Clas­sic Porsche looks back at the life of rac­ing jour­nal­ist Paul Frère

Classic Porsche - - Contents - Words: Kieron Fen­nelly Photos: Porsche Archiv


T he Bel­gian is per­haps best re­mem­bered for his de­fin­i­tive work, The Porsche 911 Story, now a clas­sic of au­to­mo­tive his­tory. First pub­lished in 1976, when it com­prised 180 pages, he added chap­ters reg­u­larly in the in­ter­ven­ing decades as each new 911 vari­ant ap­peared and he kept it go­ing right up to the in­tro­duc­tion of the 997. Such an in­sti­tu­tion had the by now 500-page work be­come that pub­lisher Haynes felt con­strained to con­tinue pub­lish­ing it af­ter Frèreʼs death, call­ing in no lesser writer than rac­ing driver and jour­nal­ist Tony Dron to pro­duce the ninth edi­tion.

There was, nat­u­rally, far more to Paul Frère though than a sem­i­nal book (and a dozen or so other books, in fact). A jour­nal­ist for 60 years and a top flight rac­ing driver in the 1950s, he was a true poly­glot. As of­ten hap­pens with bright peo­ple from small coun­tries, Frère al­ways looked be­yond bound­aries and he also re­tained the vi­tal jour­nal­istʼs cu­rios­ity which sus­tained his writ­ing far into old age. From the 1960s he had reg­u­lar col­umns in Road & Track and Mo­tor and, in later years, in Flat 6 and the Ja­panese auto jour­nal Car Graphic. He de­voured the mo­tor­ing press in four or five lan­guages, and tested new mod­els as of­ten as he could.

Frèreʼs up­bring­ing had much to do with his out­look: he was born in Le Havre where his fa­ther was work­ing for the Bel­gian gov­ern­ment, ex­iled there dur­ing the First World War. Sub­se­quently, as his fa­ther ʼs job moved, the young Paul was schooled ini­tially in Paris, and then in Ber­lin and Vi­enna. The lat­ter post­ings en­dowed him with his bilin­gual­ism; his

engi­neer­ing stud­ies at univer­sity in Brus­sels were ori­en­tated to­wards man­age­ment rather than pure sci­ence, but Frère, al­ready fas­ci­nated by cars and mo­tor sport, could think only of a fu­ture in au­to­mo­tive.

His fa­ther had owned a suc­ces­sion of in­ter­est­ing ve­hi­cles and the young Paul was fas­ci­nated by au­to­mo­biles from the very be­gin­ning. In his short, but com­pelling au­to­bi­og­ra­phy My Life of Cars he re­counts his first visit to Spa in 1926, talks of the ad­ven­tures of fam­ily mo­tor­ing in twen­ties Europe and de­scribes his early driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in his grand­fa­ther ʼs car:

ʻIt was a 1935 Buick A Sedan and I found ev­ery ex­cuse to bor­row it. It had in­de­pen­dent front sus­pen­sion, very soft spring­ing and con­sid­er­able fi­nal over­steer. One of the roads link­ing Hoeilaart to Brus­sels curved (and still does) through the Soignes for­est and in those days of sparse traf­fic was a won­der­ful train­ing ground, es­pe­cially in the wet. There I read­ily learned how to con­trol a car.ʼ

This is vin­tage Frère, and to ac­quire the English which he would later de­ploy so ef­fec­tively, in his teens he was bil­leted on a Bri­tish fam­ily in Felixs­towe for sev­eral sum­mers where he be­came de­voted to the Au­to­car and The Mo­tor. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, he wrote a tech­ni­cal com­par­i­son be­tween front and rear drive han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics, a sub­ject that had al­ways fas­ci­nated him ever since he had be­gun driv­ing his fam­i­lyʼs cars at way below the le­gal age limit.

