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From wily privateer endurance racer and team founder to suave TV presenter, Alain de Cadenet was a one-off. A great friend of Classic & Sports Car, he passed away in July 2022. Here we pay tribute.
Hugely knowledgeable on a range of subjects, ‘de Cad’ made the most of every phase of his colourful career.
Be it losing his girlfriend to a racing driver on his first visit to a track, searching out historic competition cars in South America or parking his prized pre-war Alfa 8C inside the gates of Buckingham Palace on a visit to view the royal stamp collection, de Cad always pushed life to the limit – as his passengers will attest.
Born in 1945, de Cad claimed he never met his French father, Maxime de Cadenet, who was a lieutenant radio operator in the French Air Force.
He later became personal photographer to Charles de Gaulle and was involved in the Resistance movie Tomorrow We Live.
In 1942 Maxime met an English girl, Valerie Braham, in London and Alain followed in ’45. The marriage didn’t last, and Braham moved to California to become an actress under the name Karen Scott.
Left behind in England with his grandparents, de Cad was educated at Framlingham College and initially aspired to be a fashion photographer, but after a trip to Brands Hatch in ’66 his focus switched to motorsport with a newly acquired AC Ace 2.6.
After a series of Porsches, de Cad’s first overseas success was sixth in the 1969 Vila Real Six Hours in a Ferrari Dino 206S with Mike Walton. Always wheeling and dealing to finance his racing, de Cad’s team included the winning 908/02 driven by Chris Craft and David Piper.
Aged 26, de Cad made his debut at Le Mans with the Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 512M in 1971.
His race nearly ended before it started after he lost the sight in one eye in a fiery shunt with his Lola on the Targa Florio.
Two months later his vision hadn’t recovered, but somehow he tricked the medics and survived his one-eyed 190mph night blasts down the Mulsanne.
The Le Mans bug had bitten, and with a new 3-litre limit for 1972 and Ferrari’s refusal to sell him a 312PB, de Cad formed his own team to build the Duckhams LM from a mixture of components including F1 Brabham suspension and a secondhand Cosworth DFV bought from Colin Chapman.
With young South African designer Gordon Murray working nights on the aerodynamics, and a loyal team of ‘men in sheds’ including restorer Dick Crosthwaite, the car was running an impressive fifth before co-driver Craft was caught out by a deluge and lost it on the Dunlop Curves.
The team still finished a creditable 11th on its first attempt.
“De Cad was a likeable rogue,” says Crosthwaite.
“We were always visiting Brabham and McLaren at night to blag bits. Even the fire extinguisher was lent by John Surtees.”
“When Total offered entrants three free tanks of fuel towards Le Mans costs, de Cad decided to tow with his Bentley Speed Six, which had a 75-gallon tank,” he continues.
“Third place against proper teams in ’77 was impressive, but we’d often make late pitstops to brim the tank so we had enough fuel to get home.”
One trip to Dijon with Dorset Racing’s Lola T294 is vividly recalled. “He picked me up in his Mini Cooper and it was very late by the time we got to Paris,” says Crosthwaite.
“We ended up at the Hotel George V, where he checked in as ‘Viscount de Cadenet’ and gave the night porter an unsigned cheque for Ffr100.
“Room service provided a great meal in the early hours and, after de Cad made a huge fuss about the bill, the manager gave him a Ffr30 refund!
“When we arrived at Dijon, a track he’d never driven, he spotted the saloon practice had started and drove out in the Mini – without a helmet – to learn the track.
“He finished third in the main race.”
Undoubted high points of de Cad’s racing career were wins with Desiré Wilson at Monza and Silverstone in ’79, but after 16 attempts the cool operator drove his final Le Mans in 1980.
For the 1974 F1 season, de Cad was enlisted as manager for Graham Hill’s new team, and during a trip to Argentina for the first race he heard stories about an old Alfa racing car.
After determined enquiries, he found a dismantled but very original Tipo B.
Through a local lawyer, de Cad bought the project and smooth-talked the Brabham team – helped by pal Murray – into shipping the parts home with its GP cars.
Tony Merrick was enlisted to restore the monoposto, which de Cad raced for several years, drifting it on its narrow tyres with his usual verve.
