Reflections in Retirement – from J. J. Parkes [19th May 1903 – 26th September 1985]
interviewed in 1981 by Eric Stapleton
Tucked away in a secluded Suffolk village lies the attractive residence of Mr. and Mrs. Parkes, from where he commuted regularly for many years in his private aeroplane to his desk at Holyhead Road as Chairman and Managing Director of Alvis Ltd.
Following his retirement in 1973 and his subsequent retention as consultant to the firm, he has now settled happily into his country home and legitimately takes some pride in the continued possession of his pilot’s licence. He may also be justifiably proud of the significant contribution which he made to the world of engineering and to Alvis in particular during a long and active career.
His experience prior to his involvement with this firm had appropriately been with automobile companies such as Angus Sanderson and Swift in the Midlands and with the aircraft industry, becoming joint general manager of De Havilland in 1935. There he was concerned with the development of the Mosquito which was to play a major part. in the forthcoming conflict, and ultimately with the innovation of the gas turbine engine. In his role as an officer in the Auxiliary Air Force He also had a hand in training pilots of the calibre of Max Aitken to fly such machines.
During his early days with Swift’s he had observed how they were frequently overtaken by Alvis chassis on their test route near Kenilworth. It so happened that his managing director hailed from Wales, not far from the home of T. G. John, whom he met in 1926, though he recalls little of their lengthy conversation in his company in a railway compartment, since it was conducted entirely in Welsh.
Some 20 years later he was ushered in to meet him again in Coventry, the purpose being to discuss the Gnome-Rhone aeroengine which Alvis was at that time buying under licence. In spite of John’s optimism about the prospects of this engine, orders were not forthcoming. Before long the imminence of the war prompted De Havillands to search for subcontractors and to induce Alvis to make components for them which included items as diverse as bomb-trolleys and power plants for aircraft.
After the cessation of hostilities, when the Ministry of Defence wanted training aircraft and armoured vehicles, it is perhaps not surprising that Alvis should turn to John Parkes to spearhead their post-war efforts by offering him managerial control. He was at once impressed — as were Rover’s when the two firms were eventually merged — by the collective expertise of his staff in the fields of heat treatment and metrology and in certain unusual aspects of automobile engineering in which they had built for themselves an enviable reputation.
One of the keys to their success has always been the care with which apprentices are recruited and trained by the company. One of the first tasks to confront their new M.D. in 1946 was that of reintroducing vehicle production at Holyhead Road. The pre-war 12/70 was to serve as the basis for post-war car development from which the TA 14 model was to evolve, the coachwork tooling for which he describes as “lying around at Mulliners”. Many of the chassis were in fact clothed with various ‘one-off’ bodies such as wooden shooting brakes constructed by small boat-building firms. In view of the Government’s imposition of a crippling Purchase Tax of 66.6% on cars costing over £1,000, the Alvis was marketed at £998.
By 1948 work had already begun on the design of the 3-litre range, the prototype of which betrays its descent from the bodywork of the TA 14. The new in-line, 6-cylinder engine was to prove capable of progressive development until the termination of car production some 17 years later. Those mainly involved in the basic design work of this model were Harry Barber, who later moved to Pressed Steel, and W. M. Dunn, who was to achieve his twin objectives for the engine of longevity and refinement. His M.D. had had experience of driving Chevrolets before the war for very considerable mileages over varying road surfaces in Iran. He still recalls the reliability of those engines with their cast-iron pistons which were frequently good for over 90,000 miles. It was natural therefore that his expectations of the new Alvis engine should be even higher.
Less well known perhaps is the fact that one such chassis was clad by the Works with an experimental estate body, which he used extensively both in this country and on the Continent to publicise the marque. This was not an easy time financially for the company, which he describes as having been “near the borderline of profitability”. When the decision was taken not to proceed with the production of this body style, the car was subsequently disposed of.
It is all too easy for devotees of the Red Triangle to overlook the fact that the mainstay of the company throughout the post-war period was its armoured vehicles. The Saracen and the Salamander were in fact the first military vehicles to be produced after World War 2 and it is a tribute to the soundness of their design that they are still in use in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The Scorpion tank which was introduced about ten years ago was equipped with a tough yet lightweight aluminium body and a robust Rolls Royce engine from which it derived its qualities of speed and durability. Its popularity with the armed services of several nations has materially assisted the parent company to balance its books over a period of time. The production of aero-engines has also helped to sustain the fortunes of Alvis, being installed both in helicopters and in conventional aircraft, and facilities for servicing and overhauling them have continued.
To revert to the automobile side, at a time when several long-established coachbuilding concerns were being bought up, Park Ward approached Alvis in an attempt to safeguard their future. These were also hard times for small production car firms, several of which went to the wall.
It was suggested by David Brown that Alvis should produce engines and gearboxes for Aston Martin/Lagonda in the early 1960s, but Alvis preferred to go it alone and negotiated an agreement with the German ZF firm to provide gearboxes for installation in their own chassis. Other suggestions which failed to find favour were by Alec Issigonis, who proposed that a 4-cylinder, 1750 cc or a V-8, 3,500 cc engine should be developed for future use Mike Parkes, well known for his achievements in the sports car world, was in favour of trying one out in his own Alvis, but joined the Ferrari concern and the project was dropped. He was tragically killed in an Italian road accident whilst at the height of his powers.
It was Hermann Graber, the designer of the body-style interpreted in this country by Mulliner Park Ward, who was more than anyone responsible for the adoption by Alvis of the ZF gearbox, and even bought rubber seals from Germany for use on his cars. The shaping of the body panels was effected by MPW by means of Avro’s rubber press technology. Mr. Parkes retains especially fond memories of driving 1 ALV, with its wire wheels, long-range driving lamps, triple carburettors and its gleaming, grey paintwork. This car is now in the Coventry Motor Museum.
