Bellow yellow

Jacques Swaters founded Ecurie Francorchamps to tune Fiat 1100s. He built it into one of the finest racing teams of its era. Chris Nixon meets the man to discuss his lifetime in motorsport

Garage Francorchamps is a distinct misnomer for the edifice greeting visitors to Jacques Swaters’ Ferrari emporium. Situated in a large industrial area not far from Brussels airport the Garage is, in fact, an imposing modem building which houses Swaters’ Ferrari showroom and service department.

The showroom is immaculate, with customer cars awaiting collection and several Ferrari engines on stands for the owners to study before driving away. Swaters himself is a tall patrician figure who has enjoyed a love affair with all things Ferrari for more than half of his 72 years.

After lunch on a balcony which overlooks the showroom, he leads me through some offices, down a spiral stairway and into an Aladdin’s cave of Ferrari goodies. Here is his archive: several large rooms containing row upon row of bound volumes of motoring magazines; bookshelves groaning under the weight of Ferrari-related literature; box files containing the photographic records of Ecurie Francorchamps since 1948; glass cabinets containing scale models of virtually every Ferrari ever made and, as the piece de resistance, a genuine Ferrari 375 Plus, the type with which Jose Froilin Gonzalez and Maurice Trintignant won Le Mans in 1954.

Born in Brussels in 1926, Swaters grew up among fine cars. His father owned an Hispano Suiza and one of his three older sisters had a Bugatti. After the war he studied law, but was sidetracked from a career at the bar by his interest in cars and racing. He found a little private garage in Brussels and began tuning Fiat 1100s. In 1948 Jacques and his best friend, Charles de Tomaco, bought a pre-war MG PB and prepared it for the 24-hour race at Spa-Francorchamps. Driving with Paul Frere, Swaters finished fourth in class, hut his lasting impression of the race was the sight and sound of Luigi Chinetti’s Ferrari 166 Barchetta. “I fell in love with it and that became my dream to drive a Ferrari one day.”

He started Ecurie Belgique, preparing such cars as BMW 328s, a Veritas and the MG for his friends de Tomaco, Andre Pilate and Roger Laurent. In 1950 they bought a Grand Prix Lago Talbot, but their name had incurred the wrath of the AC de Beige, which pompously announced that they could not call themselves Ecurie Belgique.

“Charles de Tomaco was from Luxembourg, so I considered going them, but it was too complicated?” recalls Swaters. “I decided to remain in Brussels and took the name Ecurie Francorchamps. My garage became Garage Francorchamps.”

The following year Jacques achieved his ambition and bought a Ferrari, or rather, two Ferraris. In 1949 Gianni Agnelli had bought a 166. Swaters bought it in 1951 and sold it several times over the years, before deciding to keep it for himself’.

He also ordered a Ferrari 500 (chassis no 0208), for the Ecurie to race in Formula Two events during the next two years. It was due to be built in time for the GP des Frontieres at Chimay in June 1952, and so on the Monday before the race Jacques arrived in Modena with a trailer to collect it. The Ferrari was not ready. It was finally completed on the Friday and, after a quick test run at Modena Autodrome, Jacques decided that the only way to get it to Chimay in time for the race was to drive it there.

“I had a girlfriend with me in a little Citroen and we set off in convoy. Then there was no autostrada and no ring road around Milan. I drove through the Piazza Duomo to the applause of pedestrians. Of course, the Ferrari had no lights so I had to follow my girlfriend pretty closely. And I had no mudguards, no licence plates, no insurance nothing!”

With bright yellow Belgian paintwork and open exhausts the GP Ferrari was hardly inconspicuous, yet Jacques was not stopped once. Italian Customs officers cheerfully waved him through to Switzerland, but he knew that he might get a different reception going into Belgium so, at the border, he ducked down in the cockpit and drove under the barrier. To his relief he was not stopped and arrived in Chimay in time for Roger Laurent to start the race. It would be nice to report that all Jacques’ fine efforts were well rewarded, but Laurent crashed on the opening lap.

While driven by Laurent and de Tomaco, the F2 Ferrari had no real success, but in July, 1953 Swaters himself scored the team’s one and only victory with the car, in the Berlin GP at Avus. “That was very significant for me. It was not too long after the war and so it felt very good to win in Germany!”

It was about then that Jacques’ business association with Ferrari began, in a rather haphazard fashion via a telephone call from Gerolamo Gardini, Enzo Ferrari’s General Manager.

