The other day I listened again to an interview, recorded in early 1957, with the Marquis Alfonso de Portago. Originally put out on a Riverside LP, it was reissued on CD by Ace Records just a few years ago. More than anything, I was struck by how serious racing has become.
“You’ll find,” says Portago, “that the drivers are a very happy lot of people I think they appreciate life more than the average man.”
He certainly did. Some aspects of his life have been well documented, so let us at once get out of the way the route he took into motor racing. Portago was born in London, of a Spanish father and an American mother, and everything in his short life makes James Bond look anaemic.
At 17, for a $500 bet, he flew an aeroplane under a bridge; one of the leading amateur jockeys in Europe, he twice rode in the Grand National; he was expert in swordsmanship, and also in boxing, polo, tennis, skiing and bobsleighing. As well as that, he might have been put on this earth for gossip columnists. He was a nobleman, and he was rich, a free spirit who lived by his own rules. His manner was languid. In nearly every mugshot a cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth. More than that, though, Portago had genuine charm: “Just a delightful bloke,” says Jabby Crombac.
He could speak several languages, of course, and had an easy way with English: “Fangio said I was his most dangerous rival at that particular race,” Portago murmurs at one point, “but I fear he was exaggerating.”
What comes over, primarily, is Portago’s laconic grace, which carried over into every aspect of his life. Before getting into motor racing, his passion lay with horses.
“I raced mainly in France,” he says, “where I was the leading amateur rider for three years. Then I left it for a bit, started eating normally, and put on 14 kilos. I couldn’t lose the weight I needed to go back to it, so I retired. And automobile racing didn’t occur to me until the New York Motor Show at the end of ’53. Luigi Chinetti, the US Ferrari importer, asked me if I wanted to chive in the Panamericana in Mexico, but what he meant was that I sit there while he drove! I was very frightened; fortunately, the car broke on the second day. For all my fear, though, I thought racing had a charm, and I decided to take it up.”
Simple as that. Portago might have been talking about golf or fishing, a hobby. As it was, he bought a Ferrari, and looked for a race. Harry Schell suggested that he partner him at the Buenos Aires 1000Kms. There are those who get started at Snetterton on a Sunday, and those who begin with a world championship sportscar race in South America.
“The problem was, Harry was frightened I’d break the car in practice, so he wouldn’t let me drive. He did the first part of the race, then came in, and said, ‘Okay, now you drive.’ I’d never driven a car with a manual gearbox before.”
Maybe my favourite line from the whole interview comes now: “At Buenos Aires, we had a bit of trouble with the clutch so, before Sebring, Harry thought we should take it to pieces. When we put it together,” Portago says, “there were 53 nuts and bolts left over — and you know what? The clutch didn’t break at Sebring. The back axle did.”
Back in Europe, Portago bought a Maserati to replace the Ferrari, learned how to change gear properly, even to heel-and-toe. And he obviously progressed quickly and well. By the end of 1954 he’d won several times: “I thought I’d arrived — thought Ferrari should give me a contract.” Enzo declined to do that, but sold Portago a Formula One Ferrari.
Most of the 1955 season was lost when he crashed in practice for the International Trophy at Silverstone, badly breaking a leg. Towards the end of that year, he reappeared at the Oulton Park Gold Cup; his autograph adorns my race programme.
In late-season sportscar races, Portago did well, and this time a Ferrari deal was forthcoming. For 1956, he signed up as fifth driver, to Fangio, Collins, Castellotti and Musso.
“With Portago,” Enzo Ferrari said, “there was no such thing as backing away from difficulty. After his accident at Silverstone, his ambition only got stronger.
“He was a kind of magnificent hippy, with long hair, old leather jacket No doubt he made an impression on women, because he was a tall and handsome man But what sticks in my mind is that gentlemanly image which always managed to emerge from the crude appearance he cultivated. A good racer.”
One who came to know him well was Phil Hill: “When I first met him, in early 1954, he knew absolutely nothing about race cars. Nothing! Never even driven anything with a manual shift. But he was a natural athlete, and he learned.
“He was also ahead of his time, in that he was the first guy I ever met who deliberately dressed down, let’s say. He wore this scruffy leather jacket, shaved about every four days, looked like he had nothing. Then he gave me his card one day, with his address on Avenue Foch in Paris — and that’s when I realised you could be fooled by appearances.”
“Are you interested in cars?” the interviewer asks Portago at one point.
“No, not at all,” comes the reply. “For me, a car is either a means of getting from A to B, or it’s something to race. I would say that half the drivers have some mechanical knowledge, and the other half— of which I am one — have none at all. If I want to terrify the mechanics, I walk towards my car with a screwdriver!” I can’t really imagine ‘Fon’ studying telemetry far into the night.
“I have a complex about Fangio and Moss,” he says. “I may be able to pass them, but I couldn’t stay ahead of them without going off the road. It’s perfectly feasible to follow them, but if I have to lead them — set the example, if you like — then it’s easy for me to miss my braking points, and so on. In fact, when I pass someone like Stirling, I think, ‘This is rather peculiar— what’s wrong with his car?”
Portago’s natural ability must have been considerable, however. These comments were from a man with only a couple of years’ experience, and clearly he saw nothing remarkable in being able to run at competitive speeds. Amazing, too, is the way racing drivers looked at safety in those days. What did he wear? “A short-sleeved sports shirt, light trousers, and those soft shoes bicycle racers use.”
Why not overalls?
“I don’t believe in them — if you get gas on your clothes, and it catches fire, you have a much harder time getting out of overalls than out of a shirt and trousers. So I dress very casually.”
If racing were more of a game for gentlemen in those days, the cutting edge was nevertheless there.
“It’s a clean sport,” he says, “perhaps because it has to be. If a driver is unkind to me, I have two solutions: if my cars in trouble, I can wait for him to lap me, and I can be unkind back. Otherwise, I restrain myself until the following Sunday.”
What comes through in Portago’s every word is that racing was not the centre of his universe.
“I’m prepared to give it just so many years. I want to be world champion, of course, but whatever happens I’ll stop when I’m 35. There are so many other things I want to do and if I live to be 100 there won’t be time for a 20th of them, have all the relationships I want, read all the books I want to read. I don’t have any time to lose.
“I don’t believe a racing driver is necessarily a brave man, as much as a man who isn’t afraid. Six hundred years ago, or whatever, I guess he’d have been slaying dragons and rescuing maidens in distress. Nowadays, the only man who can rescue a maiden in distress is a doctor.”
Not strictly true, actually. In his 28 years, Ton’ did a fair bit of maiden-rescuing, one way and another. In early 1957, he was involved in a frantic affair with the famous actress Linda Christian, who was there to watch him race the Ferrari in the Mille Miglia.
It was a race he hated above all others, but near the end he was running fourth. His car was damaged, though. It had hit a bank and the crumpled bodywork was fouling a tyre. At a checkpoint the mechanics did their best to pull it clear, but Portago waved them away. Fifty yards down the road he spotted Ms Christian, braked hard, embraced her. There was time for that, if not for attention to the car. A few miles later, near the village of Guidizzolo, the tyre exploded.
Portago, his navigator Ed Nelson, and 11 spectators were killed, and with them died the Mille Miglia. The following day there was hysteria from the Vatican, an uproar in the press.
“Every driver believes it can’t happen to him,” Portago says. “But I know it won’t happen to me.”