THE RACING WRITER
Classic Porsche looks back at the life of racing journalist Paul Frère
“THERE WAS, NATURALLY, FAR MORE TO PAUL FRÈRE THAN A SEMINAL BOOK…”
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
“I NEVER LIKED THE HANDLING OF THE EARLY 911S…”
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