His present transport around the lanes of Suffolk is a Rover 3500: though its handling qualities leave a little to be desired, it is notably economical on fuel for a car of this size. It shares a stable with a VW Golf whose diesel engine is even thriftier. His nephew, Brian Parkes, now upholds the Alvis tradition in the shape of his blue TD 21 dhc. It is difficult to equate this modest, kindly and unassuming person with the man who was the driving force behind Alvis Limited for over a quarter of a century. He is however far from inactive in retirement, regularly renewing his associations with the firm through the annual apprentices’ dinner and having many interests. It is typical of John Parkes that at the end of a distinguished career and with the happiest memories of his time with Alvis on which to reflect, he prefers to continue to look to the future with his customary optimism and confidence.
Mr. J.J. Parkes CBE FRAeS died on 26th September 1985. Mr. Parkes commenced his work in the car industry with Swift Ltd. a firm which made light cars in, for the times, quite large numbers. As a young man he first met T.G. John on a train journey to London after which John conversed in Welsh with his colleagues. This meeting was to have far reaching results. Mr. Parkes moved from Swift to the Rootes Group and, having acquired a pilots licence, joined Airwork Ltd. (later British United Airways) in 1929. After becoming Airworks technical manager & test pilot he joined de Havilland in 1936 becoming general manager of the Propellor & Engine Division. It was during the re-armament programme that he approached John, who had a brand new aero engine factory but no work, to carry out machining for de Havilland. Soon Alvis Ltd. was extremely busy and went on to manage 20 factories during the war.
The Royal Auxiliary Air Force was formed in the mid-twenties and Mr. Parkes served in it until 1944. It was during this time that an Aircraft of a unit of which he was commander disappeared. He was duly informed by a mechanic that “a bloke with no legs” had taken off in it and so was formed a lifelong friendship with Douglas Bader. On National Alvis Day at Crystal Palace one became very aware of the enthusiasm they had for things mechanical.
When T.G. John died in 1946 Alvis had moved with the manufacture of aero engines and armoured vehicles, as well as cars, and so Mr. Parkes was Chairman during those years when Alvis was a three product company until he retired in 1973.
This club owes a great deal to Mr. Parkes for the support received from the company during his term as Chairman. Financial help at Crystal Palace was always given when Mr. Parkes and senior management would be present. At the works, driving test facilities and visits to the factory were made available. The world interest in fine machinery con-tinues to grow and we shall always owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Parkes for ensuring that the Alvis car remained in production when its contribution to the company’s profits was small.
A brief account of the life of John Joseph Parkes
By Johnnie and Annabel Parkes – 2019
J.J.P. was born on May 19th 1903 in High Barnet, Hertfordshire. His father, Henry George Parkes, was a civil servant at the Inland Revenue (as was his grandfather); his mother, Elizabeth Swain, was a housewife. In 1905, when John was only two years old, his father died of asthma, at the early age of forty. Thus John and his brother Matthew had a difficult childhood in the sense that his mother had to depend mainly on relatives in order to make ends meet. One consequence of this was that they moved house very frequently: five different homes in the space of thirteen years, all in the Bushey – Barnet area, sharing with various uncles and aunts. John went to a preparatory school at Cockfosters, then was tutored at home for two years by Dora Smith, a university-educated neighbour, because he was suffering from glandular health problems, after which he went to Bushey Manor School.
John evidently had an early interest in all mechanical devices. There is a watercolour painted by him at the age of ten (in 1913) showing a submarine, an aeroplane and an airship, which he entitled “modem inventions in sea and air”. His first encounter with a real-life aeroplane took place around 1914 when a Bleriot Monoplane and a Longhom Farman biplane landed at Bushey Hall Golf Course and he ran as fast as his legs could carry him to see them and their pilots, Gustav Hamel and Claude Graham White. He also remembered seeing a Schutte-lmz airship shot down at Coughley in September 1916. His father cultivated a number of scientific interests in his private life: he possessed a microscope, and constructed model locomotives and a sand-driven windmill, operated like a waterwheel.
J.J.P. got his first job in 1917, at the age of 14, working for the London County Council for fifteen shillings a week. He was then taken on by a Mr. W.M. Joy (described by him as a “wild Irishman”) as a self-taught “ship’s engineer”, operating the diesel engine of a schooner on which Mr.Joy transported cars from England and the Continent to Ireland on behalf of an Irish car importer. This brought a rise in salary to six pounds a week.
After he had been doing this job for about a year the car importer, Mr. Wilson, bought up the Angus Sanderson Company, which produced cars by assembling components made by a variety of small manufacturers. This provided the opportunity for John to embark on a student engineering apprenticeship with Angus Sanderson, based at Hendon. After a few years the company went into liquidation which led him to move on to another car manufacturer, Swift of Coventry Ltd., where he completed his apprenticeship in 1925 and subsequently became manager of the company’s London depot. In 1927 he moved again to work for the Rootes Group in Maidstone, which at that time was a car distributor.
In the course of these years he had also learned to fly. In 1925 he heard about the formation of the Auxiliary Air Force, which immediately sparked his interest. By a stroke of luck, while working at Swift he met a Swift owner who was a Flight Lieutenant at the Central Air Force Staff and personal assistant to Lord Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff. This fortuitous encounter led to an interview with Lord Grosvenor, who was in the process of setting up 601 Squadron, part of the Auxiliary Air Force then in course of formation. Lord Grosvenor evidently liked what he saw and John subsequently went to an official interview with the selection board and was accepted for entry to the squadron in 1925.
