Journalist, racer and engineer, the octogerian Le Mans winner still shows no signs of slowing down
There’s a saying that if you can’t do it, 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 sparked the moment his father brought home his first car, a Fiat 501, in 1922. The boy was five, but by reading his father’s motoring magazines “I 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. “I didn’t wish to be World Champion, I just wanted to take part.”
He devoured every page of S C H Davis’s Motor Racing after his parents sent him to England to learn English, which he did — from The Motor, The Autocar and later Motor Sport. He still has runs of all three from the Thirties, and his English is fluent.
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. “It oversteered a lot, and there were many curves on the Brussels road. That’s where I learned to handle a car.” In wartime Brussels, Frère practised his skills by looking after a friend’s ex-Le Mans MG Special, which he later persuaded Jacques Swaters to enter for the 1948 Spa 24 hours, with one P Frère as co-driver. It finished, and his career was launched.
For the ’49 race, he was to share with Jock Horsfall but didn’t drive an inch. Horsfall was determined to drive solo for 24 hours. “He should have let me drive too, we’d have been much faster,” says Frère now. “By the end he was barely awake.”
The following three years brought chives in Dyna Panhards and then, in 1952, he landed the fourth seat in an Oldsmobile team with Belgium’s best known drivers, Jaques Swaters, Johnny Claes and Andre 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. “It was my first time in a fast car and I only had three laps. I would have been on pole!” Came the race, Frère won. “Oh, very much by 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 Chimay GP. When Frère won it, an HWM was his for Belgium. He came fifth behind Mike Hawthorn, and joined the ranks of Grand Prix drivers.
Frère realised he had to choose between three careers: as a driver, an engineer and a journalist. During the war La Vie Automobile published a paper of his “not because I wanted to be a journalist, it was just a way of being more involved in the industry.” But work had flowed in ever since. “I chose writing, because it would give me time to race.” In between deadlines he raced for HWM and then Gordini — “they were so very fragile; I refused to drive them any more after I had a hub break” — and Porsche, before Alfred Neubauer invited him to a Mercedes test. It produced an invitation to drive a 300SLR at Le Mans for 1954 but 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. Shelby crashed the car.
This had bizarre consequences, because Wyer then booked Frère for Le Mans in 1955, shortly before Mercedes asked him to chive for them. Instead they selected Pierre Levegh. “So,” muses Frère, “indirectly I caused the disaster. I would not have been exactly where Levegh was at that moment.” Instead Frère and Collins finished second.
With such results, Frère the journalist was now the equivalent of his inspiration, Sammy Davis. He not only asked Ferrari for a Grand Prix seat, but landed one. In the Super Squalo, Frère managed eighth at Monaco and a splendid fourth at Spa, but decided to stick to sportscars. “I preferred long-distance races, they gave me the time to get into my stride.” Nevertheless, in 1956 he stood in for Luigi Musso in one last F1 race, bringing the Lancia-Ferrari home second in his home GP behind Peter Collins.
More good Le Mans results for Jaguar and Porsche plus twin Ferrari victories in the Reims 12 hours proved his writing in Le Sport and L’Equipe was backed by real knowledge; his 1964 manual Competition Driving remains one of the clearest expositions of the art. And while many a journalist has track-tested a race car, few have race-tested one out of duty.
“When Cooper began to beat Ferrari, I thought ‘if you haven’t driven one you’ll be out of touch’.” So he drove Coopers in non-championship events, winning the South African GP in 1960, and realised that in their agility lay the future.
The 1960 season set the seal on his career: paired with Olivier Gendebien in a Testarossa Ferrari, Frère won greatest sportscar race of a, Le Mans. Yet it is not his proudest achievement: “It’s my best ‘business card’, but I am proud of how I went in an HWM in the rain at the ‘Ring in 1953, and of that second in the Belgian GP. It was the only time Collins beat me.”
As to road cars he has found there to be no substitute for Porsches. “I road-tested a 911 in 1970 and have never been without one since.”
Music (“nothing before Mozart”) and art are further pleasures of a man showing no sign of slowing up. I caught him briefly at home between the Frankfurt Motor Show and the Alfa 156 launch. But, while busy with work in the US, Italy and Japan, he is both courteous and approachable, as relaxed with newcomers as racing heroes. Track-testing for magazines eased his departure from racing; he is proud that “I have driven every racing Porsche from 1970 on, including the 917.” He has just hurled the GT1 racer around Hockenheim. Not bad for a man of 80.