The sur­ren­der of Bel­gium in 1940 only days be­fore he was due to be called to arms meant that the war years held noth­ing worse than mark­ing time un­til 1945. Yet he wasted

lit­tle of the op­por­tu­nity that this priv­i­leged ex­is­tence pre­sented, work­ing away at re­build­ing en­gines, de­vour­ing ev­ery­thing writ­ten on auto engi­neer­ing he could find, mak­ing con­tacts and writ­ing the com­par­a­tive the­sis on the han­dling of front- and rear-wheel drive cars, which was pub­lished when hos­til­i­ties ended in Bel­giumʼs La Vie Au­to­mo­bile. Thus in 1946 be­gan Frèreʼs ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist. A brief foray into mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing just af­ter the war was fol­lowed by his first com­pet­i­tive mo­tor race: third in class at the Spa 24 hours in 1948 with Jac­ques Swa­ters in a 1936 ex-le Mans MG.

Dur­ing these years, Frère worked suc­ces­sively for the Bel­gian Chrysler im­porter, next for Gen­eral Mo­tors, where he pro­duced man­u­als and cat­a­logues, and then as ser­vice man­ager for the Brus­sels Jaguar dis­trib­u­tor. One day a cus­tomer came to com­plain that his new XK120 was not per­form­ing prop­erly, so Frère took it to Spa and promptly reeled off three laps that were so fast that the Bel­gian mo­tor rac­ing es­tab­lish­ment took notice.

Se­ri­ous driv­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties fol­lowed: vic­tory at Spa in an Oldsmo­bile 88 led to Fr­ereʼs first sin­gle-seater out­ing in an HWM and fifth in the 1952 Bel­gian GP. The fol­low­ing year, again in an HWM, he beat Peter Collinsʼs iden­ti­cal car at a very wet Nür­bur­gring in an epic dice watched by, amongst oth­ers, Huschke von Hanstein, the Porsche team man­ager: an in­vi­ta­tion to drive in the works team at Le Mans en­sued and marked the start of the most fruit­ful re­la­tion­ship of Frèreʼs au­to­mo­tive life.

ʻI first saw a Porsche at the 1949 Geneva show, and frankly, this sports ver­sion of the Bee­tle did not im­press me,ʼ he re­marked later. How­ever, the me­thod­i­cal ap­proach of the lit­tle Aus­trian firm, which was steadily de­vel­op­ing its cars through competition, at­tracted him.

ʻI al­ways pre­ferred long dis­tance events like Le Mans to shorter races and I ad­mired the en­durance qual­i­ties of the Porsche.ʼ Driv­ing a 550, he fin­ished fif­teenth at Le Mans in 1953 and in 1958 with Edgar Barth was to fin­ish fourth there in a Porsche RSK.

By 1954, Frèreʼs tal­ents were widely recog­nised and he en­joyed works drives in the next few years with Gor­dini, As­ton Martin, Jaguar and Fer­rari. His jour­nal­ism was al­ways his pri­or­ity, though, and with fam­ily com­mit­ments as well (his three small daugh­ters were in school at this stage) he was usu­ally con­tent to be re­serve driver. How­ever, if his rac­ing am­bi­tions, like the man him­self, were mod­est, he was an ef­fec­tive and re­li­able com­peti­tor.

His last For­mula 1 Grand Prix was at Spa in 1956, a race he had gone to in­tend­ing to cover it for the press. How­ever, at the last mo­ment he sub­sti­tuted for Luigi Musso and se­cured se­cond place for Fer­rari in the process. Af­ter that, he more or less aban­doned sin­gle-seaters, con­cen­trat­ing on en­durance rac­ing, un­til, af­ter two more fourths and an­other se­cond (where he had fin­ished in 1955) he fi­nally won Le Mans, shar­ing a Fer­rari with Olivier Gen­de­bien, in 1960.

He now de­voted him­self to his col­umns in the mo­tor­ing press where, thanks to his mo­tor rac­ing achieve­ments, his in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion was firmly es­tab­lished. His Euro­pean Diary ap­peared in Road & Track in 1961 and in the (now long de­funct) Mo­tor and he was a reg­u­lar road tester for sev­eral mag­a­zines. He had also started to write books and his man­ual Competition Driv­ing, pub­lished in 1964, was long re­garded as one of the stan­dard texts on the sub­ject.

