Veteran to classic -- René Dreyfus

A Window on the Past

Few are the survivors still around from what has been termed the “Golden Age” of motor racing, the Thirties, to tell us how it was. One who is is a certain Frenchman, René Dreyfus, famous both as a restaurateur and racing driver.

His career really took off on April 8th 1930 when he won the second Monaco Grand Prix in a privately entered type 35B Bugatti. It was a triumph of the amateur over the professionals, namely the Bugatti works team led by local hero Louis Chiron. All expected the dashing, handsome Monagasque to come in first and with betting allowed (for the one and only time), perspicacious punters put their francs on the local lad. The Tote accepted bets up to lap 40, and as on lap 20 Chiron was already 1 min 27 sec ahead of second-placed man Bouriat, with Dreyfus 1 min 32 sec behind in third, money continued to shower on him. However, on lap 84 Dreyfus went ahead when the Monagasque came in to refuel, and swept on to victory. Scuffles broke out as angry punters made it quite clear that they thought the race had been rigged. In fact, Chiron’s defeat was due to two factors; one, his accelerator began to stick following his pitstop, and two, a far-sighted move on Dreyfus’ part.

Knowing that the works Bugatti had a special rear-end ratio to enable them to use top gear to the best advantage on the Monaco circuit, he saw that his only chance of victory lay in going through non-stop, and asked to have an extra fuel tank fitted. Ernest Friderich, the car’s co-owner, said no. René replied “no tank, no race”, but when the car turned up for scrutineering a 30-litre fuel tank hooked up to the main one was sitting in the cockpit. Scrutineering was slightly more lax in those days! It also brought amused grins to the face of the Bugatti works drivers!

While Monaco was not Dreyfus’ first win (he already had victories to his credit including a first place in the 1929 Monaco GP 1500cc class), it was the one that launched him as a professional racing driver. His total prize money came to around 104,000 francs (5000 dollars approx). Thus he still had a substantial sum left over after giving Friderich his share. So at the end of 1930, after another victory, this time in the Marne GP at Reims, René decided to move on, and what more natural door to knock on than that of Bugatti, especially when one had won the Monaco GP for the marque. Ettore Bugatti had not forgotten his Monaco defeat, especially when his works team sponsors Esso, KLG and above all Michelin had been beaten by a privateer using Mobil oil, Champion spark plugs and Dunlop tyres respectively.

As René says himself, “the man I had gone to see in Molsheim not only wasn’t happy to see me, he wouldn’t see me at all!” And so a dejected Dreyfus returned to Nice.

However, salvation came (or so it first appeared) in the form of an invitation to join the Maserati team for the 1931 season. He crashed in his first race for the Italian marque, and thereafter mechanical problems raised their ugly heads. His only success in 1931 came when he was lent a Bugatti by Count Czaykowski for the first (and last) Circuit de Brignoles. René won, thus dispersing those little black doubts that had been eating away at his confidence. Dreyfus and Maserati parted company at Avus on May 22nd 1932. The circuit near Berlin, consisting of two straights joined by two corners, one, the north being heavily banked (43 degrees), was one of the most dangerous ever built and yet pre-war drivers raced there without protest.

Was safety a dirty word in that era? “It was not that there was a lack of interest in the subject. The team managers were giving orders and we, the drivers, were doing our job. Never at any time did drivers openly bring up the subject of safety in our conversations,” is René’s answer. He finished the season in a Chiron-entered Bugatti and came fourth in the European Drivers Championship.

In 1933 his dream came true when he joined the Bugatti team, but little did René or his team-mates know that an era was about to end as Germany was preparing to take the world of racing by storm. In the words of Dreyfus: “the arrival of MercedesBenz and Auto-Union, besides their thorough professionalism, brought with them a new era of nationalism that we in France, England or in Italy were unable to match. Money was no problem for these teams: their government was always there to help. It was not Mercedes or Auto-Union that was winning a race, it was their country that was winning a battle.”

This notwithstanding, he feels that there was a degree of fellowship among the drivers that would seem incredible in today’s Formula One world. “There is less fraternising today among the drivers. I believe that it is due mostly to the new tempo of life. The race ends, the driver in his own plane goes home or to some sponsor obligation, to some appearance before the next race. No time for leisurely travel by car as we used to do from one country to another, visiting places of interest, staying in old, well-known inns, enjoying marvellous meals and above all getting to know each other.”

