A stylist on tarmac and paper
- Felix Muelas
- 8W February 2000 issue
- Alta - Geoffrey Taylor's brainchild, by Felix Muelas/Mattijs Diepraam/Greg England
- Olivier Gendebien - The ultimate sportscar driver, by Felix Muelas/Mattijs Diepraam/Don Capps
1952 Belgian GP
There's a saying that if you're no good at the thing you love most, you can always write about it. Of those rare few who can do both, Paul Frère is the prime example.
Grand Prix driver, Le Mans winner and motoring journalist respected across Europe, his is a career of racing and writing spanning more than 50 years. The interest in cars sparked the moment his father brought home his first car, a Fiat 501, in 1922. The boy was just five, but by reading his father's motoring magazines he soon knew every make, even from behind. When he was nine his uncle took him to Spa to see his first motor race; it crystallised the young Frère's obsession, and he began to dream of being a racing driver. In his own words: "I didn't wish to be World Champion, I just wanted to take part."
Having driven from the age of 10, he had the use of an old Buick to drive from the family grape-growing business to Brussels University. In wartime Brussels, Frère practised his skills by looking after a friend's ex-Le Mans MG PB Special, which he later persuaded Jacques Swaters to enter for the 1948 Spa 24 hours, with himself as co-driver. They finished fourth in class, and somehow Frère's career as racing driver was launched. For the 1949 race, he was to share the Aston Martin Speed Model (a.k.a. the Spa Special) with Jock Horsfall, the brilliant winner of the previous year (with Leslie Johnson). As it came out, Horsfall elected to drive the entire 24 hours, finishing second to the Chinetti/Lucas Ferrari in the 2-litre class, so Frère didn't drive an inch.
The following three years brought drives in Dyna Panhards and then, in 1952, he landed the fourth seat in an Oldsmobile team with Belgium's best-known drivers, Jacques Swaters, Johnny Claes and André Pilette. He was recommended by journalist Jacques Ickx (father of Jacky) because while working for the Brussels Jaguar importer in 1951, he tried a customer's XK120 around Spa and was immediately very fast with it. Came the race, Frère won. He reckons the win was very much due to luck: "The wheels collapsed on all the American cars but mine, just because mine had new wheels."
Suddenly Frère's was a hot name, and the Belgian RAC offered him a place in the '52 Grand Prix. He wrote to HWM's John Heath; the answer was no, but Heath did need someone for the GP des Frontières at Chimay. The HWM cars for that race had been allotted to Heath himself and three Belgian drivers, Charles de Tornaco, Roger Laurent and Paul Frère.
We swear we didn't mean this kind of coincidence, but in this 1952 GP des Frontières two points are worth mentioning: it was the first single-seater race for both Paul Frère and Olivier Gendebien and, against all odds, Roger Laurent, who as we have just mentioned was entered to drive an HWM and practiced with it - and who was suddenly allocated a brand new car that had arrived late Saturday night in the Ecurie Francorchamps lorry: a brand new, yellow painted, Ferrari 500!
The start had been in dry weather but at mid-race, when Ken Downing (Connaught A3) was 40 seconds in the lead, it started to rain. Almost immediately Frère started to make up ground, helped when Downing briefly spun on lap 14. Going into the last lap the gap was still 13 seconds but, by now, Frère was going splendidly and smashed the lap record, catching and passing the unaware Downing on the very last bend, less than a mile from the finish.
John Heath immediately offered Paul a drive in the forthcoming Belgian GP and he delighted his entrant by bringing the car home in fifth place, claiming the last championship points of the race (our picture).
Taken from the initials of Hersham & Walton Motors, where the cars were built, HWM made a name in European racing during the early 1950s. The product of John Heath and George Abecassis, the make started with a modified 2-litre Alta sports car in 1948. The following year they built a new car, using the 83.5x90mm Alta engine, and ENV gearbox with a tubular chassis. Being a two-seater, it was able to run as a sportscar or, stripped of road equipment, as a Formula 2 car. After a successful season with this HWM-Alta, Heath built a team of cars for the 1950 season. These were more or less the same, but he dropped the Alta from the name, although still using the 4-cylinder Alta engine. This team had a very successful season, being the first serious post-war attempt by the English to break into the Continental monopoly of racing, and to Heath must go the credit for preparing the way for the ultimate championships gained by British cars. The 1950 HWM gave Stirling Moss his entry into serious European racing and the team 'toured' Europe, making motor racing pay its way.