“He called one day to say, ‘We have sent a car to the Brussels Show and it is on a train somewhere. I have no time to deal with it, can you?’ I went to the station, found the car on a wagon, sorted out the import details and took it to the Show. Gardini called again to say he could not come to Brussels and would I look after the stand? I did, and sold my first Ferrari. As a result, I was asked to become the Ferrari importer for Belgium. For 30 years 1 had no contract with Maranello everything was done on a handshake with Enzo Ferrari. To begin with I took three or four cars per year, but in 1957 I took 17.”

Swaters’ remarkable relationship with the Prancing Horse has been celebrated in several Ferrari magazines, but British enthusiasts would not wish for his very successful association with Jaguar to be overlooked. It began in 1953, as he recalls.

“Joska Bourgeois, the Belgian importer for Jaguar, was a good friend of ours. She was very close to the factory and introduced me to Lofty England. I ordered a C-type for Ecurie Francorchamps.”

They almost didn’t get it, as all the production cars had been allocated. One of them was being built for Ian Appleyard, who was planning to rally it, but eventually he decided to have a new XK120 instead. So his car XKC 047, which had already been painted Appleyard White’ was sold to Ecurie Francorchamps and resprayed Belgian yellow. It was prepared for Le Mans by two of Jaguar’s mechanics who joined the Ecurie for the race.

Practice revealed a considerable performance differential between works cars and drivers and the privateers. Duncan Hamilton and Peter Whitehead both made a fastest lap of 4 mins 37 secs, whereas the best Charles de Tomaco could do was 5 mins 3 secs. Nonetheless, he and Roger Laurent did well to finish ninth overall, almost 250 miles behind the winning works C-type of Tony Rolt and Hamilton.

Sadly, three months later, de Tomaco was killed when he overturned the F2 Ferrari in practice for the Modena GP. There was no doctor present, let alone an ambulance, and de Tomaco went by car to the hospital, where he died of a fractured skull.

Formula One returned for 1954 and the F2 Ferrari gained a 2.5-litre engine and was campaigned by Swaters and Laurent. They had no real Success, their best result being the latter’s third in the Finnish GP.

They fared better with Jaguar, despite the fact that their car was crashed by a works mechanic shortly after leaving Calais on the way to Le Mans.

“It was too badly damaged to race.” recalls Swaters. “I went to see the President of the AC de l’Ouest with tears in my eyes and he said we must be at Scrutineering the next morning. Lofty England then offered to bring over a complete body/chassis from the factory, into which we could put our engine and transmission. I went back to the President and cried some more. He told me that if I presented the crashed car at scrutineering it would be refused, but that I could present it again on the Friday night.

“Lofty was fantastic. He called Coventry and told them to send over the spare chassis (XKC 012) by Silver City Airways. We collected it at Le Touquet on the Wednesday afternoon, took it to Le Mans and worked through to Friday night.

“There was no time to change the colour from BRG to yellow, so we painted a yellow stripe down the middle. At 11.30pm 1 took it to scrutineering and at 11.55 did the two laps necessary for starting the race. Roger Laurent and I then finished fourth, which was a wonderful result, in the circumstances.”

They did even better at Reims in July, finishing third behind two works D-types in the 12-hour race. “During the last hour I was in a big battle with Masten Gregory in a 4.1-litre Ferrari. It was touch and go for the final ten laps, because the C-type was all over the road and I didn’t know why. Nor did I dare stop to find out as Gregory was so close, but afterwards my mechanic pointed out that most of the spokes on a front wheel were broken.”

Swaters beat Gregory to third place by a couple of hundred yards. The next month Roger Laurent was third again, in the Dutch Sportscar GP at Zandvoort, but in the Tourist Trophy in September he and Swaters could only finish 16th.

For 1955 Jacques joined forces with Johnnie Claes and gained sponsorship from Belgian Shell. However, Shell wanted a team with a name that was more representative of Belgium than Ectirie Francorchamps, so _Jacques founded Equipe National Beige. They bought a couple of Ferrari 750 Monzas (0518 & 0552), racing at Dakar, Spa, Bari (where Laurent wrote off 0552) Chimay and Durkirod. Their best result was second (Swaters) and third (Laurent) at Spa, but as they were beaten by Frere in a bog-slow Aston Martin DB3S their best was not good enough.

The team also acquired a D-type Jaguar (XKD 503), in which Swaters and Claes finished third in the tragic Le Mans. The car was sold to an American.