At that time aspiring Auxiliary Air Force pilots had to gain a basic “A” flying licence at their own expense but the Air Ministry would then refund the applicant’s tuition expenses of ninety-six pounds, after which they received further tuition to bring them up to operational standard – quite an effective way of weeding out unsuitable candidates!. In November 1925 John started learning to fly at the De Havilland School of Flying, based at Stag Lane airport. He was taught on two of the first De Havilland Moths ever made. In May 1926, after six months’ training, he gained his “A” Pilot’s Licence, and officially became an Auxiliary Air Force pilot. He was in fact the first Auxiliary Air Force pilot in the country to qualify by this route. Paying for those initial flying lessons must have been quite a sacrifice on the sort of salary he was getting at that time. In 1927 he gained his RAF “Wings” and a “B” commercial pilot’s licence, and in May of that year was officially authorised to wear the R.A.F. Pilot’s badge. Later, he was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. In 1929 he was posted to the Central Flying School in Hendon to do a full RAF Instructor’s course, the first Auxiliary to do so. All of this was achieved in his spare time, because he was still working at the Rootes Group. Most of the other pilots in 601 Squadron came from a very different background: Lord Grosvenor recruited his first group of officers from his friends at White’s Club. In general they were wealthy members of the upper class who were used to an expensive lifestyle and had the kind of security which comes from not having to worry about how you were going to survive in life. In their case paying for flying lessons was not a problem – in fact, quite a lot of them owned their own planes.
Most of 601 ‘s training took place at weekends during the year, but from 1926 onwards every year in the month of August they went for more intensive training at a summer camp at Lympne airport, where they also enjoyed the lavish hospitality of Sir Philip Sassoon, (who, after the death of Lord Grosvenor in 1929, became commanding officer of the Squadron) at his home in Port Lympne. Here they alternated serious flying training and exercises with elaborate practical jokes at the expense of rival squadrons which chiefly involved bombarding each other’s airfields with items such as rolls of lavatory paper, jerry cans, matchboxes full of tiny crabs, and suchlike. John remained a member of 601 Squadron up to the outbreak of World War II. In July 1938, on the extension of his service for four years, he applied to be transferred to from Class A to Class C of the A.A.F. Reserve, which meant that he was no longer required to carry out training. He was a member of the Squadron for about thirteen years in all, from 1926 to 1939.
The flying qualifications and contacts John gained in the A.A.F. enabled him to move into the aviation industry, which had been his ambition right from his teenage years. In 1929 he left the Rootes Group and moved to Airwork Ltd., where he remained until 1936. These were perhaps the most exciting and adventurous years of his life. The Airwork Company was set up by Nigel Norman and Alan Muntz in 1928 for the purpose of constructing and operating the Heston Air Park (located near Hounslow in Middlesex); the Park was officially opened on 5 July 1929 to coincide with hosting the King’s Cup air race. Heston was the first UK airport to have a concrete hangar and concrete aprons, thus very modem for its time. The Air Park’s activities included hosting and servicing privately owned aircraft, as well as acting as a base for the Guards Flying Club and the Old Etonian Flying Club, operating a Flying School, putting on aircraft displays and public demonstrations of new aircraft types, holding air races and “garden parties”, testing aircraft, and operating private charter flights. Quoting from Alan Muntz’s obituary: “Under Norman as Chairman and Muntz as Managing Director, Heston quickly came to be regarded as one of the best-run aerodromes in the country, with a relaxed but professional atmosphere allied to a social focus, forming one of the most fashionable out-of-town resorts of the day”.
Sir Nigel Norman, one of the co-founders of the Heston Air Park, was also a member of 601 Squadron and became its commanding officer for a few years in the 1930s. Thus John’s career move to Airwork came about as a result of getting to know Norman in the Auxiliary Air Force context. His seven years there gave him experience of different aspects of civil aviation, including the manufacture, servicing and repair of aircraft.
His role in the company included teaching people to fly, giving joy rides, doing demonstration flights, and flying as a charter pilot. He also did a lot of aircraft testing, particularly during the later years. Going through his flying log books for this period one gets a panorama these activities. Some of the entries are more dramatic: “crashed” (followed by no flying at all for six months from October 1929 to April 1930, because he had sustained a severe back injury), “engine cut out in mid-Channel, glided back to Hawkings”, “unable to land at aerodrome owing to it being covered in ground fog, landed in local field and motored in”, “en route to Barcelona – forced landed in field, engine cut”, “engine cut out owing to broken piston after taking off- landed on aerodrome”, “forced landing in stubble field en route, starboard tank failed to feed”. In 1929 most of the flights were to places in Southern England but from 1930 onwards they occasionally ranged further afield to places such as Antwerp, Le Bourget, Lyon, Cannes, Nice, and Dijon.
He was flying virtually every day, mainly several short flights per day, and in the period from August 1928 to September 1936 clocked up a total of 1142.50 hours of civilian flying, as well as about 600 hours recorded in his RAF Log Books (which remained with the RAF). This experience offered him the chance to fly a great variety of aircraft, 81 different civil aircraft/engine types between 1929 and the end of 1935.
In 1934 he found himself involved in a totally new venture. In the 1930s Alan Muntz, the Managing Director of Airwork, had embarked on creating separate companies to set up commercial air services in Egypt, Palestine, Persia and Iraq, under the technical direction of Airwork. As a result, in June and July 1934 J.J.P.’s logbook records a series of flights between Abadan, Tul-i-Bazuun, Teheran, Bahgdad, Rutlak, Gaza, Almaza (Cairo), and Haifa in Dragon and Moth aircraft. In December 1934 he took a Rapide aircraft from Heston to Teheran via Lyon, Marseilles, Tunis, Sirte, Bengazi, Almaza, and Baghdad. To give an idea of what this involved you have to remember that at that time pilots had to navigate by using a map and compass and identifying landmarks, such as railway lines, on the ground. Making sure you could fill up with fuel at the various stops could also be complicated and required advance planning.