For 1951 single-seater cars were built to an entirely new design, having tubular chassis frames with modified MG components and a de Dion rear-axle layout, sprung on quarter-elliptic springs. The engine was still the 4-cylinder 2-litre Alta, and this team of nice-looking green cars was very popular. No major changes were made for 1952, though the de Dion rear end was sprung on torsion bars, and the rear brakes were mounted inboard. Peter Collins joined them and they were still active, though not so successful as in 1951.
Heath was finding that he was reaching the limit of his financial and mechanical abilities from the development point of view; his cars had only 150 bhp that could not match the Italian opposition, and for 1953 a new engine was developed. It was based on the Alta, but had a new cylinder head with gear-driven camshafts in place of the chain-driven ones. The cars were getting heavier and power output from this new engine was not sufficient to compensate for the greater weight, and the 1953 season was a bad one for HWM. With the new Formula 1 in 1954 and no 'voiturette' racing to replace the old Formula 2, Heath had to go into the top class against big factory opposition; this was really more than he was capable of doing. He had hoped to use the promised 2-litre V8 Coventry-Climax 'Godiva' engine in his 1954 cars, but as this engine never went into production, he built a 2-litre 4-cylinder engine on the same basis as his 2-litres, but the cars were completely outclassed and faded from the racing scene.
HWM branched off into sportscar racing, using Jaguar engines, and also built a Formule Libre single-seater, using a similar engine in a Formula 2 chassis. After Heath was killed in one of his own cars in the 1956 Mille Miglia, HWM was finished.
Back to 1952, a de Dion tube broke early on Frère's car at the German Grand Prix, whilst the gearbox of the HWM let him down at the Dutch GP in mid-August. Frère raced for HWM again in 1953: his luck was out this time in Grands Prix (Belgium, where he finished 11th and Switzerland when a connecting rod broke on lap 1) but he did finish a brilliant second in the rain in the Eifelrennen.
Paul Frère realised he had to choose between three careers: as a driver, an engineer and a journalist. As he puts it, he chose writing, because it would give him time to race. At the end of the year, Alfred Neubauer actually invited him to a Mercedes test and after that offered a drive of one of the 300SLR at Le Mans for 1954. When Mercedes announced the cars weren't ready, Frère quickly called John Wyer and got a ride with Carroll Shelby in a DB3S Aston Martin. Then Shelby crashed the car. This had bizarre consequences, because Wyer then booked Frère for Le Mans in 1955, shortly before Mercedes asked him to drive for them. Instead they selected Pierre Levegh…
Meanwhile, Frère had accepted the invitation to race on the Equipe Gordini for some Grand Prix in 1954. In Belgium he had a dull race until the engine died at mid-race, and in France he retired near the end, after having been in 5th position for long time, due to the rear axle breaking. His third race was going to be the German GP at the Nürburgring. He had done some very good practice laps in the Gordini, consistently quicker than Jean Behra (about 6 seconds) but in the race the front wheel flew off together with the brake drum. Fortunately he was running uphill so could roll to a halt. "As I climbed out I swore that I would never drive a Gordini again and after the race I went to see Nello Ugolini, who was Ferrari's team manager at the time, and asked him if he could find a place for me in the team at the Nürburgring 1000kms. He didn't say no. But he didn't say yes, either. He more or less had to ask the big chief but before I got a response the race was cancelled. Later that winter I got a letter from Ferrari himself inviting me to test at Imola. I went along to drive with Maurice Trintignant and Harry Schell. Farina had set a bogey time for the three of us and after the test I was called into Ferrari's office. I announced immediately that I did not have any intention of doing the whole season, as I was 38, had a good job as a journalist and a family as well. I didn't want to be a full-time driver. They agreed and said that they would call me whenever they needed me. So I got the call to go and race for them in Monaco, which I wasn't too happy about, as I didn't like driving there. As it turned out there was no pressure for me to perform in the race as I was sharing the car with Taruffi and we lost 15 minutes with gear linkage problems."
After that, Frère took a splendid fourth place in the 1955 Belgian GP, behind the two Mercedes W196s and his team mate Farina. The following weekend, he finished second, with Collins, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where the horrific disaster known to everybody occurred. The following year, in his last WC Grand Prix appearance, Frère stood in for Luigi Musso, bringing the Lancia-Ferrari home second in his home GP behind Peter Collins. After this fantastic result, Frère decided to stick to sportscars. "I preferred long-distance races, they gave me the time to get into my stride."
