Looking back with Paul Frere: writer, racer, Le Mans winner

The muti-talented writer and racer Paul Frere always saw himself as "sportsman" rather than a full-blooded racing driver, but his undoubted ability brought him a famous Le Mans win


Frere is congratulated by Maurice Trintignant after winning Le Mans '60

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Just occasionally, to keep a sense of perspective over the subject about which they are writing, motoring journalists try their hand at active motor racing. Some in recent years have achieved a fair degree of prowess in saloon car racing categories (including one of our number at Standard House) while others have contented themselves to “dip their feet” from time to time, usually retiring a discreet distance away from the action to consider the folly of their ways. At the upper end of today’s single-seater world, bearded Austrian journalist Harald Ertl currently drives a privately-operated Hesketh 308, but his role is more that of a racing driver who contributes articles rather than a professional journalist who races for sport.

This article deals with an individual who falls into the latter category. Genial Belgian Paul Frere began motor racing in 1948, gained a reputation as a sports-car driver and Formula 1 driver of considerable ability and successfully maintained his status as “a journalist who races” right up to the pinnacle of his racing achievement, victory with Olivier Gendebien at Le Mans in 1960.

Lucid, dispassionate in his observations about his own achievements, as well as those of racing drivers against whom he competed, Paul Frere maintains a keen interest in contemporary racing not only as a writer of repute, but as a respected member of the CSI Technical Committee. This is the organisation charged with the near-impossible task of administering many complex rules and regulations surrounding the multitude of categories involved in international racing today.

Despite his parents’ enthusiasm being distinctly lukewarm. Frere began his motor racing career with a foray into the world of motorcycle racing immediately after the Second World War, trying his hand in the 125-c.c. class. Through the good offices of Jacques Ickx, journalist father of current Grand Prix driver Jacky, Frere was invited to ride for the Belgian Puch distributor in several races and hill-climbs, including the Grand Prix de Bruxelles on the road circuit at Heysel. He subsequently attempted some record-breaking on the famous Jabbeke highway (now a section of the Ostende-Bruxelles motorway) and set a short-lived 125-cc. World Record for the mile, running his Puch on alcohol.


Early GP drives came for HWM

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Shortly afterwards Frere bumped into Jacques Swaters, then a student, driving through the centre of Brussels in a 1936 special-bodied 939-cc. MG PB which he had recently acquired. The car had competed at Le Mans in 1938 and been stored in a garage throughout the War and it had survived without any damage. It didn’t take long for Frere to join up with Swaters and enter the car in the 1948 24-hour race at Spa-Francorchamps. Much to their amazement the 12-year-old MG survived for the duration to be placed fourth in its class in an event won outright by the Aston Martin of St. John Horsfall/ Leslie Johnson.

His appetite thus whetted, Frere determined to try more of this motor racing, although the opportunities were few as he had no money to spend on this expensive sport as he was already married with a family and anxiously trying to establish himself in the sphere of motoring journalism. The following year St. John Horsfall asked him to be co-driver in his Aston Martin, but the hopeful Frere never got a race as Horsfall drove single-handed for the entire 24 hours to take second place in his class and fourth overall.

Expanding influence as a journalist enabled Frere to arrange a drive in the first “Production Car Grand Prix” to be held at Spa in 1950. Borrowing a suitably-prepared Dyna Panhard from the Brussels agent, Frere put his knowledge of the circuit to good use and won the hour-long race, repeating this victory in a similar car (unfortunately after a post-race hoo-hah) in 1951. Racing round Spa in mildly-tuned saloon cars seemed all that Frere would aspire to, but he got a lucky break during practice for the big sports-car race which was also held that weekend. Paul Frere was, at that time, service manager for the Brussels Jaguar agent and, as such, also had a responsibility to keep an eye on two private XK120s which had been entered. In addition the works had sent an XK120 for Johnny Claes to drive. Baron Jean Dufour, one of the amateurs, found himself unable to match Claes’ time round Spa and accordingly asked Frere if he would try his XK120 for three laps, just to check that everything was working properly. Frere naturally agreed and proceeded to set the fastest lap of the-day!

“I won what I can only describe as an extremely lurid and very exciting race!”