For the 1956 Le Mans, ENB bought XKD 573 and Swaters and Freddy Rousselle finished fourth. Andre Pilette was second at Montlhery. The Jaguar was then works-prepared for the 1957 Le Mans, where it again finished fourth, Rousselle driving this time with Paul Frere. It was fourth at Spa (Rousselle), fifth at Saint Etienne (Lucien Bianchi) and sixth in the Swedish GP (Claude Dubois). Swaters then sold the D-type to Baron Janssen de Limpens of Brussels, who used it as a road car. Since 1963 it has belonged to John Coombs.

Swaters describes the D-type as the best car he drove at Le Mans, but in the ’57 race he shared a 290MM Ferrari with Alain de Changy. Which was a shame: they failed to finish what was Jacques’ last race. “Garage Francorchamps, was growing and it made sense to devote more time to that.”

On the Ferrari front, the previous year Equipe National Beige had acquired two TR 500s (0600 & 0618), which were not a great success, while in the meantime Olivier Gendebien had found his way into the team. He really caused a stir at the end of 1956, finishing third with a 250GT in both the LiegeRome-Liege rally and the Tour de France.

In April, 1957, with his cousin Jacques Washer as passenger in the 250GT 0677, Olivier scored a brilliant victory in the Tour of Sicily and then was a stunning third overall in the last Mille Miglia. Driving the same car, he and Paul Frew won the Reims 12 Hours and then wrapped up the season with a win in the Tour de France, with Lucien Bianchi. In the meantime, Bianchi and Harris had won the 2-litre class at Le Mans in ENB’s 500TRC.

For ’58 the name Equipe National Beige was dropped. “Belgian Shell brought in a new General Manager and put a man on our Board with whom I did not get on.” recalls Swaters. “I dissolved ENB and went racing as Ecurie Francolchamps once more.”

He then bought two 3-litre Ferrari Testa Rossas (0724 and 0736), which were dispatched to England for races at Goodwood, Oulton Park, Aintree and Silverstone.

At Le Mans ‘Beurlys’ (Jean Blaton) and de Changy finished sixth in 0736, after which the team switched to 250GT cars. Gendebien and Frere and Mairesse and ‘Beurlys’ were first and second in the Reims 12 Hours, the first pair having to drive their Ferrari without front and rear screens for much of the race. The front one was shattered by a stone so the rear one was removed to reduce wind drag. Gendebien and Bianchi then won the Tour de France again.

The Ecurie continued fine performances at Le Mans in 1959, ‘Elde’ (Leon Demier) and ‘Beurlys’ finishing third in their 250GT. Gendebien and Bianchi then completed their Tour de France hat-trick.

Mairesse then won the Tour in both 1960 and ’61, making it five wins on the trot for Ecurie Francorchamps. Also in 1960 Willy Mairesse was driving for Ferrari and Enzo allowed the Ecurie to enter his car in the Belgian GP at Spa with a yellow stripe across the nose. Mairesse failed to finish, but Jacques Swaters still regards him as the best of those who drove for him.

“Stirling Moss was the best driver of his time, but he was never World Champion. In the same way Mairesse was by far the best Belgian driver, but he never won big races. When he was leading by a couple of laps with one to go, he would always try then to set the fastest lap!”

In 1961 Gendebien was back with Ferrari for what was his last GP drive at Spa, when he was the fourth man on the team for the Belgian GP. He was given a 156 ‘shark-nose’ but, unlike his team-mates, who had the latest 120deg V6 engines, he had to make do with the less powerful 65deg unit. His car was painted yellow for the race and entered by Ecurie Francorchamps. He led in the opening laps, but was overwhelmed by his team-mates and finished fourth.

The previous weekend Pierre Noblet and Andre. Guichet gave the Ecurie another third overall at Le Mans with a 250GT, and in ’62 Leon Demier and ‘Beurlys’ were third again, this time in a 250GT0. The following year ‘Beurlys’ and Langlois were a remarkable second in a GTO and Demier and Pierre Dumay were fourth. In 1964 ‘Beurlys’ and Bianchi were fifth in a GTO and in ’65 Dumay and Gustav Gosselin were second again, this time in a 275LM, with Mairesse and ‘Beurlys’ third in a 275 GTB.

“That was our best race at Le Mans.” says Swaters.