He illustrates this with a story from the 1939 French Grand Prix. “The entire Mercedes-Benz team had retired and after the race we all found ourselves in a small country restaurant which we loved, not far from the Rheims circuit. Its speciality was crayfish served in a tomato and cognac sauce and somebody had suggested making a contest of it. White silk shirts were all the rage at the time, and so we decided that we would all sit down at the table with our jackets off; we would thus plunge into the ecrevisses and after we had finished we would count the stains on our respective silk shirts. He who had the most would have to pick up the bill for the entire meal. Poor Rudi (Caracciola) had to pay. He said he really couldn’t win that day.”

They will decide who is Jewish

Dreyfus never made it into the German teams for obvious reasons, although Alfred Neubauer talked about employing him after René, at the wheel of his ungainly looking 4.5-litre unsupercharged Delahaye, had humbled Caracciola’s W154 Mercedes in the 1938 Pau GP, to score one of his most memorable victories.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Marseilles played with such vigour!” When his last name was pointed out to the German team manager, his rejoinder was the famous “they will decide who is Jewish.”

He is however the only driver now living to have driven for Enzo Ferrari’s pre-war Scuderia Ferrari (in 1935 and part of 1936) and his comments on the team ambience make interesting reading; “Ettore Bugatti was Le Patron, while Maserati had a family atmosphere but Enzo Ferrari was the boss; there was not the camaraderie in the Scuderia that there had been with Maserati and at Molsheim. The conclusion of a race was not celebrated. There was no team pool as at Bugatti. The total prizes were not shared by the whole team. Each driver received his percentage only on what he himself won; thus while we on the team were racing for Ferrari, we were also racing against each other, a situation that is little changed today.”

René won the Marne and Dieppe GPs for the Scuderia and as the last race of the 1935 season, the Italian Grand Prix, approached, the organisers decided to put a spanner in the German works by adding a chicane or two to the Monza circuit. The ploy worked and with half the race over, the master plan had gone wrong and the Mercedes and Auto-Unions were falling by the wayside. Stuck’s Auto-Union was in the lead with Nuvolari in the Scuderia Alfa closing in for the kill. Then, to the immense distress of the Italians, Nuvolari blew a piston, leaving Dreyfus second and also closing on Stuck, who was troubled with fading brakes. The crowd then began to chant “Nuvolari in macchina” meaning “put Nuvolari back in a car”, and when Dreyfus came in to refuel Enzo asked him if he’d mind handing over to the Italian. He agreed and Tazio raced back out onto the circuit to a second place finish after overheating the Alfa’s brakes in his attempts to catch the German. Afterwards, Nuvolari insisted that Dreyfus should receive all the prize money awarded on the car including that calculated on the number of laps that he himself had driven.

So who does Dreyfus consider the greatest driver of his era? “Tazio Nuvolari without doubt; he was the fastest on the track and a very good friend off it. Drivers like Caracciola, Stuck, von Brauchitsch, Seaman and Louis Chiron were also great champions but Nuvolari was the only one who could win, even with an inferior car.”

As a driver, where does Dreyfus himself stand? Was he just a steady and reliable second string or were his talents underestimated? The latter is probably nearer the truth. Discounting his spell at Maserati and remembering the fact that from 1935 onwards, anyone not driving a Mercedes-Benz or Auto-Union had little chance of winning a Grand Prix, and also that the type 59 Bugatti (disliked by all of the team drivers because of its unpredictability) was unable to compete with the P3 Alfas on an equal footing, he comes out well. In 1934 he won the 1934 Belgian GP on the very demanding Spa circuit as well as notching up two third places (Monaco and Switzerland) with the type 59. In 1935 in a P3 Alfa, in addition to his Marne and Dieppe victories, he finished second at Monaco (behind Fagioli’s Mercedes) and Pau (behind Nuvolari), came fourth at Spa and ended the year with the best finishing record of any of the Scuderia Ferrari drivers (Brivio, Nuvolari and Chiron). In 1936, 1937, 1938 and 1939 he drove basically uncompetitive Talbots and Delahayes, but four drives for Maserati in 1937 in the “Voiturette” category (1500ccs) netted him two wins (Tripoli and Florence) and two second places (Turin and Peronne) and in 1938, he won the French Championship Title. Meo Consantini, the aristocratic Bugatti team manager told him that he could have been one of the greatest drivers in the world except for one thing; he was not aggressive enough. Perhaps it was not that the fire was lacking, but that it was all too seldom fanned into a blaze.

