As well, the two drivers usually got along well and enjoyed each other’s company, something that could not be said for some of the “prima donnas” of the time.
One July day in the late 1960s, 12-year old school-boy Robert Gendebien returned home from his Belgium boarding school for the summer holidays. Over dinner with his father and two younger sisters Astrid and Colienne, Robert asked a fateful question.
“Father, did you ever drive in the Le Mans 24-hour race?”
Olivier replied that indeed he had.
“Did you ever win the race?”
“Did you win four times?” his son replied, astonished.
“I did.” Olivier responded.
“But why are you so upset?” asked Gendebien.
“Because I’ve lost my bet,” snapped Robert.
The boy explained. Over the Le Mans weekend, traditionally late in June when day light hours are at their longest, one of the Robert’s friends, knowing his surname was Gendebien, asked if he was related to Olivier Gendebien, the famous Belgian racing driver.
“My father’s name is Olivier, but he is not a racing driver,” Robert told his friend, simply not believing the gossip. Their bet eventuated from this conversation.
His three children listened intently as Olivier Gendebien, the first man to win Le Mans four times, was forced to finally tell the story.
Olivier was 33 when he married Marie-Claire de Flers in June 1957 and was already a successful racing driver. When three children quickly followed, Marie-Claire became increasingly worried about the dangers inherent to motor racing in an era when so many drivers were killed at the track: Peter Collins, Alfonso de Portago, Eugenio Castellotti, Luigi Musso, Wolfgang von Trips, Jean Behra, Stuart Lewis-Evans, Chris Bristow and Harry Schell are just some of the many.
As his wife increasingly pressured him to give up racing, Gendebien secretly decided that if he won Le Mans in 1962 he would retire.
“I did not want my children to grow up fatherless,” he told me over dinner in the early 1990s. “There seemed only two choices, one to die, the other one to lose. I decided on a third. To stay alive.”
As dawn broke on Sunday, June 24, 1962, Gendebien’s Ferrari 330 TRI/LM, Maranello’s last front engine sports racing car, comfortably held the lead after the Rodriguez brothers Ferrari 246 SP retired with transmission troubles, 14-hours into the 24-hour race.
This finally allowed Gendebien, and co-driver Phil Hill, to ease off and nurse a problematic clutch. However, there was still drama for Olivier: in the dawn light he narrowly avoided a huge accident with a back marker who’d spun and stopped in the middle of the track. Through the chaos, Gendebien decided, win or not, he would retire immediately after the race.
Ironically, appallingly, it was not racing driver Olivier who died in a car accident, but Marie-Claire. Reports of the accident vary. The French newspaper Le Monde (April 21, 1965) claimed that the family car, driven by Olivier in heavy rain, skidded on a slippery road and not even his immense skill could prevent it hitting a tree. Mike Lawrence, writing about Gendebien in Classic & Sportscar (August 1999) says Marie-Claire was driving her Porsche in a snow storm at the time of the accident. Either way, Robert was slightly injured, his mother killed instantly.
After their Marie-Claire’s death, a devastated Gendebien never got around to telling his children of his former life as a racing driver.
In the early days of the historic Mille Miglia revival during the 1980s and 1990s, Contessa Camilla Maggi’s palazzo became the social centre for many of the famous drivers and identities from the old days and a number of motor industry celebrities. Aymo Maggi, Camillá’s husband, was one of the foursome of Brescia enthusiasts who created the original Mille Miglia, the great Italian road race that ran from Brescia to Rome and return between 1927-1957. After WW2, Casa Maggi, in Calino 10kms outside Brescia, provided a home and garaging for a number of the British teams competing in the Mille Miglia: notably Donald Healey’s Healeys and David Brown’s Aston Martin team. (I shall devote a future Robbo’s Archive blog to Camilla Maggi).
Phil Hill, America’s first world champion, photographer Louis Klemantaski (already featured in the archive), Stirling Moss, Aston Martin boss Victor Gauntlet, Ford’s Walter Hayes, Prince Michael of Kent (Queen Elizabeth’s cousin) and, of course, Olivier are among some who enjoyed Camilla’s celebrated hospitality. We lived on the other side of Calino and because English was our first language were often invited to Camilla’s cocktail parties, lunches and dinners in the lead up to the Mille Miglia historic. Over the years, Gendebien became our friend and each year our dinner guest.
Knowing he had a more than willing audience, Olivier gradually and deliberately told me his story.
Olivier Gendebien was born on January 12, 1924, into a wealthy Belgian family that owned the huge Solvay chemical business. When World War II interrupted his engineering studies he joined the Belgian underground. Fluent in English (thanks to his English nanny), he served as liaison with British agents parachuted into occupied Belgium. Later Olivier escaped to England and joined a Belgian paratrooper unit in the British army.