Researching the history of chassis 5001, de Cad discovered it was Guy Moll’s ’34 Monaco winner then, after conversion to two-seater bodywork, it was driven by Carlo Pintacuda to 1935 Mille Miglia glory.
Although he often embellished a story to make a better anecdote, de Cad loved tracing a car’s past and tracked down Pintacuda’s co-driver, the Marquis Della Stufa. On one of his trips to Italy he stayed with the Italian aristocrat and spotted “a tasty Mille Miglia winner’s trophy” on the sideboard.
After retiring from modern motorsport, de Cad got his fix on reruns of the great road races.
On the Mille Miglia in the ’80s he ran several Alfa 8Cs and a Maserati 26M, and when the legendary Carrera Panamericana was reborn as a historic event, he was one of the first to enter – with mixed fortunes.
Victory in 1990 with a replica C-type was followed a year later by a big crash on the hairy La Bufa special stage.
“We had many laughs together,” recalls musician Mark Knopfler, with whom he shared cars at the Mille Miglia and Le Mans Classic.
“I remember looking at his race licence in Italy and seeing a naked portrait. When the organisers complained, he replaced it with a picture of a Friesian cow.”
Few had more knowledge of Alfa Romeo 8Cs than de Cad. Designer Vittorio Jano was a hero, and over the years he owned most types, but it is his short-chassis Touring Spider, 2111013, with which he is most associated.
Better known by its registration, ‘FLC’, it was bought from Kensington mews dealer Dan Margulies in June 1972 and de Cad celebrated 50 years’ ownership just before he died.
De Cad always joked that he wanted to be buried in the great car, which he drove to the far corners of the world.
Highlights included the Roof of Asia Louis Vuitton Rally from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, which included jungle routes where the 1932 Mille Miglia 8C looked surreal covered in red mud.
Foremost among his many idols was English ace Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, the Bentley Boy and 1931 Le Mans winner in an 8C.
When de Cad discovered an 8C Long Chassis in New York in the late ’70s, he drove it around the Big Apple before bringing it to the UK.
The car was restored by Paul Grist back to its Le Mans-style bodywork and painted green, with de Cad often claiming – incorrectly – that it was the Birkin/Howe winner.
The Marinoni/Zehender 8C was driven extensively across Europe and was regular transport to Le Mans, where Jacky Ickx drove it on track for a documentary.
Other emotive runs included one to Blakeney on the Norfolk coast, for de Cad to tend the grave of hero Birkin.
As well as rebuilding and preparing de Cad’s historic racers, starting with the ex-Neil Corner Aston DBR1, specialist Merrick – like so many – was enlisted in the panic to finish de Cad’s Le Mans cars.
“After an all-nighter on the Lola before a press launch in Covent Garden, we didn’t have time to strap it down to the trailer,” he recalls.
“Alain just told me to sit in the cockpit and keep my foot on the brake pedal while he towed it from the mews across London.
“I’ll never forget the surprised face of a bus driver when he looked down to see me sitting in the car after we stopped at a red light.”
Although often a nightmare with deals and bills, de Cad could be very generous with friends.
When Merrick was struggling to sort a mortgage to buy a farm near Reading to expand his workshop, de Cad offered to help and turned up one morning with shopping bags full of cash.
No paperwork was involved, just the simple request to pay it back when Merrick had the funds – although he did get an engine rebuild for his Bugatti Type 51 “on the house” after a big blow-up while driving it on the Nordschleife.
After de Cad’s retirement from professional racing, he developed a successful career as a concours host, brand ambassador and television presenter, where his knowledge and enthusiastic style won him many fans – particularly in America.
Historic events became his main racing outlet and, although always competitive, de Cad was a purist about what he drove.
When long-time friend Lord Bamford built a pair of Ferrari 246 Dinos from spares for Stirling Moss and Willie Green to race in the Lloyds & Scottish series in the early ’80s, de Cad was adamant the cars should not be allowed to run.
He instigated a driver protest and supporters including the Hon Patrick Lindsay withdrew from the first round.
The campaign continued in the press, yet ironically he’d been the one who tipped off Bamford about a stash of spares that Maranello was about to scrap in the ’70s.
