René Dreyfus' French resistance

For the Nazis, German dominance of motorsport in the thirties was full of symbolism. But at Pau in 1938, the Delahaye of René Dreyfus stubbornly prevailed. William Cash recalls a day of national pride in France, and deflated egos in Stuttgart

FRANCE - APRIL 11: On The Racing Circuit At The Grand Prix De Pau On April 11, 1938, The French Racecar Driver Rene Dreyfus, In A Delaye 145 (Number 2) Fights For Vies For First Place With Rudolf Caracciola In His Mercedes-Benz W154 (Number 6). (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Rene Dreyfus chases down Rudolf Caracciola at Pau '38

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

On a cold New York winter evening in February 1954, Rudi Caracciola stepped stiffly from a taxi outside Le Chanteclair restaurant at 18 East 49th Street, between Fifth and Madison. Anybody looking up as the 53-year-old legend walked through the glass doors in his well-cut dark grey suit would have noticed his limp.

He was in town with his wife, Baby Hoffmann, to help launch the gullwing Mercedes 300SL Coupe at the New York Auto Show. Le Chanteclair was a chic new French restaurant whose walls had just been freshly decorated with cartoon murals of great racing drivers and their cars. Its owner was Rudi’s old friend and rival, René Dreyfus. Before the war, René had been the gritty French captain of Ecurie Bleue, the private team founded in 1936 by the bulldog-loving, speed-mad, expat American heiress Lucy O’Reilly Schell of New York, along with her Wall Street investor husband Laury.

What none of the diners knew as they watched the maitre d’ ushered the distinguished couple to a discreet corner table was that, as the clouds of war had loomed over Europe in 1938, these two men had waged an epic battle around the narrow streets of Pau, deep in France’s Armagnac country. The result of this battle was one of the greatest upsets in motor-racing history.

“For Hitler, 1938 was to be the culmination of his Nazi sporting conquest plan”

On Sunday April 10, 1938, a month after Hitler had marched into Austria, their two team bosses — SS Korpsfuhrer Major Adolph Huhnlein of Berlin and Mrs Schell — were chasing the same dream for their teams: to become champions of Europe. Their style of competition, however, could not have been more different.

For Hitler, 1938 was to be the culmination of his Nazi sporting conquest plan, and the Grand Prix de Pau’s grid, on Avenue Lacoste, in front of the railway station, was where his humourless Korpsfuhrer, a pair of binoculars hanging off his swastika-emblazoned uniform, had chosen to unveil the latest silver Mercedes racing car — built to the new 1938-40 Grand Prix formula — to the world. After four years of almost total German dominance in the 750kg formula, the countries that made up the International Grand Prix Federation had conspired to come up with a new formula. Based on a minimum, heavier, chassis weight and reduced engine size, it was designed to limit speeds and get French and Italian ‘sports’ racing engineers back to building competitive GP cars. More specifically, the plan was to curb the unstoppable run of German victories.

Pau 38 start

The Pau Grand Prix gets underway – Dreyfus is on the front left, next to Caracciola

Or so they hoped. The new formula limited supercharged engines to three litres, and unsupercharged engines to 4.5 litres. Not unsurprisingly, Mercedes technical director Rudolf Uhlenhaut chose the former. His engineers had been secretly developing supercharged aero-engines for the reborn Luftwaffe. His new W154 cars, delivering 468bhp, were designed in a barbed wire-surrounded compound at the Unterturkheim Mercedes plant in Stuttgart. They were tested at a misty and cold Monza in March, and the results indicated to Huhnlein that the W154 would act as final proof that German technical might would triumph against any ‘foreign’ opposition.

But Huhnlein had underestimated the determined Mrs Schell and her team, which she ran from a mews garage near her luxury Paris townhouse. Nor had he counted on the grit of her gourmet, half-Jewish, team leader René Dreyfus. Blacklisted from test driving for the German teams on account of his Jewish-sounding name, the gutsy 33-year-old son of a linen salesman from Nice was out for revenge.

For the first race of the 1938 season, Mrs Schell wanted to assert Ecurie Bleue as a new force in GP motor racing. She also wanted to level the score with Germany following the Korpsfuhrer’s crushing defeat of the Americans at the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York.

Apart from excellent research in a few chapters of Antony Blight’s The French Sports Car Revolution, no biography exists of her remarkable life as the Amelia Earhart of the European pre-war motor racing world. But the tough-talking, fiery-tempered, blue-eyed American millionaire was one of the most formidable characters of the 1930s.

On that spring day in April 1938, there was more at stake than wounded national pride, or a mere motor race. The duel between Mercedes and Ecurie Bleue had heavy political symbolism. Mrs Schell, who sought no publicity for her team, epitomised the dedicated wealthy amateur who raced for the fun of it; Huhnlein was a ruthlessly professional Hitler puppet, whose motives were propaganda and the furtherment of technology with a view to military use.