However, it burst into flames in the 1937 Le Mans 24 Hour Race for which the Ecurie Bleu stable of Lucy and Laury Schell had entered a Delahaye for René and Alsatian, Henri Stoffel. Race favourites were the type 57 “tank” Bugattis but Dreyfus reckoned that the reliability and nimbleness of the little Delahaye gave them a fighting chance. The start saw them up with the leaders but when René came in to hand over to Stoffel, the latter’s enthusiasm was such that he pulled the door off its hinges in getting in! Repairs took some 45 minutes and it was an all-fired-up Dreyfus who went back out now down in around 35th place, driving as if it were a Grand Prix and not an endurance race. When he finally handed over to Stoffel in the early morning, he had put in an unbroken stint (apart from normal refuelling stops) of around 10 hours, and brought the car up to fourth after a remarkable display of controlled aggression. A third place finish was their final reward.

Few drivers can boast of having won a race without there being an opponent on the track! Dreyfus is one as in 1937, he won a very strange event called “The Million” (a prize of one million francs, 42,000 dollars approx) run at Montlhéry just outside Paris. The idea behind the “Million” was to encourage a French manufacturer to build a car complying with the 1938-40 formula (4.5 litres supercharged and 3 litres supercharged) capable of taking on the Germans. It was a race against time calculated by taking the average fastest lap in the previous year’s French GP and adding 10%. This speed then had to be maintained over 16 laps of the circuit with a deadline set for midnight 31st August 1937. Delahaye and Bugatti took up the challenge.

On 27th August, a very tense Dreyfus got into an ugly offset single-seater Delahaye and covered the 16 laps in a time that was 4.9 seconds inside the margin allowed, in spite of the fact that with three laps to go the white warning strip indicating no more rubber on the tyres was showing. He says himself: “I took more risks in that race against the clock than ever I did in a Grand Prix or a hillclimb.” The race was not yet won, however, as Benoist’s Bugatti still had to try. The Molsheim boys left it to the last possible moment when they made their attempts on the final day, the 31st August. René was present should Bugatti be successful, but in the event both attempts had foundered by the second lap.

Fittingly enough, Dreyfus’s racing career virtually ended (apart from Le Mans 1952 in a Ferrari, retirement, and Sebring 1955 in an Arnolt-Bristol, class fourth) on the legendary Indianapolis circuit in May 1940. The outbreak of war had seen René join up, so he was somewhat surprised on being called into army command and told that he had been given 45 days’ leave to represent French colours at Indianapolis in an 8 CTF Maserati painted French blue with René Le Begue as team-mate. They were told that 118mph would qualify them and both duly achieved that speed, only for Dreyfus to be bumped off immediately afterwards. An indignant Frenchman went back out on the track to salvage his honour (it was too late to qualify) and on his third lap a conrod made an impromtu appearance through the Maserati’s crankcase. René as team leader then decided to take over Le Begue’s car for the race. “No!” said the officials, but finally a compromise was found; Le Begue would do the first 250 miles, and René the last 250.

In spite of being stopped for breaking the no-overtaking-in-the-wet rule on two occasions, the Dreyfus/Le Begue pairing finished tenth. Call it Serendipity or whatever, his trip to the USA was to open up a new life for him as a restaurateur, in which he perhaps became better known than during his career as a racing driver!

Today, René Dreyfus is a fit and spry 85 year old with a memory undimmed by the years; he comments on present day GP racing as follows; “I’ve been amazed by the change in Formula One racing in the postwar era. The comparative lack of big manufacturers, the arrival with their revolutionary ideas of great men like Colin Chapman, John Cooper and the birth of great teams like Lotus, McLaren, Williams, and Tyrrell. The modern technology that permits the Honda engineers in Tokyo to know what’s going on inside their engines during a race, all this compared to our pre-war racing seems almost unbelievable. I am grateful to be able to witness these marvellous moments of the history of racing.” — DW