The benefit of that impressive performance took a year to show itself. In 1952 General Motors decided to enter four ungainly Oldsmobile saloons in the Production Car race at Spa and Jacques lckx was once again solicited for his advice regarding who should drive them. The nominations turned out to be Andre Pilette (father of F5000 driver Teddy), Swaters, Johnny Claes and Paul Frere. This was “Group 1 saloon racing” at a very basic level with literally no modifications permitted, so, to familiarise himself with the lumbering Oldsmobile Frere drove one to Italy, officially to “run it in” but in fact to watch the Mille Miglia!

“In the event, Swaters crashed his in practice,” recalls Frere, “which left only the three cars. Pilette managed 6min 11sec round Spa, Claes managed 6 min. 12 sec. and I got round in 6min 13 sec. In the race both Claes and Pilette retired when the front nearside wheels collapsed on their cars, the rims apparently unable to take the strain of both practice and the race. We all had fresh tyres fitted for the race, but by some quirk of luck my car had been fitted with fresh wheels as well. They lasted the distance and enabled me to win what I can only describe as an extremely lurid and very exciting race!”

That victory at Spa proved crucial for Paul Frere’s future racing Career. A few days afterwards Jacques Ickx telephoned him to advise that, if he could get his hands on a car, the organisers of the Belgian Grand Prix would accept Frere’s entry for the race. Racking his brains, Paul felt there might be a slight chance of obtaining a seat in one of John Heath’s HWMs for he’d met Heath in Paris at the Bois de Boulogne races back in 1946. “I’d gone all the way there on my motorcycle,” explains Frere, “and George Abecassis had brought John Heath along to help him with his Alta. It broke a timing .chain so I’d gone into Paris on the motorcycle, scoured the place and finally found him a chain that would do the job.” Frere’s request for an HWM was turned down, politely but firmly.

Frere’s disappointment didn’t last for long as John Heath found himself short of a driver for the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay, the spectacular South-West Belgium road circuit which was used as recently as 1972 for Formula Three International races. The HWM team arrived to find a telegram from Peter Collins apologising for his absence, but explaining that he was committed to drive for Aston Martin in the Monaco sports-car race. Heath wasted no time and contacted Frere. “John Heath contacted me the evening before the only practice session at Chimay, asking me if I could be at the circuit by seven o’clock the next morning. Needless to say, I was there on time. But after only two laps of practice in the pouring rain I feel Heath might have doubted the wisdom of his choice for I spun into a ditch.” Fortunately Frere’s HWM was extricated without damage and Paul went on to set fastest practice time ahead of Heath and Roger Laurent in the team’s other two cars. Laurent subsequently drove the brand-new Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari, so the third HWM passed into the hands of Charles de Tornaco. In the race Ken Downing’s Connaught amassed a considerable lead, but Frere, driving as if his whole future career depended on it, whittled down the Englishman’s lead in the closing stages. “On the last lap I could see the Connaught, but Downing wasn’t aware that I was catching him. I slipped past just after the last corner and beat him to the line by a matter of inches!”

From the archive

Following such a spectacular “first time out” victory, Paul had to look no further for a drive in the Belgian Grand Prix. Heath immediately offered him an HWM for the race at Spa and this proved the start of an intermittent relationship with the British team, which Frere maintained until Heath pulled out of International single-seater racing in the middle of 1954. The 1952 Belgian Grand Prix proved another extremely satisfactory event for the young Frere, resulting in fifth place in streaming rain in an event that sent such notables as Wharton, Taruffi and Behra off the circuit, not to mention Stirling Moss‘ ERA which seized its engine and broke its propellor shaft.

Subsequent races in the HWM proved far less rewarding. The car broke its gearbox on the opening lap of the German Grand Prix, but a return to the Nürburgring for the following year’s Eiffelrennen saw “a tremendous battle with Collins’ HWM in the torrential rain, a battle that ended when Peter’s fire extinguisher came loose and got stuck under his brake pedal as he was coming up to the Karussell. He spun violently, letting me get away and close to within two seconds of de Graffenried’s winning Maserati at the finish.” The only other race in 1953 that Frere drove for HWM (apart from an unmemorable Belgian Grand Prix where he finished 10th) was the Swiss Grand Prix at Berne. “I’m afraid I made a mistake in close traffic on the opening lap,” admits Frere honestly, “and that resulted in my knocking Louis Rosier’s Ferrari right off the road. He was furious at the time, but he soon calmed down and didn’t hold the accident against me.”

