Obituary: Rene Dreyfus

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The Independent Online
Rene Dreyfus, racing driver and restaurateur: born Nice 1905; died New York 17 August 1993.

RENE DREYFUS was celebrated both as a racing driver and as a restaurateur. He was an international figure, a leading driver of Bugattis in France in the 1930s and, from the 1940s, the manager of his own fashionable restaurant in New York.

He was born in 1905 in Nice, where his father was a linen merchant. Rene started racing in 1925, driving a sports Mathis, then a Brescia Bugatti. In 1929 the Nice Bugatti agent Friderich noted his skill and enthusiasm and entered him to drive a Grand Prix model Bugatti in several events, including the Targa Florio. For Friderich he won the Dieppe and Marne Grand Prix and in 1930 he won the Monaco Grand Prix, a sensational victory, beating the official works Bugatti team. In the 1930s almost any race could be styled as a Grand Prix and Rene Dreyfus competed with success in many minor events on the Continent at that time.

His elder brother Maurice always acted as his mechanic, sharing his enthusiasm. For a couple of years they raced a Maserati, scoring some good places but with no great victories, till 1933 when Rene returned to his beloved Bugattis. The Bugatti company first of all prepared a Grand Prix model for him and then enrolled him as a permanent member of the racing team. These were the days of Nuvolari, Varzi and Chiron. Dreyfus was up with them and as fast and successful as any.

Bilingual and with an easy charm, he became one of the most popular personalities in the Grand Prix world. Among his best performances were drives against the faster German Mercedes and Auto-Unions at Dieppe, Nice, Spa and the Nurburg Ring. It was in 1934 that I first got to know him with Earl Howe, both of them racing Bugattis. Lord Howe drove his well-proven Type 51 and Dreyfus was driving the new Type 59, first with an engine of 2.8 litres, and later enlarged to 3.3 litres. Lord Howe very much liked the Type 59 and when later he was able to purchase one of the works cars he picked the car that Dreyfus drove at Monaco and Spa.

Rene Dreyfus always looked for a successful French car and in 1936 he joined Tony Lago with French Talbots (as distinct from the Talbots designed by the Swiss Georges Roesch and built in London). The French Talbots gave Dreyfus some good drives, including a third place in the Marne Grand Prix. But the French Talbots were never the leading cars in international Grand Prix. In 1937 he drove for another French make, Delahaye, scoring several good places and demonstrating his versatility by another good place in the Le Mans 24 Hour race for sports cars.

Retiring from full-time racing Rene and his brother started a restaurant business in Paris. On the outbreak of war, Rene joined the French army and was sent to the United States on a sort of goodwill mission, to drive in the Indianapolis 500 Mile race. He was quite well placed in an 8C Maserati. After Dunkirk he served in the US Army, and eventually the Dreyfus family of Rene, Maurice and their sister settled in New York, starting a restaurant. The final business was Le Chanteclair, in the most fashionable area of New York City. Still, there was always a pull to the circuits of motor racing. Dreyfus's last drive was in 1952 in the Ferrari team. But in the 1950s he was firmly in position as a leading restaurateur.

With his retirement a few years ago no similar restaurant or club has taken its place. International sport has moved to a different era with television coverage and heavy sponsorship. Rene Dreyfus was one of the last of a breed which typified a sport which grew up in the 1920s and 1930s and continued through the Forties, Fifties and possibly the Sixties, but is now outmoded.

(Photograph omitted)