Featured: Diving Into Alain de Cadenet's Fascinating Life In And Out Of The Car

Diving Into Alain de Cadenet’s Fascinating Life In And Out Of The Car

Ted Gushue By Ted Gushue
May 18, 2017
15 comments

Alain de Cadenet requires no introduction, but in case you’ve just emerged from below the big stone you’ve called home, he’s the kind of person who’s seemingly constructed from a few people packed into one ebullient being. De Cadenet has constructed his own racing cars (and been to Le Mans in said cars), has hosted television and commentary shows on motorsports and vintage vehicles alike (if you haven’t seen Victory by Design yet, you owe it to yourself to watch the series’ entirety—here are some of our favorites), and is just a repository of all-around awesomeness and insight. I had an in-depth conversation with de Cadenet recently, and we covered a lot of ground. So let’s get to it.

Ted Gushue: So you’ve clearly been in a lot over the years, but what was the first car you ever drove?

Alain de Cadenet: I think the first was probably a Rover 14 or something like that—that my grandmother had. I don’t think they let me in that thing until I was probably about 15 or 16 though.

TG: Oh so you waited until you were properly eligible to drive?

AdC: I remember trying to drive in a car park but failing. I then went to the British School of Motoring, BSM, and they had a thing called a Triumph Herald. That was, really, the first car that I drove with the intention to learn what to do in order to pass a test.

I did have a motorbike first though, you see. We weren’t really a car family. Basically, I had a BSA Bantam Motorcycle as my first means of true transport, a 2-stroke. That motorcycle really represented freedom to me. I developed a great love of two-wheel transport because of that. The car thing came a bit later.

TG: Walk me through how you sort of tumbled into the car world then, it doesn’t sound like you were trying terribly hard originally.

AdC: Well, you rode a motorcycle back then because you didn’t even have to wear a helmet and no one seemed too bothered about what you were doing. You could ride a motorcycle on the provisional license too; in other words you didn’t have to have passed any kind of test to ride a motorcycle up to 250cc.

Anybody could apply for a provisional license, and in my case it was quite expensive to have automobile driving lessons. The motorcycle thing was my sort of early diet of transport because I didn’t need anything except the price of the bike.

I have to say, I wasn’t particularly good at passing tests and things like that. I didn’t do very well but if I remember correctly, but I of course did get my license and the first actual car that I bought was an old MG M-Type.

TG: That was around when you started “getting into it,” as they say?

AdC: Yes, because it cost me five guineas, which is five pounds, five shillings, which at most would have been eight to ten bucks or something! It was a wonderful little car actually. I remember the guy who owned it was an old army type and he said, “Well my boy, now that you’ve bought the car, I’m going to show you something very special. Look here.” Down by your right leg was a switch.He said, “When you’ve got your girl next to you and it’s a bit nippy, you pull this switch here, you see, and the engine stops. Then she’s got to give you a cuddle to keep warm!” Remember, it didn’t have a roof or anything, this car was all open.

That was really my introduction to cars, proper cars, if you like. Once you own something it starts to set in. Then he had a whole handwritten journal of how to look after this thing, which included putting air in, changing the oil, doing the spark plugs, fiddling with the various points. I then learned the joys of maintaining your own beast. That’s really what got me started down the rabbit hole of mechanical engineering.

TG: Connect the dots for me: what happens between this this MG and the first time you were on a racetrack?

AdC: I had a friend of mine called Richard Rossesly who was a very adventurous kind of guy. He was a bobsleigh man and used to go out to St. Moritz and do the Crystal Run and stuff like that, and he also raced cars. He was rather rich.

How I got into racing wasn’t through cars though, exactly. What happened with me was that I had become a sort of rock and roll/fashion photographer in the mid-60s. I was living in the city and I’d had a fantastic girlfriend who got pulled off me by a guy who was a photographer. So I left the city of London and a likely career in merchant banking, threw all that away and became a photographer, because a great friend of mine had bought a studio, and so I could go and be a photographer in the studio. It was a Radio Caroline house actually. Radio Caroline was sort of an infamous pirate radio station.

TG: So they were broadcasting pirate radio and you were developing photos in there?

AdC: Well, they broadcast the pirate radio from a ship that was anchored outside territorial waters, off the Thames Estuary out in the North Sea, I think they called it. The offices that ran the ship and the radio station were in Mayfair in London. On the top floor of those offices was this very smart photographic studio.

There was a very good, very nice, very decent photographer called Nicky Wright. Nicky Wright was a guy who I worked with and I learned quite a lot about photography from. He shot the very first Rolling Stones album cover as a matter of fact, so we had a lot of rock and roll people came up there, like Jimi Hendrix. His birthday’s same as mine! I also got to know Rod Stewart and all that lot. You got to know quite a lot of rock and roll men who came to the studios for things like album covers and head shots and all that crap. That was one of my jobs, going with bands on gigs to photograph them on stage and whatnot.

