Johnny Claes: Part 1 – The Staert

claes

How a jazz bandleader became the first true Formula One backmarker, contributed to the glory days of Belgian motorsport and pulled off one of the sport’s best ever drives.

Formula One backmarkers come in many shapes and sizes. There are the one-off appearances who come and go, never to be seen again. There are the promising youngsters who get bogged down in a small team and leave after an anonymous season. There are the pay-drivers of the 80s and 90s who pay for a few stints before losing funding. And then, there are those that stick around. Those who, despite their complete lack of success, find themselves on the grid (or at least the entry list) for years on end. People like Luca Badoer. People like Philippe Alliot. People like Brian Henton. People like Johnny Claes.

Nationality Belgian
Date of Birth 11th August 1916
Date of Death 3rd February 1956
Teams Ecurie Belge, Equipe Gordini, HW Motors, Vicomtesse de Walckiers, Officine Alfieri Maserati, Stirling Moss Ltd, Equipe Nationale Belge
Races Entered 25
Races Started 23
Best Result 7th (x2)

Claes’ racing career was short-lived. He took up racing at the relatively advanced age of 31, and he tragically died at the young age of 39. Although continuously successful in select events, his legacy amongst motorsport enthusiasts is very limited. His main claims to fame nowadays are being the first Belgian in the World Championship, as well as being part of the 21 drivers who started the very first World Championship race, the 1950 British Grand Prix. However, although his results were often sub-par on the world stage, his time in motorsport would have a massive and direct influence on Belgian motorsports.

Early life: All About That Jazz

Octave John “Johnny” Claes was born August 11th 1916 in Fulham. His father was a rich Belgian fleeing the First World War, and his mother came from a wealthy Scottish family. This ensured that Johnny would never have to make a living in a conventional way, and indeed, he rarely did. Raised in Belgium, France, Italy and the UK, Johnny was finally educated at Lord Williams’s Grammar School in Oxfordshire, where he was a popular rugby player and swimmer. Around this time, Johnny discovered his true passion and calling: jazz.

LISTEN: Click above to listen to Johnny's...

LISTEN: Click above to listen to “I Heard”, the best-known recording by Johnny Claes and his Clay Pigeons.

While in school, Claes started to take trumpet lessons from established bandleader Nat Gonella, and upon leaving, he quickly became a professional trumpet player in London, all the while studying economics at the University of London. At the age of 20, he signed a recording contract with Decca Records as a session musician, and using his family’s considerable wealth and business acquaintances, he was able to travel around Western Europe playing with various groups. In 1937, while in the Netherlands, he briefly joined a temporary band led by the legendary tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, as well as accompanying renowned jazz musician Valaida Snow on multiple recordings.

With opportunities running low, Johnny returned to his father’s business in Belgium, where he worked as a crane operator, all the while playing with top Belgian jazzman Jack Kluger. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Claes returned to London, and soon found himself playing in clubs and bands. By 1941, Claes had gathered enough experience and reputation to form his own band. Preferring to set trends rather than to follow them, Claes recruited young jazz musicians in order to depart from the dominant Dixieland style popular at the time. As a result, the band (variously called Johnny Claes and his Band, Johnny Claes and his Clay Pigeons and Johnny Claes and his Clae Pigeons) became one of the most modern bands of the early 1940s, quickly signing for EMI. Amongst the myriad players to play in his band was a young drummer named Alfred Fingleston, better known as Les Leston.

Civvy

Johnny, circled in red, in the background of George Formby performing “You don’t need a licence for that” in the critically panned “George in Civvy Street”.

Always gaining popularity, the band began to appear in feature films. In 1942, they appeared in the Piccadilly production “Escape To Justice”, with Johnny also playing the role of a German agent. Unfortunately, this film seems to have been lost. They then appeared in the George Formby film “George in Civvy Street”. The film itself was Formby’s last, and was by all means a failure, both critically and commercially. Claes and his band appear at the end of the film to play some songs and take part in an obligatory brawl, in which Claes himself has one speaking line. The film was released in July 1946, but by that time, the war had ended and Claes had abandoned his jazz career, returning to Belgium. Over the next few years, he would turn to writing, regularly contributing articles to Jazz Hot Magazine. On the side, he also owned a club in England and worked for his father’s business.