In many ways Paul Frere admits he had an ideal racing career in the 1950s. He’d proved himself good enough to be selected as a full-time professional, “but I still regarded my racing as a leisure activity which I took part in for relaxation, much as I did tennis or skiing. I didn’t want to be tied down to doing a whole programme of specific events. I wanted only to do the races I enjoyed, furthering my career as a journalist but remaining essentially a sportsman.”


Taking a Mini to the Targa Florio in 1963

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Away from the world of Grand Prix racing, some of Frere’s more fascinating achievements surround his several forays in the Mille Miglia road race round Italy. “‘I’d first watched the race in 1935 when it was won by Pintacuda and Mambelli. In 1953 I met Johnny Lurani who suggested I take a Jaguar Mk7 and try to win the big-car class. I put this proposition to Lofty England and was politely declined, so I got myself organised with a big Chrysler saloon.” The sight of the wallowing American saloon pounding down the long straights alongside the Adriatic or scratching up and down the sinuous mountain passes might well have been incongruous to the spectating masses, but Frere eventually had the last laugh on Jaguar by winning his class, beating two Jaguar Mk7s in the process!

“We did a complete reconnaissance lap in preparation for the race,” recounts Frere, “but we forgot to modify the brake linings for the event. As a result we wore them right down to the metal by the finish but we still won the class by two-and-a-quarter hours. I felt that I’d got my own back on Lofty!” In 1954 Frere didn’t take part in the race, completing only a reconnaissance lap, but he was back in 1955 to share an Aston Martin DB2/4 coupe with photographer Louis Klemantaski, “but we retired with clutch failure at Ancona.”

Back on the Formula1 front, Frere found himself invited to join the Gordini team for several races in 1954. “I was picked for the team on the strength of my HWM performances the previous year,” Frere explains, “but the cars were extremely unreliable and we’d generally got the choice of either taking it easy in an effort to nurse the cars to the finish, or going flat-out in the almost certain knowledge that they would break. The high spot of my relationship with Gordini was when I took their 2 1/2-litre, 6-cylinder machine round the Nürburgring faster than anyone else in the team, 4sec faster even than Behra. However, when a front wheel fell off my car between Bergwerk and Karussell, I vowed that I’d never again touch a Gordini….”

Throughout the years with HWM and Gordini, Freres ability had certainly been noticed in high places. A few days after the defeat of Equipe Nationale Belge’s Ferraris at the hands of the Aston Martin team in the 1955 Spa sports-car race, Frere received an invitation to conic to Italy and test a Formula 1 Ferrari. Paul had been at the wheel of the winning Aston Martin D133S at Spa and had been agreeably surprised that the British car should have vanquished the “Monzas” so convincingly. “Ugolini invited me down to Imola where they were testing the ‘Super Squalos’ and he told me that it was the team’s plan to run a car for me in the Belgian Grand Prix. When it became clear that they were also intending to run me in the European Grand Prix at Monaco, I shied away from the prospect.” Eventually it was agreed that Frere should go to Monaco as reserve driver.

Practice at Monaco didn’t suggest that Farina, Trintignant, Schell or Taruffi—the Ferrari team’s nominated drivers –would be anywhere near competitive. “The car’s gearing was totally wrong,” smiles Frere, reflecting on his first Formula 1 meeting with a ‘proper’ Grand Prix team, “and we were outclassed, not only by the Mercedes team, but by the Maseratis and Lancias as well. After a pit stop at half-distance or so, Ugolini put me into Tarulfi’s car for the second half of the race and, as I was right down at the back with Pollees Gordini, I could concentrate on learning about the car and the circuit. The race eventually turned out to be a lucky victory for Trintignant and Ferrari while I brought my car home eighth, thankfully beating the Gordini!”

At Spa the situation was appreciably different. Full of confidence, Frere found the Squalo’s inherent understeer characteristic just what was needed for the long sweeping corners on the Belgian circuit. “Farina just didn’t want to know,” explained Frere,”in fact the other drivers were complaining like mad. It was useless at Monaco with all that understeer. In fact it was so bad on the really tight corners that I suggested they disconnect the Ferrari’s front anti-rollbar….” Such a suggestion, Frere tells us, was greeted with a sudden silence and abject horror. “But it’s been designed like that …” came the amazed retort!