What happened is, I had my little MG and I had a bunch of different MGs, you could change your car more or less every month in those days. What happened is I had this great girlfriend and Richard Rossesly, my mate, he invited me to go racing. I said, “Like horse racing?” “No, no, no don’t be silly. Car racing. Come see us, we’ve got a good event at Brands Hatch.” I had no idea where Brands Hatch was—I’d never been to a motor race in my life. I knew nothing about motor racing then.

Anyway, I go down with the girl and I’m damned if she doesn’t get pulled off and she disappears with some race car driver. I say, “Wait a minute. I’m a rock and roll photographer for Christ’s sake, now what the hell is this?” I get it, this guy is a racing driver. I thought, “Fuck, this is not good.” So right then and there I decided I would take up motor racing because obviously it was a better thing to be doing.

TG: Are you telling me you could attribute every step in your career to successfully losing girlfriends?

AdC: Yes.

TG: So after she ran off, what was the first car you raced?

AdC: It was an AC Ace Bristol. It had a six-cylinder Ford engine. That car, with 16-inch wheels, that car had a 262 cubic-inch Ford engine wedged into it, and became the sort of prototype for the Cobra.

TG: So what was the first race like then?

AdC: It was at Brands Hatch about a week after I lost the girl at the very same place.

TG: You were able to pull it together that quickly, having really had no experience behind the wheel of a race car?

AdC: I had never been on a race track in my life. I didn’t even have a proper license because I didn’t know you had to have one. Richard got me to join the thing though, the BRSCC, the British Racing and Sports Car Club. So I did. I remember going to wherever they were based in London. I joined and in those days, it was all pretty slack. You just sort of signed up. I think you had to fill out one form or something.

This is how it happened: I had a very good friend, Anjali MacKay, a great buddy at the time. We did a lot of things together. He was an insurance broker but he too fancied a bit of racing because it appealed to the women. He was a very infamous London playboy. The women loved him.

He looked like Humphrey Bogart but with very narrow shoulders. He was a magnificent bloke, he really was, and we went racing together at Brands. I remember we tried to learn all about scrutineering and I knew nothing about any of this.

Of course, when you sign on, there is a lovely old dear in there and she says, “Well now, where’s your license love?” I say, “Oh, well yes,” I sort of patted myself. She said “You’ve left it at home, haven’t you?” I said, “Well, yes, I have I think.” “You’re just like my boy, he forgets everything too.” She says, “Well, look, it’s all right this time but make sure you bring it next time.”

So that’s how I actually ended up getting out on the track for my first race with no credentials of any sort. We had these comical tires too I recall. They were called “Blue Peter Retreads” which I think London cabs used. I think someone told us to pump them up and off I went. That was it. It was a club sports car race. That was my baptism by fire; you go out of the tunnel, you go out to the pits, you follow everybody else, the next thing you know there’s a mad rush. Everybody buggers off and you just join in! Guess what? Now I’m a racing driver!

TG: Wild. How did you do in that race?

AdC: I can’t remember. I think I latched onto the back of someone in a Morgan and held on for dear life. The one thing I remember from the race, actually is that there was a girl competing in the race in an MGB. I’d been chatting to her in the paddock beforehand. After the race, she says, “Well what are you doing racing alone?” I think she asked me where I lived or something. I told her, “You’re not far from where I live, you see.” Anyway, she invited me up to her place for a drink. I thought, “God, this racing, this is a damned good thing isn’t it?” I have my first race, I’ve got a bird straight away.

TG: And then she was stolen by a fighter pilot, I presume?

AdC: Well no, but it’s quite funny because I turned up about five minutes early to her flat, and as I go up the stairs, the door opens and Mike Hailwood comes tumbling out with his jacket off and his shirt open.

He looks at me and he says, “You’re next mate, she’s well stirred.” Unbeknownst to me, this was a rather well-known nymphomaniac whose sole plot in life seemed to be shag everybody else on the grid.

It was brilliant.

TG: So I take it from there you just sort of tumble into racing and it becomes your full-time passion?

AdC: Well essentially, yes. I didn’t go racing for the right reasons initially, but I really got the bug badly soon after. There were cars that I would race against that only just about looked like what they were supposed to be, sort of MG Midgets that had skinny fiberglass bodies and hot revving engines and racing tires, stunk of castor oil. I took one sniff of the whole thing and got hooked.

TG: When did you first sign on with a proper racing outfit?

AdC: What happens of course, is when you show up at a racetrack, there’s always one of the races that’s got good, modern, tasty stuff in it. You might be doing a support race or something like that though.

