In 1949, GANT was founded and Europe was recovering from the devastating effects of the war. The return of 24 Hours of Le Mans marked a new era – and came with as many thrills and spills as ever.
While Europe went up in flames, the racetrack at Le Mans went quiet. Though the Allied forces declared victory in 1945, it would be four years before the fast cars again roared around the Circuit de la Sarthe. And when they did, a new era had begun. The Sarthe circuit had been transformed into a military camp during World War II. Its facilities were destroyed during the German occupation. The ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) reformed in 1946 and resumed its duties organizing the 24 Hours of Le Mans—an uphill battle, to say the least. Removing landmines took time, and few put rebuilding a racetrack high on the list of France’s postwar priorities.
But rebuilt it was, eventually. And when the next Le Mans took place three years later, two worlds collided. Some of the vehicles on the track appeared frozen in time; their manufacturers had gone into aerospace or munitions during the war, or else folded entirely, and these lumbering antiques were no match for the new breed of racecar, with its smaller engine and lightweight chassis. The pioneer of this next generation was a brand-new manufacturer called Ferrari.
For racers and crowds alike, a buzz was in the air. The fuel, metal, and courageous men that the war had consumed so mercilessly had started trickling back. The teams were desperate to compete, none more so than Ferrari, launched two years earlier by a visionary from Modena, Italy, who’d made a name for himself heading up Alfa Romeo’s racing unit. Enzo Ferrari had stripped his tubular, bumper-less barchetta (‘little boat’) cars of anything inessential. The minimalist, futuristic approach paid off: one of these sleek two-seaters, driven by Le Mans veteran Luigi Chinetti, tore into the lead from the get-go. Chinetti never wavered. In what is perhaps the greatest feat of driver endurance ever at Le Mans, the Italian-born American spent all but an hour or so behind the wheel. His partner, Lord Seldsdon, took over once, around 4:30 in the morning. Chinetti’s triumphant finish made him the first three-time winner in the history of Le Mans. But the victory was arguably an even bigger one for Ferrari, which had conquered the world’s most prestigious endurance race on its first attempt.
Chinetti’s partner, a baron named Peter Mitchell-Thomson, bought the winning car after the race. The duo’s arrangement seemed to foreshadow the new order of things. Chinetti’s subsequent success as an American importer of Ferrari would help make the company what it is today. And Mitchell-Thomson’s handful of laps seemed appropriately honorary, at a time when the playboy heirs who’d once dominated auto racing were starting to cede the wheel to motoring enthusiasts of humbler origins. Many of these new hotshots were former servicemen hooked on the adrenaline of the battlefield. And the industrialists who hired them were the de facto royalty of the postwar era, one in which the competitiveness of auto racing reached new heights. Soon, technological advances made in the heat the armed conflict would start to pay off in the racing world. More Americans would be seen on and around the Circuit de la Sarthe. And everything would be faster. In 1949, the quickest cars reached 135 mph on the track’s famous Mulsaanne Straight. It seemed impressive at the time, and yet a decade later they would be hitting 180. What played out at postwar Le Mans was a heart-quickening battle of a different stripe.