Accounts differ regarding Johnny’s first exposure to racing. Most sources agree that it first came at the 1947 French Grand Prix in Lyon, where he served as a translator for British drivers, as he was bilingual. However, there is no agreement on what brought Claes to Lyon in the first place. Some say he was there by chance, others say he was invited by some of the drivers, whom he already knew. Motoring journalist Gregor Grant (who would later start Autosport) met him at that race, and would later claim to have introduced Claes to motor racing. More specific accounts claim that it was a chance meet with George Abecassis and Leslie Brooke that convinced Claes to take up motor racing seriously.

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Johnny as a 30 year old music journalist.

Back then, much like today, it was rare for celebrities to take up motor racing as a passion. Recently, the most notable example of this is Patrick Dempsey, and Frankie Muniz also tried his hand at professional racing. In the 1970s and 1980s, the likes of actors Steve McQueen and Paul Newman competed in major sportscar races, as did Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. In the late 1940s, show business was represented by bandleader and BBC personality Billy Cotton. Johnny Claes, a minor celebrity in his own right, would join the ranks.

1948: First Steps

Johnny’s first proper motor race came on May 16th 1948, when he turned up at the Grand Prix des Frontières in Chimay. He drove a Talbot-Lago Spéciale, owned by Louis Rosier, in the category for sportscars with an engine displacement of above 2 litres. In a field of 12, Claes finished third of six finishers, behind Guy Mairesse in a Delahaye and Henri Louveau in a Delage, one minute and 26 seconds adrift of Mairesse after 10 laps. Later that year, Claes made the acquaintance of Belgian veteran racer Emile Cornet, striking a deal for the two of them to compete in the 12 Hours of Paris in Cornet’s Veritas Meteor. Starting in a creditable 18th position of 49, the pair steadily gained ground throughout the race, covering 1236.533 kilometres and finishing eighth in a field mostly composed of French drivers of varying calibre. The race was won by Luigi Chinetti, driving his Ferrari 166 solo for the duration of the 12 Hours.

From this partnership stemmed the birth of Ecurie Belge. The team, at first, consisted of Claes and Cornet, with Cornet’s Veritas soon joined by a Talbot-Lago T26C Grand Prix car, a second Meteor, and a third Veritas, this time a Formula 2 car. To service the cars (as Johnny was not very mechanically minded), Claes sought the services of a Milanese mechanic named Roberto Bianchi. As the team began to grow, Bianchi eventually emigrated to Belgium with his two sons, Luciano and Mauro. From the start, the deal with Cornet was very loose at best. Cornet could use the Ecurie Belge banner and Claes could use Cornet’s Veritas if need be. However, Cornet mostly entered under his own name, and Claes was far more interested in racing single seaters.

1949: Making a Name for Himself

As 1949 came around, Claes felt ready to take on the top level of motorsport, the Grandes Epreuves held to Formula 1 regulations. However, before the season proper started, Johnny decided to try out his new Talbot-Lago in the Paris Grand Prix, held at the Linas-Montlhéry circuit. In a field of 14 drivers and in his first Formula 1 race, Johnny finished third of seven finishers, behind Philippe Etancelin and the shared car of Yves Giraud-Cabantous and Georges Grignard, all also driving Talbot-Lagos. Claes notably beat Pierre Levegh, who finished fifth in the same car. Feeling inspired, he took the Talbot-Lago to Jersey for the F1 race at Saint-Hélier four days later, against much stiffer opposition, but with it came disappointment: Johnny failed to qualify.

Nonetheless, he was already making an impression in the paddocks with his entire operation, if not with his driving. In June 1949, Motorsport Magazine reported:

“A most imposing yellow Fargo van brought Claes’ yellow Lago-Talbot, the inscription on the van’s sides reading: “ECURIE BELGE, BRUXELLES, BELGIQUE, Spécialités Voitures Courses et Sport.” A very fashionably-dressed blonde assisted in the pit, and the whole équipe was most distinguished.”

Jersey 49

Johnny’s yellow Talbot-Lago in action during the British Empire Trophy.

Johnny’s first Grande Epreuve was the British Grand Prix, held on May 14th at Silverstone. Competing against 24 of the world’s best drivers on a circuit he had never driven before, good results would always be difficult, as they would be for the rest of the season. Nonetheless, despite some spins in practice, Johnny qualified 18th, 12.4 seconds behind the pole time of Luigi Villoresi. The race, however, would be far less flattering, as most of the drivers starting behind Johnny were amongst the retirements. Claes finished his first major Grand Prix in tenth place out of 11 finishers, ahead of the shared Maserati of Philip Fotheringham-Parker and Duncan Hamilton. These results would set the tone for the 1949 season, and ultimately his entire career: putting the emphasis on finishing the race at all costs before any attempt at being competitive.

