One of the last great names of the Golden Era of motor racing, Rene Dreyfus, passed away on August 17 in his adopted New York. He was 88.
Celebrated as both a racing driver and a restaurateur, he was born in Nice in 1905, the son of a wealthy linen merchant. He started his racing career 19 years later in a Mathis. His performances eventually caught the eye of local Bugatti agent Ernest Friderich, from whom his mother purchased him a Brescia Bugatti when they visited the Nice Auto Show. He campaigned that mainly in hillclimbs, before receiving an invitation to race a works Bugatti in the 1928 Targa Florio, where he finished eighth. It would be years before Ettore Bugatti again asked him to drive one of his cars.
In Friderich’s Type 37A he was fifth at Monaco in 1929, and he won at Dieppe and the GP de la Marne at Reims. Then, a year later, he used the former’s semi-works 358 to beat ’29 victor William Grover-Williams, Louis Chiron and Pierre Bouriat’s 35Cs in a stunning upset in the Principality, helped in part by an extra fuel tank which allowed him to run non-stop. Curiously, that still didn’t lead to a works deal, and when Dreyfus went to see Bugatti at Molsheim he was snubbed. Alfiero Maserati coincidentally approached Friderich to see if he’d care to run his cars, and as part of the deal Dreyfus took the Maserati franchise for the whole of France with his Garage du Trident.
1931 was a lean season when he had only a second in a Maserati 1-2-3 at the Prix Royal of Rome at Littorio to his credit, and so was 1932, when the sole high point was setting a record lap of 130.87mph in the Sedici Cilindri Maserati at Avus. After his release by the Italian company midway through the year he reverted to privateer status with a Bugatti, surviving a big shunt at Comminges, where he first met his great friend Jean-Pierre Wimille. In 1933 he finally turned the corner when Bugatti signed him as a works driver, alongside the great Tazio Nuvolari and his friend Louis Chiron. In such illustrious company he invariably acquitted himself nobly and was often as quick as his team-mates. He was third at Monaco and fourth at Pau in that amazing race marred by heavy snow. He stayed the following year, too, partnering Robert Benoist, Tonino Brivio and Wimille, and after a third again at Monaco, behind Guy Moll and Chiron, he set the first ever 100 km/h record at the adjacent La Turbie hillclimb with the four-wheel drive Type 53.
For 1935 he switched to to Enzo Ferrari’s emergent Scuderia Ferrari, taking victories in the GP de la Marne at Reims, again, and at Dieppe, sharing second with Nuvolari to Hans Stuck’s Auto Union at Monza and finishing third at Nice. Almost inevitably, however, his career declined when he switched to driving Anthony Lagos Lago Talbots in 1936. He scored several reasonable placings, but the big cars were never fully competitive with their lighter opposition. He moved to Delahaye the following year, driving for Lucy and Laury Schell, whose son Harry would bring a swashbuckling air to Formula One in the 1950s. Dreyfus took a 3.6-litre model to third at Le Mans with Henri Stoffel, but his greatest success was winning the famous million franc challenge at Montlhery.
The following season the highlight was beating Rudolf Caracciola’s Mercedes into second place at Pau, again with the Delahaye. 1937 also brought him successes with a 1.5-litre Maserati 6CM voiturette.
He retired just before the war, to start a restaurant in Paris with his brother Maurice, who had always been his faithful mechanic. By a curious twist of fate, however, his driving days were not over. Having been conscripted to the French Army he was sent to represent the nation in the 1940 Indianapolis 500, where he finished 10th in an 8C Maserati with Rene le Begue as Wilbur Shaw scored his second success in the event. Early in the war he established the Red Coach Tavern in Closter, New Jersey, before returning to occupied Europe with the US Army. Reunited with Maurice he then settled permanently in New York in 1946, when again they went into the restaurant business with Le Gourmet. He finally retired from racing for good in 1952, when he bought his last enterprise, Le Chanteclair, at 18 East 49th Street. The brothers (and sister Suzanne) ran that for 27 years before he retired in 1979, having established it as one of the city’s prime eating spots.
Dreyfus’s first marriage to Chou-Chou ended in divorce during the troubled war years when his religion did not make him popular in some countries, and his second wife Peggy succumbed to Hodgkinson’s Disease in 1950.
Rene Dreyfus was an urbane, articulate man who drove Grand Prix cars with an easy style, and whose elegant charm quickly won him lasting friendships. He was selfeffacing, a listener rather than a talker, dressed smartly and was always unfailingly polite. A true sporting cavalier. The title of his biography My Two Lives summarised the manner in which he rose to the forefront of the sport at a time when it was totally devoid of commercialism, before switching with commensurate aplomb to an altogether less dramatic, but equally rewarding, career. He remained lively into his 70s and, at the age of 71, partnered Innes Ireland when they demonstrated a Type 35B Bugatti at Long Beach during the US GP West meeting in 1976. D J T