A unique and beautiful exhibition in Brussels "Autoworld" evoked the Belgian Gentlemen drivers from the early post-war days until the nineties... here one sees the magnificent Ferrari 166MM built in 1949 against the backdrop of the photos of the courageous men who drove it...
At the end of the Second World War, young Belgian gentlemen drivers, stemming from families who were for generations already fond of speed and excitement, decide to indulge their passion for sports cars. Their names were André Pilette, John Claes, Jacques Swaters, Charles de Tornaco, Paul Frère and Roger Laurent. Their objective: to race among the (very) best on the most famous tracks all over the world.
In 1950 Jacques Swaters (photo above) , Frère and André Pilette founded Écurie Belgique. In this racing stable, they they prepared cars for themselves and other Belgian pilots. In in 1952, Swaters and another Belgian, Charles de Tornaco, restarted Ecurie Francorchamps, a racing stable mainly associated with Ferrari.
In Formula races or in rallies, this group of friends drove their “bolides” with verve on racetracks and ordinary roads. In those days, sponsors were unknown, and the whole venture, the cars, fuel, spare parts, mechanics, travel, entrance fees - all had to be forked out personally by the drivers or their families supporting them.
Paul Frère was a central figure in early post-war Belgian racing, and remained so for many years.
Motor racing was then a gentleman’s affair with little or no rules… This has left us with the heroic stories and anecdotes which defy our imagination, as we now live in times where automobile racing is governed by the strictest international rules.
Much later, following the example of their English counterparts, they were nicknamed the "Belgian Gentlemen Drivers".
They are the ones who blazed the trail for an impressive line of Belgian drivers acclaimed the world over, one of whom, Jacky Ickx, is still a leading and legendary figure.
Beautiful and unique cars and their legendary drivers
From 9 December 2011 to15 January 2012, the exhibit, "Belgian Racing Legends" presents more than 40 racing and rally cars in an original setting, bringing to life a starting line, dramatically framed by its paddocks and stands.
Standing together on the starting grid: the 1954 Jaguar D type driven by Jacques Swaters as well as the Ecurie Francorchamps 1962 SWB Ferrari 250 GT...
Coming from private collections, from museums, and from the drivers themselves, the racing cars have been selected from amongst those who have won our greatest victories. Brought together in this unique exhibit, these exceptional cars embody an important page in the history of the Belgian sports car from 1949 to the end of the 90s.
The cars are mostly in breathtaking condition, most of them lovingly restored. We could not stop photographing them, and the photos accompanying this column barely evoke the sheer beauty of these "bolides". There were true gems, like the Ferrari 166MM which you can admire on the first photo, which has originally belonged to Gianni Agnelli. Jean Blaton raced this car many times, being a pilot using the nickname "Buerlys". Another legendary racing driver also sat behind the three-spoked Nardi wheel of this Ferrari, Olivier Gendebien.
Another legendary car was the 1961 yellow "sharknose" Ferrari 156 F1. I was very amazed to hear from car connoisseur and chief editor of the magazine "Historicar", Leo Van Hoorick, that these grand prix cars were after the season simply... destroyed to recuperate the costly alloys they were made of.
The result was that all these beautiful "sharknose" Ferrari's had been demolished. Fortunately, the original drawings were kept for posterity, and this meant that a full rebuild was possible. This daunting project was taken on by restoration firm xxxx, and took not less than five years. On the exhibition, a film is shown about this complete from ground up rebuild, and it is a quite astonishing document. I show you here a picture I took from the screen display, but I would suggest that you make a visit to the website of this firm, xxxx, to see more.
Of course there were many other cars, numerous Ferraris (including the 500TRC, driven by Bianchi, Harris, Mairesse, de Changy and Rousselle throughout the year 1957), and Porsches (including Jacky Ickx's 936/77 Spider, and the 959 driven by Ickx/Brasseur in the Paris-Dakar), as well as Audis (including the V8 Quattro Sport driven in the "Belgian 93 Procar"), BMWs, the Talbot Lago T26 belonging to the 4 accomplices who created the Francorchamps Team (Swaters, Pilette, Tornaco and Laurent), a Mercedes 300SL, the Jaguar type D, Christine Beckers' Rondeau/Inaltera, Swaters' Veritas, a mini-Cooper rally car, a 1961 Formula V single-seater, etc...
Besides the magnificent cars, there's also a very interesting display of miniatures, trophies, historic photographs, in a separate gallery.
Last but not least there were many portraits displayed of the men and women who made history in Belgian Racing. A prominent place was taken of course by Jacques Swaters, the guiding light of the exhibit, who left us merely a year ago.
The "Autoworld"AutomobileMuseumis located in the south Hall of the Parc du Cinquantenaire inBrussels. A prestigious building, built in 1880 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of theKingdomofBelgium. It was in this building that the pre-war automobile shows ofBelgiumwere organised, from 1902 to 1936.
The 250 historic cars which are regularly on display in Autoworld stem from Ghislain Mahy's collection (which numbers over 1,000). They trace the most striking stages in automobile history in a spacious setting, where the visitor can see the cars up close.
But above all, Autoworld is the only place in the world where one can admire so many models of the prestigious Belgian automobile production, which numbers more than 200 brands, including Minerva, FN, Excelsior, Fondu, Vivinius and Imperia.
Supporting this collection, permanent exhibits retrace the history of auto shows inBelgium, automobile design, and, coming soon, the history of the sports car, and much more.
At the end of last year, Autoworld received a breath of fresh air with new themes being created and introduced. One can soon find exhibits such as public service vehicles (fire trucks, ambulances, etc.), "Eco" cars and automobiles belonging to the Court of Belgium etc...
We conclude this report with some further practical visitor information of the present exhibition of “Belgian Racing Legends”:
« Autoworld »AutomobileMuseum
Esplanade of the Parc du Cinquantenaire 11 – 1000Brussels
From9/12/2011to15/01/2012(every day, including Monday and1 January 2012)
Open from10:00 a.m.to5:00 p.m.(weekdays) – from10:00 a.m.to6:00 p.m.(Saturday and Sunday)
Admission fee (*):
Adults: € 9
Group of 15 adults: € 7 per person
Students/Seniors age 60 and over/Disabled: € 6
Children from 6 to 12 years: € 4.50 – School groups: € 3 per person
Children younger than 6 years: free
(*) the admission fee to the exhibit also includes admission to the entire museum