In Libya he could count on an unusual acquaintance: Maresciallo Italo Balbo, who in November 1933 had been nominated by Mussolini as Governor of Tripolitania. In the early 1930s Maresciallo Balbo, at that time Air Minister of Italy, flew to England with the chief test pilot of Breda in a prototype Breda 32, landing at Hatfield Airport. Balbo himself insisted on making the landing. After a smooth touch-down the aircraft started to execute a large ground loop to the left, demolished some boundary fencing, and toppled slowly into a drainage ditch. Nigel Norman and some others went out in a car. Balbo appeared, unhurt, at the door of the plane, and, in order to justify his debacle, declared that: “II faut toujours se metier des freins francais” (You should never trust French brakes). The Italian Air Attache, Colonel Bitossi, confided that if Mussolini heard about this event and Balbo were unable to depart on schedule he could find himself in a very embarrassing situation on his return to Italy. The only serious damage was to one of the elevators. A replacement was flown over from Vickers at Weybridge and the plane was rapidly repaired. Balbo thanked Airwork fulsomely and presented them with an official letter offering help if they needed it at any future time. It so happened that on one of his Middle Eastern trips John had some engine trouble while in Libya and needed a mechanical repair. The Italian Air Force staff were very uncooperative until John produced the magic letter and, on seeing the signature of Maresciallo Balbo, they rapidly changed their tune and immediately set to work to fix the plane.
John remained in the Middle East until February 1935, mainly in order to fly the managers of the Anglo Persian Oil Company and the Iraq Petroleum Company from one area to another.
One of these flights, from Teheran to Khaniqin (north-east of Baghdad), in the Rapide he had brought from England, was particularly dramatic: J.J.P. was reluctant to embark on the flight, anticipating bad weather, but his passengers – Sir John Cadman (Chairman of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company), Mr. Gass and H.E. General Nakkijiwan – finally convinced him to take off. Four hours into the flight he found himself in a snowstorm in the mountains and the wings of the plane, flying at 18,000 feet, iced up, forcing him to descend. With very poor visibility he managed to bring the plane down to a lower altitude without hitting a mountainside and make a forced landing near Khurwar in a valley between two mountains at an altitude of 6,400 feet. His passengers were dispatched to the nearest town on donkeys guided by some Kurds who had conveniently appeared on the scene. That night he and his mechanic slept in the plane, and the next morning, with the sun shining, the Kurds were convinced to beat a makeshift runway in the snow so that they could take off and complete their journey. The irony of the situation was that the only form of nourishment on board the plane was a large stock of caviar, which his passengers had bought in Teheran. When he got back to England Sir John Cadman, realising what a lucky escape they had had, made him a gift of a Cartier “Tank” watch; in the letter which accompanied it he wrote, with typical English understatement” Dear Mr. Parkes, I have the most pleasant recollection of two flights with you, from Baghdad to Tehran and then on return, a most interesting experience. I was filled with admiration at the way in which you extricated the machine from an unusual combination of conditions, and I hope you will accept this little memento of the flight.” At the end of these adventures John flew back to England, via Almaza, Benghazi, Sirte, Tripoli, Tunis (where he had to stop for several days having developed chicken pox), Catania, Naples, Rome, Sarzana, Lyon, Dijon, Orly, and Le Bourget. In those days any long journey had to be divided into many short hops.
In June he made a further trip to Egypt with a DH86 plane, via Lyon, Rome, Brindisi and Athens. He had another story to tell about that trip. When he reached Rome he saw what he thought was the right airport and landed. Within a few minutes a group of armed soldiers came running towards the plane and he realised that he had mistakenly landed at the military airport instead of the civilian one. His reaction was to take off again straight away “without getting involved in an argument” and fly on southwards. However, he needed to take on fuel before flying over the Mediterranean to North Africa, so he landed again at Brindisi (hoping that the authorities there had not received a tip-off from Rome), refuelled as quickly as possible, and then left Italy without further complications.
In Cairo he appears to have been training the English pilots based there to fly the DH86. In December 1935 he was again flying a Rapide in Iraq. On May 17th 1936 he had the opportunity to make a flight in the “Ernst Brandenburg” balloon, piloted by Herr Goetz, from Dusseldorf to Niederdorf.
In the course of 1936 John left Airwork, having been appointed Assistant General Manager of the De Havilland Aircraft Company, where he remained throughout the Second World War, later becoming joint General Manager of the Engine and Airscrew Divisions.
This career move to a managerial position was a major change from flying around the Middle East. His arrival coincided with the period in which the company was stepping up its production in response to the government’s policy of rearmament. At the end of 1936 he was transferred from the Hatfield factory to the original parent factory at Stag Lane to take charge of the manufacture of the thousands of Gypsy Major trainer engines needed to power the Tiger Moth trainer and other aircraft required by the RAF expansion programme. Simultaneously, the company was expanding its production of the Hamilton Standard Propeller under licence from the U.S.A. His specific responsibility was managing engine and propeller production at the Stag Lane and Lostock factories.
Propeller production had started at the Stag Lane factory in July 1935 and in November 1937 the company embarked on building a second “shadow” propeller factory at Lostock near Bolton, Lancashire. In fact it was John who in 1936 identified the field in which the factory was subsequently built as a suitable site. Up to 1939 these factories produced propellers for both civilian and military use and before the war had even begun they had delivered 10,000 for 20 different aircraft types. In the run-up to the war all new RAF planes were fitted with De Havilland propellers. In the course of the war 77,029 propellers were produced by the Lostock factory and 23,210 at Lane. In addition, 37,801 propellers assembled from American components were made at Lostock. As production expanded to a network of shadow factories, John was in the end responsible for 15,000 workers in fifteen different factories. Many different types of propeller were made, to be fitted to over forty different types of aircraft. John assisted in the test flying of a variety of aircraft to provide improved performance in relation to propeller design. The propeller factories made a crucial contribution to the success of the RAF in the Battle of Britain. In early June 1940 test flights with constant-speed operation propellers (in which John took part) had shown that they could greatly improve the performance of the Spitfire and the Hurricane. In the period between June 25th and August 16th 1940 De Havilland worked flat out to convert 1,051 Spitfires and Hurricanes to constant speed propellers. This required both manufacturing and fitting the conversion sets at top speed – just in time to enable them to fight much more effectively against the Luftwaffe’s mass attacks on Channel ports and shipping. In February to March 1944 he made a two-month business trip to Canada and the USA on behalf of De Havilland, for the purpose of visiting propeller and aircraft engine factories (including their own factory in Canada), comparing their products and production with those of De Havilland, acquiring technical knowledge about new developments (such as jet engines), exploring the possibilities of collaboration in propeller and aircraft production, and talking to staff from the American and Canadian Air Forces. The trip involved a lot of travelling in the two countries, touching Ottawa, Toronto, Washington, New York, Hartford Conn., Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dayton and led him to form lasting friendships with a number of his Canadian and American colleagues.