An en­thu­si­ast with eclec­tic tastes, Frère owned many

in­ter­est­ing cars: his first Porsche was a 356A which was fol­lowed by a 356B, which he rated below the A as it proved less re­li­able. How­ever, he was not tempted by the new 911 when it ap­peared.

ʻI never liked the han­dling of the early 911s,ʼ he said. ʻThey were de­signed to un­der­steer, but the bal­ance of the pre­vi­ous 356 had been al­tered by the heav­ier en­gine mak­ing the tran­si­tion to over­steer sud­den and un­pre­dictable. And it var­ied from car to car.ʼ

He ac­knowl­edged that length­en­ing the wheel­base in 1969 and other mod­i­fi­ca­tions marked the be­gin­ning of the so­lu­tion, but dur­ing this pe­riod his own trans­port was a Fiat 2300 Coupé fol­lowed by an Alpina-tuned BMW 2002 tii. This was a typ­i­cal Frère car: a 160bhp pre-pro­duc­tion ex­am­ple pressed upon him by Alpina boss Burkhard Boven­siepen, it weighed only 950kg and went like a prover­bial rocket. Al­though it des­per­ately needed a fifth gear, Frère was suf­fi­ciently im­pressed to buy it and only stopped us­ing it when he had the chance to ac­quire a pro­to­type 911.

This was to be the first of his long se­ries of 911s: a spe­cial 1972 2.4 Car­rera be­long­ing to Paul Hensler, who was in charge of 911 devel­op­ment, it had non-stan­dard 7-inch rear rims, the duck­tail sub­se­quently made fa­mous by the RS and was rated at 190bhp.

ʻAnd it ab­so­lutely loved to rev!ʼ re­called Frère. Un­til this point his in­ter­est in the road go­ing Porsche had been largely pro­fes­sional, but with this 2.4 he caught the virus and 911s would re­main his per­sonal car un­til the end of his life.

The ad­vent of emis­sions leg­is­la­tion would soon spell the end of me­chan­i­cal fuel in­jec­tion and, as one of the com­pa­nyʼs un­of­fi­cial guinea pigs, af­ter a year, Frèreʼs car was fit­ted in­stead with a 2.7 en­gine with K-jetronic fuel in­jec­tion, ʻbut it was then much less will­ing.ʼ That car was stolen in Italy and its suc­ces­sor, a 3.0 Car­rera, was po­tent enough, but suf­fered an un­even-ness at low rpm which Frère at­trib­uted to a mis­match be­tween the valve tim­ing and the in­jec­tion set up. Amaz­ingly, this car too suf­fered the same fate as its pre­de­ces­sor, van­ish­ing in Brus­sels six years later.

In 1983 Frère ac­quired an­other ʻfac­tory spe­cialʼ, a 3.0 SC which was ef­fec­tively a pre-pro­duc­tion Car­rera 3.2. This he kept for ten years and 70,000 trou­ble-free miles – ʻthis is the best per­form­ing Porsche Iʼve ever had,ʼ he said be­fore


pass­ing it on to one of his three daugh­ters; to­day it is driven by a grand­son.

He was less im­pressed with the 964, though he was care­ful not to say so in print at the time and grad­u­ated di­rectly to the 993 Car­rera. Driv­ing this lat­est 911 at high speed in the Alps on a road he knew well, he aqua­planed, crash­ing heav­ily and writ­ing the car off, in­jur­ing him­self into the bar­gain; its red 993 re­place­ment re­mained with him un­til he died and was sub­se­quently pur­chased by his friend Alois Ruf.

Frère, who was ac­quainted with a vast num­ber of peo­ple in the mo­tor in­dus­try, had got to know this most fa­mous of the Porsche tuners in the 1970s. He was al­ways fas­ci­nated by Rufʼs abil­ity seem­ingly to stay one step ahead of Zuf­fen­hausen. In the mid 1980s Frèreʼs in­flu­ence al­lowed Road & Track to or­gan­ise speed tri­als on the 8.7km straight at VWʼS prov­ing ground at Ehra Lessien. Here he and Phil Hill clocked 304Km/h in Rufʼs Yel­low Bird in 1987, im­prov­ing that to 311Km/h two years later and ef­fec­tively seal­ing the Yel­low Bird le­gend.