He finished fourth in both 1957 and 1958 Le Mans 24 Hours, whilst pairing Olivier Gendebien to a victory in the Reims 12 Hours of 1957. In 1959, he was second again at Le Mans with the Aston Martin. He made a return to single-seaters in 1960, his final season, winning the 1st January VI South African GP in an Equipe Nationale Belge Cooper, after dicing with Stirling Moss and Chris Bristow, then showing his consistency and reliable driving skills on his return to Europe to take fifth places at Syracuse and Brussels and sixth at Pau. That magic year finally brought victory at Le Mans 24 Hours, again paired with Olivier Gendebien.
His ambitions as a driver fulfilled, Frère retired from racing and devoted himself to journalism full-time. Readers of his well-known 1964 manual Competition Driving (one of the clearest exposés on the art ever written) will find it difficult to forget this extraordinary man.
Reader's Why by John Cross
What a heart-warming sight! Here is Paul making his Grand Prix debut on his way to 5th place and the only points finish ever achieved by HWM.
Paul Frère was born on 30th January 1917 in Le Havre (France), which was the seat of the Belgian government during the First World War, and his father was an official in the ministry of economics. As his father moved from one post to another, Paul grew up in Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Vienna, graduating in Brussels with an engineering degree. Frère's life in the Twenties and Thirties, viewed from this distance, was sort of a fairy tale for someone who loved cars. In France he had his father's Fiats and custom-bodied Ballots, and the beginning of his collection of the French publication La Vie Automobile, which he began in 1922 and which he still has, complete until the outbreak of World War II. By the time he was 10, he had built a working Meccano model of a car complete with electric motor, chassis, differential, gearbox and the rest.
He had seen his first race, the 24 Hours of Spa, in 1926. His uncle was allowing him to drive his 5CV Citroën, first in and out of the garage, and later on trips around the Belgian countryside. His English was learned, at least in the beginning, from reading Britain's Autocar and The Motor, and he has a collection that dates back to 1935. His German came from living in Berlin and Vienna, his Italian from extended stays in that country. He and his wife have for many years spoken Italian at home, even though French is their mother tongue.
The racing started with motorcycles just after World War II, with his debut being the first race held in Belgium after hostilities, in 1947. He won his class with a pre-war 500-cc Triumph Speed Twin. His first automobile race was the Spa 24 Hours in 1948, and he and his co-driver, in an MG that had raced at Le Mans in 1938 and 1939, managed to nurse the car to the finish. He won his class in the Spa production-car races in 1950 and 1951 with an 850-cc Panhard, and then fate stepped in - a Jaguar customer entered in the sports-car race complained to him that his car wasn't very quick. Frère was the Jaguar importer's service manager at the time, so he took the car out for 3 laps and posted fastest time of the day! As a consequence, when Oldsmobile was putting its team together (yes, a Rocket 88!) for the 1952 Spa event, Frère got a ride and won, coasting across the finish line with an empty fuel tank.
Because of that the Belgian Automobile Club told him if he could find a car, they would give him a start in the 1952 Belgian Grand Prix (for 2-litre Formula 2 cars, as was the entire world championship that season). Chance - coincidence, if you will - played a big part in Frère's early racing days. He won the first motorcycle race because a friend saw Paul was faster and lent him his bike. The Jaguar test drive put him in the Olds, and the Olds got him the Grand Prix invitation. A few years earlier, when in Paris, he was able to help John Heath of the HWM team with a scarce spare part, and then he contacted Heath for a car, but Heath said no. Then, at the last minute, Heath needed a replacement for Peter Collins in the admittedly secondary Grand Prix des Frontières, a small event held in southern Belgium. Frère won on the last lap. He kept the seat for the Belgian Grand Prix as seen here.