It is easy to imagine the management challenges which wartime production must have involved: rapidly scaling up production volumes, recruiting new staff, replacing skilled employees who left the company to join the Armed Forces, coordinating the work of the two main factories and the network of shadow factories, dealing with the disruption caused by air raids, maintaining staff morale, and incorporating continual technical changes in the production process. Executives worked a seven-day week, with a day off when advisable.
At the outbreak of the war 601 Squadron was incorporated in the R.A.F. but John, while retaining his commission as an R.A.F.officer, was not called up to fight because his role as a manager at an aircraft manufacturing company was thought to be more important. A number of his A.A.F. friends, including Nigel Norman and Roger Bushed, were killed fighting. After the war he continued to maintain friendships with various people he had known through the squadron, such as Loel Guiness, Bryan Thynne, Dickie Shaw, Christopher Clarkson, Max Aitken, Sir Dermot Boyle and Whitney Straight, as well as the sons of Nigel Norman, who became 601 pilots in the 1950s. He remained emotionally attached to the Squadron and participated in various commemorative events, such as the thirty-second annual dinner of the Old Comrades Association in March 1957, prior to the disbandment of the Squadron – the last such dinner to be held at the Town H.Q. in Kensington Park Road – at which he made a speech proposing the health of the guests. He proudly paraded in lounge suit and bowler hat when the squadron received a new Standard from Prince Philip in July 1954 and attended the celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of the formation of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in October 1974. He remained a lifelong member of the R.A.F. Club and of the Aero Club which he visited regularly when in London, meeting his old friends.
In December 1945 John left the De Havilland Company, having been offered a new job as Managing Director of the Alvis Company in Coventry. He had already had a lot of contact with Alvis because the company, participated in the shadow factory scheme (by which the manufacture of munitions was dispersed to various locations for security reasons). In the course of the war it had supplied De Havilland with 19,084 variable pitch propeller hub assemblies and 137,647 spare parts for variable pitch propellers.
At the time when he joined Alvis the company faced two challenges: converting to peacetime production, and getting back onto a sound financial footing – in the last years before the war it was making a loss. Initially it survived by taking on a variety of productive activities: manufacturing Leonides aircraft engines, the Alvis Fourteen car, Thomson British Auto Printing Presses, and bomb trolleys for use on aircraft carriers. It was also reconditioning pre-war Alvis cars (which had inevitably been mothballed during the war). The Board of Trade suggested that it might be interested in producing hosiery knitting machines and mechanical bookbinding equipment, but these options were rejected! Gradually the company’s new direction was defined. It came to specialise in three categories of product: luxury cars, armoured military vehicles, and aircraft engines.
Manufacturing and selling luxury cars was fraught with difficulties: immediately after the War years supplies of steel were restricted and their allocation was controlled by the government; it was difficult to predict how big the luxury car market might be (especially in the early years when there were recurrent fuel crises); the costs of developing and putting into production a new model of car were extremely high in relation to the potential volume of sales; and it was difficult to maintain long-term contracts with independent bodybuilders, which were gradually bought up by other manufacturers. In the years between 1947 and 1967 Alvis bodies were built by four different coachwork companies: Mulliners, Graber of Berne, Willowbrook of Loughborough, and Park Ward. In 1952 Alec Issigonis (who later designed the Mini) joined the company and in the next three years designed an extremely innovative car of great technical merit; in the meantime the costs of new capital equipment and factory space had nearly doubled. As a result the project was reluctantly abandoned and in 1955 Alec Issigonis returned to B.M.C. In order to make a profit, it would have been necessary to produce and sell at least 10,000 cars per year, which Alvis was not equipped to do without a major injection of capital and expansion of its production facilities. In the years between 1946 and 1967 the company built nearly 7,000 Alvis cars in all.
The manufacture of armoured military vehicles turned out to be the company’s best long-term money-earner. In the 1930’s Alvis had experimented developing tanks, armoured vehicles and gun tractors, but none of them actually went into production. It also developed a bomb trailer, which was successful – over 10,000 were produced during the war. In the war years the company participated in the manufacture of a wide range of military equipment but this did not include tanks or armoured cars. In the late 1940s the directors decided to have another go at moving into the military vehicle market. By the end of 1949 a mock-up armoured car was presented to the army and gained a favourable reception; by 1950 Alvis had gained a major order for the Saracen armoured car. Over the years this was followed by a series of other military vehicles: the Salamander cross country fire tender, the Stalwart cross country amphibious load carrier and, the Saladin armoured car. These were later followed by the Scorpion, and the Scimitar light tracked combat reconnaissance vehicles. In all 4,262 of these vehicles were produced, of which 1,629 were exported to twenty-three countries. In 1964 an agreement was signed with Automobiles M. Berliet of Lyon for the joint production of vehicles to be used by N.A.T.O. forces.
The Leonides aero engine was produced with great success from 1946 to 1970. The design and development of a 450 bhp Leonides engine had actually started in 1937, but the project was shelved at the outbreak of the war. After the war development was resumed and by the end of 1945 a fully tested model was ready to be put into production. The engine was very successful, being used in the “Sealand” flying boat, the Westland “Dragonfly” and “Widgeon” helicopters, the Bristol “Sycamore” helicopter, the Percival “Prince”, “Provost”, and “Pembroke” aircraft, the Scottish Aviation “Prestwick Pioneer”, the De Havilland “Husky”, and the Saunders-Roe Hovercraft. In 1954 a more powerful 875 bhp engine, the Leonides Major, was brought out. It was adopted for the Westland ‘Whirlwind” helicopter. In the mid sixties the nine-cylinder Leonides was available in nine versions and the Leonides Major in three versions. It was installed in army and navy aircraft being operated by the Air Forces of the U.K., Australia, Belgium, Burma, Eire, France, Iraq, Italy, Rhodesia, Sweden and Thailand. By 1970, when the last Leonides was built, 2,300 engines had left the factory and in subsequent years aero engine servicing continued to generate a considerable volume of work.