In 1975, the Bri­tish pub­lisher Pa­trick Stephens ap­proached him to write a his­tory of the devel­op­ment of the 911, which was then 12 years old and al­ready a mi­nor phe­nom­e­non. Given his rac­ing and test­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of the pre­vi­ous two decades and his close con­nec­tion with de­vel­op­ments at Weis­sach, Paul Frère was an ob­vi­ous can­di­date to write the Porsche 911 Story.

ʻI wrote it first in English then sat down and wrote it again in Ger­man and later in French as pub­lish­ers in Ger­many and France were at­tracted by the sales of the English ver­sion,ʼ he said af­ter­wards.

Less a bed­side book than a work of ref­er­ence, Frère deals in turn with as­pects of the car, the en­gines, the run­ning gear, the body, rather than pro­duc­ing a chrono­log­i­cal anal­y­sis of each model. It is thus not a book that can be eas­ily browsed, but when the re­quired in­for­ma­tion is fi­nally tracked down, the writ­ing is de­tailed and au­thor­i­ta­tive.

Ever the road tester, Frère com­piles with char­ac­ter­is­tic thor­ough­ness ac­cel­er­a­tion fig­ures for vir­tu­ally ev­ery ver­sion of the 911, of­ten sup­ple­ment­ing his own mea­sure­ments with the re­sults ob­tained by Auto Mo­tor und Sport. Vir­tu­ally no facet of the car went with­out in­ves­ti­ga­tion or com­men­tary of some sort.

Af­ter an in­nings of 12 years, it might have been ex­pected that the 911 would be re­placed by the 928. The op­po­site oc­curred of course and the 911 sim­ply evolved, oblig­ing Frère to add chap­ters as new mod­els emerged. In­trigu­ingly and rather charm­ingly, in his in­tro­duc­tion to the sixth edi­tion, (1998), he states that ʻthis will be the last edi­tion of this bookʼ as the air cooled en­gine had reached the end of its life, ʻand by the time you read this, dear reader, its suc­ces­sor will have been an­nounced.ʼ

That suc­ces­sor, the 996, was, how­ever, so clearly a car in the 911 tra­di­tion that Frère felt he had to add a fur­ther sec­tion and his in­tro­duc­tion to the sev­enth edi­tion (2002) makes no ref­er­ence to last or fi­nal ver­sions. In­deed, within a few years, he was com­pil­ing an eighth edi­tion to in­clude the 997, but at 87 he was vis­i­bly, if un­der­stand­ably, slow­ing down and his chap­ter on the 997 is thin and re­lies much more on Porsche press re­leases than his pre­vi­ous chap­ters.

Frèreʼs view of Porscheʼs de­cline in the eight­ies and re­nais­sance in the fol­low­ing decade was con­ven­tional: ʻSixty per cent of sales were to the US and when the dol­lar lost so much value, the mar­ket dried up. This brought into fo­cus the short­com­ing of the 911 3.2: it was ex­pen­sive to build and in­creas­ingly old fash­ioned.ʼ

If he was shocked at the sud­den de­par­ture in 1988 of Hel­muth Bott, the tech­ni­cal supremo who be­strode Porsche engi­neer­ing for 20 years, his ob­ser­va­tions typ­i­cally were cloaked in his usual diplomatic phras­ing: ʻUn­til now Bott op­er­ated as one would in a much smaller busi­ness. The at­mos­phere will prob­a­bly change with the com­ing of a much younger and more man­age­ment-ori­en­tated suc­ces­sor.ʼ

That suc­ces­sor was the am­bi­tious Ul­rich Bez, who had left Porsche in 1982 and gone to BMW, piqued at not be­ing

ap­pointed to di­rec­tor of re­search. Bez had been head­hunted to re­place Bott, and in his wake and the ear­lier de­par­ture of CEO Peter Schutz, other se­nior Porsche men were put out to grass, notably de­sign chief Tony Lap­ine.

