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LIKE ENGLISH, French is amenable to multiple meanings, puns, if you will. To describe the Sommer men, father Roger and sons François, Raymond and Pierre, I sought the French equivalent of The Right Stuff.
L’essence propre isn’t far off. What’s more, l’essence is both the cognate for the English word essence and also French for gasoline.
How appropriate for these French sportsmen extraordinaire.
Roger Sommer was born into wealth and turned to aviation in its earliest days. In 1908, Orville Wright had made headlines around the world with his flight of 57 minutes 31 seconds. Within a year, Roger Sommer piloted his Farman biplane to a record flight of 2 hours 27 minutes and 15 seconds.
Buoyed by this achievement, Sommer entered into aircraft fabrication and eventually constructed 182 aeroplanes. His company evolved into Sommer-Allibert Industrie, today supplying plastic parts to automakers.
Roger’s eldest son François first flew with his father at age six. Later, in 1934, he toured Africa by small plane and became interested in nature and photography, passions shared with his wife Jacqueline.
A skilled pilot, François flew fifty bombing missions with the Free French Forces based in England during World War II. His honors included being named a Companion of the Liberation.
In 1964, François and his wife founded the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, operated by a family foundation supporting environmentalism.
As a teen, Roger’s youngest son Pierre learned the family business of felt production; in time, he was to establish a Musée du feutre. Pierre also inherited his father’s flying gene and entered military service in 1940 at Le Bourget airfield, where Lindbergh had landed 13 years before. Later, Pierre was captured and interred in Germany for the war’s duration.
Pierre and his wife Adrienne shared the family passion for humanitarianism. The Foundation Adrienne et Pierre Sommer has a special interest in what it terms Animal Mediation, animal-assisted activities designed to ease people suffering from disease.
I’ve reserved Raymond, the middle brother, for last. Such was Sommer’s style and bravery that competitors nicknamed him Coeur de Lion. For instance, he had back-to-back victories at the Le Mans 24-hour race and other race wins, including once beating the great Tazio Nuvolari.
Raymond began his racing career in 1931 with a 3rd overall and class win at the Spa 24-hour. He co-drove a Chrysler, a marque that had already proven itself on European circuits. Chryslers had finished 3rd and 4th at Le Mans in 1928, 6th and 7th in 1929, an era dominated by Bentleys.
For 1932, he bought an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300LM and co-drove it to victory at Le Mans with Luigi Chinetti (destined to foster Ferrari’s success in the U.S.). It was Chinetti’s first of 12 consecutive Le Mans races, and his shortest: Illness caused him to relinquish the wheel to Sommer, who drove more than 20 of the 24 hours.
Later that year at the Grand Prix de Marseille, Sommer and his Alfa Monza achieved all but the impossible in finishing first, 49 seconds ahead of Tazio Nuvolari’s Alfa P3. A miscalculation by Nuvolari’s pit crew and a blown tire helped, nevertheless ….
In 1933, Sommer and Nuvolari co-drove an Alfa team 8C 2300MM to victory at Le Mans. This time, Chinetti co-drove another Alfa team car to 2nd, a mere 10 seconds in arrears.
Sommer continued to lead many races through the 1930s, though his privateer cars often failed him. He drove in style, however: At the 1938 Le Mans, Sommer wore a jaunty straw hat in his co-drive of an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring. He delighted the crowd by tipping the hat as he and the Alfa completed the first lap—in the lead. Alas, the Alfa broke after 18 hours, with a 100-mile lead.
During WWII, Sommer was active in the French Resistance. Nick Georgano’s The Encyclopedia of Motor Sport cites that Sommer was one of those responsible for getting Ferdinand Porsche released from prison in Dijon, France.
Sommer’s post-war racing efforts had varied success. His enthusiasm continued, though, even to competing in minor events. He died driving an 1100-cc Cooper at the Haute Garonne GP, in the southwest of France, on September 10, 1950. In traditional manner, his head protection was nothing more than a canvas helmet.
As a final example of l’Essence Propre, or its Italian equivalent l’essenza giusto, Luigi Chinetti was to repeat Raymond Sommer’s heroic effort at Le Mans: In a 1949 victory shared with Peter Mitchell-Thomson, 2nd Baron Seldson, Chinetti drove their Ferrari 166 for 23 hours and 40 minutes.
Another story for another time. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016