Nigel Roebuck's Legends

Few drivers ever engendered greater respect than René Dreyfus. It’s not hard to understand why…

One of the many pleasures in going to New York used to be dinner with René Dreyfus, who personified the word ‘gentleman’ like few folk I have known.

It would have been gauche, to say the least, to plonk a tape recorder on the table but still it was frustrating to listen to these pearls from Dreyfus’s memory and not have some sort of record of them. How often, after all, do you get to eat with Nuvolari’s team-mate?

Once the evening was complete, Dreyfus — then into his 80s — would cheerily head off to the Subway for a train back to his home in Queens. I would then urgently scribble down everything I could remember from our conversation. Recently I came across a long-forgotten notebook, several pages of which were devoted to a conversation with Dreyfus, speaking in the late 1980s.

René was a man who knew something about French restaurants in Manhattan, having for many years been the owner of one of the best, Le Chanteclair, at 18 E49 Street, just off Fifth Avenue. It had, of course, a motor racing ‘theme’, with black-and-white photographs around its walls. I went there only a couple of times, but count an ashtray given to me by the proprietor among my favourite possessions. The site, alas, is now occupied by a bank.

The story of how this urbane man came to spend more than half his life in America has been frequently told. Having joined the French army in 1939, he went to Indianapolis to drive a Maserati in the 1940 500 (finishing 10th), and while he was on that side of the water, France fell. Dreyfus, therefore, stayed in the USA, contriving somehow to enlist in the American army in ’42, after which he served in North Africa and Italy.

Prior to the war he’d had a varied career in motorsport. Born in Nice in 1905, he competed in a Bugatti for Ernest Friderich, the company’s agent there, in 1928 and ’29. In ’30, now in a works Bugatti, Dreyfus won the Monaco GP, beating local hero Louis Chiron in the process. Two largely unsuccessful seasons with Maserati followed, but once back in a Bugatti in ’34 he won the Belgian GP and the following year was invited to join the Alfa Romeo team operated by Scuderia Ferrari.

Its team leader, of course, was Nuvolari, whom Dreyfus revered.

“Nuvolari was utterly supreme. He could do things with a car no one else could — you were aware of that when you followed him. Often you went into a corner behind him, and just knew that he wasn’t going to make it — but he did. [Rudolf] Caracciola perhaps believed himself the best, and he was indeed a great driver: smooth and, without doubt, the best in the rain. But he was not Nuvolari.

“Tazio never changed. He was a straightforward man and never arrogant. But I think we all — including him! — knew he was the best. I have no hesitation in saying that. He used to win in inferior cars; he would beat the side of them with his hand, urging them on! That’s not a myth. For me, there has never been anyone like Nuvolari.”

Dreyfus also thought extremely highly of Achille Varzi. Being the discreet gent he was, René declined to go into detail about Varzi’s long affair with Ilse, the wife of Auto Union’s reserve driver Paul Pietsch, or about his descent into morphine dependency.

“I have to say, Varzi was very nearly the equal of Nuvolari — and sometimes better. He was an aloof man. The tragedy of Varzi was that he destroyed himself. Before all of that happened, his precision was absolutely extraordinary.”

Dreyfus, unusually, had only good memories of Enzo Ferrari, his employer in 1935 and ’36.

“Curiously enough, I was never aware of this legendary ruthlessness for which Ferrari became known. I enjoyed driving for him and he remained friendly to me to the end of his life. When I think of the tiny operation, and the shortage of money in those days, I can’t believe where his company is today.”

Thereafter, in 1937 and ’38, René drove for Delahaye, achieving a remarkable victory over Hermann Lang’s Mercedes at Pau and being crowned Champion of France.

Through the 1930s Germany’s domination of grand prix racing became almost total and Hitler was only too aware of the great value, in terms of prestige and propaganda, of the Mercedes and Auto Union teams. Given that Dreyfus was half-Jewish, I wondered how difficult life had been for him. He said not at all.

“It seemed that the Nazis were always particularly nice to me, for some reason. It seems a ridiculous thing to say now — but of course at the time we did not realise what was going on. [Hans] Stuck was not a Nazi — but he divorced his wife because she was Jewish. She wasn’t a nobody, you know — she had been a great skiing champion. A lovely woman. I always wondered why he divorced her.

“I don’t know of any of the racing drivers — with the possible exception of [Manfred] von Brauchitsch — who was genuinely a Nazi sympathiser. Certainly Rudi [Caracciola] wasn’t, nor was [Bernd] Rosemeyer. But they all had to give the Nazi salute — even Dick Seaman.

“Von Brauchitsch was a complete snob, a Prussian aristocrat. After the war he had nothing to his name. Now he is Minister of Sports or whatever in East Germany, where I understand he lives in splendour, in return for saying the right things when he is abroad! Caracciola on the other hand was not a genuine aristocrat, but in terms of the racing hierarchy he believed himself to be! Lang, though, was a simple man with no great style in a racing car, but he was very, very fast. As a mechanic, of course, he knew more about the cars than the others which was an advantage. And of course the mechanics worshipped him because he was one of them. By 1939 he was the fastest of all. His best years were lost to the war.”

Dreyfus also remembered Guy Moll, whom Ferrari rated with any driver in history.

“Moll was a freak talent, another Rosemeyer, a Villeneuve, yet his career lasted no time at all, even fewer years than poor Gilles. Enzo always talked of Nuvolari, Moll, Moss and Villeneuve in the same breath. I would not argue.

“[Jean-Pierre] Wimille I thought a truly great driver, the best of the immediate post-war years, without doubt. Having said that, I didn’t care for him. We were in adjoining hospital beds for a time and got to know each other then. He wanted to go into politics. ‘Who will vote for you?’ I asked. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘all the women for a start.’ I didn’t like that very much.”

And what of drivers of a more recent vintage?

“Well, Mario Andretti I adore. A great driver — and a great man, who still has humility. This is quite rare, you know.”

There spoke a man who knew.