Book Reviews

“My Two Lives: Race Driver to Restauranteur” by René Dreyfus, with Beverley Rae Kimes.

077 pp 11¼ “ x 8 ½ “ (Patrick Stevens Ltd, Burr Hill, Cambridge, £15.95p)

This long-awaited book is one of the more enjoyable motor racing books to have appeared for many years. It is the life story of René Dreyfus, whom British followers of the Sport used to see at Brooklands, Donington and in Ireland before the war. On the Continent René was one of the “Greats”, driving successively for Maserati, teaming up with his close friend Louis Chiron, becoming a works Bugatti driver from 1933, going to the Scuderia Ferrari, and later driving Tony Lago’s Talbots, before going to race for the wealthy Lucy and Harry Schell with Delahayes. Dreyfus was Champion of France in 1938, took the French Government’s million-francs prize in a Delahaye just before the war, joined up but was allowed leave from the French Army to go to Indianapolis to race a Maserati. He got caught up in the advance of the war in Europe, joined the US Army but never returned, staying in America eventually to open his famous restaurant Le Chanteclair, mecca in New York of many motoring personalities and gourmets.

Beverley Rae Kimes, that outstandingly talented female motoring historian, has aided in the compiling of this long and immensely fascinating book and there is a Forward by Walter Cronkite. Because this is the life-story of a driver who kept careful records of his racing career the book has benefited from a wealth of fine photographs, 180 all told, many not previously published, I think. The motor racing story of René Dreyfus is completely absorbing but for good measure you get his love life and that of some of the other drivers, his military experiences, his travel stories, and the life of a notable restauranteur, the last-named aspect of the book contributing one of the recipes, for “Coquille Chanteclair” – but being mainly a roast-beef-and-Yorkshire-pudding man, this was lost on me.

I love the beginning of René’s motor-racing, with every ounce of dedicated enthusiasm, directed in those early days to racing a 5cv Mathis, suitably stripped, and a Hotchkiss and then a Brescia Bugatti, when Dreyfus was supposed to be travelling for the family stationary business. And what other book tells you the intimate details of working at the Maserati, Bugatti and Enzo Ferrari’s racing departments? To include much of the highly interesting information imparted, in a review, would be unfair to the authors, but if you buy “My Two Lives” you should not be one whit disappointed. One thing I will say – Dreyfus loved working at Ettore Bugatti’s but had a notably poor opinion of the pre-war Maserati racing cars… Writing about his days with Maserati, Dreyfus says of the 1931 season, “It was now September; I hadn’t come near to victory in any race”, which seems to overlook his second place behind Ernesto Maserati in the Rome GP at Littorio on June 6th, ahead of Biondetti, a fast Maserati 1, 2, 3 which one would have thought should have been referred to.

René Dreyfus reckoned to have driven more than 100,000 racing miles in more than 200 events, including some notable rallies, like the Chauvigny in 1934 with a Type 57 Bugatti and Monte Carlos in Delahayes and Beverley (whom I once had the very special pleasure of showing the remains of Brooklands) has steered him through all this history with professional skill. In fact, about the only criticism I have of this very fine book is that one is never quite sure when Beverley Rae has taken over from Dreyfus, and the latter part of the book, where René returns to old haunts, goes on a bit… But the book is full of unexpected happenings and very good stories. Such as racing drivers occasionally travelling by train before the war, the cars Dreyfus used for road commuting between races, like the Farina-bodied 2.3 litre Alfa Romeo cabriolet he had while with Ferrari – “you lived with Constantini at Molsheim but you visited Enzo Ferrari” – the bad accident in a Bugatti at Comminges in 1932, ending up with Dreyfus and Jean Pierre-Wimille in adjacent hospital beds, running a Renault saloon-racing team in 1955, how after he had opened his very famous restaurant the Ford Motor Company gave him some help with cars during a cab strike which, hearing of it, General Motors immediately followed (typical of the two American giants!) and there are advertising pictures of Studebaker Lark and Lincoln cars outside Le Chanteclair, among the many restaurant illustrations.

I could go on almost forever picking the icing out of this unusual and worthwhile book. The opinions of René about the different racing cars he drove are obviously of importance, but lesser things appeal too – the Type 40 Bugatti works truck that went to the race circuits in the late 1920s, the French Army’s Staff Renaults of that period, the love of good food and wine by many of the top racing drivers and how they would pack white tie and tails when travelling, being both professionals and gentlemen.

The personal opinions of the leading drivers he competed against – “I couldn’t be a Nuvolari”, the prize money they earned, and their pranks away from the circuits are other reasons for reading “My Two Lives”. Lesser items are of much interest too, although I wasn’t aware that you had to finish a race to claim your lap-record, as the authors claim of one race, I thought Hans von Stuck was an Austrian not a German driver, and I find it surprising that no-one told Dreyfus anything about the qualifying rules or the safety arrangements at Indianapolis in 1940 considering the interest the arrival of he and Le Bergue caused… Equally surprising is the fact that L’Auto’s man didn’t know either.* It is interesting that Dreyfus is able to name the designer of the ill-fated 4WD Bugatti (Antonio Pichetto), whom even Alan Henry does not name in his book on four-wheel-drive racing cars. This Bugatti René found very tiring to control at record speed up La Turbie. A girl is said to have been the cause of Jean Bugatti’s crash at Shelsley Walsh and it is interesting that Divo refused to drive the 4WD at Monaco. He refers to the chloroform-like fumes from the Mercedes-Benz racing fuel causing following drivers to feel ill at Spa in 1935, so that after complaints it was banned. I must one day ask Karl Ludvigsen, the great Mercedes expert, which “brew” this was, because I recall that the stuff still made your eyes water just standing by the cars when they came to Donington in 1937. However, I hope I have written enough to make you realise you must read this book. It was published by the Aztec Corporation of Tuscan and PSL have backed a “winner” by obtaining copies for distribution here. There is an Index and even a loose errata sheet and the dust-jacket painting is by John Peckham, only the second in which he does not include a vehicle! The closing stages of the book surely constitute the greatest names-dropping of all time, but as René was such a celebrated restaurateur this is understandable. Remember, too, that he vanquished the might of Mercedes-Benz with a Delahaye at Pau in 1938 and is honest enough to admit this was only possible because of the circuit. Now go out and buy your copy! – W.B.