The various Leonides models were all piston-engined and the company was well aware that in time it would be necessary to switch to gas turbine engines. A large gas turbine engine was designed for the Bristol twin engined helicopter but in the end was not put into production; the incorporation of Alvis in British Leyland in 1967 led to the production of Rover Gas Turbines (a small gas turbine engine) in the Coventry factory under Alvis management from 1967 to 1973.
In 1965 Alvis was merged with Rover and John joined the Rover Board. The rationale behind this development was that this would enable Alvis to continue to be involved in the production of luxury cars and would reduce its excessive dependence on military vehicles – by that time the production of Alvis cars and Leonides aero engines was declining. The production facilities and skills of the two companies were in fact similar and complementary. In 1967 both companies were absorbed into British Leyland (which eventually sold off Alvis to United Scientific Holdings in 1981). This succession of mergers was typical of the British motor industry in that period.From this brief account of the activities of the Alvis Company in the years in which it was managed by J.J.P. (he was made Chairman in 1949) it will be evident that maintaining its viability required a range of skills: diversifying its product range and activities, and concentrating on those which could command a market and were likely to be profitable; negotiating with the British military establishment, aeroplane and helicopter manufacturers, and foreign buyers of aircraft and armoured vehicles to achieve sales; adapting the company’s productive facilities to manufacture new products; training and managing a highly skilled workforce; and, towards the end, keeping the factory running at a time when the British motor industry was in decline and industrial unrest on the increase. Apparently J.J.P. was renowned for his severe cost control, especially in the immediate post-war period; soon after he took up his appointment the word on the shop floor was that his permission was necessary to buy a VA penny stamp!
In 1954-55 and 1955-56 John was President of the Society of British Aircraft Constructors (the organisation which runs the Farnborough Air Show), a measure of his standing and of the importance of the company within the aircraft industry. He also served as Vice-President of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Throughout the years in which he managed Alvis as an independent company (1946 to 1965) it consistently made a profit. In his later years it depressed him to witness the decline of the British motor industry but at least in the end the Alvis Company survived, albeit no longer as a car manufacturer.During his time at Alvis and for a few years after retirement J.J.P. also served on the boards of various companies as a non-executive Director he was a Director of the Cornhill Insurance Company, Vice Chairman of Birfield Ltd., Chairman of Salisbury Transmission Ltd. and Kent Alloys Ltd. and a director of the Rover Co. Ltd. and Rover Gas Turbines Ltd. He was also Chairman of the Export Council for the British Aerospace Industry and a member of the Ministry of Defence Scientific Advisory Council.
John continued to fly after World War II, but mainly for pleasure. After moving to Coventry to work at Alvis his flying base was Baginton Aerodrome, the home of the Coventry Flying Club. When he retired and moved to Suffolk in 1972 he flew from Martlesham Aerodrome, near Ipswich. In 1957 he bought from De Havilland a renovated 1934 Leopard Moth (G-ACMN) which was his pride and joy; he kept it beautifully maintained and continued to fly it until the early 1980s. The grand total of his flying hours when he was finally obliged to give up due to heart problems was almost 3000 hours. He held a Private Pilots Licence for fifty-six years, from 1926 to 1982. Throughout the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies he attended aircraft rallies, flying there himself. For many years he helped to run the Coventry Aeroplane Club, first as Chairman (1951-1965) and then as President (1965-1978).
He had various other hobbies, which included amateur radio transmission, sailing, and game shooting. While living in Kenilworth, to improve his radio reception he built a thirty-foot radio antenna in the garden (which his children always wanted to climb). He never went in for ball sports, because he was not particularly good at them, but was a dab hand at croquet, competing ferociously in the annual tournament held by the London Alvis distributor, Bill Bates.
In his later years he dedicated considerable time to serving on voluntary organisations:these included the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the League of Friends of the Central Hospital and Leigh House, the Board of Governors of the Kingsley School, and the Parish Council of Charsfield, Suffolk, as well as the Coventry Aeroplane Club.
His professional qualifications and decorations included a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) awarded in 1969 for services to export, the Air Efficiency Award (given from 1942 onwards for ten years’ efficient service in the Reserve Air Forces of the United Kingdom), Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Officer of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (a charitable foundation which runs the St. John Ambulance Service and the St. John Eye Hospitals, as well as other medical activities), and Chartered Engineer.
John married his first wife, Mary Beatrice Johnson in 1930. They had three children, Michael, Annabel and John. Mary died of cancer at the age of fifty in 1956. In 1958 he married Jeanette Steencamp, a South African. Both his sons learned to fly and Michael also owned an aeroplane, a Beechcraft Baron. John died in 1985 at the age of 82 and is survived by his younger son and daughter.
His elder son, Michael, [born December 1931] had worked in the Rootes group from 1949, became project engineer for the Hillman Imp and joined Ferrari in 1963. He was killed in a car accident in Italy in 1977.
John’s grave is in the churchyard of Charsfield, Suffolk.
Conversations with John Parkes, personal papers, flying log books and correspondence.
Tom Moulson, The Flying Sword: the story of 601 Squadron, McDonald & Co.London, 1961.
- Martin Sharp, D.H.: an outline of de Havilland history, Faber & Faber,London 1960.
Kenneth Day, Alvis: the story of the Red Triangle, Gentry Books, London, 1981.
John Price Williams: Alvis: the post-war cars, Motor Racing Publications, Croydon, 1993.
