The dapper snapper

One of the great motor racing photographers, Louis Klemantaski got closer to the action than most
By Eoin Young

Dapper, with a neat goatee, a bow tie and a twinkling smile, the late Louis Klemantaski was a motor racing photographer of the old school, a traditional ‘painter with light’. He began his work at Brooklands and Donington in the 1930s, always using a Leica until modern zoom lenses prompted a switch to a Canon SLR. ‘Klem’ was a hands-on photographer who loved to be taking part. He rode as a Mille Miglia navigator with Reg Parnell and Peter Collins, taking uniquely dramatic on-board shots, and pioneered roller pace notes before Denis Jenkinson made his famous ‘loo roll’ for his ride in Moss’s winning Mercedes in 1955.

“I started my Mille Miglia notes on a long, thin vertical notebook when I went with Reg Parnell in the DB3 Aston Martin in 1953,” he recalled. “But as it got more and more detailed, it became a roll and Ferrari made a special little box with a Perspex window because the weather could be unkind. It worked very, very well.

“The first recce I did with Reg in 1953 was the most dangerous of all because there was normal traffic on the road and so one couldn’t really get to full racing speeds. Reg didn’t call the speeds. I used my own judgement… But of course one had to modify that year by year as the cars went faster. We spent a fortnight making notes that first year.”

Any nasty moments? “Y-e-s… but not terribly nasty. We never actually hit anything but now and then a lorry would pull across us or a level crossing gate would come down. I wore a crash helmet on the first recce.”

Klem had been taking factory photographs for the Aston Martin company. “I was more or less the official photographer for the works. I used to shoot all the development that was going on, and when they decided to do the Mille Miglia they asked if I would go. I knew Reg Parnell very well, so I rode with him in the DB3. All went well until the Futa Pass when the engine suddenly cut dead, so I jumped out, opened the bonnet and found that the throttle wire had broken. I was standing there wondering what we could do to make an emergency repair when Reg pushed me aside, pulled the throttle wide open, knotted the ends together and we set off again with the throttle wide open! Reg was driving on the ignition key for the rest of the race and we finished fifth. It was a fantastic drive.”

In 1954 Klem teamed with Reg again in a DB3S on the Mille Miglia. “We really stood a good chance that year until we got near L’Aquila in the Abruzzi Mountains, an area we knew well from our recce. Reg took the corner at absolutely the right speed – about 90mph – but a car had spun before us and showered gravel on the road. We lost adhesion, slid outwards (I pulled my elbow in!), hit the barrier and sort of bounced into the middle of the road. Reg suffered the only injury when he was trying to get his head under the dashboard in case we went over the precipice. There was only room for one under there!” He laughed at the memory of the incident. “Funnily enough, when a thing like that happens, it seems to happen very slowly. We got out and the spectators all rushed out and bodily hauled the car out of the way. The whole left hand front of the car had been smashed in.”

Klemantaski’s photographs from the cockpit show a driver’s eye view of the Mille Miglia with spectators lining the verge like human Armco, eager to be involved in the excitement, strolling across in the far distance, all with total disregard of the speeding car.

In 1955 he rode with Paul Frère in a DB2/4 in the touring category but an exhaust fell off and they had to make a hot emergency repair. They went out with clutch failure at Ancona.

“Ferrari asked me to go with Fangio in 1956 because my navigation notes by then were very comprehensive.” Had he compared his notes with Jenks? “No. He was the opposition. In fact Fangio wouldn’t take me. He said he had killed his passenger in one of the early trans-American races and he wouldn’t take one again. So Peter [Collins] asked me to go with him. Peter was just world-class. Amazing ability. Reg was a very fine driver but when you went with Peter it was almost a different world. I only had one moment in 1956 with Peter when it was raining and we were going down on cobbles into a hairpin – the brakes wouldn’t hold, but he managed to control it and we didn’t hit the milestone. Of course the Ferrari was a faster car and [had] a year’s development on the Aston, and we were using Englebert tyres while the Astons had been on Avon.

“In fact we did the Giro di Sicilia in the Ferrari before the Mille Miglia. We had a terrible trip down and arrived with time for one lap in a Fiat 1100 saloon, so I didn’t really have any notes. We were running second to Taruffi’s Maserati and once we got on a section that had been used for the Targa Florio, Peter knew it like the back of his hand so he was able to press on and soon we noticed spectators giving us signals that we were leading. When we got to the finish at Palermo I got a photo, which must be unique, taken from the cockpit of us getting the chequered flag!

“I didn’t take many photographs during those races because every time I took my eye off my roll, I lost my position for a moment and it could take five minutes before I was sure I was at the right spot. One couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Peter and Reg used to do exactly what I told them. If it looked as if there was a long straight and a humpback – and it takes a lot of nerve because you think there might be a turning after it – but I gave them the signal ‘OK Flat Out’ they would do it. It was all hand signals because you couldn’t hear anything in the cockpit with the noise of the engine and the exhaust and the wind. I told them the severity of the corner and which way it went, left or right. Of course it needed such concentration to follow the notes and make certain you weren’t a mile down the road, or something like that…

“I could really only take photographs on bits of road that were relatively simple. I used two Leicas and in 1957 I took colour for the last issue of Picture Post. You couldn’t change a film, it would take too long. Once you’d got to the end of the film, that was it. ”

“In the final Mille Miglia in 1957 I was with Peter in a marvellous Ferrari V12 335 Sport and we beat the record to Rome. I had to modify my notes for this race because if you were between two corners you got to the second corner so much quicker than we’d done the year before…

“There was one section with a hump before an iron bridge and I’d given Peter the flat-out signal. He put his foot down but we arrived at this hump so much quicker than I’d thought that I found myself going up out of my seat and the Ferrari going away from under me! I landed on the tail with my feet down in the cockpit and managed to pull myself back in. I should think we were probably doing about 90…”

Klemantaski was born in Manchuria, northern China, in 1912. “My mother was Russian but, despite the name, my father had come out from England. He started the export of soya beans from Manchuria to be shipped to Hull and made into cattle fodder.