Two weeks after the British Grand Prix, Claes took his Talbot-Lago to the Isle of Man for the British Empire Trophy where, as the only continental in a field of Brits, he finished eighth. The following week, he returned to Belgium for the Grand Prix des Frontières, a year after his first motor race. This time, the race was run to F1 regulations, with a Formula 2 support race. Johnny entered both, having already competed in the F2 Brussels Grand Prix two weeks prior in the Veritas. The support race ended as soon as it started, Claes retiring from a puncture on the fourth lap, but in the main event, Claes once again finished in third position (albeit out of eight starters) behind Guy Mairesse and Lance Macklin. The Grand Prix des Frontières, and the Chimay circuit, would become Johnny’s favourite event.

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Johnny’s Talbot-Lago (in the background) chasing Peter Walker’s ERA at the Isle of Man in 1949.

The next Grande Epreuve on the calendar, two weeks later, was the Belgian Grand Prix, the second of Johnny’s two home races. Feeling far more at ease with more experience with the car, Johnny finished fifth out of seven finishers, two laps down. This would remain his best result in a major single seater race. Two weeks later at Bremgarten, Johnny finished the Swiss Grand Prix in 13th position of 17, notably beating a 28-year-old Franco-American named Harry Schell, competing in only his second Grande Epreuve. One week later, Johnny would suffer his first retirement in the Talbot-Lago at Albi, retiring on the third lap with a camshaft failure. The subsequent repairs caused him to miss the French Grand Prix, held the following week.

Claes then finished ninth at Zandvoort, twelfth at the BRDC’s International Trophy (the top Talbot-Lago driver that day), seventh in Lausanne, eighth in the Italian Grand Prix and, to cap off the season, sixth in the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix, the only one ever held to Formula One rules. During practice for the International Trophy, the Talbot-Lago lost oil pressure, and Johnny hitched a ride on the back of Louis Chiron’s own Talbot-Lago. On the way back to the pits, though, the car was tagged by Prince Bira’s car, sending Johnny flying into the trackside straw!

Truck

The iconic Fargo van used by Johnny to transport all his cars throughout his career.

By the end of the season, Johnny had managed to achieve a good amount of success, racking up experience and establishing himself, if not as a supremely quick driver, at the very least as a safe pair of hands, a reputation he would maintain all along his career.

1950: First Successes

Having made his mark, Johnny was about to diversify his career path. In 1950, as well as competing in Formula One events, Claes signed a contract with his first racing acquaintance George Abecassis, co-founder of Hersham & Walton Motors, to compete in certain Formula Two events in Belgium and Northern France, all the while purchasing a Cooper Mk. 4 to enter in some local Formula Three races. Temporarily, he abandoned his sportscar forays, and as a result split with Emile Cornet, who would retire shortly thereafter.

His season was to start at the Paris Grand Prix once more, but for reasons unknown, he did not take part, nor did five other drivers, including Etancelin, Giraud-Cabantous and Louveau. Had he started, he would have had a brilliant chance at success, as only three cars finished. Georges Grignard won in a Talbot-Lago, his only opposition being two outdated Delages driven by Louis Gérard and Marc Versini, finishing four and five laps down.

The next week, Johnny headed to Roubaix in Northern France for the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club du Nord, a minor Formula Two race and his first for HWM. The race, like most F2 races at the time, was dominated by Ferrari and Simca-Gordini, Raymond Sommer and Robert Manzon taking the first two spots. After 101 laps, Johnny finished the race in a distant fourth place, nine laps down, although ahead of team boss Abecassis, who finished sixth. But there would be no time to rest. The following weekend, Claes would take his Talbot-Lago to Silverstone.

As many racing websites and race reports will tell you, the inaugural Formula One World Championship Grand Prix was held at Silverstone on May 13th 1950. 23 drivers entered the Grand Prix, although Raymond Mays’ BRM only managed some demonstration laps before failing altogether, and Felice Bonetto’s Maserati never arrived. As it was, on that sunny Saturday afternoon, 21 drivers started the race. For Johnny, it’s a wake-up call. He set the slowest time in qualifying, 2:08.8, a full 18 seconds slower than the pole time of Giuseppe Farina and 11 seconds slower than the next-slowest Talbot-Lago of Philippe Etancelin.