Things I remember: Annabel
My father’s evenings, after he got home from work, were often spent doing things (when he was young there was no TV and even after we got our first TV set, in 1953, he never became a great TV watcher). Things” included cutting the lawns (there were a lot), mending bits of household equipment, and calling people all over the world on his ham radio. The centre of these activities was known as “the shack”, which had different incarnations in the different homes we lived in. I think the first “shack” was a real shed in the garden but the subsequent ones were simply a room in the house stuffed with radios, tools, collections of nails, screws, nuts and bolts and so on. In the apparent disorder he always seemed to be able to find things. My visits to the shack were generally either to ask him to fix something or for supplementary tuition on subjects such as how electricity worked (volts, ohms and amperes) and certain bits of mathematics which I hadn’t understood at school. I was also required to hold things from time to time, for example when he was soldering bits of circuits. At Northend Manor his shack was a room right next to my bedroom which meant that if I tried to read in bed after the time at which I was supposed to be going to sleep so as to be fresh for school next morning I often got discovered. One remedy was to read with a torch under the bedclothes!
When I was in my teens my father often used to pick me up from school in the early evening and take me flying from Baginton aerodrome near Coventry. Flying was his way of relaxing and “getting away from it all” after a day at the office. He used to tease me about the fact that I often brought along a packet of biscuits to nibble -1 was always ravenous at that time of day. I have a very happy memory of our flying outings. He was probably disappointed that I didn’t take very much interest in the technicalities of the flying, although I was quite good at picking out landmarks on the ground. My brothers gave him more satisfaction – both of them learned to fly.
As a young man my father had learned to use a sextant, which in those days was still an important navigational tool, especially at sea. No radio beacons or GPS. As a result he was quite an expert at picking out in the night sky the stars used for sextant readings. From time to time he would take me out into the garden in the evenings, take a reading, and then we would retire to the shack where he kept all his navigational tables. After a series of consultations and calculations we would discover that our house was located a mile or two from where it actually was! He also had various illustrated books on astronomy which I studied with fascination. Any ability I have to pick out
constellations is due to him. Nowadays I am enchanted by the wonderful photos of stars and galaxies sent to earth from outer space.
In my last year at school I sat the entrance examinations for Oxford and Cambridge universities. To make it easier for me to concentrate on my studies I became a weekly boarder, going home only at weekends. On the day when the news came that I had gained places at both universities, my father called in after work to the school house where I boarded to congratulate me. He brought with him a bottle of champagne. I still remember the expression of embarrassment on the face of my housemistress, a rather stem, grey-haired spinster of about sixty when a) she was offered a glass of champagne and b) she saw me enthusiastically drinking mine. Thinking back it was a very touching gesture, his way of telling me how pleased he was at my success. I was the first member of the family to go to university.
From 1952 to 1955 Alec Issigonis worked for Alvis on the design of a new car. in that period he often came to visit us at home. Most of my father’s motor industry colleagues tended to be quite boring (in my eyes at least). Although I was quite young (twelve in 1952) I was fascinated by Alec and somehow grasped that he was a very unusual, creative person. Partly it was his background (Greek father, German mother, born in Turkey), his slight German accent, his very un-English appearance, and Continental style hand gestures. When he discussed engineering problems with my father and Mike, without really understanding what they were talking about I realised that he was always throwing out new ideas and challenging conventional thinking. He also specialised in interesting Toys”, such as a toy steam train network and hot air balloons. It was my first encounter with a really original intellectual.
My father didn’t have the least interest in any form of spectacle such as films, theatre or opera. Our visits to Stratford theatre to see Shakespeare were organised by my mother and he never came. He wasn’t really interested in music either but he was interested in sound reproduction equipment, from radios to record players. As a result we had a set of really good hi-fi equipment from an early stage, even before LP records came in. My mother -who played the piano and really enjoyed music – had drawn up a list of works which it would be nice to have. So we had this rather limited stock of works which accompanied my teenage years, but their real function, so far as my father was concerned, was to demonstrate the quality of his hi-fi system.
Holidays in Italy
In his last years my father came several times to spend summer holidays in Italy with me and Franco. He was not keen on hotels or anywhere too smart or touristy, so we stayed either in rented “Agriturismo” flats in Tuscany or at my country house in Piemonte. The only problem was that his tourist interests were quite different from ours. When we drove round Tuscany visiting ancient villages and historic relics he was not really interested, but when we travelled down the Po valley he tended to ask unanswerable questions about the electricity pylons and the high-tension network or the emergency phones installed on the verge of the autostrada. Our place in Piemonte was in the depths of the country but bang underneath the main airline route down to Rome. You could watch the planes flying over, high in the sky. His chief amusement was to tune in (on a special radio he brought with him) to the pilots’ communication frequencies and listen in to their conversations with the various control towers.
Lunch at the RAF Club
In the early sixties I was living in London and from time to time my father would invite me to have lunch with him at the RAF Club, when he was in London on business. I used to enjoy being taken into this male enclave (women were only allowed in a small part of the premises) and meeting his various flying pals. Sometimes, if we both arrived at exactly the right time, I would see him walking down Piccadilly towards me and when we were a few paces apart he would raise his bowler hat in greeting which really touched me and made me feel very grown-up.
The idea that sedentary workers needed to take exercise in order to keep fit had not really taken off in the 1950s. However, my father thought that a brisk walk at least once a week would do him good. So it was that I, and our Alsatian dog Leo, would accompany him on a six-mile circular walk most Sundays. The route was always the same: up the Burton hills behind our home, down the other side flanking a small spinney, across some fields and back through Northend village. I cannot remember what we talked about during these walks (if we talked). They did have one permanent effect: in order to keep up with my father I got used to walking fast, taking quite long paces. Some years later, when I was on a business trip to Bolzano (in the north of Italy), I went out for a stroll round the town centre after dinner. As I wandered along looking in the shop windows a roving male tried to attach himself to me and as a result I quickened my pace in order to get rid of him. Finally he caught up with me and, panting slightly, said:” Ma suo padre per caso faceva il bersagliere?” (Was your father a bersagliere by any chance?) The bersaglieri are a special corps of the Italian army who are famous for parading by running through the streets to the accompaniment of trumpet fanfares, the long black feathers in their hats fluttering in the wind.