Fangio and Moss finished the 1955 Belgian Grand Prix in first and second places with their Mercedes, and a furious Farina a frustrated third, vowing he’d not drive the Squalo again until it was competitive, followed by an absolutely delighted Frere in fourth place. Frere hoped that his neat and tidy performance in some way compensated engineer Lampredi for the way in which he was berated by the angry Farina once the race was over.

After that Belgian Grand Prix success, Frere’s next race was the tragic 1955 Le Mans where he shared an Aston Martin with Peter Collins and finished second. The tragic fatal accident involving Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes brings vivid memories back to Paul’s mind.


Farina on left and Frere on right for Ferrari at Monaco ’55

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“Levegh had been offered the Mercedes drive after I had declined it at the end of the previous year,” he explained seriously, “and I don’t think that Mercedes expected Levegh, who was over 50 years old, to take them up on their offer.” There are very positive suggestions to indicate that Frere’s supposition is quite true, Mercedes only offering the French hero a place in their team in an effort to soothe a certain amount of anti-German feeling which still boiled under the surface in France, even ten years after the War was over. Clearly, they underestimated Levegh’s passionate desire to make up for his mistake when he let victory slip from his grasp when driving the Logo Talbot three years earlier. But Frere’s analytical mind doesn’t leave him feeling “there but for the Grace of God go I….” His positive reaction to the accident is simply “I’m certain I wouldn’t have been in that position (i.e. being lapped by the leaders so early in the race) at that time and, accordingly, that accident would not have happened.”

By 1956 Frere had amassed a reputation as a sports-car driver of some repute. Pierre Stasse’s Equipe Nationale Beige purchased a 2-litre Ferrari which Paul drove “once at Spa in the sports-car race and later at Rome’s Castelfusano sports-car race, where I finished third behind two 2-litre Maseratis. Down the long straight at Castelfusano I recall an incredible impression of speed. It really did feel extraordinarily fast.”

From the archive

Equipe Nationale Belge also invited him to drive a 3-litre four-cylinder Ferrari “Monza” in which Frere sustained the only serious injury of his racing career, a broken leg in a crash in Sweden. “Here I was, hoping to win the race in this lovely Ferrari and I spun and crashed it in practice. The car spun slowly, rolling over and tipping me out. I can recall the accident most graphically, it happened so slowly. When it was all over I was sitting on the grass by the upturned car, extremely happy that I’d escaped the accident so lightly.”

Once recovered from his broken leg, Paul Frere started to look around to see what might be available for the 1956 season. Lofty England invited him to Silverstone for some tests in the works Jaguar D-type and the offer of a contract followed soon afterwards. Frere admits he signed the contract with some trepidation, for the Swedish accident had virtually decided him in favour of retirement from racing, and this degree of doubt later manifested itself when he turned down an offer of a Mercedes 300SL drive in the Mille Miglia. Instead he opted for a drive in one of the little Renault Dauphine saloons as a member of the Renault works team. “I really was nervous after the Swedish accident and I ended up overturning the Dauphine on the Radicofani. I’d been leading my class from Robert Manson’s DB Panhard at Pescara and I’d hoped to keep ahead of it all the way.” The inevitable hordes of spectators quickly righted Frere’s battered Dauphine, but Paul could only continue at much-reduced speed to the finish.

Paul admits that his confidence was much-restored after this outing in the Mille Miglia although he admits he was “very depressed” over the death of John Heath from injuries after he’d crashed his HWM-Jaguar at Ravenna. Consolidating his career as a journalist, Frere nevertheless accepted an offer to drive in the works Jaguar D-type team in long-distance sports-car events “although I’d made up my mind that was all I would do. I was still ‘trying’ to retire from motor racing; something I really didn’t manage for another four years!”

After a preliminary drive in a Jaguar Mk. 7 in a Silverstone saloon race—”not very distinguished”—Paul’s spirits revived with another victory in the production car race at Spa in a 2.4-litre saloon loaned to Pierre Stasse’s team. “We only just got it to the line after major gearbox trouble in practice and I appreciated Jo Bonnier, who finished second in a Mercedes, not protesting my car out of the race for failing to pass through the Parc Ferme or for not having its fuel tank sealed before the race.” Recent events at international level make it clear just how much motor “sport” has changed over the last few years!


