Lunch with... Alain de Cadenet

The patriotic Brit with the French name, who flew the flag at Le Mans with his own cars, remembers two decades of sports car racing, with Simon Taylor

Countless schoolboys have fantasised about winning Le Mans, perhaps in a car painted in patriotic dark green; perhaps – even better – in a self-built car carrying their own name. But the Briton who came closest to turning that fantasy into fact knew nothing of cars when he was a boy. In his boarding-school youth Alain de Cadenet was more interested in collecting stamps. It was only after losing a girlfriend to a racing driver that it occurred to him to take an interest.

“This gorgeous girl was pulled off me by a man who said he was a racing driver. So I phoned up Autosport to ask how you became one of those. The phone was answered by the office junior, some fellow called Simon Taylor.”

That was in 1966, when Alain was 21, and I remember the conversation well. The confident young man at the end of the phone seemed destined for a rather brief racing career. He and a friend had bought a pair of 2.6 AC Aces, which they equipped with flared wheel arches, wide wheels, and Blue Star remould taxi tyres “because if you blow them up really hard they slide nicely.”

“I knew nothing about motor racing. I just thought it would be a good way to pick up girls. And it was. In the paddock at my first race at Brands, a girl invited me back to her flat in Baron’s Court that evening. I got there a few minutes early, and the door opened and Mike Hailwood came out. ‘You’re next’, he said. She used to race a bit, too. Very good with calming advice for the novice driver. You remember her too, but we’d better not mention her name.”

We are lunching in Bibendum, the fine London restaurant that Conran created out of the Edwardian tile-clad Michelin depot in the Fulham Road. It’s a frequent watering-hole for Alain, whose mews house isn’t far away. He chooses a hot smoked salmon soufflé, followed by roast sea bream. It’s helped along by a half-bottle of premier cru Vosne Romanée.

“I raced the AC for a couple of years, learned a bit about what was going on, and then got involved with a mid-engined thing called the Diva Valkyr. I tried to put a Martin V8 in it. Horrible failure. Then I bought a Porsche 904. Michael Pearson (now Lord Cowdray) had a house in Elystan Street which was the hang-out for our gang, so we pushed his new Ferrari into the street and prepared the Porsche in his garage. I drove it to races on the road. We didn’t bother with overalls then – I raced in shirt-sleeves.”

The 904 gave way to a Dino 206S, and then a Porsche 908. “I’d noticed Chris Craft carving hell out of the bigger cars in his little Chevron, so we shared my 908 in a few races, and it was the start of a long friendship.” Under the banner of Ecurie Evergreen, a team he’d set up with the American David Weir, Alain commissioned a Cosworth DFV-powered McLaren M8C for Group 6. “Bruce worked out the rear end, and shook it down for me at Goodwood.” 

By now Alain had realised that Le Mans was something a chap had to do. In 1971 he made his Sarthe debut in nothing less than an Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 512M, with Hughes de Fierlandt. They were in seventh place on Sunday morning when the transmission broke. Meanwhile Ecurie Evergreen was running a full-house Can-Am M8E, and in July Craft won the Interserie race at the Norisring. But this was the tragic day when Pedro Rodriguez was killed. 

“Next day’s papers said Pedro had been killed in a minor race somewhere in Germany. I said to Chris, ‘After all the hard work, all the money, all the massaging, it says we’re just minor racers. So let’s get into the big time, let’s go F1.’

“I went down to the Brabham factory. Jack Brabham had just packed up, and his BT33 was sitting there doing nothing, so I did a fairly convoluted deal with Ron Tauranac. But I was married by then, and the bread knife put her foot down at the thought of me driving in F1. I thought, best put Chris in the car, he’ll do it more justice than I will.”

So, with the unflappable Keith Greene as team manager (“a bullet-proof bloke”, says Alain), Ecurie Evergreen went F1. In the Oulton Park Gold Cup, Craft was fifth. Then the BT33 was packed off to North America for the Canadian and American GPs. At Mosport the engine blew in practice, and at Watkins Glen a chunking tyre broke the rear cross member. “Having thought F1 might be the thing to do, I saw how even Frank Williams was having a nightmare keeping going. I didn’t have his connections, or his determination.”