What happened with me was that I started to see things like Porsches, GT40 Fords, LM Ferraris, really nice, lovely things, doing endurance events. I had another great friend of mine who was racing in Formula 3. I got to see him performing in Formula 3 and then it was a toss up, really, for me. I couldn’t afford Formula 3 though, that was for sure. You had to buy a car, you had to have a transporter, you really needed someone to help you that’d got some serious mechanical knowledge too. It was, for me, really out of the question. I could still only race something, really, that I could drive to the tracks, and I was very lucky to know a man who owned a Porsche 904.

He was, in fact, the main importer of Ferraris into the United Kingdom. An extraordinary man. Just a really nice, benevolent sort of guy. I went to have drinks with him one night and he said, “I’m thinking of disposing of my 904, would you like to buy it?” I said, “Well, it depends on how much.” He said, “Well, I’ll sell it to you at a sort of friendly price but you can have a think about it. Why don’t you have a go in it?” So I actually entered the 904 in the Martini International at Silverstone. Obviously though, I would be responsible for the car if anything went wrong.

Anyways, I drove it up there, I did the race, I got starting money, I got some prize money. Absolutely lovely. I handed over the money to him and I bought the thing kind of over a period of time, with Anjali MacKay, my friend I’d mentioned earlier—we bought it together. I think actually his brother was involved too, it was one of those deals. That’s how the 904 became my first ever, what I would call “serious,” car. However, the 906 had come out by then and the Dino Ferraris were out as well. My Porsche wasn’t really competitive but it was cheap racing back then.

TG: Which is such a strange concept to think about. A 904 being a “cheap” car to race with.

AdC: Yes, exactly. For the period of time that I raced that car, I don’t even think we changed the spark plugs. I ran it on the road. I drove it to races. We would do these events where you got starting money, prize money, and whatever, and that was it. It was a fantastic little car. We never crashed it.

I remember on one occasion, Anjali and I were sitting in the equivalent of a Quonset hut called a Mizzen Hut, and we’re having a cup of tea at Silverstone and in practice neither of us could understand why the car wouldn’t turn into corners. It kept plowing on. Anj said “What do you think it is? Something’s wrong isn’t it, with the car?” I said “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.” A Scottish accented voice said “Oh, that’s called understeer.” And it was Jim Clark.

We couldn’t believe it, it was Jim Clark who was doing the saloon car race or something up there, and he was just having a cup of tea and says “That’s understeer.” And of course, we both said “Well, what do you do about that?” He says “Well, you have to come off the power, you know, and get the front end to bite, but it sounds like your roll bars need attention. You’re probably too stiff at the front on the roll bar, or you’re not stiff enough in the back.”  So we sort of wrote it down and went off to try to do something about it. One tends to take advice from Jim Clark.

They were great times, those sort of mid-60s to late-60s racing days were fantastic. Back then Grand Prix drivers showed up to race anything. Sports cars, saloon cars, Formula 2 cars, whatever. You very often found you’ve got some quite illustrious people, who even if you weren’t on the grid with them, you were certainly sharing the paddock with them.

TG: That’s a level of accessibility and fun that I sadly don’t think we’ll have again any time soon. Are there any other standout stories during that time?

AdC: Well, yeah, but not that you could print! As for the racing, we’d all heard people say “Yeah, Silverstone, you know, that’s a pretty simple track, and Castle Combe, well that’s not a problem, and Brands Hatch, well once you’ve got Paddock Bend sorted out and you can take Hawthorne’s, you know, without much issue, you’ll be okay … but as a driver, you wait until you get to the Nürburgring.

We all knew then that the Nürburgring was like the ultimate kind of dangerous place that you could be in a racing car. The “Green Hell.” You know, fourteen plus miles of twists and turns and ups and downs. And then you went to the Nurburgring for real, and absolutely they were right about the place.

I think I went there in my second year of racing, I can’t remember, there was the F3L, that lovely, slippery Ford prototype with a Formula 1 engine in the back, that Len Bailey designed. I remember Chris Irwin got the F3L airborne. Guy blamed himself, poor old thing, but I mean it just left a sort of huge hole in a hedge. The Nürburgring was certainly somewhere you treated with the utmost respect, but then everybody also said “Ah, you think the Nürburgring’s dangerous, you wait until you get to Spa. And the Masta Kink. You wait, and if it’s raining, God help you.”

Anyway, my first time out on the ‘RIng I was floundering around the track, in maybe the 904? I wanted to try Spa next of course. It was almost like self-inflicted punishment, really. I’d been very used to punishment. We had a lot of punishment where I came from, physical punishment, so the thought of going to this place called Spa and trying to go through this Kink at speed sounded like a jolly good time.

If you ever asked anybody how to take the Masta Kink, they’d all say the exact same thing: don’t lift. Nobody lifts at the Kink. Right, right. Fuck me. All the old timers, whenever anybody young came along, they’d tell us,“top gear, never lift.” It could be done by Jo Siffert and other drivers of great note, but it was a bit much for us junior, amateur club folk to start doing that type of thing.

