.

Mike Johnson Parkes was a man apart from the world he inhabited.

His outsized stature at Ferrari during the 1960s – both within the Scuderia and the road-car department – was such that he was in effect handed the keys to the castle.

He had the ear of Il Commendatore and his trust, yet ‘Parkesi’ walked away to compete for a privateer squad at an age when most drivers have retired.

Oh, and he also co-authored the Hillman Imp.

Classic & Sports Car – Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

Mike Parkes wheeling his Fry-Climax after retiring during the 1958 Coupe du Salon at Montlhéry

He remains a difficult man to pigeonhole, that’s for sure.

Parkes was the public schoolboy who made his name at Rootes in the 1950s, propelled as much by the arrogance of youth as pencil-chewing contemplation.

He was the club racer who, in his mid-30s, made the leap to Grand Prix pilot.

He was the development jockey who terrorised the locals in and around Maranello in many a Ferrari wearing PROVA plates.

He was the naturalised Italian who in the 1970s honed the Lancia Stratos into an era-defining rally weapon.

Parkes was all of these things and more, enjoying seemingly frictionless movement between his many roles; a man undaunted by high-stakes challenges.

This is perhaps an off-hand reading of a character who is now largely forgotten by history, albeit an explicable one.

He never was a name-above-the-title star, but Parkes was unquestionably blessed with more natural gifts than seems fair.

Nevertheless, there lingers a sense of what might he have achieved had he not been such a multifaceted all-rounder.

Born in Richmond, London, on 24 September 1931 and educated at Haileybury College in Hertfordshire, Parkes embarked on his professional life in 1949 as an apprentice with Humber Ltd.

Classic & Sports Car – Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

Racing a Gemini Mk3A in a Formula Junior event at Brands Hatch in 1961

Three years later, he first ventured trackside aboard an MG PB, which made way for a TD on his turning 21.

The defiantly self-directed young man had been given the car by his father on the condition that he never raced it.

His secret was safe until his exploits made it into print in a local newspaper… There followed a dalliance with a Frazer Nash and, in time, a Lotus Eleven.

Despite his talent, Parkes the racing driver largely played second fiddle to Parkes the engineer, the urbane charmer also thinking nothing of driving from the Midlands to London and back of an evening to visit a girlfriend.

He burned the candle at both ends for much of the ’50s, but his ability behind the wheel didn’t pass by without notice.

Parkes also drove for the Fry F2 team, the dawn of the 1960s bringing conspicuous success with Equipe Endeavour and Colonel Ronnie Hoare’s Maranello Concessionaires squad.

Whether driving a Ferrari 250GT SWB or a Jaguar Mk2, he often accrued several wins of a weekend.

Parkes moved into Formula Junior during the 1960 BRSCC Boxing Day meeting at Brands Hatch, driving a works Gemini.

Chequered Flag team principal Graham Warner recalled to me in 2011: “We had two new drivers – Peter Ashdown in the Mk3, and Mike in the new, slimmer and stiffer Mk3A, which we had built from scratch in just four weeks.

“I had watched Ashdown in sports cars and he was clearly very good; I thought he had a lot of talent.

“Mike, on the other hand, was exceptional. He was a natural in anything.”

Classic & Sports Car – Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

Parkes drifting a Ferrari 250GT SWB at Oulton Park in 1962

“His father was the chairman of Alvis,” he explained. “I recall us all going out for lunch one day in one of the firm’s six-wheeled Saracen armoured cars. We didn’t have trouble parking…

“Mike always knew the best restaurants and had the Michelin Guide to hand whenever he was racing overseas.

“He brought the necessary blend of ability and technical understanding to evaluate our car, and he brought it forward.

“He was too tall to be comfortable in a single-seater, but that didn’t seem to slow him down.”

However, there would be no dream debut win. Parkes’ gearlever broke loose on the second lap, forcing him to change gear with the residual stump.

Despite this obvious handicap, he finished third.

He remained with Chiswick’s finest into the following season, while also finishing second overall and class victor in the British Saloon Car Championship, all of which helped tip his driving career from ‘emerging’ to ‘arriving’.

Even so, his step into the big leagues occurred in the most improbable fashion, with Parkes becoming a Scuderia Ferrari driver at Le Mans in 1961 while ostensibly on hand to oversee the Rootes bid with a team of Sunbeam Alpines.

Parkes was invited to try out a 250TRI/61 and he proved instantly quick – to the point that he was offered a seat for the race.

He and wingman ‘Wild’ Willy Mairesse finished second in the 24 Hours behind their Scuderia teammates Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien.

Classic & Sports Car – Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

Parkes (on left) as engineer, here with Ferrari’s Mauro Forghieri and the factory’s 1964 flat-12 F1 engine

At the end of the year he departed Rootes for a full-time position at Ferrari, variously as a development engineer and racing driver, and he soon made an impression.

Parkes and his boss enjoyed the sort of rapport that was unheralded within this notoriously feudal firm. He also enjoyed good relations with his fellow drivers, with one noticeable exception.

Parkes and John Surtees didn’t gel, neither man bothering to hide their mutual antipathy.

Parkes also developed a case of vaulting ambition. While he was fiercely competitive, motor racing had always been a sideline; it was something he did when he wasn’t at work.

Now he wanted more, his motivation being bolstered by a string of significant victories in sports cars.

He and co-driver Umberto Maglioli led a Ferrari clean sweep of the podium positions in the 1964 Sebring 12 Hours.

He also won the 1965 Monza 1000 Kilometres alongside Jean Guichet and bagged repeat honours in that event a year later alongside Surtees.

The wins kept on coming.