Frere was a regular Le Mans competitor

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Frere’s Jaguar career continued with a crash in practice at Nurburgring and a highly publicised accident which virtually wiped out the entire D-type team in the opening minutes of the 1956 Le Mans race. But there were two aspects of unexpected interest to punctuate his racing season before that unfortunate incident. The first was a nerve-racking session of record-breaking at Monza with a special 750 c.c. Abarth, where Frere shared the driving with Count Lurani, Walter Honegger, Uli Wieselmann, Gordon Wilkins (twice a class winner at Le Mans) and Bernard Cahier, one of the private “Dauphine” brigade on the Mille Miglia and now Goodyear’s International racing PR man. All these gentlemen were International motoring journalists of some repute. “It was an incredibly bumpy ride,” Frere recalls of the banking, “and I think I was one of the only ones to keep my foot hard down all the way. Abarth conducted all the pit stops himself, they were a real panic; he rushed about all over the place bellowing at the top of his voice for everyone to keep calm!”

Then came the Belgian Grand Prix again and, owing to Musso’s injuries sustained in the Nurburgring 1000 kms. race, the Ferrari team had a vacant car for Spa. Discreet pressures were brought to bear on Paul, “but I’d made my mind up that I wasn’t going to drive it, so much so that I only turned up at the circuit to start my report on the race on the day practice started. Eventually, after watching the cars rushing past in the rain, I became so tempted at the sight of a lone V8 Lancia-Ferrari standing on its own in the pits, that I went off to find the team manager. . . .” It wasn’t that he was particularly keen to race the car, but his natural journalistic curiosity made him interested in sampling this particular F1 car!

Frere thus found himself running alongside Fangio, Collins and Castellotti plus Andre Pilette who’d been loaned a car to run under the Equipe Nationale Beige banner. In the race Frere found himself in a bunch consisting of Jean Behra’s Maserati, the Vanwalls of Maurice Trintignant and Harry Schell and his own Lancia-Ferrari. Eventually Behra pulled away and Trintignant had trouble, so Frere was left racing with Schell. Gradually warming to the task and getting back into the swing of Spa-Francorchamps, Prete pulled away from Schell and gradually moved up the leader board as others hit trouble. At the finish, the Belgian journalist was a magnificent second to team-mate Collins after vanquishing Behra in a straight fight and establishing the third fastest lap of the day behind Fangio (who retired) and Moss (who took over Perdisa’s Maserati to finish third after his own shed a rear wheel). It was an achievement of which any self-confessed amateur driver could feel justly proud.

Frere’s satisfaction evaporated at Le Mans. Coming into the Esses at the start of the second lap of the 24-hour marathon, Frere locked his D-type’s front wheels and spun into the bank. With considerable relief he looked down the track and saw that his team-mate Jack Fairman had spun to a halt alongside him without any harm. “But just as I started my engine, I saw Portago’s Ferrari, spinning like a top, coming down the hill and crashing into Fairman’s car.” Frere tried to drive quietly away, but the rear end of his D-type was so crumpled that the distorted bodywork was rubbing on the wheels. “I abandoned the car and walked back to the pits through the rain, not looking forward to my meeting with Lofty.” But Jaguar’s team manager showed commendable sympathy, merely remarking when he eventually saw the damaged D-type “that’s a nice little short chassis job.” Frere admits to being eternally grateful.

In 1957 a return to Le Mans at the wheel of an ENB Jaguar D-type proved rather more promising. “We were holding second place (with Freddy Rouselle) right amongst the Ecurie Ecosse cars, but electrical trouble lost us an hour and dropped us to fifth.” Frere also took part in the last Mille Miglia at the wheel of a “hot” Dauphine Gordini and won his class in the process. He was also asked to share a works Ferrari 250 GTO with Olivier Gendebien in the Reims 12-hours, a race which they won and repeated the victory in 1958.

Very much the “freelance amateur” driver by this stage in his career, Frere was in a position to drive for various teams on a “one-off basis”. In 1958 he found himself invited back into the Aston Martin fold to drive a 3.9-litre DBR2 in the Spa sports-car Grand Prix (Brooks and Collins were otherwise occupied at Monte Carlo that weekend), alongside Carroll Shelby in the second car. Frere recalls this event dramatically for it was in this race that Archie Scott-Brown, driving on the Continent for the first time in his career, crashed and suffered fatal burns’ while dicing with Masten Gregory for the lead.