Keen to return to Le Mans, Alain wanted one of Ferrari’s new 312Ps. “Ferrari wouldn’t sell me one. It was a two-seater version of their flat-12 F1 car, and they said it was too complex for a private owner. That upset me a bit. By now Bernard had taken over Brabham” – Alain always refers to Bernie Ecclestone as Bernard – “ and I went down there to rummage out some bits. I got chatting with a young South African in the drawing office. I asked him if we could do a 312P out of our BT33. He said, ‘Well, we probably could.’ 

“That, of course, was Gordon Murray. He’d work at Brabham all day, and then go home and work nearly all night on my car. Grand Prix Metalcraft built the tub, and we put it all together in six weeks. The Brabham’s engine was shot, but McLaren had a little Kiwi dude called Jon Nicholson who’d been building their Can-Am engines. To try him out on their DFVs, they got him to rebuild the four-year-old engine that Bruce used to win the Belgian GP in 1968. Then they sold it to me for £1500. I went to Colnbrook and collected it, squeezed it onto the back seat of my Mini. 

“Of course, unbeknownst to everyone then, Gordon turned out to be a genius. The car was fast straight out of the box. Duckhams gave us £500 to paint it like a yellow oil can, and we called it the Duckhams-Ford.  At Le Mans Chris and I had it in fourth place with two hours to go. Then he ran into his own personal downpour when he was on slicks, and hit the barrier. He got it back to the pits, and we repaired it. But Jo Bonnier had been killed that morning: he’d hit the back of a Daytona and flown into the trees. Everybody was a bit edgy, and they wouldn’t let me out almost until the end. So we ended up 12th. 

“We weren’t the first to run a DFV at Le Mans – Ligier did it before us – but we were the first to finish. That engine did Le Mans, practice and race, and then we did the Watkins Glen Six Hours too – 32 hours in all. Keith Duckworth had told me a DFV was only meant for F1 distances.”

In 1973 Alain had another brush with F1. Ecclestone had eased Graham Hill out of Brabham, but was keen to see him carry on using Embassy sponsorship. “Bernard suggested I ran the operation. We got a customer Shadow which we built up in Morris Gomm’s premises in Woking.

“Graham was all right once you got past that arrogant, bombastic front. But it wasn’t easy for him: having been a double World Champion, he was over his own hill by then, and always frustrated with himself.” The car scraped onto the back of the grid at Barcelona and Zolder, and then Alan left after a huge row with Hill in the Monaco pits, in front of the tobacco sponsors and their guests. “He called me a ****. I said, ‘Don’t you call me a ****, you ****’.”

At Le Mans the Duckhams’ new long-tail bodywork started to break up, and Alain and Chris retired after 13 hours. In 1974 Alain didn’t even make the start. “Ten days before the race, I was going to Paddington Station on my monkey bike to pick up some gearbox bits. A taxi did a U-turn in front of me, and I broke my collar bone. I had it strapped up, and I qualified the car, but in night practice I turned into the Porsche Curves and the broken bone popped out and jabbed me in the neck. So we put Jon Nicholson in with Chris. The car was green now, and called the De Cadenet, but it was the same old car. We’d changed to Firestones, and the harmonics of those tyres at very high speeds kept breaking the suspension.” It was out by 5am.

For 1975 the Brabham-based car was sold to Colin Hawker, who turned it into a VW-bodied club racer. “I got a new Lola from Eric Broadley. Gordon breathed on the suspension, and we modified it to suit Le Mans better. We called it the De Cadenet Lola. But it was slower in a straight line. I was still using the same old ex-McLaren engine, only 400bhp. The first car would do 200, but in 1975 we could only get 190. We were third in the early stages, but we had all sorts of problems. Eventually we were 14th. 

“We only ever had an old white Transit, towing the car down through France on an open trailer. One year, when the Transit was getting very tired, it was really full of stuff, and it couldn’t pull the trailer. So I sent it on ahead, put a tow hitch on the back of my 1928 Speed Six Bentley and towed the De Cad down with that. Both BRG, of course.

“For 1976 Gordon suggested a bunch of things to improve the straight-line speed. We made a new short-tail body, and we got it back up to 205mph.” And that year, in ferocious heat, Alain and Chris ascended the podium with a superb third place, a historic placing for a self-run privateer car.