But if Bez can­celled devel­op­ment pro­grammes and up­set a lot of es­tab­lished rou­tines, as Frère put it, in­tro­duc­ing ʻsys­tems and pro­ce­dures that were un­pop­u­lar in­ter­nally,ʼ he also re­stricted jour­nal­ist ac­cess: this hit Frère, ac­knowl­edged house re­porter and com­pany his­to­rian, quite hard.

For 15 years he had en­joyed priv­i­leged ac­cess to Weis­sach which had given him first in­sight into many de­vel­op­ments. Friendly with Paul Hensler from the out­set, he had also re­lied on Fritz Bezner, in the 1970s Bot­tʼs as­sis­tant and, through the 1980s, chief of the 911 devel­op­ment pro­gramme. But when Bez ar­rived, Bezner was pushed side­ways and both he and Hensler be­came less in­flu­en­tial.

Though he con­tined his as­so­ci­a­tion with Weis­sach, the ex­pe­ri­ence caused Frère to turn in­creas­ingly to his con­tacts at Honda and Mazda where he felt more ap­pre­ci­ated. He was care­ful never to lose his sense of bal­ance though, ac­knowl­edg­ing read­ily that by bring­ing Ja­panese meth­ods to man­u­fac­tur­ing and pro­duc­tion, new CEO Wen­delin Wiedek­ing mas­ter­minded Porscheʼs tran­si­tion in to the pow­er­house it would sub­se­quently be­come.

He never lost his feel for Porsche ei­ther, com­ment­ing in his col­umn in Flat 6 in 2007 that the 911ʼs only sig­nif­i­cant com­peti­tor would be the (then new) Audi RS8 ʻand Porsche will re­act by re­main­ing what it is: ag­ile, com­pact and as light as pos­si­ble – not an au­to­bahn monster.ʼ

Paul Frèreʼs open­ness and seem­ing lack of ego per­son­i­fied his na­tive Bel­gium – he had no axe to grind and as such was wel­comed every­where. A pri­vate man, he sur­prised close friends when he left Ninette, the mother of his three chil­dren, for Suzanne whom he later mar­ried.

He rarely spoke about this but when 25 years later the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist John Lamm was talk­ing to him wist­fully about his own re­cent sep­a­ra­tion, Frère said con­fi­den­tially, ʻIf there is a beau­ti­ful woman in­volved, it has to be done.ʼ He sur­prised Lamm in other ways, too. At din­ner with him and Phil Hill on an ear­lier oc­ca­sion, he said Fer­rari should have paired Hill, not him, Paul Frère, with Gen­de­bien for Le Mans in 1960, ʻThen Phil could have claimed four wins!ʼ

He got on well with the Ger­mans, the French thought of him as one of their own and the Bri­tish, Amer­i­cans and the Ja­panese ap­pre­ci­ated him be­cause he spoke English. In ret­ro­spect, it is easy to see why he fit­ted in so well at Porsche. The Ger­mans re­spected his eru­di­tion and ap­pre­ci­ated the fact that he was al­ways pre­pared, that he clearly un­der­stood their engi­neer­ing con­cepts and could ex­plain them to lay­men.

They al­lowed him the rare priv­i­lege of cir­cuit test­ing cars like the lat­est 908, which gave Frère the jour­nal­ist some very exclusive copy. He re­paid their trust with his dis­cre­tion: his years close to Porsche meant that he was a party to many se­crets, but old school to the end, Frère was al­ways loyal and thor­oughly de­served Ferry Porscheʼs com­pli­ment in the 1998 edi­tion of the 911 Story that he was ʻnot only a faith­ful com­pan­ion of our com­pany over all those years, we also ap­pre­ci­ate him as a friend of our fam­ily.ʼ

He was re­spected among jour­nal­ists, too, and be­ing made a Friend of the Guild of Mo­tor­ing Writ­ers in 1960 was one of sev­eral such hon­ours. A seat at the front was al­ways re­served at Porsche press con­fer­ences for Frère.