Frere says always saw himself as a “sportsman” rather than professional racing driver

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“Scott-Brown’s Lister Jaguar slid wide on the left-hand corner before La Source,” recalls Frere grimly, “and I think he’d have been able to get the car back under control again if it hadn’t been for a road sign which his car hit. I’d previously mentioned the unecessary danger of this road sign to Leon Sven, the organiser, but, although I was assured that it would be removed for race day, nothing was done about it.” Frere admits he gained no pleasure in finishing second to Shelby, passing the burning Lister every lap as he came up to La Source.

Various drives with Ferrari and Porsche continued through the balance of 1958 and 1959—”I finished second with Trintignant in the famous Aston Martin 1-2″–but the 1960 season; which was to be Frere’s last as a serious racing driver, brought him the two greatest triumphs of his career.

Equipe Nationale Belge asked Frere if he would like to drive one of their Formula Two Cooper-Climax single-seaters in the South African Grand Prix (then a non-Championship race) at East London. “I know I’d made my mind up not to drive single-seaters again-, but I was fascinated to see how these little rearengined Formula Two cars handled.” The same resolution that Frere had banked up against driving the Lancia-Ferrari at Spa in 1956 crumbled in just the same way, and Paul found himself heading for South Africa in company with compatriot Lucien Bianchi who was to drive the other car.

From the archive

“The main opposition came from the Cooper-Borgwards driven by Moss and Bristow, and I got handed the lead on a plate when fuel-system trouble robbed Stirling of the lead.”

Suitably encouraged, Frere had other drives in this car at Syracuse and at Brussels, but Pierre Stasse, the energetic ENB boss, was now anxiously pressurising Ferrari to give Frere a drive alongside Gendebien at Le Mans, an invitation which was preceded by the offer of a drive in the Targa Florio. In the event Paul trailed all the way to Sicily, practised, but was then, not nominated for the actual race, a state of affairs which left him a little irritated by team manager Tavoni.

“Nevertheless, I did get to share Gendebien’s 3-litre V12 ‘Testa Rosa’ at Le Mans. The other Ferrari pairings were Mairesse/Ginther, Hill/von Trips and Scarfiotti/Allison.

“I had tremendous faith in Olivier as a co-driver,” recalls Frere fondly, “but I must admit that I couldn’t sleep at all during my spells off during the night. Pilette and Rodriguez were second in another Ferrari and Jim Clark third with Roy Salvadori in an old Aston Martin. Olivier kindly allowed me to drive the last stint and take the chequered flag, although he really deserved to do it bearing in mind the effort he’d put in during the race’s early stages. The whole achievement was capped by a telegram of congratulations from King Baudoin.”


Crossing the line to take that Le Mans win

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At 43 years of age, Paul Frere’s amateur racing career thus came to an end. Now, 16 years after that great triumph, he remains alert, fit and youthful; so much so that it’s impossible to believe that he will reach the age of 60 years in 1977. For some time he shared the role of Clerk of the Course at the Monaco Grand Prix with Charles Deutseh, but has now abandoned that task and even admits that his inclusion on the CSI Technical Committee came about almost by accident—”I sold Ugeux a Porsche!” His achievements on the circuits of the World earned Frere such a respect amongst major motor manufacturers that he has built up a special confidence with firms like Mercedes and Porsche so much so that he has privileged access to their factories. Multi-lingual, Frere has written several authoritative books (not pot-boilers!) and a much-respected reputation as a sensitive and capable high-speed road driver—his road tests are truly worth reading.

Naturally an enthusiastic road driver, his personal transport is a “hybrid” Porsche 911S, “but I’ve still got a Cloverleaf Citroen, I’ve taken Motor Sport since 1936 and I first wrote to Bill Boddy before the war!” Frere has forsaken his native Belgium for a beautiful home near Nice from where he still writes industriously, occasionally in a consultancy capacity to various motor manufacturers, as well as for the CSI—”I would like to see fewer restrictive regulations in motor racing”—through which he still contributes more than his fair share to the changing world of international motorsport.—A.H.