The learning curve is really the fun thing though, I think. And when you go back to a track you’ve been to, like the ‘Ring, and you do a lot better the second time because you’d already got the knowledge. It’s like everything in life; once you’ve experienced it once, the second time’s not so bad, and by the time you’ve done it half a dozen times, you are not quite so nervous and concerned like the first time you did it.

TG: Well, that’s what everyone always says about Le Mans, is that the first year is basically to crack the seal, the second year is to get your support team dialed in the groove, and the third year is to perhaps win.

AdC: Well, yes, although I think that if you’re talking about winning Le Mans, especially today, there’s no way that any team that has a car that’s capable of winning it won’t have drivers who are obviously experienced enough to win it as well. I mean look at Woolf Barnato, he only went there three times. He won it the first time he went, and the second time he went, and the third time he went, and then he retired.

So it was different then. You had to pace your machine as much as yourself, and I know that when I first went to Le Mans it was particularly frightening for me because I was in an extremely fast car, not physically in shape, I’d lost the sight of one eye and really oughtn’t to be racing at all, and I scared myself shitless the first time I went down Mulsanne.

TG: You had lost the sight of one eye?

AdC: Well, I had a bad accident in the Targa Florio and got hit on the head with a wheel or something, I got knocked out on my way back to the pits and the car had hit a wall and burst into flames. I thought I’d been thrown out of the car, because there were pictures of me kind of on the ground with no car about. But actually I’d discovered only two years ago that I was fished out of the car by a Sicilian soldier who just happened to be standing outside his house when my flaming car arrives on his doorstep. So he steps into the flames and pulls me out.

TG: Jesus.

AdC: Which is very kind of him to put it lightly. He saved my life, obviously. I was unconscious in the car, but when I got to hospital I realized that I’d lost the sight of my left eye. I wasn’t registering anything at all with my left eyeball, through concussion and whatever else I’d gone through.

I had done a deal to be at Le Mans for the first time though, I think it was about three weeks later, so I recuperated and all the rest of it, and by the time I’d got to Le Mans I could walk and I could kind of see shapes out of the eye. They gave you a medical exam at Le Mans and I had to fake the eyesight test.

It was very difficult to drive at high speed because what I discovered was when you’ve only got one eye working, you have to turn your head to the left so that you were actually working directly over the steering whee. That’s how I could stand a better chance of judging distances and seeing apexes and things like that. The thing for me was, I had never been in a car that did the sort of mad speed that those things were doing then.

So, you had this thing in the straight that comes after Mulsanne corner, which was called the Kink, another one of these bloody kinks, and you had to take it without lifting. That’s what you did. I couldn’t do it to start with, so I had my friend who was driving on a different team take me out so I could shadow him. I went out behind him and we both had identical cars. I went out behind him and he was going to tow me around, and what he said was he was going to go warm up the first lap and he would not go through the kink flat, he said that on the second lap I’m going to go down the straight, I want you right behind me and you will not lift because I will not lift. Got it?

And I remember going down there thinking, well fuck it, he’s not lifting, might as well try it. I got right behind him, and it’s an interesting thing because I think, I’m not sure about this, but the cars were geared for I think 8,200RPM in top gear and we pulled 8400, but because we were together going balls-out down the straight, the car pulled two hundred revs more because we were together making an aerodynamic bubble.

But the thing with never lifting through any kink is that once you’ve done it, it’s nothing. It seems so easy. My brain coped with 8,400, so 8,200 was really just a piece of piss after that. You see what I’m getting at?

TG: Totally.

AdC: I’ve never discovered why that is, it’s just one of these psychosomatic things I suppose that you feel very confident doing anything slightly slower than you’ve already done it.

TG: This is all happening in the Ferrari 512, right?

AdC: 512, yeah. I’d been down at the factory, and you were allowed to work on your own Ferrari in those days, in the factory or the race shop down there at Maranello.

TG: So was this a factory-sponsored effort?

AdC: Well, sort of, because the English Ferrari distributor and the Belgian guy and the Italian guy, the official Ferrari distributors, were given works help. So we had factory engines, and we had the latest bodywork, and we could have it converted up to 1971 “M” specification too.

Our car, the one I drove, was the Écurie Francorchamps, the Belgian concessionaire’s car. He had factory assistants to get it converted to the latest Le Mans spec.

TG: So three or four Le Mans later, you started campaigning your own car which you had worked on with Lola, is that right?

AdC: Well I’ll tell you how that went. What happened was the big Ferraris were retired at the end of 1971, they were defunct. We could not use those big five-liter cars because the Formula had a three-liter cut off limit. Ferrari had already been racing a 312 PB, but they would not sell those cars to anyone outside of the works effort—no more for concessionaires, and especially none for private drivers.

