1936 at Montlhery in another Alfa.

Racer Ruesch a born storyteller

I WAS still at high school when I went to see The Racers at the 20th Century cinema in Johannesburg one Saturday morning.

It starred Kirk Douglas and Bella Darvi – and it had a profound effect on me.

I went to the 10am screening, stayed on for the 2pm matinee, went home and told my best friend, Mike, about it – and off we went to the 6.30pm show.

It affected Mike too, because for the rest of his schooldays and much of our later teenage years, he liked to be called Gino Borgesa – the name of the racing driver played by Kirk Douglas.

A couple of years later I bought a soft cover book titled The Racers, by Hans Ruesch, and after only a few pages realised the movie I’d seen was based on the book – which turned out to be even more gripping than the film.

Motorsport had become part of my life since 1948, when my parents took me to see one of the first post-war races, held on the Germiston Airport road, because Pierre Kelfkens.

A distant relative of my Mum’s, was one of the racers. 

That might have been the spark, but the film and book some seven years later, fanned the flames.

In 1956, I hitch-hiked to Palmietfontein Airport, scene of the Rand Grand Prix, wrote a report on it – which subsequently appeared in one of the major UK motoring magazines — either Autosport or Motor Racing.

Yes, I was first published back in 1956, at age 16!

Three years later I took part in my first race at Grand Central circuit in my first car, an Autobianchi which I’d tricked up with some Abarth bits.

Fast forward more than 60 years and I found my now yellow-paged copy of The Racers, which made me realise I knew very little about its author, other than he once was also a racing driver.

Some research showed he was more than just one of the drivers.  

Ruesch in 1993
Ruesch in 1993.

Hans Ruesch was a remarkable man, an accomplished racing driver, brilliant author and a great lover of animals.

Although he was born in Naples in 1913, he was actually Swiss, the son of a wealthy family.

His father, Arnold, was an industrialist who managed a textile mill in Naples and was also a philosophical archaeologist specialising in Pompean art.  

Hans grew up in Italy, then studied law at the University of Zürich but quit in 1932 to pursue his interest in fast cars. 

He made his racing debut in 1932 driving an MG, and later that year progressed to an Alfa Romeo in which he finished third in class in the 1932 Brno Grand Prix at Czechoslovakia’s Masaryk-Ring.

Ruesch went on competing in hillclimbs and circuit races, sharing an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 with his friend Ulrich Maag of Switzerland and was the first Swiss Grand Prix winner in the years before World War II.

He went on to also be the last surviving racing driver of the so-called Golden Era of motor racing.

In 1934, he acquired two Maseratis, one was the ex-Guy Moll Maserati 8CM 3000, in which he set a new World speed record for the standing-start kilometre at Linas-Montlhéry circuit of Paris, averaging 142km/h, and the other a Maserati 4CS chassis fitted with a 6C/34 engine. 

He bought the latter from Maag’s family, after his teammate died in a road accident in Italy. Maag was travelling to Pescara, where the pair had planned to drive the Alfa in the Targa Abruzzo 24-hour race.

At the wheel of the 4CS Hans took wins in various hillclimbs in France and Switzerland, including the Gometz-le-Châtel, Jaunpass, Klausen, Rheineck-Walzenhausen-Lachen and Grand-Saconnex events. 

He also tried ice racing on frozen lakes on the Titisee and the Eibsee in Germany, and in 1935 he finished third in the Norwegian Grand Prix held at Bogstadvannet, a frozen lake in the Sørkedalen valley, near Oslo. 

He won further hillclimbs, including the Hármashatár near Budapest, Hungary, then he finished second in the ADAC Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring and eighth overall in the Targa Florio, driving the old Alfa Romeo.

The 1936/37 season was his most successful period in racing.

He bought an Alfa Romeo Tipo 8C-35, an ex-Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix car driven also by Tazio Nuvolari and entered the 1936 Donington Grand Prix, sharing the drive with Richard Seaman, Britain’s most promising driver at the time. 

Ruesch had met the then 23-year-old Seaman at Pescara circuit earlier that season, when the Englishman won the Coppa Acerbo in a Delage and Ruesch finished third. 

They had a great run at Donington Park, where Seaman set the fastest lap in practice and they ended up winning the event.

In 1937, Ruesch won the Finnish Grand Prix at the Eläintarha circuit, the Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay in Belgium, the Bremgarten Grand Prix in Switzerland and the Bucaresti Grand Prix in Romania.

He also finished an impressive third place in the Circuito di Milano held at Sempione Park circuit, behind Nuvolari and Giuseppe Farina in other Alfa Romeos. 

In October of 1937 he returned to England, after winning the Mountain Championship at Brooklands, also setting the fastest lap, and also competed in the 1937 South African race series. 

During his career Hans Ruesch competed in more than 100 races and hillclimbs in Europe and South Africa, scoring 27 wins. 

It was in 1937 that he made his debut as an author, publishing a novel titled Gladiatoren, whose hero was closely modelled on his friend Rudi Caracciola, the celebrated German driver of the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team. 

In 1939, he stopped racing, sold his Alfa to Robert Arbuthnot and moved to Paris where he started his career as a professional writer. 

The following year, when World War II broke out, he left France, just a week before the arrival of the Nazis in Paris, and went to Spain, then sailed to the United States, where he began publishing short stories in popular magazines such as Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. 

After the end of World War II he returned to Europe, living in various places in Italy, France and Switzerland.

In 1953, at the age of 40, he made a brief and ill-fated return to racing.

He was at the wheel of a 4.1-litre Ferrari 340MM in the Gran Premio Supercortemaggiore, run on public roads near Merano, Italy when he spun on a corner and hit a group of people, two of them Carabinieri.

One of the policemen was killed instantly, the other and the two spectators, were seriously injured. 

Hans was slightly injured in the accident, but the tragedy made him give up racing for good.

He then concentrated on his writing talents and one of his greatest books was Top of the World, published in 1950.

It was a novel of life among Eskimos, and that also became a movie: The Savage Innocents directed by Nicholas Ray and released in 1961, starring Anthony Quinn and Peter O’Toole

It also inspired Bob Dylan’s song Quinn the Eskimo, also known as The Mighty Quinn.

Another was South of the Heart: A Novel of Modern Arabia, 1957. 

As an author Ruesch has been known as a born storyteller and he has been compared to Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Jack London.

His book, Gladiatore, was re-titled The Racers for its English publication in 1953, and it was released as Henry Hathaway’s movie The Racers in 1955, the year the lovely Bella Darvi and the Gino Borgesa character invaded my youthful brain.

So that’s who Hans Ruesch was: a terrific driver and a gifted author – but he was also an animal lover of distinction.

In later life he’d became a noted campaigner against vivisection and animal experiments. 

In 1974, he founded the Centre for Scientific Information on Vivisection and in 1976 he wrote the famous non-fiction book, Slaughter of the Innocent, that was credited with helping galvanise the animal-rights movement. 

It was followed by other volumes decrying such activities.

Ruesch was named as the honorary president of the International League of Doctors against Vivisection.

He died of cancer at his home in Massagno, near Lugano, Switzerland, at the age of 94. 

He was survived by a daughter, Vivian Ruesch Mellon, and by two sons, Hans Jr and Peter, and five grandchildren.

His wife, Marialuisa de la Feld, who he married in 1949, died one year before him.

Few people today have heard of the incredibly talented Hans Ruesch, but I’m so glad I went to the movies that day in 1955, and that I bought his book soon after.


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