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Chris Parry – Firestone’s Man in Europe

There are times when watching today’s grand prix racing the whole subject of tyres and which ones to use becomes mind-boggling. We could be nostalgic and think back to the 1950s with skinny tyres, Ferrari using Belgian Engleberts, Alfa Romeo with Pirellis and the Brits with Dunlops. It was totally uncomplicated, unlike today, and when musing about how all these changes took place I remembered a fascinating and long conversation I had with the late Chris Parry who became famous in the 1960s as the man who helped engineer and promote American Firestone tyres in European racing.

Graham Hill, Colin Chapman, the Lotus 49 and the flat Firestones

Graham Hill, Colin Chapman, the Lotus 49 and the flat Firestones

Firestone was the tyre of choice in American racing for decades. In particular, they dominated Indianapolis and the Akron company proudly advertised the almost unique row of wins at the 500 over some 40 years. Chris Parry was to change all that almost parochial situation.

Chris Parry’s father and grandfather were both doctors from Southampton in the South of England.

Chris’s father quite naturally wanted him to be a doctor but he never intended to go into medical life and wanted to be an engineer. He studied at the famous College of Aeronautical and Automobile Engineering in London where he met up with some other personalities destined for motor racing including Sheridan Thynne, who became the promotions director for Frank Williams, and racing driver Piers Courage. He recalls that their main aim in life was to get their overalls so oily they would stand up of their own accord, and have fun!

When he left College he joined Selwoods, a plant and engineering company in Southampton which indirectly got him involved in motor racing.

The local Firestone representative used to visit to encourage the company to fit their Dinckam diggers – this was before JCB came along – with Firestone tyres.

Chris became very friendly with the rep who one day said that Firestone was looking for a man with his technical knowledge and experience to liaise with Ford on the development of a new Firestone tyre for rallying. He was surprised when he got the job and opined that, had they asked, he would have paid them to get the job.

By this time Chris had dropped the “Neville” part of his name because he felt it “….sounded a bit too posh, the Americans couldn’t understand it and it wouldn’t fit on my overalls anyway.”

As a result of this Chris Parry moved to Boreham near Ford’s motorsport facility to develop this Firestone tyre for the original Ford Cortina rally car. As this was the period when radial tyres first appeared, the project was to develop a radial that would suit the tough demands of rallying.

Once this was up and running some Ford Galaxie’s began to appear in British national racing notably the one raced by Jack Sears for Alan Mann and they ran with Indianapolis tyres imported from the States.

Mr Firestone then decided that Firestone would go racing in Europe and Chris Parry’s career in racing took off firstly with Roger Penske’s development of the Cooper Monaco, the Zerex Special.

One day when I was a lowly engineer at Firestone I suddenly received a telephone call from the managing director who said ‘ Mr Firestone wants to see you tomorrow. I am sending a Rolls Royce down to collect you and take you to the American Embassy to get an emergency American Visa’.

 “ Being a bit of a practical joker I obviously thought this was very funny and wondered who was making the phone call. The next thing that happened was a Rolls Royce turned up at the basic flat we had in Ashford and I realised it was no joke anymore. I was whisked to Heathrow and flown to New York where the Firestone company Lear jet was waiting to fly me to Canton airport in Akron and straight into Mr Firestone’s office.

 “He told me I was a young man and if I wanted to do the job it was mine. He then gave me a letter, which I still have, which said: “Regardless of costs give Chris Parry all the help he needs to do what I want and that is to win every major motor race in the world with Firestone tyres and from there it all took off.”

 It was the Ford Galaxie that was the first car to get attention and at that time Willment Engineering began running the 7-litre Cobras. From there the decision was made to develop tyres for grand prix racing and Firestone’s appeared on Lotus for testing.

“The first contract we got from any grand prix manufacturer was from Lotus and this gave me my first contact with Jim Clark. These were the first “flat” tyres and all of a sudden rear suspension had to cope with flat surfaced tyres rather than rounded ones and they had to go up and down vertically because there was no camber change. This led to a lot of redesigning of suspensions throughout the sixties to cope with our tyres. At the same time, we went tubeless because you can make an inner tube which is round but not one which is contoured.

 “At the same time tubeless tyres were becoming more popular on the road and so we ended up with them in racing and we never had a moments problem with them. However, the rim tolerances had to be improved because the tyres used to turn on the rims. At first, we used to put self-tapping screws into them to stop them turning. This continued until the wheel manufacturers could produce their rims to close enough tolerances. 

 “Some of the rims I saw were machined to a piece of wood with a notch in them, which was really not clever, and some of the early magnesium wheels leaked like an Aero chocolate bar. These had to be vacuum impregnated to stop them leaking through the magnesium.”

In the mid to late 1960’s a tremendous amount of activity took place on the tyre front and Firestone along with their various competitors were going to great lengths to find the optimum tyre for every situation.