I’d had a Formula 1 car by then when Jack Brabham retired though, and I’d gone down to Brabham’s factory down in Surrey and at some stage I’d met a guy who worked in the drawing office there who was really only involved in designing parts of suspension for the Formula 1 cars and the Formula 2 cars for that matter. Over a pub lunch I became incredibly impressed with the guy. He really knew a lot about the theory of to get these cars to work properly, how to get them to handle, and how to do this and how to do that.

At some point ‘round about Christmas 1971 I said “You know, I can’t get hold of one of these Ferraris next year, do you think you could design a two-seater tub and body that I can fit the Formula 1 suspension to, the uprights and the wheels and the brakes and everything, and the engine and the Hewland gearbox, from the Formula 1 car: could you design that?”

And I said “I’d like it to look like a Ferrari 312 PB.” He said matter-of-factly, “Well, I don’t know.” He’d never done a whole car like that before, but he said he’d do his best. I said “Okay, go on then.” And that’s what he did, I think the whole thing took about six weeks.

TG: You make it sound remarkably casual.

AdC: Well, it was a 24/7 thing to help find people to help with it and fabricate bulk heads and make them into a monocoque tub and find someone to make the body in wood and plaster and then mold it. I bought an engine off of Bruce McLaren who had won the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix with a very early DFV.

I’d gone down to see Bruce, and he had a very nice guy that worked with him called Phil Kerr, and they were doing brilliantly in Can-Am in early 1972. He said “We’ve got a young guy who builds our Can-Am engines, but we’d like him to learn how to build a DFV.”

So I did a deal with them, they said “We’ll sell you this DFV if you don’t mind it being rebuilt for Le Mans by our man John Nicholson.” And it was cheap. The whole thing, completely rebuilt, ready-to-go, was 1,000 quid or something like that, or not even that. I can’t remember now, it was very cheap though.

So we picked that engine up from McLaren, and they were really interested to see how John Nicholson’s work would be like with the DFV. Well we stuck it in the car, and we didn’t have a chance to test it before we went to Le Mans; I mean we made sure it worked, that it ran, and the brakes worked, but we certainly didn’t race it first. Anyway, it came out the box and went like a rocket.

We were lying fourth overall, Chris Craft and myself, and he had a pour down, like a torrential pour down, at Tetre Rouge onto the right hand, or onto the straight. He went off the road and he pranged the nose, not badly but it kind of bent a bit of the framework. Anyway, he beat it back to the pits and our guys repaired it. They had to saw a bit of fencing around the back of the pits or something, and anyway they got it all back together. Then the pit marshal wouldn’t let us out though. Wouldn’t let me out with an hour to go in the race, forty-five minutes to go, because Joe Bonnier had died that morning, had a nasty accident, his Lola hit the back of a Ferrari Daytona or something and he’d gone into the trees and they were worried in case I had a bad accident in the repaired car. Anyway, we had a word with the guy and sorted it out and out I went. And we finished.

McLaren were ecstatic because their engine had easily done the 24 hours and John got himself a great job, Nicholson McLaren Engines, building Formula 1 engines and the business is still going today, so well done, John. That engine in that car, we’d not only did all that at Le Mans but I sent the car to Watkins Glen for the six hours and that same engine did the practice, the six hours, and the Can-Am practice and the Can-Am race the next day. We worked it out in the end, in total we’d done nearly forty hours on a Formula 1 engine!

TG: That’s fantastic, quite the engineering accomplishment, more so on such a tight time frame.

AdC: It just showed you that if an engine was really well built, if you drove them fairly sanely you could get forty racing hours out of an engine, which was unbelievable.

TG: That was always famously Derek Bell’s claim to fame. It wasn’t necessarily that he was the fastest, it’s that he just crashed the least and broke the cars the least.

AdC: Do you know, that’s exactly right, and also Derek was always very sympathetic to the machinery. He was very quick in Formula 2, but because his family owned the car he wouldn’t be quite as reckless as someone who was driving for someone else, because it was his own kit.

TG: Makes sense.

AdC: I think that that is where he learned his mechanical empathy, shall we say, because Derek was always well known for handing the car back to whomever he was driving with in pretty much the same shape as he was given it.

TG: So if you had to look back on your career at Le Mans, how would you say it fits into the larger narrative of the racers from your era?

AdC: Well, that’s an interesting question. I was always very pleased that we were taken seriously as a worthwhile competitor by, well certainly after the first year Matra took us very seriously I know, because they would be timing us. John Wyer was always very polite and complimentary about my efforts too. I know Renault Alpine took us seriously as well because we were the only car they couldn’t get past on the straights.

I think I made a contribution, put it that way. I managed to, without being a big works, without having financing to go wind tunnel testing and what have you—we did our testing on open roads and things—as an amateur effort I think I waved the flag rather well.