He was also the Shell agent – Asiatic Petroleum Company in those days – and imported Willys cars. He set up workshops and I used to work with him in the holidays. I came over to Britain to prep school and in 1928 I stayed. My father had given me an Austin Seven sports model for passing my matric, and when a man called Roland Morgan started the Junior Racing Drivers’ Club I joined them on the staff. Morgan raced an Invicta and a single-seater Austin at Brooklands and he thought it would be a good idea to start a club and train young drivers. It was nothing to do with Brooklands or the BARC. It was actually the first of the racing driver schools but it wasn’t really a viable proposition and it gradually folded.”

Klem suffered a broken leg at Brooklands but it was through an infield motorcycle accident, not on the track. He had been photographing the 1934 500 Mile race and saw a column of smoke so hitched a pillion ride to the crash. On the way they were sideswiped by a car and his leg was badly broken. “I was in Weybridge Hospital for five months but they saved my leg. In the end I got some compensation and I took over what remained of the JRDC. We bought the 10-litre 12-cylinder Cobb Delage and Robin Jackson modified the body into a two-seater so that the chaps could practice round the Outer Circuit. I also bought a supercharged Montlhéry MG and Morgan’s single-seater Austin, and I did some races at Brooklands and Donington and hillclimbs. By the end of the season all the compensation money had gone and I decided to have a go at photography. I thought that if I could make an honest penny photographing motor racing, I would be able to stay in that world… and that’s really how it all started.

“I flogged the pictures to drivers and in the end, after every race, people like Johnny Wakefield and Tony Rolt would come to my darkrooms in Lowndes Street and go through my photographs, studying their position on the track.”

George Monkhouse was a contemporary photographer on the racing scene. “We chatted to each other but we weren’t chums. Colleagues rather than chums, I suppose.” Klem’s first foreign race was the 1934 French Grand Prix.

“I was still with the JRDC and 12 of us hired a plane. That was when the Mercedes first appeared with their tremendous whining superchargers. We watched from grandstand seats. I wasn’t taking photographs then.”

Klemantaski seldom worked for the motoring magazines. “They had their own photographers so it had to be something quite different for them to use it and fork out ten bob or whatever. There was really no market for racing photographs unless it was something exceptional. I used a trigger on my Leica, which meant I could take two shots a second. One Saturday I was shooting on Starkey Straight at Donington when a front wheel came off Austin Dobson’s monoposto Alfa and flew up in the air right in front of me. I got the picture and it was a double-page spread in a Sunday paper the next day.

“Because selling racing photographs was not much of a business I was also photographing children, taking ballet photos and that sort of thing. But I decided I should get into industrial and scientific photography and continue to go to motor races at the weekend. That’s how I got tied up with Astons.

“I finished with motor racing in the mid-60s. Since the Le Mans crash in 1955 it had got more and more difficult to go where you wanted as a photographer, so in the end – and I’m sure it’s the case now – the chap with the longest lens got the picture and there was little variety in it. When you’re shooting on your own, that’s the only thing that distinguishes your pictures from someone else’s. It really became more and more frustrating. The last time I went to a race was in 1972. I had my photographer’s pass and went through the public fence at Stowe. Officials were shouting and whistling, and yet where I was standing was about half the way to where the public used to be allowed…”

Michael Frostick and Klem covered motor racing together and produced a series of seven books including Drivers in Action, Racing Sports Cars, Motor Racing Circuits of Europe and British Racing Green 1946-1956. His first was Klemantaski’s Photo Album, for which Frostick wrote the words.

The Klemantaski images took on a new lease of life in 1982 when his archive of negatives was bought by US Ferrari enthusiast Peter Sachs, who has published a fresh series of motor racing books under Klem’s name.

“My favourite photograph was one of Fangio at Rouen. I’d shot on a very slow shutter so that everything was blurred outside, less blurred, less blurred, less blurred – and dead sharp on his face so that you could even see his eyes through the goggles.”

In later years, before his death in 2001, Klem and his wife Ursula moved out of London to Coombe Hay near Bath, with his racing memories in the form of Mille Miglia and Giro di Sicilia trophies and framed racing photographs. The famous Mille Miglia navigations notes box is missing. “It was accidentally thrown away in a house move, along with all the 1950s Avon motorcycle racing negatives. Sad, that…” Latterly, in his motorhouse, Klem’s tenth Alfa Romeo, a 164 with BRDC and Mille Miglia bumper badges, sat beside a 4×4 Fiat Panda.

“In 1986 I was invited to Mercedes by old friends there, to drive a 1939 3-litre Grand Prix car, a 1955 Formula 1 W196 and a 300SLR. It was terrifying! Absolutely no brakes at all by modern standards. How those chaps raced them like that, I’ll never know…”

The photographs of Louis Klemantaski, and their copyright, are owned by The Klemantaski Collection. Many of them can be seen on the collection’s website at: