Daring Frenchman Louis Gerard decided to drive instead

FIVE years after Whitney Straight’s historic trip to South Africa to take part in the First South African Grand Prix, motor racing had become an established sport in the country.

During the European winters British and Continental drivers escaped the cold to take part in the ‘summer series’ down south. 

This ensured that expensive racing cars could be used to generate an income instead of being stored on blocks during a time that the wintry European season was closed.

For 1939, the South African Grand Prix was to be a ‘proper’ grand prix for voiturettes of 1.5 litres and for the first time run as a scratch race, no more run on the antiquated handicap system with fields made up of outdated machinery, specials and the modern cars of the visiting European drivers. 

With FIA approval and in line with the European formula, a top class field, including the ‘works’ Maserati team, independent Maserati pilotes and a group of competent English amateurs in ERAs was assembled.

Motoring historian Robert Young found one of the foreign privateers was the daring and colourful French driver, Louis Gerard.

In keeping with his flamboyant lifestyle, he decided to eschew the luxury of a leisurely three week marine voyage to get to the south of the vast African continent and instead attempted to beat the ‘Trans Africa’ London to Cape Town overland record.

Louis Gerard was a ‘tough customer’ who had started racing at the advanced age of 38 after having established an empire of ‘20-centimes-in-the-slot’ machines in Paris and had also purveyed Russian billiards machines.

He was well known for his liking of large, fast ‘flashy’ cars and owned at various times Hispano-Suizas, Isotta Fraschinis and a supercharged Cord. 

These were useful for speeding down to the Riviera to spend his (probably tax-efficient) profits or else accommodate a few burly henchmen to ‘persuade’ shop-keepers to install his slot-machines — or perhaps to dissuade them from using machines supplied by rivals and prospective competitors.

One day, his 9-year old son, Jean-Yves, told him about a spectacular flame red machine that was on display in a showroom near his school. 

When Gerard saw the fabulous Joseph Figoni-bodied Delage D6-70 Berlinetta, he ‘had to have it’ and the legend goes that he paid the English proprietor, Walter Watney, with several sack-fulls of coins.

Apparently, it took a whole day to count the 125,000 francs that was the purchase price.

Soon after the purchase of the striking sports machine he received a telephone call from a total stranger.

“My name is Jacques de Valence de Minardiere and I understand that you are the buyer of the car that my partners Mme. Richer-Delavau were rallying for the makers last year. 

“You may not realise it but that car was specifically built for Le Mans and it deserves to be put to its proper use.”

Apparently the car, with a special bronze cylinder head and triple Solex carburetters, had been built especially for the 1936 24-hours, but the race had been cancelled due to a general strike and social unrest following political upheaval after the socialist Leon Blum was elected to power in France.

The D-6 was meant to lead a revival of Louis Delage’s racing ambitions and the chassis and 3.0-litre engine had been supplied to him by Delahaye.

The upshot of the phone call was that Gerard, who had never before expressed the slightest interest in motor sports, had the car prepared for the 24 Hours of 1937 to co-drive with de Minardiere. 

Some of his friends would perhaps unkindly muse that the life of the inexperienced new racing driver was safer on the race tracks than on the streets of Paris where he plied his daily business.

The 1937 Le Mans victory of Jean-Pierre Wimille and Robert Benoist in their Bugatti 57 ‘tank’ was a triumph for France, but the novice Gerard and de Minardiere, in the smart Delage, finished a very respectable fourth overall — and won their class.

Enthused by the excitement of motor racing, Gerard sought to make the car more competitive. 

The Figoni coupe body was removed and the car was re-clothed with an open roadster type body styled by Figoni & Falaschi. 

This change resulted in the car being considerably lightened.

Although it retired from the 1938 edition of Le Mans it finished second in the Spa 24-hours to the Alfa 8C of Carlo Pintacuda and Francesco Severi and, in September 1938, Gerard scored his first ‘big win’ when he won the Tourist Trophy held at Donington in beastly wet conditions.

By this time Louis had gained a reputation as an aggressive, but skilful driver.

Following his excellent TT result, Louis Gerard was invited by the RAC of Great Britain, who through Earl Howe, were helping the South African organisers to attract foreign participation, to take part in two events in South Africa during January, 1939 – the Grand Prix at East London and the Grosvenor Grand Prix, on a purpose built race circuit, in Cape Town.

This was a wealthy amateur driver with considerable ability behind the wheel and colourful to boot.

He was just the foreign ‘personality’ the South African organisers wanted to promote and so boost ticket sales to their fledgling racing series.

Not owning a suitable single-seater, Gerard exchanged his TT-winning Delage for a second-hand 6-cylinder Roots supercharged 1500-cc Maserati with the Hon. Peter Aitken, son of Lord Beaverbrook, founder of the Daily Express. (This appears to have been an ex-Austin Dobson car – chassis 1547 and at the time had been relatively ‘lightly’ raced).

Gerard explained to La Vie de L’Auto: “As I would run in South Africa, with my Maserati 1.5 litre, I said to myself, why not go there by road? 

“I started off in a 26CV Dodge with an English team-mate, who already had made the link London-Johannesburg in 19 days.

“We had a plan to travel 16,500km in 14 days.”

These intercontinental record attempts or expeditions were among the biggest advertising campaigns of the time.

Motor manufacturers, tyre firms, oil and petrol companies and parts suppliers derived enormous publicity worldwide for successful attempts.

Here was the stuff of legends — cars that could withstand the pounding over thousands of kilometres of rutted dirt tracks, deserts, swampland, primitive bridges and rivers and crews risking their lives if stranded in deserts or jungles with the threat from wild animals, crocodile infested rivers.

It was said that, “No motorist could fail to be convinced by the logic of the results of the most exacting test ever devised for the motor car.”

Motor manufacturers were competing for a lucrative new market in Africa and tough American machines were seeking to become more popular than the more fragile European cars.

And a market there was. 

An interesting statistical study indicated that, in 1933, the car population of the world was dominated by the USA with nearly 24 million cars on the road, compared to France with 1.9 million and Britain with 1.7 million — but the emerging market in South Africa was the ninth highest in the world at 168,000 cars and from this low base poised for growth.

For the record attempt Gerard had linked up with Jack Gleisner, a seasoned South African intercontinental record breaker who had previously set the 19-day overland record from London to Cape Town in a Plymouth, and was now seeking to win a wager of 500 pounds to beat the time set by the mailship. 

In 1936, the Stirling Castle had achieved the record, covering the 5978 nautical miles between Southampton and Cape Town in 13 days and 9 hours.

“I paid Gleisner 125 pounds for my share of the expenses but a steamship trip would only have cost me 54 pounds,” Gerard noted.

Leaving London on December 2, 1938 at 13:00, a month before the South African Grand Prix, the adventurous pair hoped to cross Tanganyika and Nyasaland before the rainy season, when the dirt tracks would be nothing more than marshes.

But bad weather intervened before they reached Africa. 

Speeding through France in bitter cold weather with ice and snow on the roads on the ‘leg’ to Marseilles they were involved in a crash near Tarara and the Dodge landed in a ditch. 

Already there was some dissent between the intrepid pair. Gerard was of the opinion that Gleisner’s driving skills were poor and his stamina was lacking.

With the ‘raid’ apparently abandoned, Gerard boarded a ship to Genoa and from there visited the Alfa Romeo factory. 

While there he received a telegram to inform him that the Dodge had been repaired and was “waiting at Marseilles” whence he rushed to rejoin Gleisner for the ferry trip to Algiers.

So, despite the setback they were able to depart from Algiers on December 6 and sped across the Sahara desert in only 30 hours, setting a new record.

A bunk had been set up in the car to enable one of them to sleep or rest while the other drove.

“Everything went magnificently well during the crossing of the Sahara – of which I thought could be a nightmare,” Gerard reflected.

But he was talking too soon.

The pair raced southwards and then eastwards from Cameroon.

Other than a delay caused by being bogged down in sand there had been only relatively minor mishaps, but their fortunes were to change.

With Louis driving, a steering rod broke some 100km from Nairobi after the car ran into a large hole in the road, but he managed to nurse the Dodge to town. 

However, spares were not available and there was a frustrating wait and loss of a day until a repair could be made.

Gerard reflected, “In a trip that should have been 14 days we were now 28 days and still broken down in Tanganyika.”

As the trip wore on the intrepid pair became more and more irritable and disagreeable and money troubles began to rear its ugly head. 

It appears that Gleisner had run short of funds having left London with only 10 pounds in his pocket, whereas Gerard had paid him 125 pounds “for my participation in the raid.”

Gerard was also worried that if he did not arrive for the Grand Prix he would lose his starting money.

Eventually the pair arrived at Mbeya, in Tanganyika, but the rainy season had arrived and the roads were marshy and when tempers flared over further money issues and other frustrations; there were some fisticuffs and the partnership was abandoned.

After chartering a private airplane, Gerard arrived in East London at 5:00 pm on the evening before the Grand Prix. 

He had missed the practice sessions and the press had already announced that he would not be in the race

Gleisner never completed the trip. Driving the battered Dodge on his own he crashed at high speed and was fortunate to survive.

His adventure ended in a hospital bed at Bulawayo.

The field for the first massed start Grand Prix in South Africa comprised 14 ‘modern’ 1500-cc machines ranging from the factory 6-cylinder Maseratis of Luigi Villoresi, Franco Cortese, Piero Taruffi and the ERAs of Lord Howe, Peter Whitehead, Peter Aitken and Roy Hesketh to the Freddie Dixon prepared Riley of Fay Taylour. 

Others in Maseratis were Armand Hug from Switzerland, the experienced German, Paul Pietsch and local drivers Mario Mazzacuratti, Buller Meyer and Steve Chiappini.

Aitken, besides shipping his new ERA to Africa, had brought with him the Maserati for Gerard.

While Villoresi, at 163.6km/h, qualified fastest on the 11-mile circuit , while the sensation of the practice sessions was the skillful local man, Bill Ross, in second spot at 163.34km/h.

Ross, besides being an expert engine tuner, had taken over the mount of Paul Pietsch, who had been delayed due to sickness.

Gerard, having never driven the Maserati before and claiming that he was “disturbed by the central position of the accelerator pedal” started at the back of the 14-car grid.

The pedal arrangement of the 6CM placed either side of transmission had the clutch on the left, accelerator in the centre and brake on the right.

To change gears, drivers had to reach down between the four spokes of the big wood-rimmed steering wheel to the gear lever.)

Sadly for local hope Bill Ross, Pietsch arrived in time for the race and joined Gerard at the back of the grid.

The hard charging Frenchman had stormed through the field into 8th place by lap 4 and the Daily Dispatch reported, “Even more spectacular were the opening laps of the French ace, Louis Gerard, who bears all the hallmarks of a master speed king.

“Driving an unknown car on an unknown track, his first lap averaged 155.3km/h.

“Thereafter, repeated plug trouble brought him to the pits till a melted piston put him out of the race on the 12th lap.

“Twice during the race he had trouble with his plugs, and made two pitstops to change over his plugs.”

The race was won by Villoresi from Franco Cortese with the dashing Mario Mazzacuratti third, followed by the ‘perpendicular’ ERAs of Roy Hesketh and the Lord Howe.

The teams then travelled some 965km to Cape Town for the Grosvenor Grand Prix – staged on a purpose-built circuit funded by the London real estate entrepreneur A O Edwards on roadworks designed to cater for a housing development should the motor racing venture fail.

Gerard was the first of the drivers to try out his car on the Cape Town track.

The ‘Special Correspondent’ to the Cape Times reported, “From the start he had trouble with his plugs, and during the afternoon changed them many times. Towards the end he was doing fairly fast times.

“Gerard is handicapped by not having a mechanic with him. A noticeable feature of the afternoon was the good feeling between the various drivers, and Aitken and his mechanic both gave assistance to Gerard.”

Armand Hug surprised the pundits when he forced his supercharged Maserati 6CM into an early lead from Villoresi, Cortese and Mazzacurati, but he was soon overtaken by the three works machines. 

Thereafter, it looked like Villoresi would win but after 25 of the 45 laps his engine cried enough.

Meanwhile, Louis had had an exciting time.

On Lap 6, he spun off into the sand bordering the circuit and had to be pushed back onto the pavement.

A misfire set in three laps later and necessitated more pit-stops that were to end his exhausting and unsuccessful escapade.

In the end it was Franco Cortese’s Maserati 6CM that outlasted the field, in a race of high attrition, to win easily from Peter Aitken’s ERA, the Maserati of Steve Chiapinni and the impressive young Roy Hesketh (ERA).

Following his overland adventure Gerard returned to Europe on the steamer Guilio Casare in the company of the Maserati team.

According to Gerard, he was contacted by Enzo Ferrari in mid-1938, after he had performed so “astoundingly” during the Spa 24-Hours race, to become an official driver for the Alfa Romeo team for 1939.

But Ferrari was unaware that Benito Mussolini had issued a veto forbidding the company to sign any drivers other than Italians.

In 1939, he entered the GP de Belgique with a Delahaye 135 and finished 6th in a race won by Herman Lang (Mercedes-Benz), the race being notable for being the event in which Dick Seaman was killed.

Then, in the last Le Mans 24-Hour before the war, he and Georges Moneret, driving a Watney-prepared Delage streamlined two-seater, led the race from the seventh hour until the 20th hour, when a valve spring broke. 

They nursed the car home to place second to the Jean-Pierre Wimille/Pierre Veyron Bugatti T57C.

In September, 1945, after six years of war, Gerard participated in the famous Coupe des Prisonniers.

It was the first post-war race in France, run on the outskirts of Paris, from which revenue from the race went to a fund for assisting returned French prisoners of war and deportees.

So great was the enthusiasm which greeted this meeting that a crowd of over 80,000 attended.

The race was won by Jean-Pierre Wimille in a Bugatti T59, while Gerard’s 8CM Maserati failed to complete a lap.

A contemporary report noted, “Gerard, wild as ever, crashed the Maserati.”

On Memorial Day of 1946, the first post-war Indy 500 attracted a huge entry of 56 cars.

Tony Hulman had purchased the speedway which had fallen into disrepair but within six months (through frantic work) had readied the facility for Memorial Day.

Harry Schell had arranged entries for two old Maseratis. One for Gerard and the other for himself, but it was a wasted effort with neither qualifying.

The 47-year old Frenchman failed to qualify the ex-Hans Reusch 8CM and the inexperienced Schell, with the ex-Entancelin narrow chassis version had a miserable time.

Author Tim Considine once noted of the flamboyant Schell, “He came to Indianapolis again in 1946 – this time as a driver, although the sum total of his driving experience at that time was two grands prix.

“In the first he’d crashed, in the second he did not qualify for the final. Shell had arrived at Indy a little more than a week before the race, and not surprisingly, never even completed his driving test.”

The winner was George Robson in Joel Thorne’s Sparks Special but the other Thorne entry, for the German pre-war star, Rudi Carraciola, was eliminated in a crash during training and ‘Caratch’ was severely injured.

It was thought that Carraciola lost control after being hit on the head by a flying object, believed to have been a bird, while he was negotiating the south turn.

Never far from controversy, two months later Gerard had his racing licence suspended after a collision with the Maserati of Robert Mazaud in a race at Nantes in France.

Mazaud perished following the accident.

Gerard soon had his license restored and continued racing until 1950 scoring a number of good results driving Delages in long distance events.

These achievements included taking fourth at the strenuous Le Mans of 1949.

Francois Jolly, a French enthusiast, who had acquired the famous Delage that started Louis’s racing career, became friendly with Louis and would regularly take him for drives in the car to the great enjoyment of the old piloté.

Louis Gerard lived to be one of the three oldest pre-war racing drivers and passed away in the year 2000 at age 101.


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