“At midnight the LM and GTB were first and second. At 2.00prn on Sunday afternoon the GTB was down to third and then the LM blew a tyre on the straight. The bodywork was badly damaged, but we repaired it and changed the wheel, but not before the 275LM of Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory had made up a lap and passed us to win the race.”

Ecurie Francorchamps’ last Le Mans was in 1982, with a Ferrari BBLM. “I entered an average of two cars a year for 30 years,” says Swaters, “and between 1954 when we were fourth and 1965 when we were second, we never finished lower than sixth. We won the GT class at least three times.

“For our race programme Ferrari gave me nothing and a lot. In the ’50s he always walked a financial tightrope and I never had any help — I paid for everything. Later on he gave a lot of help. In 1967 I had a P3/4, which I raced at Daytona, Monza and Spa, where Mairesse had a big accident. I sent it back to the factory, but it was impossible to repair it in time for Le Mans. I saw the Old Man and told him my problem. He was keen to have one more entry to fight the Ford challenge, as he had two cars, Chinetti and I had one each and Ronnie Hoare had an old P3. He lent me a works P4 and Mairesse and ‘Beurlys’ finished third, behind Gurney and Foyt in the 7-litre Ford and the works P4 of Parkes and Scarfiotti.”

In 1992 Jacques Swaters celebrated the 40th anniversary of Garage Francorchamps’ association with Ferrari by hosting a tremendous party in Brussels and at the Spa dirt& The association which began with a search for a car on a train all those years ago is still going strong.

On track in the Equipe National Belge Ferrari 500TRC

It would be surprising if, asked to think of a Ferrari Testa Rosso, a 3.0-litre, VI 2 sportscar was not the first car to spring to mind. This seminal Ferrari sports racer, however, was not the first to wear the famous red cam-covers. That honour belonged to the 500TR, announced in 1956 and designated 500TRC for the ’57 season to denote conformity to the Appendix C regulations that prevailed at the time.

This 500TRC, the 10th of just 19 constructed, was delivered to Jacques Swaters on April 27th 1957 and enjoyed a busy season until being part-exchanged with Maranello for a 3.0-litre V12 Testa Rosso in February the following year. During the ’57 season, however, chassis number 0682 MDTR was able not only to finish 7th at Le Mans in the hands of Lucien Bianchi and George Harris but also win the 2-litre class in the race.

It was sold to Prince Gaetano Starrabba of Palermo and was crashed heavily during the 1959 Targa Florio. The car was dismantled and remained in pieces until it was bought by its current owner, David Cottingham in the late ’70s. Cottingham’s company, Ferrari specialists DK Engineering, painstakingly restored the car back to its original condition in time for it to take part in the 1992 Coys Historic Festival. It has never been busier than it is today, having competed in over 60 races since its restoration.

What strikes most upon first acquaintance is the car’s rare beauty, closely followed by the realisation that the yellow and black bodywork actually adds to its appeal. For my money it is a deal more attractive even than, say, o pontoon-bodied V12 Testa Rossa.

Lift the bonnet and where your mind expects to see a monstrous regiment of carburettors buried in the Vee of a 12-cylinder motor, what greets your eyes is an exquisitely compact twin-cam straight four with its twin-choke Webers hung off its side. This engine was the final development of Lampredi’s Formula Two design that provided Alberto Ascari with back-to-back World Championships in 1952-3. In the 500TRC, it develops about 180bhp at around 7000rpm.

That may not make it the fastest sportscar of its era but it is certainly one of the sweetest. The motor idles gruffly but will spin crisply given encouragement with the right foot. Save for a paucity of leg-room for tall drivers there is nothing remotely difficult about driving the TRC at even reasonably rapid velocities. The gearbox is conventional and kind in its action, the engine more than sufficiently torquey to haul you out of corners and the handling so beautifully balanced that it accepts instruction from the foot as readily as from the hand. It steers with beautiful fluidity and proves with every corner that, even by 1957, Ferrari had abandoned its policy of putting all its efforts into the engine and leaving the rest of the dynamics to sort themselves out. Only the drum brakes, which proved reasonably strong but likely to fade after a few laps, smacked of the limitations of earlier Ferraris. By the time this Ferrari went to Le Mans, Jaguar was into its fifth season using discs.

Willie Green, who drove the TRC hard around Silverstone during our test, pronounced it an absolute joy to drive, revelling in its agility and poise through the quick turns of the South Circuit. It was gratifying to know, it had proven as good to drive as it was to look at. AF