In later years, de Cad was amused by how many of his Le Mans cars survived when in period they often evolved from the same set of components because there wasn’t the budget to build a new car each year.
As well as racers and aircraft, motorcycles remained a lifelong passion. From his first, a BSA Bantam, he owned a remarkable range of machines including a Brough Superior, Crocker, Ducati and ex-works Honda.
When living in California, de Cad loved dawn rides into the hills on his Vincent to visit favourite airfields and chat with flyers and mechanics.
On trips to India to host Cartier’s Travel with Style concours, he would often extend his visit and hire a Royal Enfield for a long solo adventure.
Riding pals included Peter Fonda, but his ever-competitive style could be disastrous and he rapidly used up his nine lives with a succession of accidents.
He kept riding into his late 60s, but while using his Rickman Métisse to visit a friend, de Cad was side-swiped by a hit-and-run driver on the LA freeway.
Only the bravery of a local commuter, who parked his Range Rover to block the busy traffic, saved the seriously injured rider.
But de Cad loved a challenge, and in 1996 he rode the Isle of Man TT course on a ’72 Triumph Trident in the classic parade.
Full of awe for the brave racers, he simply gasped “outrageous” when interviewed after stepping off in the paddock: “I was more nervous than in any of my Le Mans races.”
A great eye for detail led de Cad to many artisan specialists and talented artists.
Over the years he acted as agent for modelmaker Gerald Wingrove, encouraging him to make an Alfa 8C series – modelled on FLC, of course – and painter Nigel Watts was another talent he helped promote.
De Cad’s distinctive style was carefully honed, be it knitted Alfa jumpers, signature Omega watches or custom-made leather aviator jackets.
As well as his encyclopaedic knowledge of philately – he had a fine set of King George V stamps and was an advisor to the royal collection – and Leica cameras, de Cad’s wide range of interests was astonishing.
On one trip, he advised me that vintage Levis were a sure-fire investment, and proceeded to educate me about early stud and stitch details.
From Lawrence of Arabia to Winston Churchill, he loved reading and researching a subject – as his de Cad’s heroes column in Classic & Sports Car confirmed.
That natural passion also made him a great host for the shows he produced with long-time friend and award-winning film-maker Tony Maylam.
“I met Alain in the early ’70s while making a film about Graham Hill and he was briefly team manager,” recalls Maylam.
“Not surprisingly, there was a clash of personalities between them. Shortly afterwards I made a film about Le Mans and Alain allowed us to fit a rig to his Lola T380 Cosworth in practice.
“As he blasted around for a full lap he gave a high-speed commentary. He was a natural, and following that we made a number of films together.”
Later projects included Maylam’s superb 1988 movie Across the Lake, with Anthony Hopkins playing Donald Campbell: “Alain helped me build a full-size replica of Bluebird K7, then doubled for Hopkins roaring up and down Coniston.”
De Cad relished the opportunity for an authentic experience – as he later did riding Rollie Free’s Vincent across the Bonneville salt flats for Black Lightning, or driving his 8C on the Targa Florio course in A Sicilian Dream.
When Maylam was enlisted to do the racing footage for Sydney Pollack’s Bobby Deerfield, de Cad joined the team: “We did a deal with Bernie Ecclestone for Carlo Pace to double for the Al Pacino character, and brought in Alain to help with the crash sequence.
“The first take was a disaster and we virtually wrote off the dummy Brabham. Pollack was told it would take several days to repair, but Alain took him aside and said he could fix it overnight – for a fee, of course.
“Pollack got his shot but the art department went crazy. It was a terrible movie but a great payday for us.”
Victory by Design was the last joint project for Maylam and de Cad.
“We filmed all around the world,” recalls Maylam.
“Our plan was no music or advertising, just the sounds of the cars, the gearchanges, and Alain’s unique enthusiasm.
“The cars are just too valuable for filming now, and he probably drove more important machines than anyone in history.
“When we spoke just before he passed, I told him the series will still be enjoyed by generations to come and his legacy is secure by that alone.
“Alain liked that.”
Images: Classic & Sports Car/James Mann/Mick Walsh Archive/Stewart Cook/Getty