From the archives with Doug Nye

How Brooke beat Brooks

Chimay 1946: revisiting a landmark British victory that is all too often overlooked

Conventional wisdom has it that when Tony Brooks’ works Connaught won the 1955 Syracuse Grand Prix he became the first Briton to win a continental Grand Prix race in a British car since Sir Henry Segrave and Sunbeam’s success at San Sebastian in 1924. In essence this is perfectly correct, but as we go into the 70th anniversary year of motor racing’s first post-World War II season, we should recall a previous all-British victory with a Grand Prix car in a continental ‘Grand Prix’.

The Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay, Belgium, had been held annually from 1926-39. Chimay’s series of motorcycle and motor races had been the brainchild of local businessman and café proprietor Jules Buisseret – evidently a big, bluff, jovial character who really endeared himself to the itinerant motor racing community.  

When Buisseret and his fellow Chimay organisers announced they would revive their event on June 9, 1946, long-starved racers absolutely rejoiced. Here was not only another date on the reawakening motor racing calendar. It also was another earning opportunity…

Races had been run in Nice, Forez, Marseilles and in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, when Chimay’s Whit Monday – Pentecost – date came around. Buisseret’s little group ran their race for ‘run-what-you-brung’ Formule Libre. A rival event that same day was the Coupe René le Bègue at St Cloud, Paris. It commemorated the extremely talented 32-year-old French driver of Talbot and Maserati cars, who had recently been asphyxiated by bathroom geyser fumes. A few entrants who would have tackled the Chimay race opted for St Cloud instead, and only seven of the original 14 entrants actually started the Belgian event.

The initial leader was the Siamese Prince ‘B Bira’ in his ex-Whitney Straight team Maserati 8CM, from Coventry scrap and salvage dealer Leslie Brooke in his ex-Arthur Dobson ERA ‘R7B’. ‘Brookie’ was quite a character, a great friend of wartime racing car collector/postwar racing car dealer Reg Parnell – a hero of the Coventry blitz, and a larger-than-life driver/engineer. Brooke was regarded by some within the racing world as fine company, really good fun, and a hard drinker – but by others as someone who had clearly enjoyed a profitable war (and the scrap/surplus boom that followed), so also something of ‘a wide boy’.

As the race unfolded around the 10.8km circuit, Bira and Brooke, Maserati and ERA, swapped the lead, local man Arthur Legat third in his Bugatti Type 35B. But after seven laps Bira made a pitstop with plug trouble, followed by Brooke needing his ERA’s brakes adjusted. Legat’s Bugatti retired and while Brooke hammered on, Bira could only splutter round fitfully to finish sixth, and last.

Steinbach’s Alfa Romeo 8C-2900B sports car would finish second, ahead of Maurice Adant’s Bugatti Type 35, Desiré Boudart’s Steyr-engined Lenkin, Dutchman van Kempen’s Fiat Ballila, and Bira. Leslie Brooke had completed the 15-lap, 101-mile race at an average speed of 75.5mph, and his fastest lap for the rapid, mainly country-road course averaged 81.9mph. He really had needed those brakes for the hairpin and two 90-right turns…

So here – lest we forget – was the first post-war all-British win in a continental GP – not Tony Brooks, not Connaught, but certainly no premier-league F1 race either… Regardless, many British enthusiasts were that summer happy to raise a glass to “good old Brookie”.

A nation united by passion

Belgium has a proud racing history. During the immediate post-war years, youthful enterprise paved the way to triumph and tragedy 

One year in the ’70s driving up to Spa, Jenks told me how Belgium had been a hot-bed of competition motor sports through the 1940s and early ’50s. “Almost every small town had its own motor or motorcycle club, and almost every one of them would run its own local sprint or hillclimb, and they never seemed to have any problem getting roads closed”.

Certainly Belgium’s enthusiast population was eager to enjoy motor sporting fun and spectacle. Teenaged Louvain university student Jacques Swaters and his friends André Pilette and the Baron Charles de Tornaco were just three amongst many. They revelled in the freedom of haring around deserted roads and both Pilette and de Tornaco had racing-driver fathers.

Born in 1926, Swaters was also from a well-to-do family. His father was a Dutch businessman, who had founded the Raadkamp pharmaceutical company. His mother Marie was Belgian but she died when he was barely a year old, and his father followed when Jacques was still only 12. He was raised by his half-sister Louisette (from his father’s first marriage) through the height of the German wartime occupation, before at 16 going to live with his full sister Jacqueline. She and her husband Georges Marcq were very active within the Belgian resistance. Jacques followed their lead, but Georges Marcq was arrested and in August 1944 deported to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp near Nordhausen, Germany, where he died in February 1945 – agonisingly short of liberation. 

