Michael Johnson Parkes was born on September 24th 1931. At that time his parents, John Joseph Parkes and Mary Beatrice Parkes, lived at Ham Common, Richmond, Surrey. He was the first of their three children.
You could say that Michael had engineering in his blood. His father, born in 1903, the elder of two sons of a civil servant at the Inland Revenue, conceived a passion for things mechanical from an early age. He used to tell the story of how, as a young boy, he saw a Bleriot monoplane land at Bushey Hall golf course near his home and, entranced, ran across the fields as fast as his legs could carry him to see and touch the plane. He received his engineering training as an apprentice at Angus Sanderson and Swift of Coventry Ltd. and learned to fly as a member of 601 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force. By 1931, when Michael was born, he was working at Airwork Ltd. as a charter pilot and flying instructor. He went on to manage two De Havilland propeller factories during World War Two and in 1946 became managing director of Alvis Ltd.
There was an engineer on the other side of the family as well. Michael’s maternal grandfather, Lancelot Johnson, a Scot who came from Cumberland and settled in Liverpool, had a first career as a ship’s engineer in the Merchant Navy, and then, around 1900, got married and moved to London where he set up an engineering and road haulage business. The business operated a fleet of transport vehicles including one of the first examples of a six-wheeled lorry, which Johnson had built to his own design. Although neither of Lancelot Johnson’s two daughters became engineers (highly improbable in those days) Michael’s mother Mary was an excellent driver and in fact it was she who helped him learn to drive, taking him to practice on disused airfields when he was still too young to drive on ordinary roads.
On both sides of the family the engineering activities of parent and grandparent spilled over into home life, in the sense that there was always a garage or workshop where someone was taking machinery apart and putting it together again, whether car, motorbike, lorry or radio. Thus Michael started to learn about engineering almost without realizing it, just by watching what was going on and listening to the engineering conversations of the adults in the family. He certainly showed an interest in cars from a very early age.
In 1942, at the age of eleven, Michael was sent as a boarder to Lockers Park Preparatory School in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. In 1945 he went on to Haileybury College, then known as Haileybury and Imperial Service College, where he remained until 1949, specializing in physics, maths and chemistry. Academically, he was not a brilliant student – he was always more interested in concrete, practical things than in academic study. The sports he most enjoyed were cross-country running and rowing. Curiously, Stirling Moss also attended the same school, two years ahead of Mike.
According to Harold Dawes, one of Mike’s schoolfriends, the schoolboy pranks Mike got up to were all related to cars or other vehicles. As Harold told Mike’s sister: “At the time of VE Day we discovered not very far away from school a couple of gravel pits and these were completely filled with military vehicles due for reconditioning. He and I and John Nunn used to go off in the afternoons ostensibly to do runs … we’d go down there and fiddle around with these vehicles…. At Hartford Heath there was a garage and parked behind this garage was a load of ancient cars which had been left there since the war … Mike and I used to go down with a can of petrol left over from somebody’s lawnmower and I’d pour the petrol into the car and Mike would get the engine going and sit there revving the thing up and trying to make it work … I remember another occasion when, at school half-term, Philip Gordon-Marshall … he was a director of De Havilland’s [where Mike’s father worked during the war] … he came down to pick us up and give us a conducted tour of the De Havilland factory. At that time he had a Ministry of Aviation car, he just put Mike in the driving seat and let him drive, and he sat in the other seat … Mike was thirteen or so and he was able to drive perfectly well.” Mike’s years at boarding school corresponded with a period of great austerity, first the years of the World War II and then the rationing which followed. In those years English boarding schools, never known for their creature comforts, were particularly spartan, possibly a good training for discomforts later in life. Harold Dawes remembers that all the boys were periodically sent off into the fields to pick potatoes because there was such a shortage of manpower.