It was the 2nd round of the championship that year, Taruffi and Fischer having scored a Ferrari 1-2 in the opening round at Bremgarten. Last year's winner, Fangio, was absent after a bad crash in the Monza Autodrome Grand Prix, and Gonzalez didn't turn up with the new Maserati either. So it was left to Gordini and the British contingent - HWM, Cooper-Bristol, Aston-Butterworth and Frazer-Nash - to challenge Ferrari. It poured with rain on race day - not exactly unknown at Spa! Taruffi lost his chance of a second successive victory when he stalled on the line, leaving Behra's Gordini to snatch the lead briefly before the Ferraris of Ascari and Farina streamed past. Meanwhile Taruffi was making a great bid to move through the field. He stormed past Behra only to skid at Malmedy. Behra rammed him and they were both out of the race. Behra's team-mate Manzon was now a distant 3rd, but it was all too easy for the Ferraris out front. The main interest was in the duel for 4th between Mike Hawthorn and Ken Wharton, which was only decided when Ken skidded off the road. So Mike finished 4th in his first championship race and gave a British car its highest placing to date in a championship event. Paul finished 5th, a couple of laps down. The final results were:
1. Alberto Ascari, Ferrari, 3:03:46.3 = 165.964 km/h
2. Giuseppe Farina, Ferrari, - 1:55.2
3. Robert Manzon, Gordini, - 4:28.4
4. Mike Hawthorn, Cooper-Bristol, - 1 laps
5. Paul Frère, HWM-Alta, - 2 laps
6. Alan Brown, Cooper-Bristol, - 2 laps
Fastest lap: Alberto Ascari, Ferrari, 4:54 = 172.311 km/h
This would be the first of nine consecutive Grand Prix wins for Ascari, a remarkable run that was only broken by Mike Hawthorn's great win in the classic 1953 French GP, when the first five were covered by less than 8 seconds. Paul also drove at the Nürburgring for HWM that year and in 1953 was 2nd at the Ring in the Eifelrennen, drove a 1500-cc Spyder coupe for Porsche in his Le Mans debut (finishing 15th) and blazed through the Italian countryside in his Mille Miglia Chrysler. Complete with Torque Flite automatic transmission, the oversized beast ran out of brakes soon after the halfway point at Rome and Frère had to slow the car by throwing it sideways before curves during the latter half of the race. He finished first in class by about 2 1/2 hours - and about three hours behind Giannino Marzotto and his Ferrari, as the textile millionaire edged Juan Manuel Fangio in an Alfa Disco Volante in the closing stages when Fangio's steering came adrift. Marzotto and his co-driver wore neckties. It was that sort of era. Stuff that dreams are made of, by today's standards, but you could do that kind of thing in the early Fifties - as long as you were good enough to win, and Frère was.
And he was on his way up, not only as a writer but also as a driver. He was invited to try out for the Mercedes-Benz sportscar team and had a ride with Mercedes for Le Mans in 1954, but the cars weren't ready so he shared an Aston Martin with Carroll Shelby instead. Aston invited him back the next year and he accepted, only to have Mercedes call a short time later with an invitation to drive the 300SLR in the 24 Hours. He was already committed, so he had to say no. Mercedes hired Pierre Levegh instead, and Levegh wound up in the middle of the worst accident the sport has ever seen, with more than 80 dead. Coincidence, or fate...
Frère and Peter Collins finished 2nd at Le Mans that year, Frère put a Ferrari into 4th place (behind Fangio, Stirling Moss and former world champion Nino Farina) in the Belgian Grand Prix, but the season ended badly when he broke his leg as his Ferrari Monza crashed during the Swedish Grand Prix sportscar race. The following season he was a member of the Jaguar team for sportscar racing and went to Spa for the Belgian GP as a member of the press, but the day before the race he was talked into driving by Ferrari. He finished 2nd, his best world championship placing, and one of the results was an invitation from Ferrari to move to Maranello and be the Scuderia's test driver and also be in charge of all race-car preparation.
"It was tempting," he says, "but I was already 38, lived in Brussels and had three daughters who were at school. I also knew that Ferrari had fallen out with many people who had worked for his company after a short time. In his offer I could see a fascinating short-time job, but no future, and I reluctantly declined."
In 1956 Frère had what he thought would be his best chance ever to win at Le Mans, driving a factory D-Type Jaguar - and crashed on the second lap. In 1957 he was 4th at Le Mans, sharing the wheel of a privately entered D-Type, was 4th again the next year, driving a 1.5-litre Porsche with Edgar Barth, and 2nd in 1959 in an Aston Martin shared with Maurice Trintignant. The next year he and fellow Belgian Olivier Gendebien, who had shared the winning Ferrari with Phil Hill in 1958, were paired in one of four factory Ferraris. They were friends, they had shared Ferrari GT coupes that twice won the 12 Hours of Reims, and they were ready. Ferrari had miscalculated the fuel consumption and as a consequence two of the four team cars never made it to the first pitstop - and Gendebien came in with his engine sputtering, but still running. They led for more than 22 hours, including driving through torrential rains most of the night.
Frère had his Le Mans victory - he still has the car's steering wheel - and he retired from racing at 43. He had driven Renault Dauphines at Sebring and in the Mille Miglia, NSU Prinzes in the 2,500-mile Argentine road race, Porsches and Ferraris in what was then the Belgian Congo, and Citroëns in the rally-cum-race that was the ancestor of Paris-Dakar, not to mention winning the 1960 Formula Libre South African Grand Prix in a Cooper and the sportscar Grand Prix of Spa in a Porsche the same year. But there were other things to do, and it was time to do them. He became one of the world's leading motoring journalists and consultants.