Determined to change the order of things in the race, Johnny got a good start, finishing the first lap in 16th place, ahead of the Altas of Joe Kelly and Geoff Crossley, the ERAs of Leslie Johnson and Peter Walker and the private Maserati of Joe Fry. However, despite this encouraging start, Johnny made no further progress, except through attrition, which also hit the drivers behind him. Johnson’s compressor failed on the second lap. Walker was briefly relieved by Tony Rolt before retiring from a gearbox failure altogether, and Crossley’s transmission expired after 43 laps. Kelly’s Alta wound up being the only opposition he would beat to the finish line as Fry’s Maserati, now driven by Brian Shawe-Taylor, passed him with just three laps remaining. Claes finished the very first championship Grand Prix in eleventh place, last of the classified finishers.

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A happy Johnny sits in his car during the first World Championship weekend at Silverstone in 1950.

It is worth noting, at this point, that Ferrari did not attend this historic meeting, as there was a Formula Two race occurring on the Sunday in Belgium, the Grand Prix de Mons, and that race’s starting money was bigger than that available at Silverstone. Very much showing those Italians what he was worth, Claes was undeterred and, without any practice, arrived at the circuit in time for the heats. With 19 drivers attending and 12 spots in the final, Johnny would have to finish his heat in the top six, which he easily did, finishing fourth. In the full length race that followed, Johnny finished sixth, once again the top HWM driver, behind the Ferraris and Gordinis. The fellow HWM driver who finished seventh, one lap behind Claes, was a 20-year-old Brit making the step up from Formula 3 named Stirling Moss.

Establishing a busy schedule he would maintain over the following years, Johnny took the Talbot-Lago to the Monaco Grand Prix the next week-end. His performance would be even worse, as he had never driven there. He was the slowest driver once again, losing almost 22 seconds to Fangio’s pole time and 14.3 seconds to Louis Rosier, the next-slowest Talbot driver. However, as neither Peter Whitehead nor Harry Schell had set qualifying times and Alfredo Pián had injured himself, Johnny would not start the race in last place, but rather 18th of 19 starters.

That Monaco Grand Prix is chiefly remembered for one event. At the end of the first lap, the Alfa Romeo of Farina was sent into a spin at Tabac by a layer of water deposited on track by a rogue wave. González tagged him in his Ferrari. Fagioli managed to stop his car before contact was made, and a handful of cars made it through. However, Louis Rosier ploughed into the back of Fagioli’s car, and all hell broke loose. The circuit was almost completely blocked at one of the circuit’s fastest spots. Robert Manzon, Toulo de Graffenried, Maurice Trintignant, Cuth Harrison, Franco Rol and Harry Schell were all involved in the chain reaction that ensued. Of the drivers behind Rosier at the time, only three were able to avoid damage: Prince Bira, Bob Gerard, and Johnny. Last in the running order for over half the race, Claes finally managed to catch and pass Gerard, his only opposition, on the 55th lap, inheriting sixth position with less than 40 laps remaining. Unfortunately, like in Great Britain, Johnny was passed by Gerard in the dying laps, and had to settle for seventh (and last) position.

Monaco 50

The number 6 Talbot-Lago was one of the few cars that escaped the pile-up on the first lap.

Fortunately for Johnny, the following race was the Grand Prix des Frontières, solely a Formula 2 event this year. HWM had decided not to compete, but fellow driver Anthony Baring agreed to let Johnny drive his own HWM instead. The event was run as two heats of ten laps each, the final results determined on aggregate time. Up against the likes of Georges Berger, André Pilette, Kenneth McAlpine, Roger Laurent and Jacques Swaters, Johnny started from pole and promptly dominated both heats. On aggregate time, he finished over four minutes ahead of Honoré Wagner from Luxembourg. This was Johnny’s first career victory, and it convinced him no longer to settle for just finishing championship races. He would fight to actually beat other drivers.

Continuing the cramped schedule of this 1950 season, the Swiss, Belgian and French Grands Prix followed in quick succession. In Bremgarten, Johnny qualified a respectable 14th out of 18, though still nearly 17 seconds behind Juan Manuel Fangio’s pole time. He was nonetheless 12.5 seconds ahead of the slowest Talbot-Lago of Harry Schell. However, keeping up the pace in the race was a tall order, and after a slow start, Johnny soon found himself in last place. Undeterred, he picked up some speed, and by lap 16, he had passed Louis Chiron and Toni Branca. He would remain ahead until lap 31, when Chiron passed him, but he otherwise kept his position ahead of the Swiss, finishing the race in tenth place, four laps down.