Parkes and great friend Ludovico Scarfiotti claimed victory in the 1966 Spa 1000 Kilometres aboard their scarlet P3, but he yearned for a drive in Formula One. Enzo Ferrari wasn’t having any of it.

Classic & Sports Car – Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

Joking with the Ferrari mechanics at Monza, April 1965

Parkes had attempted to qualify for the 1959 British Grand Prix at Aintree in the Fry-Climax without success, and drove a Bowmaker Racing Cooper in the non-series International 2000 Guineas race at Mallory Park three years later, but opportunity didn’t knock until midway through the 1966 season after Surtees abruptly departed the Scuderia for Cooper.

Il Grand John’ famously butted heads with dictatorial team manager Eugenio Dragoni.

The former Formula One World Champion considered his position to be untenable following one too many bust-ups during the build-up to that year’s Le Mans.

A vacancy in the Formula One line-up suddenly needed filling and Parkes was happy to oblige (Surtees alluded decades later that Parkes had helped engineer his departure).

As an aside, Dragoni was replaced by Franco Lini in 1967, with Il Commendatore blaming him for Surtees’ exit even though he alone had the final say.

The upshot was that Parkes found himself squeezing his 6ft 4in frame into a specially adapted Ferrari 312 for his maiden World Championship start at Reims.

He came home second to Jack Brabham, having battled hard with Graham Hill until the latter’s BRM dropped out.

Parkes qualified on pole for that year’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza and finished runner-up to teammate Scarfiotti in the race.

In 1967, he overtook Jackie Stewart’s BRM to win the non-Championship Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone.

Some Ferrari insiders claimed that he was too tall and heavy to beat the fun-sized aces in single-seaters, but he was right up there. Until he wasn’t.

Classic & Sports Car – Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

Parkes (left) had Enzo Ferrari’s ear, here at the 1966 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and was lined up by Il Commendatore to be his heir apparent

Scrolling forward, Parkes was shadowing Stewart at the start of the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, only to exit violently at Blanchimont.

The Scot’s BRM spewed oil out of its breather on to the tyres of Parkes’ Ferrari, which connected with the guardrail before overturning.

He was dragged behind in its wake. Parkes was carted off to hospital, where he remained in a coma for a week and only narrowly avoided having his legs amputated.

His father had him transferred to Luton and Dunstable Hospital shortly thereafter.

Parkes was hobbling within three months, but the bones didn’t heal properly, which resulted in further grafts and more months spent convalescing.

He eventually returned to Ferrari eager to join the fray as a works driver.

There was a lull until he belatedly ventured trackside for the Paris 1000 Kilometres in June 1969, only for Enzo Ferrari to offer him the world on the condition that he retired from competition.

He would effectively become his heir apparent and assume greater responsibility, both as an engineer and manager.

That, and receive shares in SEFAC Ferrari. Amazingly, Parkes rebuffed his offer.

Classic & Sports Car – Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

Testing the Ferrari P4 at Daytona International Speedway in late 1966

Derek Bell, then an aspiring Formula One hero, joined the Scuderia in 1968. He recalls: “I was in my mid-20s and Mike was considerably older.

“It isn’t as though he was aloof, but I got the impression Parkes didn’t want another Brit at Maranello.

“He and I didn’t really have anything in common and there was no real warmth between us.

“That isn’t to say that there was any animosity, just that we didn’t talk to one another much beyond anything related to the cars.

“He was already something of a legend at Ferrari and obviously regarded highly.

“I remember the lunches where we would all be seated on a long table – the drivers, the mechanics and so on.

“Parkes would be holding court and everyone would hang on his every word. He was the Ingegnere and I was the young upstart.

“I felt he wanted to be doing what Chris [Amon] and I were doing, but he was perhaps a bit too old.

“The thing you have to remember is that Ferrari was in disarray, certainly in 1969 when Fiat came in. There was nothing for us to race in the second half of the season, so we were ‘let go’.”

Parkes drove occasionally for NART in 1970 while still in Ferrari’s employ before departing for Scuderia Filipinetti in 1971.

Classic & Sports Car – Mike Parkes: Ferrari’s golden boy

Parkes beat Jackie Stewart to win the 1967 Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone aboard his Ferrari 312

His standing within the works equipe clearly retained currency, though, as Bell notes: “At Le Mans in 1973 I drove Jacques Swaters’ Group 4 Ferrari Daytona, which I didn’t enjoy.

“Truth be told, it was a rather nondescript race for us. As I recall, we were lying inside the top 10 towards the end of the race, fourth in class, when I was collared by a particularly animated Ferrari man.

“He pushed me up against some tyres and told me not to challenge Parkes, who was running third in class in the Filipinetti Daytona, but I wanted to race so I did!”

There would be no great reversal of fortune on the track for Parkes. The Swiss squad was shuttered in 1974, Parkes having made his final start a year earlier.

He moved to Lancia as development engineer for the Stratos programme and transformed rallying’s first pin-up into a winner, although his relationship with his paymaster wasn’t always a happy one.

Fast-forward to 1977 and, with his career at a crossroads, Parkes was driving at night in heavy rain at Chieri, south-east of Turin, when his car collided with a lorry. He died instantly.

So how good was he? As a racing driver, Parkes excelled in saloon cars, GTs and sports-prototypes.

Nevertheless, the jury is out on whether he would have been a consistent front-runner in Formula One had fate been kinder.

As an engineer, he left an indelible mark on both the mainstream motor industry and the exotica firmament alike.

The overlapping Venn diagram of his career is unlike any other. Imagine, for example, Carlos Sainz Jnr having engineered a small hatchback en route to getting his feet under motorsport’s top table.

It sounds improbable now. It was equally improbable then.

Images: Richard Heseltine Archive/Getty

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