Charm, guile and passion...

…Louis Chiron used all three to schmooze his way into the favours of the wealthy Americans who gave him the chance to race for Bugatti, Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz. He was quick, too. Words: Mark Hughes Photo: AC de Monaco, LAT

Louis Chiron came to prominence and flourished in that period of grand prix racing when the big manufacturers had largely abandoned it to specialist equipes and freelance drivers – either paid guns for hire or wealthy enthusiasts. The period 1928 to ’33 was one of technical stagnation but competitive intensity, when the sport began to come of age commercially and properly establish a healthy independence from the whims and financial status of the factories. Race organisers got more savvy, thought of more ways to generate income from their events, and suddenly there was an explosion of new races throughout Europe, each of them significant generators of lucre.

Parts suppliers began to realise the value of racing success and helped fund specialist outfits like Bugatti, Scuderia Ferrari and Maserati – and the entry points into top-flight motor racing for drivers mushroomed. No longer did you need to be on the payroll of a factory team to get your opportunity. If you could lay your hands on the money, the hardware was available, the entry forms in the post. If you were good, you quickly arrived at a position where you no longer had to pay your own way: the organisers would offer you good money to turn up or one of those specialist outfits would hand you a fee – plus a percentage of the appearance and prize money – to drive for them. All you needed was the desire and the initial deposit.

So it was that the sport soon had a significant smattering of wealthy, even aristocratic, participants. Some of them – Italian Counts like Felice Trossi or Gastone Brilli-Peri were also very good. Chiron was good too, with an effortless, immaculate and precise style that matched perfectly his appearance and presentation. He had a sympathetic way with a car that allowed him to coax a lot of speed from it with the minimum of stress. But he was not from a wealthy background – and therefore had a potential problem.

It was overcome as effortlessly as one of his perfectly meshed downshifts. He may not have had a vast fortune of his own – his father was maître d’ at Monaco’s Hôtel de Paris – but he lived a life almost exclusively among those who did and was very at ease there. In the playground of the world’s wealthy, his extrovert Gallic charm, debonair style and very real guile ensured he had everything he needed to indulge his passion.

As it was, a wealthy mature American lady subsidised his early racing costs, paying in 1923 for the acquisition of a Brescia Bugatti with which he would contest hill climbs and various small-time races for a few years, cutting his competitive teeth. He’d undoubtedly met her in his role as official dancing partner in the Hôtel de Paris. What he gave her in return was none of anyone else’s business.

He knew well how to deploy the fruits of his schmoozing. After volunteering for army service at the end of the First World War – as a Monaco citizen he had the option not to – he’d become a middleman in the military’s subsequent ridding of excess vehicle stock. It was in this role that he’d made contact with Ernest Friederich, a motor dealer and loyal assistant to Ettore Bugatti. Friederich had got Chiron a job driving newly completed Bugattis from Molsheim down to their customers on the Riviera; Chiron bought the Brescia direct from Friederich. It all adds to the picture of an operator, a smooth-talking social chameleon with a hint of the rogue – a bit of this, a bit of that – but with a very real sense of purpose beneath the sharp suits and easy charm. It was a persona absolutely in tune with the way the racing environment was developing.

In 1926 Chiron met Alfred Hoffman – at exactly the right time: Hoffman was an enormously wealthy American industrialist; one of his companies manufactured Narka spark plugs and he was keen to use racing to publicise them. From this point we hear no more of the wealthy lady who had been Chiron’s first benefactor. And suddenly Chiron has a Type 35B to replace the Brescia. He made his GP debut with it at the 1927 Spanish GP, where he ran second before retirement. Such performances did not go unnoticed by the factory and soon enough Hoffman’s team, including Chiron, was incorporated into the works effort. He’d made it. His first major grand prix win came at Monza in 1928 and in the next three years he contributed many more to Bugatti’s score.

In between he helped Antony Noghes establish a grand prix around his home streets of Monaco. He couldn’t take part in the inaugural event of 1929 as he was driving for Hoffman at Indianapolis; he lost out to the greater fuel capacity of René Dreyfus’s privateer Bugatti in 1930 – an extra pitstop cost him his big lead – won it in ’31, crashed out while trying to defend the lead from Tazio Nuvolari’s Alfa Romeo in ’32 and lost an apparently easy victory in ’34 when he hit the straw bales at Station Hairpin after losing concentration in the late stages. He’d even been waving to the crowd in premature celebration.