That car was sold to Simon Phillips, and a new Lola-based car was built up for 1977. Tony Southgate worked on the design and Len Bailey fettled the aerodynamics, helped by a few hours in the MIRA wind-tunnel paid for by a car magazine. “That made the new car really quick: it did 228mph on the Mulsanne.” An hour was lost repairing damage after Chris went off in the wet around dawn, and in a storming recovery they finished fifth – 90 seconds behind the third-placed Porsche and closing fast. In 1978 they were 15th after various problems, and 1979 brought retirement.

“In 1980 John Webb wanted a ride for his protégée, Desiré Wilson, in the Brands Hatch Six Hours. I’d never met her, and I didn’t want to wear out my fresh engine, but money changed hands. And I never regretted it. One of the most delicious things in my motor-racing life was driving with Desiré. She’s just a brilliant pedaller. I thought I knew my way around Brands Hatch, but she taught me a few things. It was a sad race because Martin Raymond was killed, but when they stopped it we were third behind the Lancias. 

“So we decided to do the next Championship round, the Monza 1000Km. When I handed over to Desiré at half-distance we were third. And she went like a dingbat, got us up into the lead. Then it started to rain. All the works cars, Pescarolo’s Porsche and Patrese’s Lancia, stopped for wet-weather tyres. But she stayed out on dries. The others were catching her up fast, but she drove like a woman possessed, and we won by nine seconds. It was my first big win.

“The next round was the Silverstone Six Hours, and we won that too. Desiré drove her bits off. An hour before the end she missed third gear braking for the Woodcote chicane and went round it, and they docked her a lap. She fought back, and at the end we’d beaten the Porsches of Jurgen Barth and Brian Redman by 18 seconds. Two championship wins in a row! We went to Le Mans in optimistic mood.”

But in qualifying in the rain the Le Mans timekeepers missed Desiré on her best lap, and next time round she got a wheel on the grass, clipped the barrier and flipped the car. “She took all the corners off. John Anderson, who was my head man, somehow put it all back together. She was unhurt, but the organisers said she hadn’t qualified and wouldn’t let her run. I did it with François Migault – he was meant to bring some money, but I never got a cent out of him.” After early delays with a misfire, they fought back to seventh.

For 1981 he did a deal with the Belgian Martin brothers, Philippe and Jean-Michel, and painted the car in the red and white colours of their Belga sponsors. “I told them not to rev it over nine, but they went to ten, and of course the engine blew.” It was the last time Alain drove his own car at Le Mans, although he did five more: in a Porsche 956 with Chris Craft, in the GRID with Desiré and Emilio de Villotta, and three times with Yves Courage’s Cougar team. 

“I was playing snooker with James Hunt one day, and he said, ‘Alain, if you don’t give up this Le Mans stuff, it’s going to give you up.’ Well, 1986 was my 16th Le Mans on the trot.I was in the Cougar-Porsche. At about 4am Jo Gartner’s Porsche 962 was coming out of Tertre Rouge, and as he changed into fifth the gearbox seized. The car hit the barrier on the left, rolled over, went across the track and landed on its roof. Jo was a nice kid, very quick, great future. The papers next day said he was killed instantly. But when I came by a few seconds later I could see him hanging upside down in the car trying to undo his belts. Then it went on fire. 

“When I got back in for my final stint I was thinking about Jo’s accident, and I said to myself, De Cad, you’re only a bloody amateur, what are you doing here? When I got my Fuel In signal I knew it was my last lap of Le Mans, ever. I said goodbye to it. Goodbye Tertre Rouge, goodbye Mulsanne, goodbye Arnage. I came into the pits, got out, helped Yves strap himself into the car. Then I took off my helmet, stuffed my gloves and balaclava into it, went back to the caravan and packed up my things. No regrets.”

Today Alain still races historic cars, and has a busy career as a TV presenter for the American Speed channel. For his Victory by Design series he’s sampled some wonderful machinery, from Auto Union to Vanwall. Currently in his own garage are two low-chassis Invictas, a Porsche 356, and his beloved 1931 Alfa 8C, which he’s owned for 35 years. All of them get used for ordinary motoring: he doesn’t possess a modern car. He also has a collection of classic motorcycles, from early veterans via Vincents and Brough Superiors to Ducatis, and a Boeing Stearman aeroplane. 

These days, sadly, you can’t be a front-runner at Le Mans by towing your own car to the circuit behind a Speed Six Bentley. It wasn’t meant to be possible when Alain de Cadenet did it. But he’s one of a dying breed, a true motor racing character. Tim Birkin, Woolf Barnato, Glen Kidston and the rest would all have approved.