I mean we weren’t huge though either. Ickx used to say that when he drove for Porsche that everything was just beautifully prepared, with mechanics that were well turned out in livery, and that the seat was nice and warm and the car was comfortable and that driving for Porsche, he said, “was like going to the Ritz hotel for tea.”

He goes on to compare to mine, ”And Alain, when I look at your car, oh,” you know, shards of fiberglass on the seat and rattly old body, and mechanics all unshaven. He said “I look at your car Alain and it is like going to prison.”

I think that the answer to your question though is that my effort was worthwhile; I look back very proudly on what we achieved and I think that I’m particularly glad I did it because no way could you ever do that again, I don’t suppose, not in the foreseeable future. You cannot go into big-deal endurance racing today unless you are pretty much a works team of your own.

TG: It also gave you an afterglow that turned into an incredible career to come right?

AdC: I mean, we won a couple of world championship races, it was always my ambition to be the first person to win Le Mans with a homemade car—never been done—that you design and name and drive yourself. That had never been done, and it was Jean Rondeau who came to see my car in 1973 or ’74, and that’s what gave him the idea of building his car. I remember discussing it with him at the time because he said “Well how difficult is-” and I said “It’s not that difficult,” I said, “but you need good people and you needed the money.” He went away and got it, got the people, and hey, he won Le Mans in 1980. Still the only man to win Le Mans with a car that bore his name that he drove himself.

TG: Yeah. It’s talked about still today, of course. Do you think that being somebody who was creating their own car, entering it, campaigning it, and being somewhat successful in it gave you the credibility in the community to have the license to go back to it as a personality?

AdC: I think those people obviously have got an ability to do that. In large part perhaps based on their own experiences but, I know I’ve worked with Leigh Diffey, for instance, who does the Grand Prix here in the States. He’s never been a race car driver I don’t think, and he’s certainly never been a Grand Prix driver, but he’s got a very nice touch.

Bob Varsha, for instance, is a brilliant, brilliant leader of your pack when you’re doing a motor race show. He’s a lovely man to work with because he understands that you know all the stuff he doesn’t know, and we know that he can drive anything. He’ll drive anything you care to give him, and those sort of people are very rare.

It’s an interesting question. Personally, I think that commentating either as the lead man, the color, or the expert in Formula 1 is the most difficult job in broadcasting. Basically, you’re not given a great deal of good material to discuss. You’re given what’s going to be probably a rather boring race, with rather boring people, and you’ve got to try to make it viewable, watchable, entertaining, and educational.

It’s an art. It’s an art and a knack for getting your stuff across to a listening audience, especially when you can’t see them, trying to portray enthusiasm, trying to get across to the audience what an exciting thing this is. If it doesn’t happen naturally for you, you’ve got a hell of a job on your hands.

TG: If you had to flatter yourself, what about your work makes people so receptive would you say?

AdC: I believe that what people like about my stuff is that I am very loquacious and verbal and excited about driving the kind of stuff that I do. That I really love it, and that they can tell. I treat the camera like a bloke sitting next door to me.

TG: That leads me to my next question, which is when I grew up watching Victory by Design it always had this feeling of a horny kid deciding to start his own Playboy magazine about cars, if that makes any sense. I used to watch those videos all the time. 

AdC: Yeah. Yeah. You see, what you’re talking about, encouragement, suggested encouragement, is beneficial. That’s a lovely thing to hear. I get young kids coming up sometimes at races whose fathers had given them some of those tapes.

It’s being passed down, but all of that stuff is pretty evergreen still. Whatever I’m saying, it either came first hand because I was there, or we researched it from people who were, trying not to make mistakes. If I’ve helped anybody anywhere do anything that’s beneficial to them because of these videos, if I’ve inspired people in some way, any way at all, I’m very proud of that. At least I feel I’ve made a contribution.

TG: Before we’d actually met, for my birthday this year in October my father gave me a DVD compilation of Victory by Design because he’d remembered how much we’d enjoyed watching it when I was a kid, and in no small part it’s a lot of what I think Petrolicious bases its DNA on: that sort of unbridled, semi-pornographic passion for these great machines.

AdC: Yes. I think a journalist whilst criticizing the videos said “This is pure car porn,” and he’s right. Porn doesn’t have to be what we all know it to be, it can be what we now know it can be.

TG: The one that always sticks out to me, and the one that I re-watch the most from Victory by Design, is the Jaguar XJ13. Which episodes really kind of stick in your mind as indicative of what that show was all about?

AdC: I particularly like the 312 PB sequence.

TG: Because you have a personal connection with that car?