From the archive

One thing that Huhnlein and Mrs Schell had in common was almost unlimited funds. The German teams were funded with the help of state reichmarks; Ecurie Bleue was financed out of her $5 million fortune. She was the only daughter of Patrick O’Reilly, a poor Irish immigrant who achieved the American dream by becoming one of the steel barons who built New York’s subway.

But she was no racing dilettante. She was the first American woman to drive in an international grand prix. And following the announcement of the new 1938 formula in 1936, she walked with her bulldogs into the Paris office of Charles Weiffenbach, the elderly MD of Delahaye, and informed him she wanted to order a couple of new V12 GP cars (which hadn’t even been designed yet) for the 1938 race season. Before her 1935 inheritance, she had already impressed Monsieur Charles (as Weiffenbach was known) by racing as a member of the Delahaye rally team, first as a private entrant, and then forcing her way through the ranks to become a works driver. Her husband Latuy, a meek figure who belongs in the pages of a Somerset Maugham novel, also raced, and was an occasional driver for Ecurie Bleue.

The new 4.5-litre V12 Delahaye Type 145 was first tested by Dreyfus was at Montlhery, without fanfare or invited press, in June 1937. On its first public outing, the appearance of this pug-nosed two-seater came as something of a shock to the few Ecurie Bleue friends and guests present Later, Dreyfus himself was to confess that, “It was the most awful-looking car I ever saw”.

Certainly the Germans were not unduly concerned. A sharp illustration of just how seriously Huhnlein took his orders from Berlin to ensure Nazi supremacy on the track was revealed a month later, on August 27, when Dreyfus’s Delahaye was battling it out at dusk on the Montlhery track with Bugatti’s star driver, Jean-Pierre Wimille, for the much-hyped Prix du Million. So anxious were the French to create a racing car capable of beating the Germans, after endless humiliating defeats, that the government had put up a lottery prize of a million francs for any car that could average 146kph for 16 laps or 200km at Montlhery (this being the speed Louis Chiron achieved in 1934 driving a Tipo B Alfa Romeo while outperforming the Germans under the old formula).

FRANCE - APRIL 11: On April 11, 1938 On The Racing Circuit Of The Grand Prix De Pau, The Mercedes-Benz W154 Piloted By Rudolf Caracciola (Number 6) Followed By Maurice Trintignant'S Bugatti T35-51 Runs Down A Straight Line At Full Speed. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Caracciola heads Maurice Trintignant during the race

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Although the German teams were busy preparing for the Italian GP in Livorno on September 12, Huhnlein took the trouble to ensure the huge crowd of press and photographers that witnessed this memorable Ecurie Bleue / Bugatti duel (which Dreyfus narrowly won) included a spy from the Mercedes technical department. Despite the Delahaye victory, the spy told his superiors they had nothing to worry about for the 1938 season.

To be honest, when the two Ecurie Bleue transporters set off for Pau, nobody in the motoring press thought Lucy Schell had any chance against a lineup that included the exciting W154, the new monoplace supercharged 3-litre Bugatti, or Tazio Nuvolari in one of two new eight-cylinder Alfa Romeos (Tipo 308) managed for the new Alfa Corse team by Enzo Ferrari. Against this opposition, Ecurie Bleue was entering a pair of outdated-looking, two-seater ‘bathtub’ road cars — more of a sportscar than a GP car. They were painted duck-egg blue, with red trimming.

Auto Union, who had lost number one driver Bernd Rosemeyer in January during a Nazi speed record attempt, had decided their new cars weren’t ready to race. But the arrival in Pau of the multi-truck Mercedes convoy, after a winding journey through France supervised by manager Alfred Neubauer, was described by the normally unfazed Dreyfus in his autobiography as “awesome”.

Mercedes boasted a team of 25 mechanics, a truck-load of spares, and no less a reserve driver than Dick Seaman (who, much to his annoyance, did not get to race). The Schell equipe comprised Dreyfus, his French wife Chou-Chou, who doubled as timekeeper, his banking brother Maurice, who doubled as part-time team manager, Laury, Gianfranco Comotti, the number two driver, and a handful of Delahaye mechanics headed by technical director Jean Francois.

Lucy was absent although, after consulting a fortune-teller near Nice the day before the race, she rang the Noutary Hotel in Pau and spoke to René. “I know you will do well,” she told him. It turned out she had been told her team was going to win although the clairvoyant thought she owned a stable of racehorses rather than cars.