At Spa-Francorchamps, he wouldn’t repeat his Swiss qualifying performance, failing to set a lap time altogether. However, because only fourteen drivers were attending, he was allowed to start. By the end of the first lap, he had passed Branca’s Maserati, Crossley’s Alta and Giraud-Cabantous’ Talbot-Lago. Cabantous soon retired, and Johnny was able to easily stay ahead of Crossley and Branca, finishing in eighth position. In Reims two weeks later, Claes qualified fifteenth ahead of Charles Pozzi, Raymond Sommer, David Hampshire and Peter Whitehead, but he retired after twelve laps from an overheating engine. This was his first retirement in a world championship race.

With two months before the final race in Monza, Johnny entered some non-championship races in the meantime. In Bari, he finished a distant eighth, 15 laps behind Farina’s Alfa Romeo. In Albi, he qualified tenth out of 16, finished tenth in the first heat, then ninth in the second. On aggregate, he was classified eighth, five laps down. In the Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort, he qualified twelfth, ahead of Enrico Platé and David Murray, only to retire from the race with 13 laps remaining. That same day, he brought his Cooper Formula 3 car to compete in the support race, finishing fourth behind Ken Wharton.

Zandvoort 50

Johnny fights with his steering wheel for control between the sand dunes of Zandvoort.

Competing in the high-profile Grand Prix des Nations in Geneva, Johnny qualified in a highly respectable eleventh position out of 20 and was running in the top ten with a handful of laps remaining. At this point, Alberto Ascari’s engine failed and Luigi Villoresi had a severe accident after skidding on the oil, killing three spectators and injuring 20. Johnny retired soon after due to more issues with his engine temperature. He was classified in tenth position, still ahead of Felice Bonetto, Franco Rol and Branca, all of whom completed the race.

Returning to Belgium soon after, he competed in the Formula 3 Coupe du Monde in Ostend. Struggling in the still-unfamiliar car, he nonetheless finished fourth in his heat, ahead of Stirling Moss, but failed to finish in the final, which was won by Ken Carter. Two weeks later, he competed in the International Trophy in Silverstone, the final high-profile race before the Italian Grand Prix. Placed in the second heat, a stupid spin on the second lap stripped him of all hopes of making the final. As a sort of consolation, future world champion Alberto Ascari would make the same mistake six laps later with identical consequences.

The final race of the world championship was in Monza, where 27 drivers attempted to qualify. Johnny qualified 22nd, ahead of Felice Bonetto, David Murray, Clemente Biondetti, Franco Comotti and Paul Pietsch, 20 seconds behind Fangio’s pole of 1:58.6. Claes wouldn’t use this position to launch a fight in the midfield, instead fighting with Murray and Biondetti in the bottom three positions. Biondetti retired on the 18th lap, and Claes followed him five laps later, with yet more overheating issues.

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One of Johnny’s few Formula 3 outings at the Coupe du Monde in Ostend, driving an early rear-engined Cooper.

Despite the end of the championship, the season continued. Johnny made a deal with Amédée Gordini to drive his cars in the Belgian Formula 2 races alongside Robert Manzon and André Simon, moving there from HWM. In his first race for the team at Mettet for the Grand Trophée Entre Sambre et Meuse, Johnny finished seventh and sixth in the two heats, securing fifth place on aggregate, two laps down. To finish the season, Claes finished eleventh in a 12-lap race on the unfamiliar Goodwood Circuit before retiring early on from a mechanical failure at the Penya Rhin Grand Prix in Pedralbes.

By the end of 1950, Johnny had established himself as a regular competitor in the new Formula One championship. With Giuseppe Farina, Juan Manuel Fangio, Luigi Fagioli, Louis Rosier and Philippe Etancelin, he was one of six drivers to compete in all six European rounds of the championship, though he was the only one never to score. Nonetheless, his consistency allowed him to build his reputation, and at the end of the season, the Belgian national automobile club, the RACB, awarded him the title of Belgian Drivers’ Champion for the first time.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, four friends pooled their resources together to create their own racing team. Based in Jacques Swaters’ garage, Charles de Tornaco, Roger Laurent and André Pilette decided to form Ecurie Belgique, entering local sportscar and Formula 2 events using cars owned by the latter three. Johnny now had local competition.


Coming soon in part 2: Johnny Claes reaches the peak of his success, and a drastic change in the motorsport landscape plays into his hands.