AdC: Yes. I finally got my bum into one of those cars at Pierre Barganon’s place. I have to say, it was a real treat. It’s a two seater Ferrari Formula 1 car more or less. I do believe that if I’d have had the budget, I could have built a much better car, but considering that this was Gordon Murray’s first car et cetera, and that I only had an ancient DFV and all the rest of it, what the PB taught me was this: Ferrari is the ultimate, the Patek Philippe construction of a racing car. Whereas I wasn’t even up to Omega’s standards, certainly not Zenith. Where was I in watch parlance? I certainly wasn’t Rolex. I was really down at the kind of cheap end; maybe I did a sort of Le Manoir type job on my car in comparison to Patek Philippe at Ferrari, I don’t know.

I certainly enjoyed that 312 PB section though, and I also really liked driving the 1914 Mercedes Benz as well. That Mercedes was a pivotal car in the history of motorsport, as we all know. I remember when I was driving it thinking about the first Eagle and Rolls-Royce aero engines that were more or less copies of this 1914 Mercedes’ cylinder head. Four valves per cylinder, with a little single cam and rockers. In fact, every aviation engine that Rolls-Royce built up to the Merlin was single overhead cam, four valves per cylinder. Quite a few German fliers probably lost their lives to their own technology in World War 1.

TG: Interesting way to put it. Certainly truth in that.

AdC: Anyway, I really enjoyed driving that one. What else was there there? The P3 was nice, obviously, anything to do with Alfas I loved. The little two-liter Daytona coupe T33, that was a fun one for sure.

TG: With all the amazing things you’ve been in, how do you think about the idea of “Don’t meet your heroes?”

AdC: You see, this is an interesting connotation, this. I remember a friend of mine bought the first Miura that ever came to England, and he picked me up in it to take me down to the Crystal Palace race track. When we got there everybody crowds around the car and they “ooh” and  they “ah” and they say “Wow wow wow, this is fantastic.” It never did thing for me though, that car. I never owned one, I never wanted to drive one, because I couldn’t see what contribution it really made.

It isn’t a bad car. Transverse twelve-cylinder engine for the first time and whatnot. Bugatti tried that with their straight eight on a car that they never had a chance to develop. Transverse engines are nothing new, and subsequently, I have to say, I pay very little attention to Lamborghinis, they don’t do a thing for me at all.

TG: Can you elaborate?

AdC: Why was that the case? Well, I never had to race against them, I don’t think anybody else ever did, I think they’ve sort of sallied out onto the racetrack occasionally with something but not much of a bonafide effort ever. I think it’s the same thing with that Jaguar XJ13, you see. It never did a thing. It was a design exercise, like a custom car. A very pretty car, I agree, but I can’t quite see what all the fuss was about because it never went out and proved itself as good or bad on the track.

TG: It was a victim of being a little too late to the table in terms of racing technology, and I think regulations.

AdC: Yes, exactly that you see. Who’s fault is that? It sounds like corporate stupidity, basically.

It’s like the front engine Aston Martin Grand Prix car. I’ve driven one of those quite a lot and raced them too. It was not such a bad idea, just too late. Way too late, and they ignored the car for the first few years of its life, concentrating on trying to win Le Mans with the DBR 1, which they succeeded in doing, but by the time the Grand Prix got an outing everybody’d got the engine in the back. So I think you’re right, with that Jaguar, it could have been, might have been, but it wasn’t. And therefore it didn’t do a lot for me, you see.

It’s like the little rear-engine Alfa Romeo that was built in 1940 with a one and a half liter blown engine in the back. I think Ricardo had something to do with that. What a delicious, tasty, wonderful little thing it was, but it did zilch. Never raced. And look at the Cisitalia-Porsche 360. I mean a supercharged flat-twelve Porsche, four-wheel drive, one-and-a-half-liter Grand Prix car. Jesus wept, that was the ultimate specification of anything at that time. Because of rules and money and whatnot though, it never did anything.

TG: You’ve had the chance to own some pretty incredible cars over the years, racing or otherwise, right? I remember you told me about selling Anthony Bamford a 250 GTO for instance. I also remember you said you sold that car for something like five thousand quid. I have to ask, how many of these cars have you owned at the wrong time?

AdC: Yeah, that’s right. During the course of buying things to race and buying things to use on the street, I’ve always had to have old cars because I could never afford a new one. Sounds daft now given their values.

It’s quite a famous story, I was bursting to have a TZ1 Alfa, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things ever built, but they were madly expensive. You could buy a GTO for fifteen hundred pounds though, and that was cheap.

TG: What a concept.

AdC: You could get a GTO for fifteen hundred quid and go and race it too. All those cars, back in period, that were no longer competitive on the track but could still be used to race to get experience and track knowledge, you could buy them for nothing. Next to nothing. You could buy a nice 8C Alfa for twelve hundred pounds or something. Ridiculous now, but that’s how it was.

