The defining image of British racing driver Alain de Cadenet, who died aged 76, will likely go down as the viral clip of him standing on the grass at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford airfield in 1996, delivering a smooth introduction to the camera, when a Supermarine Spitfire suddenly appears behind him, flying at zero altitude, its propeller nearly giving him an impromptu haircut.
Not even the roar of the plane’s Merlin engine can drown out the series of expletives – part shock, part terror, part sheer joy and elation – with which a dodged De Cadenet responds.
Such wizarding pranks – like the time he tested his Le Mans prototype on the M4 late at night – were as much a part of De Cadenet’s legend as his charm and movie-star looks. Although born just after the end of the Second World War, he seemed to have arrived already with a polka-dot silk scarf around his neck, belonging to the world of air combat on the ground and in the air.
It was easy to imagine him partying with the Bentley Boys after another victory at Le Mans in the 1920s or lounging in a deckchair outside the control tower of a fighter base in the Battle of Britain, waiting for someone to shout “scramble”.
But life for De Cadenet was not an endless series of larks and escapades. When he raced it was serious, as he showed when he entered and co-drove a car that finished third at Le Mans in 1976. He competed in the 24-hour event 14 times between 1971 and 1986 , often in a car bearing his own name, run from a mews garage in central London. He was also the leading authority on King George V’s stamps, advising the Royal Mail and, it was said, the Queen, on their collections. Later he became a TV presenter.
The son of a French air force lieutenant, Maxime-Jacques de Cadenet, and his English wife, Valérie (née Braham), he was educated at Framlingham School in Suffolk. His first motorcycle was a BSA Bantam, his first car a pre-war MG Midget for which he paid five guineas. He started his professional life as a fashion and music photographer, but when a friend invited him to a race meeting at Brands Hatch he was impressed that his girlfriend disappeared with a driver race.
A week later he was back there in overalls and helmet, driving an AC Ace and needing the help of a friend to get a racing license there.
Deciding that single-seater racing was too expensive, he opted for sports car events, initially with a Porsche bought from a friend, and found he enjoyed the challenges posed by such demanding classic circuits as Spa-Francorchamps. in Belgium and 14 at the Nürburgring. -mile Nordschleife in Germany.
His first Le Mans, in 1971, was at the wheel of a Ferrari 512M entered in Belgium, an extremely fast car which he drove with only one eye functioning properly, the other having been injured in an accident in the mountains Sicilians a few weeks earlier. , during the Targa Florio endurance race.
The following year, having failed to persuade Enzo Ferrari to sell him one of his last cars, he secured £500 sponsorship from Duckhams Oil and commissioned the gifted young South African designer Gordon Murray to transform a Formula 1 Brabham in a sports car adapted to Le Mans. Sharing the driving with experienced Chris Craft, he finished 12th.
For 1975 he acquired a Lola which would form the basis of his most successful car at Le Mans, finishing 14th, third and fifth in successive years, always with Craft as co-driver and invariably competing against much larger resourced teams. After finishing third in 1976, they were invited to take a lap of honor before the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, in front of a full house.
In 1980, De Cadenet and a new co-driver, Desiré Wilson, went to Le Mans after astonishing the sports car world by winning the 1000 km of Monza and the Six Hours of Silverstone, in the new De Cadenet-Ford LM based on Lola. 4. After Wilson overturned the car during practice, the stewards denied her permission to race, saying she had not posted the necessary qualifying time. With François Migault at the wheel, De Cadenet finished seventh.
After folding his own team, he raced Porsches and Courages at Le Mans before starting a new career as a TV presenter about cars and planes for various cable channels, including the popular and long-running series Victory by Design for Speed Channel.
Active in the world of classic racing, he was often seen driving Alfa Romeo which had won at Le Mans and the Mille Miglia before the Second World War, including his own 8C 2300.
He is survived by his second wife, Alison (née Larmon), their son, Aidan, and Amanda and Alexander, the children of his first marriage to Anna (née Gerrard), an interior designer and former model, who ended in divorce, and three grandchildren.