Like jour­nal­ist Richard von Franken­berg who started Christopho­rus (and who co-drove the 550 with Frère at Le Mans in 1953), Frère died as a re­sult of in­juries from a road ac­ci­dent, though in his case, some time af­ter the event. Friends and col­leagues all used to com­ment on how fast Frère drove every­where, es­pe­cially af­ter speed lim­its and so­cial at­ti­tudes made this more dif­fi­cult. Per­haps he had over­es­ti­mated his re­flexes when his rental car was in a huge col­li­sion near the Nür­bur­gring in Septem­ber 2006.

At 89, he made a slow, par­tial re­cov­ery from com­plex in­juries which could have been fa­tal for some­one even twenty years younger. Though painfully frail he con­tin­ued writ­ing dur­ing 2007 and still man­aged to at­tend the Brus­sels mo­tor­show and gen­er­ally make him­self avail­able.

A Monaco res­i­dent in later life, he was hos­pi­talised in Nice af­ter the ac­ci­dent and amazed at the pil­grim­age of vis­i­tors he re­ceived, mostly peo­ple he had never met, but who ob­vi­ously knew of him. He died in Fe­bru­ary 2008, a month af­ter his 91st birth­day. CP

With 911 Car­rera RSR 2.8 (pro­to­type 3.0) in 1973 at Weis­sach, from left: Paul Frère, Hel­muth Bott, Man­fred Jan­tke, Nor­bert Singer

Above right: In es­teemed com­pany at the Targa Flo­rio – from left to right (at back): Fer­di­nand Piëch, Hel­muth Bott, Peter Falk, from left to right (fore­ground): Pe­dro Ro­driguez, Richard Attwood, Paul Frère

Above left: An ac­claimed jour­nal­ist, an ac­com­plished rac­ing driver – few could match Frèreʼs achieve­ments

Below: Ready for live out­side broad­cast, Porsche 904 (#904 009) at the 1000km race at the Nür­bur­gring in 1966. The car was reg­is­tered by ZDF Wies­baden. Left to right: Huschke von Hanstein, Rainer Gün­zler, Gün­ter Klass and Paul Frère

Above: Le Mans in 1953, Paul Frère shared with fel­low jour­nal­ist Richard von Franken­burg, fin­ish­ing 15th over­all in 550 coupé #550-02

Below right: June1966 and the ADAC 1000 km race at the Nür­bur­gring, Paul Frère and Rainer Gün­zler drove this Porsche 904 as part of the first live broad­cast car­ried out by the ZDF tele­vi­sion com­pany

Below left: Frère waits on the start­line at Spa in 1959

Above: 1958 Le Mans, Edgar Barth (sit­ting on the car) and Paul Frère (at the wheel) with 718 RSK (#718003). To­gether they fin­ished fourth over­all and fifth in Index of Per­for­mance

Below: 1953 Le Mans, from left to right: Hel­mut Glöck­ler, Hans Klauser, Ferry Porsche, un­known, Werner Enz, Hu­bert Mim­ler, Hans Her­rmann, Willy Enz, Bruno Trost­mann, Richard von Franken­berg, Paul Frère, Rolf Wütherich and Eber­hard Storz

Above: Paul Frère driv­ing a Porsche 718 RSK in the Nür­bur­gring 1000km in June 1958. He shared with Harry Schell, fin­ish­ing in sev­enth place over­all

Above left: With devel­op­ment en­gi­neer Horst Mar­chart

Below left: Frère felt the 3.2 Car­rera was too costly to build, and old fash­ioned…

Above: At cel­e­bra­tions to mark 30 years of the 911 in Lud­wigs­burg, 1993

Top left: At the cel­e­bra­tion of ʻCar of the Year ʼ in 1978 for the Porsche 928, along­side Prince Rainier of Monaco

Below right: At the pre­sen­ta­tion of Porscheʼs car­bon ce­ramic brakes in Viz­zola, Italy in 2000. On the left is Porsche driver Di­eter Röscheisen

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