By this time, however, he was no longer driving for Bugatti, but Scuderia Ferrari. His dismissal from the French team at the end of 1932 had its roots in his link with Hoffman. While he’d befriended the man who became his sponsor, he subsequently became a little too friendly with Hoffman’s wife Alice, also known as Baby. Chiron’s rival René Dreyfus described the circumstances in his book,

My Two Lives, as follows: “I was aware that Louis had become a problem on the Bugatti team. He had made a good deal of money and had earned even more celebrity, and his head had become somewhat swollen. At the end of September, for the Grand Prix of Italy, [Bugatti team manager] Meo Costantini had arranged for all of his drivers to stay at a small hotel in Monza. Louis said no, that hotel did not have the proper amenities and he would stay instead at the Principe di Savoia in Milan. Meo said no to that, and if Louis did not stay with the team as ordered he should not expect to be back for the following year. Louis stayed at the Savoia anyway, thinking Meo was bluffing. He was not; Costantini abhorred having his orders disregarded.

“And there was a further matter: the marriage of Freddy and Baby Hoffman was falling apart – and Louis was the reason… Moreover, the romantic triangle had another side added to it when, during the season, Meo began flirting with Baby. This infuriated Louis, and strained even further the less-than-harmonious relations he already had with Meo. There were some bad scenes between them over Baby.

“Participating this way in the episode which brought me to the Bugatti team and took Louis off it was perhaps the one act of vengeance Freddy thought he could perform with dignity.”

Between leaving Bugatti and starting at Ferrari, Chiron had established a team with his close friend and rival Rudolf Caracciola for 1933. They purchased a pair of Alfa Romeo Monzas for their SCC (Scuderia Caracciola-Chiron), but the momentum of that was halted when Caracciola severely injured his legs in a practice crash at Monaco. By the time of the Italian GP, Chiron had been recruited by the Italian team as replacement for the departing Nuvolari.

Caracciola suffered a further devastating blow when his wife Charly was killed in an avalanche while ski-ing. Chiron was instrumental in cajoling him out of his depression – but so also was Alice Hoffman, and, much to Chiron’s chagrin, the pair fell in love. Caracciola later married Alice – which Chiron had point-blank refused to do. The two men remained close friends, however.

In the midst of this, Chiron produced arguably his greatest drive, winning the French GP in a Scuderia Ferrari Alfa P3 at Montlhéry against the might of the new German supercars from Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. Aided by a jumped start, he led away and maintained such a strong pace that they broke trying to keep up.

He never looked like repeating the trick in 1935 (unlike team-mate Nuvolari) as the German cars developed further. His path eased by Caracciola, Chiron secured a place on the Mercedes squad for ’36. It was a partnership that promised much on paper but never really gelled. He crashed out at Monaco after qualifying on the front row and also crashed at the Nürburgring, being lucky to escape a scalping in this high-speed accident.

Chiron never returned to the German team; after recovering from the crash he took a drive with Anthony Lago, winning the 1937 French GP (an event run to sportscar regulations) at Montlhéry in a Talbot. He flitted in and out of retirement, a fading star unable to find peace with himself; there was even a trial with Auto Union in 1939, but that led nowhere.

Forty years old when the Second World War began, he nonetheless saw brief active service. But with the early collapse of France, he moved to the Free Zone and subsequently to neutral Switzerland. He was said to have helped smuggle allied airmen from downed planes back to Britain via Switzerland.

The early post-war racing years were very much like those in which Chiron had come to the fore: little manufacturer involvement and lots of small-time races. He made a comeback, driving for Talbot and Maserati. In 1947 and ’49 he even won the French GP, his disguising of a disintegrating head gasket during the latter race at Reims showing all the cunning of his great years. He didn’t finally hang up his helmet until 1956, after retiring his OSCA S750 from the Mille Miglia because of clutch failure.

Thereafter he settled into the role of Clerk of the Course for the Monaco GP and Monte Carlo Rally, the latter an event he’d also won, with Lancia in 1954. He maintained this role until 1968, and died in 1979.