When the war ended he changed his studies to agriculture and later admitted that his plans were to emigrate to Argentina, buy a ranch and become a gaucho. To learn Spanish he took a job in Spain, and then found himself working as a Forester in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo) clearing forest land for development. He quickly learned to drive large American cars with skill and speed over the primitive colonial roads. During his four years in the Congo he also meet Charles Fraikin. Fraikin owned a Jaguar XK120 and was looking for a co-driver when they returned to Europe in 1952.
Most of their competition came in the form of rallies in the Jaguar. At one time they finished second in seven straight events, which earned them the nickname “eternal bridesmaids.” Gendebien also drove Lancias and Alfa Romeos, and entered his first long distance race, Italy’s Mille Miglia, using Fraiken’s Jaguar.
In 1955, as his interest turned more to racing, he bought a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. With this car he had considerable success, finishing second in the GT class in the Mille Miglia and finally winning the gruelling Liège-Rome-Liège Rally, after finishing second in 1953. It was with the 300 SL that he won the Coppa d’Oro delle Dolomiti, defeating the factory-entered Ferrari 500 Mondial of Eugenio Castellotti.
This instantly brought him to the attention of Enzo Ferrari, and within a week he had signed a contract to drive for the Maranello team.
His signing in 1956, kick-starting a remarkable and often underrated career: three times winner of the great Sicilian road race, the Targa Florio (1958, ’61 and ’62); a hat-trick at the Sebring 12 Hours (1959, ’60 and ’61, the middle one in a Porsche 718RS); twice winner of the Reims 12 Hours (1957 and ’58); and conqueror of the Nürburgring 1000Kms in his final season in 1962. In sports car racing, only Stirling Moss came close. But it was the Le Mans 24 Hour race where Gendebien’s trademark mechanical sympathy and an easy confidence made their mark. Four wins in five years for Ferrari was remarkable by any standard, sharing three times with American Phil Hill, the team-mate with whom he is most associated, and once with countryman Paul Frére.
Gendebien and Hill shared the same philosophy when it came to long distance racing: both followed Fangio’s dictum that “to finish first, first you have to finish.” While others would start the races as if they were short sprints, setting fabulous lap times, but wearing out their equipment, the Belgo-American team proceeded at an efficiently rapid, constant pace. When the race settled, they would habitually be among the leaders.
Gendebien also made his mark as a fine Grand Prix driver, though during the 1950s and 1960s he made only 14 spasmodic starts, scoring world championship points in half of them. His best Formula 1 season was not with Ferrari, where he was never a fulltime F1 driver, but in a Yeoman Credit Cooper T51 in 1960 when he finished third at his home Grand Prix at Spa (where team-mate Chris Bristow was killed) and second in France.
In his book My Life Full of Cars, Paul Frere wrote, “Olivier had been a magnificent partner. He was certainly the best endurance driver of his time, able to go very fast while nursing the car and making very few mistakes. No wonder he won Le Mans four times, and I consider it a pity that Ferrari never gave him a fair chance in Formula 1. So did Olivier.”
Enzo Ferrari expressed his view of the man in his book Una Vita Per L’Automobile (A Life for the Automobile), “Once behind the wheel of a car, Olivier Gendebien drove with a calculated elan, an elegance worthy of his noble ancestry. There were no rough edges to his driving, he looked after any car he was given and you could count on his chronometric reliability in anything that demanded steadfastness, character and brains. You just had to have the patience to hear him out, after he’d won a race, as he often did.”
During one of our late-night talk sessions Gendebien told me, “I did not consider myself a professional because I had a good income from other businesses and was not in racing for the money. I am not, you might say, dependent on the prize money. I think they [professional racing drivers] love racing maybe just as much, but when you race more for fun, I do not think you are a professional.”
He always recognized the dangers inherent to racing, claiming “only 10 percent or so of racing accidents are caused by mechanical failure. The rest can be put down to human failure.”
Asked to nominate his favourite race, I was surprised he didn’t cite one of his Le Mans victories. Instead, he rated finishing third in the 1957 Mille Miglia. “We won the Gran Premio Nuvolari for fastest time over the final stretch from Mantova to Brescia. This is the race I am proudest of . . . we made the best time on the fastest section of the course although the 250 GT Ferrari was a good 25mph (40km/h) slower than the pure racing cars.”
Once he retired, Gendebien never looked back and spent the rest of his life involved in his various business interests. In the 1980s and into the 1990s he was a regular participant as a co-driver in the Historic Mille Miglia. By then his deteriorating health made it impossible for him to drive. Instead he would passenger with his friend Bernardo Favero, mostly in a 300 SL.
Olivier Gendebien, the Belgian gentleman race driver whose successes in Ferrari sports cars were an integral part of the Ferrari legend, died at his home in Baux de Provence, France, on October 2, 1998 at the age of 74.