*Except that I believe L’Auto in spite of its title was really a general Parisian newspaper – W.B.

“Hail the Jeep” by A. Wade Wells. 120 pp 9” x 8”.

(Brooklands Books, “Holmertise”, Seven Hills Road, Cobham, Surrey. £5.50)

This soft-cover book all about the wartime Jeep, first published in America in 1946, has been reissued by Brooklands Books and is available from them for £6.00 post free. It will fascinate those who are interested in this famous war vehicle or who restore such things. Apart from the origins of the Jeep, dating back to 1940, and its ancestors, tested at the Maryland Proving Ground in 1921, like a 1917 Dodge half-track and adapted Model T Ford, the book goes into most things Jeep. Written from the American angle, obviously, it nevertheless illustrates British personalities, from HM Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill and General Montgomery in Jeeps, in the pictorial section of 75 pages. The pictures are rather “Wishy-washy”, either because they were printed in Hong Kong or due to the later reproduction. – W.B.

“Gallipoli to the Somme – the story of C. E. W. Bean” by Dudley McCarthy.

400 pp 9 ¾ in x 6½ in (Leo Cooper/ Secker & Warburg Ltd, 54 Poland Street, London W1V 3DF. £15.00).

This book, beautifully produced in what might justifiably be described as to pre-war standards, will be of the greatest interest to students of the Great War, covering as it does the life of Charles Bean, one of the greatest of 1914/18 war correspondents, who reported the conflict from the viewpoint of the Australian Independent Force in Gallipoli, in France and Flanders. Indeed, the book has a wider appeal, as being essentially about the make up of the Australian Continent and its people and how it went to war, while eschewing conscription, in the First World War. Those who went to Brentwood School should find it interesting too. Bean wrote this official history in 12 volumes and, a prolific writer on naval and other subjects, was highly thought of during the war, being seated in the place of honour when he visited Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s flagship, and meeting high-ranking Army officers.

From our viewpoint this is more a matter of cars in the book, and although Bean does not name these by makes, there is a picture of a brass-radiator Model T Ford van used at Peronne by the Australian War Records Section with what looks like a Triumph dispatch rider’s motorcycle standing by it, and in another picture taken at a farmhouse used as billets during the defence of Amiens in 1918 one sees another Model-T, a hooded tourer garaged beside a larger car I cannot identify. One learns that a charge of £11 week was made for large staff cars used the Front on behalf of the Australian Government, which made Bean furious that he was refused a “small sniper car”.

The book epitomises the very atmosphere of the First World War times, even to the scarcity of taxis in London, with officers having no compunction about ordering out lower ranks who had hailed one first. Back at the Front, Bean’s car was held up by a faulty axle, but after a long day’s walking it limped back through the night via the notorious Mouquet Farm, to their billet driven by Bean’s “faithful driver, Boddy", who I am sorry to say does not get his name in the book’s Index! Some of Bean’s descriptions of warfare are indeed prophetic, and his account of seeing a French ammunition dump blown up by German aeroplanes might be that of an atomic bomb attack in another war ... Incidentally, his miniature newspaper for the troops was printed on an old English hand press and a similarly antiquated Belgian machine salvaged from Ypres and as there was a shortage of capital letters in the English type, particularly B, Bean had to hunt through the Belgian type for the letters that were lacking, changing “But” into “Yet” etc, to cover these deficiencies -- which reminds me of editing MOTOR SPORT by “remote means” all through WW2, and having to fit what pictures we had from pre-war issues, lead for new printing blocks being unobtainable, to the articles I was using!

It would be interesting to know what car Bean used to take items for the Australian War Museum, which stemmed from his efforts (one hopes the car used by Bean on the Western Front is preserved there?), to London from France in the summer of 1917 but quite definitely, on the evidence of a photograph published in this book, it was the Model-T Ford tourer that conveyed the first volume of Bean’s industrious Australian War History from his post-war home in Tuggeranong to his publishers in Sydney, in December 1920. But it is not thus that this book should be regarded – it is a very important record of the 1914-18 war, from the Australian point of view. – W.B.

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The Australian book “Bathurst 1983 / 84”, lavishly covering this Championship series in “Automobile Year” style, is available here from Kimberley’s, 19 Heath View, London N2 0QD, for £11.95.

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Finally, just to show our unbias, those interested in other forms of transport besides the motor car may like to know that PSL of Cambridge have released the second volume of O.S. Nock’s “British Locomotives of the 20th Century”, covering 1930-60, price £14.95 – W.B.