Both Jacques and sister Jacqueline were also arrested – Jacques tortured and forced onto a deportation train, only to escape from it during a resistance ambush. With Brussels liberated he joined a Belgian SAS Army unit, serving in Holland and Germany.

Into the peacetime 1940s these young Belgians had seen more of life than most would ever want. On his 20th birthday in 1946 Jacques Swaters inherited his quarter of his late father’s fortune, later founding his own garage business in Brussels – and above all seeking to go motor racing.

Paul Frère was service manager of the Brussels Jaguar dealer at that time – another young Belgian bitten by the bug. One day he met Swaters who had just bought a little MG that Paul knew well as the special-bodied PB in which Bonneau and Mme Itier had finished well in their class at Le Mans 1938. He recalled: “A week later Swaters and I had decided to race it together in the 24-hour race” [at Spa]. Paul was too busy to prepare the car himself so it was entrusted to another mechanic, but “Jacques had been foolish enough to lend the car to a friend of his… Charles de Tornaco [who] had driven it to the university, and now came back with smoke pouring from the engine which was making a terrible noise. Because of a faulty gasket the oil feed to the overhead camshaft had been blocked; all the bearings had run and even the camshaft itself had discoloured with the heat – two days before scrutineering and three days before the race.”

Helped by two dealership workmates Paul made new bronze bearings and lapped them in all night, but it seemed some rings then broke during practice, the MG’s engine running unevenly and smoking. So the boys started their first motor race with a sick MG – but their ring trouble proved to be that one was gummed up and stuck rather than broken. Running to a 4500rpm rev limit instead of 5500, Paul and Jacques finished the 24-hour race fourth in class. Both would build considerable racing careers, Paul as the doyen of racing driver/motoring journalists, Jacques as driver turned Ferrari importer, entrant and head of Écurie Francorchamps. He never forgot his past, and indeed his Belgian-yellow Ferrari cars carried their national racing colours with a particularly patriotic pride. 

In 1950 Jacques Swaters launched his first new racing team, Écurie Belgique, in partnership with Charles de Tornaco, André Pilette and racing motorcyclist Roger Laurent. But there was confusion with jazz musician Johnny Claes’ rival team Écurie Belge and the RACB took a dim view. So for 1952 Swaters adopted the title Écurie Francorchamps. Further complication ensued in 1955 when Belgian Shell offered the RACB serious sponsorship for a Belgian national team. Swaters and Claes then joined forces to create Équipe National Belge, while Jacques kept the Francorchamps entity ticking along for races not backed under the Shell/RACB agreement.

ENB survived until 1958, whereupon Écurie Francorchamps resurfaced… to achieve many years of further success.

Meanwhile, the young Baron Charles Victor Raymond André Evance de Tornaco had been seen as a promising driving talent. His father Baron Raymond had been a well-known racing driver in the 1920s, finishing third in the 1923 Le Mans 24 Hours in a 2-litre works Bignan, and third again in the 1924 Spa 24 Hours. The young Charles started his career co-driving Swaters’ Veritas-BMW in the 1949 Spa 24 Hours, and in 1952 funded a brand-new Formula 2 Ferrari 500 single-seater, which they campaigned under the Écurie Francorchamps banner into 1953. Young de Tornaco really did look Mr Cool with his swept-back fair hair worn quite long for the early 1950s, a liking for stylish clothes and of course his fast cars. He had taken fifth place for HWM at Chimay, then seventh with the bright yellow Ferrari in the Belgian GP. He also shared Roger Laurent’s Francorchamps-entered Jaguar C-type at Le Mans ’53, finishing a very respectable ninth overall. 

But then, on September 18, 1953, during pre-Modena GP testing in Italy, he crashed the Ferrari fatally. According to eyewitnesses he lost control when looking back at the twin Connaughts of Roy Salvadori and Johnny Claes, right on his tail. His car careered off course and tripped on the soft verge, half-ejecting de Tornaco who was then crushed as it overturned. With neither ambulance nor medical help present, the injured Baron was rushed to hospital by private car, but died on the way from a fractured skull, neck and internal injuries. He was only 26.

Jacques Swaters was in his office in Brussels when his telephone rang. It was Girolamo Gardini, Ferrari’s commercial manager (who had sold him the 500 and had just that year appointed him Ferrari’s agent for Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), breaking the news of de Tornaco’s death. Swaters would be haunted by the fact that he was in Belgium at the time and not with his friend in Italy. Jacques had to tell de Tornaco’s family of his death, an experience he could never talk about. “It was very hard to carry on without him but I had to continue what we began together and sustain his legacy.”