For me, I always had old cars of one sort or another to either race or rally or keep my hand in. Even when I was building my own Le Mans cars, I couldn’t afford to race it more than once before Le Mans, if I was lucky. I’d go and do VSCC racing, or anything really—racing’s racing—and I’d be quite happy to race anything with more than one wheel.

I remember I had a Riley TT Sprite, and ex-Mike Hawthorn car, and you could drift that car—you could take that car flat round and then you could drift it, especially in the wet, it loved it. I would practice in something like that even for a modern outing at Le Mans; opposite lock and car control or whatever you want to call it, it’s the same. The way you control your modern prototype is only the same way you control your old 1931 Alfa or your Riley or whatever you’ve got.

TG: There are definitely universals in car racing, car driving for that matter. So of all these greats in the past, what’s in your collection today?

AdC: Well, I’ve still got my Alfa, my old 8C Alfa I’ve had now for forty-five years. I’ve got my little 356 too, which I love. I like Invictas, the S-type Tourer. I’m very fond of Bristols too; I’ve got a Bristol 401 which I’m really fond of.

TG: Very cool. Can you tell me more about the Bristol?

AdC: With that car, I love the magic of the way that it was all thought out and the thoroughness and aviation approach that Bristol had taken. You remember Leonard Setright wrote a book Bristol Cars and Engines. That has to be, I would say, the most profound, in depth biography of a marque of car ever written and I love it. It’s got more stuff in that one book, I think, than anything I’ve read. Then there’s the second volume which is just stuffed full of great pictures.

I think it’s a wonderful thing when you can own and drive and enjoy a wonderful car like the Bristol and then have that fabulous two-tome history all about it. There’s nothing left out of those two books. So you’ve got the car, and the complete unabridged history of it written by one of my all-time favorite writers.

TG: It must be a unique experience, being able to learn about the history in its entirety, and then walk out and drive the thing. Another of many great stories you’ve shared with us today. Thank you for taking the time, I really appreciate it.

AdC: Thank you! 

Images courtesy of Alain de Cadenet, Ted Gushue, Credit Suisse, Ultimostile, Tatler, Revolution-Watch, and Les 24 Heures

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15 Comments on "Diving Into Alain de Cadenet’s Fascinating Life In And Out Of The Car"

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Fred Paine
Fred Paine

Fantastic story – I’ve always been a big fan of Alains – thank you!!!

Stephan P
Stephan P

Fantastic interview.

wing nut
wing nut

A very nice read. Thank you TG and AdC for providing a look back on bygone days when simpler times allowed for stories like this to be written.

Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Could there be a better name for a British motoring journalist than LJK Setright??????

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

Minus 2 ehhh ? Whats a matter little fellas .. can’t deal with the truth ? FYI just in case any of you snowflake types are thinking there’s any intimation of anti semitism in my revelations about LJKS .. I AM Jewish !

And just in case there should be any among you of the anti semitic persuasion taking offense to the facts …. deal with it ! Or alternatively allow me the pleasure of dealing with you … in person !

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

The genuine irony being … LJKS was Jewish ! And not just Jewish … but a Jewish & Hebrew scholar as well . Suffice it to say he was a many faceted and complex character the likes of which automotive / motorcycle and audiophile journalism will probably never see again .

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
1) Review Alain’s comments on Bristol cars 2) Get yer ( censored ) out there .. or send someone out there and finally do a goram feature on Bristol .. the gentleman’s GT 3) And if you need any help … ask .. 4) Then pay special attention to Alain’s comments on LJK Setright … mandate everyone on staff read LJKS’s writings [ including ” Long Lane with Turning ” and ” Drive On ” in order to increase everyones writing standards ( LJKS is the man and the standard to live up to when it comes to automotive /… Read more »
Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

When I meet someone who expresses an interest in the kind of cars we all love I use my library of Victory By Design to lure them deeper into the life.
Thanks for this great look at a very interesting guy.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

VbD along with ” Legends of Motorsport ” are the two best introductions to classic cars and motorsport available for the up and coming classic car person

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay

Great read! I really got a kick out of this one.
Thanks for sharing, Ted.

My guess is that “hew and gearbox” should read “Hewland gearbox.”

Ted Gushue
Ted Gushue

Thanks Chris!

Sam N
Sam N

“I have my first race, I’ve got a bird straight away.”

Phil Huffstatler
Phil Huffstatler

Thank you. Awesome interview with an interesting man. I literally wore out a DVD player running those Victory By Design. Always liked Alain’s persona, now I know a bit more of why.

It was an interesting time, when someone who just really wanted to do something extraordinary, could go out and do it. Helps to have lots of capable friends, too.

Ted Gushue
Ted Gushue

My pleasure Phil!

Bsmoot
Bsmoot

I think Alain was referring to Pierre Bardinon’s private track Mas Du Clos not, “Pierre Barganon’s place.”

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