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Paul Frère - Gone but not forgotten

  • Paul Frere at Le Mans in 1957 - 0
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Writer, racer, engineer, and European Gentleman of the old school, the only element necessary in the automotive dictionary alongside the entry for Cool, is a big glossy photo of Paul Frère.

There are many who wouldn't understand why Paul Frère should figure prominently in a discourse devoted to Cool. He didn't die tragically young and he had no reckless character flaws that destroyed a promising career; it's hard to imagine him chasing publicity or involved in salacious scandal and he always remained modestly unassuming. By prevailing modern standards, then, Paul Frère would probably be the essence of Anti-Cool. But for those with a more balanced view of the cosmos, he is Cool beyond Cool; he is the finest example yet of the compleat automotive Renaissance Man.

You see, no matter what aspect of motoring intrigues you, Frère did it and did it well. He drove F1 and sports cars in the '50s at the highest level—and survived, winning Le Mans in the process. He was one of the most (if not the most) widely published automotive journalists of the genre's history and if you don't own a copy of "Sports Car and Competition Driving", buy one immediately. You'll be a better driver for it, guaranteed.

He was also an insightful engineer and perceptive development driver whose opinion was courted by industry giants right up until his death last year at 91. And should his CV start to sound a bit auto-centric, he furthermore was cultivated and literate, educated in the great capitals of Europe, wrote flawlessly in four languages and conversed in more, and just to round things off, was a national rowing champion in his native Belgium.

Equally impressive were things he didn't do. When Enzo Ferrari offered a plum position as driver, tester and competition engineer, Frère pondered the Commendatore's less than sterling record for long-term employee satisfaction and diplomatically declined. He never committed to a full season's driving obligation with Ferrari, or anyone else, always giving his writing priority over his racing. Following his 1960 Le Mans victory for the Scuderia, he considered his motorsport goals fulfilled, and like Cincinnatus, returned exclusively to his journalistic plough.

Frère's automotive fascination began early; his father was a prominent Belgian government official who always had interesting motorcars about. Paul would later say he learned his car control skills at the wheel of a 1935 Buick, and in childhood he refined his language talents reading motor magazines of the world.  

His writing and racing careers both began just as soon as WW2 allowed, the later in 1947 at the first post-war Belgian event, on a Triumph Speed Twin. His four wheel debut was a shared 1948 enduro in an MG PB; the real breakthrough, however, came when a new Jaguar customer complained his car lacked oomph and service manager Frère gave it a few test laps during a 1951 Spa production car meeting. He promptly turned fastest time of the day, which didn't go unnoticed by the motorsport establishment: for the '52 running, he had a sponsored ride in a semi-works Oldsmobile. And won.

Over the coming years, he drove most anything that moved, from monopostos for HWM, Gordini and Ferrari to sports cars for Porsche, Ferrari, Jaguar and Aston, to a Chrysler in the '53 Mille Miglia that was big enough to carry the remaining field in its boot. He won his class with that, too; when the brakes inevitably disappeared, Frère simply scrubbed off speed before corners by pitching the monster sideways.

From a mere eleven F1 starts, he snatched five top-ten finishes—the rest were DNFs—and always preferring sports cars, took two seconds and two fourths at Le Mans to complement his victory, as well as double wins in the Reims 12-Hour with his Le Mans co-driver Olivier Gendebien. He stayed fast his entire life, as well, driving in his capacity as a journo and design consultant virtually every racing and supercar of the era, turning race-worthy laps at Le Mans in the Audi R8 prototype only six years ago.

It was nonetheless an automobile that finally got him, a Civic Type R following a Nürburgring testing session in late 2006. The injuries were massive, and although his body never fully recovered, his spirit hardly noticed; he worked steadily until virtually the last day, receiving visitors gracefully and granting interviews even from hospital beds, never seemingly realizing how special he and his amazing life genuinely were. The truly Cool ones, of course, never do.


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