 “We were going through endless carcass designs to get the sidewalls stiffer. We were developing a different tyre for every grand prix. We were actually flying cars out ahead of time. It wasn’t like you have now, where you run soft or hard. It was more, do we run Kyalami tyres or something else? We had John Surtees who was one of the finest analytical test drivers by a long way and when the tyre wars were on we could take out maybe sixty tyres with different carcass designs and compounds.

 “Eventually it settled down as we all got more and more aggressive. We developed the famous Firestone YB11’s and I used to be called Chris ‘YB11’ Parry and when I go to Silverstone for the historic meetings everyone still calls me YB11.

 “It was a magic mix. We came up with many different chemical compounds. In fact, people still think tyres are made from rubber but there is very little actual rubber in a modern tyre. The great thing you have to remember is balancing grip with heat dissipation and wear rate. Various chemicals gave you each of these properties and so we made endless mixtures and went testing all the time which was fascinating.”

 Then came Colin Chapman’s great foray to Indianapolis where the big heavy front-engined roadsters ruled. Chapman’s answer was to use a lightweight Formula 1 car and it provided Firestone with a new challenge.

“What we did was took a Formula 1 tyre and built into it the Indianapolis compounds. I think one of my dying memories will be of Jim Clark haring round Indianapolis in what was virtually a Formula 1 car overtaking the Indy roadsters on the corners on the outside. Jimmy came along and complained that he had been told he couldn’t overtake on the turns and that surely the objective of this was to win and if I can go round the outside I’ll go round the outside. “Suddenly the Americans who had looked on the Lotus as a little damned shitbox began to take a lot of notice. A year later nearly all had rear-engined cars.

 “I also remember that one year at Indianapolis the late Laurie Hands who was the competitions manager for Champion gave me a set of those wonderful stopwatches with the sweep three-second hands. When I brought them out at Silverstone for the first time nobody had seen this before and wanted to check their times with mine. Everyone thought that as I had these watches I must be right but when the RAC did a check on them they found them 25% wrong!

The second year Chapman went to Indianapolis, 1964, he chose to go with Dunlop tyres which created a sensation as every team from the beginning had used Firestones at Indy. So much so that Firestone’s motorsport advertising campaign was for years based on photographs of every Indianapolis winner sporting Firestone tyres. There was no rule against having any other tyre but in the race Clark had a spectacular tyre burst which he was just able to control and the following year Lotus switched back to Firestone.

“Suddenly Colin realised Firestone did know what they were talking about and it helped us get more deeply involved with Lotus. The heat build-up at Indianapolis is quite incredible firstly because it is held in hot weather and secondly because the cornering forces are so great. At the time we were not supplying tyres to Lotus and Colin being the innovative guy he was jumped at any opportunity to improve and luckily he jumped our way.”

For Chris Parry, three moments during his racing career will remain in his memory.

One was when the Lotus 49B won at Silverstone with Jim Clark. That has got to be one of my dying memories. I think it was such a wonderful car and I think that together with Fangio Clark was one of the greatest racing drivers the world has ever seen or ever will see. It was incredible and amazing. That overshadowed all my other thoughts.

 I also think the first big Ford win at Le Mans was memorable. You went to the Ferrari garage and they were sitting on straw bales drinking wine and breaking bread and you went round to the Peugeot garage where Ford were and it was like a Motor Show with hundreds and hundreds of people working hard to try and beat Ferrari. They didn’t do it the first year but they did it later on our tyres.

“ I pulled out of racing when Jim Clark was killed at Hockenheim. Mr Firestone rang me the next day and said he thought I would want to pull out of racing and I said I would stay to the end of the season and he then had me transferred to Firestone in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

“Bruce Harry moved to Ford and Brian Heywood, who was one of the most brilliant engineers ever seen in the tyre business also went to Ford. He had a great understanding of suspension and could interpret what a driver felt. Jim Clark wouldn’t make a move without having Brian standing next to him. He was a very quiet guy and used to make me mad. You would say something to Brian and nothing would happen, he was just thinking about the question.

“I remember there were one or two drivers who used to drive him mad about tyre pressures. There is one particular grand prix driver, I wouldn’t like to name, who used to nag him like mad. Brian would say to the driver ‘ would you like to write this down. You want 51 in the left front 51 ½ in the other front tyre, 52 in the left rear and 56 in the right ?’. Brian would then say he would do it right away and the driver, in turn, would remark that Brian had a magic touch with tyres. Frankly, in the type of car we are talking about those tyre pressures wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.

 So Brian, Bruce and I all left Firestone as a result of Jimmy Clark’s death.”

 After his stint in South Africa, Chris Parry left Firestone and joined seat belt manufacturers Britax before becoming involved with a marine company in Poole, Dorset which imports Mercury outboards and various other marine products.

Until his death a few years ago Chris was a regular visitor to the Silverstone Classic where he met up with many of his old friends.He had seen a lot of changes in motor racing, changes which certainly exercised his engineering mind and changes which led up to the highly sophisticated racing tyres we know today.

GG