At Alvis JJP was known for keeping a tight control over costs. The same could be said, in some ways, for the domestic sphere. In some ways our life was a bit contradictory. We lived in a large, beautiful old house in the country and were driven around in fabulous Alvis cars. All three of us went to private schools. But so far as day to day expenses were concerned both my parents were quite thrifty. We virtually never went out to eat in restaurants (apart from occasional visits to London); my mother made a lot of her own clothes and some of mine; we had inexpensive holidays (usually renting a cottage at Aldeburgh from friends of the family); I can’t remember seeing luxury soaps in the bathroom; and telephone calls had to be few and rapid — communicate essential information, but no chatting. In fact, because Mike, as a young man,tended to make quite a lot of calls, which were usually “long distance” (i.e. outside the local exchange), there was a note book next to the phone where he had to note down his calls, which he would then have to pay for when the bill came in. Whenever a domestic appliance (washing machine, hairdryer, radio, whatever) developed a fault you did not go and buy a new one: my father, or Mike, took it to pieces, contacted the manufacturer if a spare part was needed, and repaired it. All this may seem very frugal but in reality many families lived like that in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties and in many ways it was a good education.
Things I remember: Johnnie
Radio was my dad’s main hobby since his first crystal set in the 1920’s, also because of the,flying he did for AirworKfrom around 1930. In the early 1930’s he built and experimented with the first type of television which bounced a modulated beam of light off two sets of rotating mirrors to scan a small low resolution image. Later.at the house in Kenilworth he had built in the garden, for the purposes of ‘ham radio’, a pylon not unlike a mini version of the pylons which carry high voltage electricity high enough to clear the surrounding roofs. The pylon system was apparently a bit too successful and soon his call sign G8QK was being used by many other ham radio enthusiasts to relay their signals to and from North America so he abandoned ham radio and turned instead to listening in to aircraft radio signals while making things out of valves, resistors and capacitors, pursuing what was his main home hobby.
One of Dad’s friends at that time was Captain Smith-Clarke, then Chief Engineer of Alvis and inventor of the iron lung which played an important part in the Polio outbreak and which lives on in the form of the artificial respirator used in intensive care units. He and dad had a common interest in Astronomy, he with telescopes and dad through having had a need, to look at the sun and stars for navigation at sea and in the air..
Our first washing machine
One specific thing I remember was that my father bought a Bendix washing machine, one of the first front loaders, in 1948. The machine lacked the concrete counter balance lumps that machines have now and needed to be bolted down to the floor. I remember Dad and Mike, then about 17, digging up a square of concrete which they’d previously laid in the conservatory because they’d got the cement mix wrong and the machine had torn its mounting brackets out.
Tracing underground pipes
Engineering and related matters figured a lot at Northend. On the land next to the house and an adjacent field were three wells from which water was piped to the outhouses. These became known as the high well, the low well and the deep well. My father wanted to know which water supply was connected to which well, so one Saturday he parked the station wagon, which was an Alvis prototype, next to the tap in the main yard and connected one of the spark plug leads from it to the tap. Then, leaving the engine running, he and my brother set off on foot across the garden and fields with a portable radio to pick up the spark pulses through the pipes and thus trace where all the pipes went. I was impressed by such ingenuity.
The Alvis protoype in question was intended to be a replacement for the TC series but, due to tooling costs, in the end was not produced. The car resembled the Jaguar Mark VII in size and shape and featured a V windscreen and split propellor shaft which provided a nearly flat floor. One left hand drive prototype, HKV 778, was made into a two-door estate car with a fold down back seat which provided over six feet of flat area to sleep in. It also had a skylight and leather blinds for the back windows and behind the front seats making it ideal for continental touring. The family used it for holidays although not camping trips and it was kept by the factory for testing engine modifications until it was finally scrapped.
The major engineering projects at Northend concerned the cellar and the boiler. The cellar was in the oldest part of the house and contained a 1905 ‘Robin Hood’ boiler. Next to that was a smaller boiler which heated the hot tap water and was rarely used, as the .water was usually heated by electric immersion heaters in the bathrooms and the kitchen. The first problem was that the cellar used to flood so Pa, with Mike’s help, installed an electric pump with a switch which had a piece of wire with a float on the bottom. When the lowest part of the cellar started to fill with water, the float would trip the switch and the pump would shoot the water outside the front of the house. Next job was the central heating boiler. This was coal fired and dated from days when there was a person on hand to stoke it frequently. The Esse range in the kitchen was also coal or rather Anthracite fired and had a small hopper which fed the coal by gravity to the grate which had its air feed controlled by a simple thermostat flap. This may have inspired part of the solution for the Robin Hood. Alvis made a hopper and tube which was attached to the boiler, together with some pipe work inside fed by the blower from an old car heater. This, with a thermostat, meant that the boiler could be left to itself for up to three days at a time. The arrangement worked very well for years until in the 1960’s it seemed better to switch to oil firing, which was fine except in very cold weather. When the oil in the underground pipe started to go waxy and starve the boiler, Pa would slowly make his way across the front drive bent double with a blow lamp to warm up the pipe just under the tarmac.
The fact that the heating was partly automated didn’t always keep us really warm. The warmest places were the kitchen, towards the back of the house, where the Esse range was kept alight all the time except in mid summer, and the “study”, a small living room (as opposed to the larger drawing room) which had a ‘Courtier’ stove, with little doors with see-through mica windows in them. That burned logs most of the time. In addition there were two open fires where we sometimes had log fires (although Pa maintained that this actually reduced the temperature in the rooms in question, due to the chimney up draught). Never one to miss out on a good opportunity, Pa got the factory to pick up the trunks of trees which had been torn down to make way for the M45 spur then under construction, along with the M1. The trees were stacked in the chicken yard and often on Saturday mornings Pa would use the six horsepower circular saw bench in one of the outhouses to cut up the trees into logs and one of us would help.