After the practice session, fortune did seem to be smiling on Ecurie Bleue: the Bugatti team did not show up; Nuvolari, having sliced four seconds off his old 1935 lap record in the first practice run, suddenly found his Alfa on fire. Unable to stop and by now smothered in flames, the Italian jumped for it while his driver-less car headed off into the bushes. Although his legs were quite badly burnt, he was ready to race in the second Alfa (to have been driven by Luigi Villoresi) in the grand prix two days later. An investigation, however, found the same accident — due to a leaking petrol tank — could occur again, so the ‘sister’ car was withdrawn. The appalled Nuvolari admitted he’d finally had enough of Italian engineering. He swiftly transferred to Auto Union.

“It turned out Lucy had been told her team was going to win by a clairvoyant”

The twisting 2.7km Pau circuit was no stranger to Dreyfus, and he planned on using his expertise of its hairpins and narrow straights to his advantage. In practice, pushing his foot “to the floor”, he found his unsupercharged Delahaye “sticking to the road”, while he noticed even the great Caracciola — whose Mercedes W154 boasted around 200 more horsepower — was sliding all over the place. Hermann Lang had the same had the same problem, spinning in practice. At dawn, on the Sunday of the race, Uhlenhaut tested Lang’s car, on which the mechanics had been working all night. Acting on his advice, the car was withdrawn.

From the archive

Dreyfus had matched Caracciola in practice with a time of 1min 48sec, and Mercedes now had just one car. But the German squad was still an overwhelming favourite.

As the engines fired up, with Mercedes’ secret formula alcohol fuel (shipped over in barrels from Stuttgart) blackening the spring mountain air, excited spectators leant out of the small hotels and apartment buildings overlooking the track.

Charles Faroux, the great French race reporter, dropped the flag and newsreel film dearly shows the extra power of Caracciola’s Mercedes pushing him around the first corner just before Dreyfus. They roared uphill along Avenue Bonaparte before the hairpin at Pont Oscar, and then another quick sharp right before passing the Real Tennis court and the Casino gardens in the Parc Beaumont. The course then wiggles past a convent and a statue of Marshal Foch before drivers open the throttle in the final downhill straight towards the pits.

Neubauer knew his supercharged Mercedes would have to stop and refuel, whilst the Delahaye could manage on one tank, so Caracciola’s plan was to establish a sufficient lead to allow for a single stop. For the first few laps, this seemed to be working, with Dreyfus dropping back behind (Dreyfus claims this was to avoid inhaling the noxious Mercedes exhaust fumes). The problem, however, came when Dreyfus began to challenge Caracciola around the twisty track, where the five-speed gearbox and extra power of the Mercedes proved a liability. According to Dreyfus, who never needed to use his fourth gear throughout the race, he was able to pass Caracciola “easily” on the seventh lap, only to then allow the German to overtake him as he knew that when Rudi came in to refuel he “had the race made”.

FRANCE - APRIL 11: The German Racecar Driver Rudolf Caracciola In His Mercedes-Benz W154, In The Daimler-Benz Stands At The Grand Prix De Pau On April 11, 1938. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Caracciola would eventually park his Mercedes once he realised the game was up

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Caracciola’s only chance was to push his car beyond the limit, which Neubauer urged him to do from the pits, the oversized Mercedes manager, in his usual dark suit and trilby, frantically waving the red-and-black flag which meant ‘Faster!’

After 25 laps of this round-the-houses circuit, Caracciola led by eight seconds. The bad news, however, was that the Mercedes was gobbling fuel at 2.75 mpg; the Delahaye was averaging ‘7.9mpg. After 50 laps — half distance — Caracciola led Dreyfus by just six seconds, having established what was to be the fastest lap of the day in 1min 47sec (57.90mph).

But it was not enough. And Rudi knew it. Coming in to refuel, he stepped but of the car, muttered something about his hip hurting (if he had a sniff of victory he blocked out the pain from his horrific 1933 Monaco crash) and suddenly handed over the wheel to Lang, who wasn’t even in his racing overalls. He duly hopped in, but after losing 50 seconds to refuelling, made even less of an impression on Dreyfus, who was increasing his lead.

From then on, the race belonged to Mrs Schell’s team. Dreyfus won by 1min 50sec, with Lang second and Comotti six laps back in third. What should have been a routine propaganda victory for Huhnlein turned out to be a public humiliation, with the Marseillaise played at extra loud volume for good measure.

This win — the only time the Germans were beaten in either 1938 or 1939 — had a deep significance. Lucy Schell’s victory over Hitler’s Nazi motor-racing chief provided a final moment of sporting and human glory before war broke out – only five months later came the Munich Crisis. But it was the newspaper headlines following the Grand Prix de Pau that reminded hundreds of thousands across Europe that no matter how improbable the odds seemed, victory against a seemingly superior foe was always possible.