Harry Schell: American Bleue

September 29, 2015 by Jeremy McMullen

Americans would officially set foot on French soil during the Second World War in 1944. However, after a few years, the troops would leave, yet, there would be one that would remain. He had been in Europe long before and he would be there still when the Americans returned in the 1950s.

Selim Lawrence 'Laury' Schell would lead the way. Though conceived by American parents, Laury would be actually be born in Switzerland in the late 19th century. At that time, the automobile was still very much in its infancy, but the horseless carriage would seen capture the attention of young Laury.

Laury's interest in motor racing would definitely get a boost when he happened to met, and then marry, Lucy O'Reilly. And just who exactly was Lucy O'Reilly? Lucy would not grow up in humble circumstances, this much is for sure.

Francis Patrick O'Reilly had been born in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1860s and grew up in Dublin before moving to the United States. Owning interest in a number of utilities and transportation entities including the New York Subway and a number of factories in southern Pennsylvania, Francis would wealthy beyond all imagination.

Lucy O'Reilly would be born to Francis and his wife in Dublin just prior to the turn of the century. Just like Laury, Lucy would come from an international background.

It would be changing times, especially in Europe. The wealthy families were facing a world where the common an was growing in influence and where the affluent were much more independent. It was a time filled with adventure and possibilities and the elite of society would have the means to venture into this bold new world.

While Laury would be one of those pioneers, Lucy would be perhaps even greater still. Falling in love with the excitement and adventure of automobile racing, Lucy would use the family's substantial wealth to plow a path for herself in motor racing. Not long after the First World War, Lucy and Laury would meet while at a grand touring event and would immediately fall in love. Amidst this international and affluent environment the couple's first son would be born. He was an American, and yet, he was not. His name was Harry Schell.

Having settled just outside of Paris prior to their son's birth, Laury and Lucy would bring young Harry into the world as a true international. He was American, but he was born in one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe. He was American, but he was also very much French as a result of his surroundings.

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    The European influence would be undeniable throughout Harry's early years. Lucy would take of her vast wealth and would invest in Delahaye. She would be involved in marketing the brand, but she would also take part in races while behind the wheel of one as well. Both Laury and Lucy would race. Having lived in Paris for years, Laury and Lucy would form Ecurie Bleue and would race under that banner throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

    In 1939, Harry would experience a tragic blow when his parents were involved in an automobile accident. Lucy would survive, but would curtail much of her racing interests. Laury would lose his life in the accident. Harry and his brother, Philippe, were without a father, but they certainly had a loving mother willing to do just about anything for her sons.

    Another world war was looming very large on the horizon and Harry, despite being an American, would be far from removed, or neutral, to that which was going on in Europe. Despite the comfortable surroundings in Paris. Harry was not sheltered from the world and followed his deeply held convictions.

    These convictions would lead to Harry leaving France and volunteering to fight with the Finnish Air Force during the Winter War that took place between that country and Russia. Though a volunteer for the Finnish Air Force, Harry would still follow in his parents' footsteps and he would end up accompanying his mother to the United States in 1940.

    The reason for the return to the United States wasn't for fear of the war just beginning to heat up in Europe. No, the reason for the trip away from home to return home would be to go to Indianapolis and promote two Delahayes that had been prepared for the race that year.

    The trip to Indianapolis would be quickly overshadowed come December 7th, 1941. The war was front and center in Europe and the Schell's were well aware of it. In America, however, the fighting was over there across the Atlantic. That would all change come December 1941. In spite of the distance, the war had come to America's shores. Harry had not shied away from a fight, and now, he would join his own country's endeavor to bring the world war to an end. Harry had grown up in France. He was now fighting for his country to free the country in which he lived.

    At just 20 years of age, Harry looked forward to his own motor racing career, but that would be put on hold as he took his commission in the United States Tank Corps. His life would be put on hold, but the important thing would be securing his home.

    Finally, the war would come to an end and the troops would begin to head home back across the Atlantic. Harry, meanwhile, would stay in Europe. Though an American, Europe was his stomping grounds and he was now back home looking toward his future.

    As Europe began to slowly emerge from the destruction of the Second World War motor racing would become the popular outlet in which to be entertained and to be inspired watching men and women flirt with danger each and every lap. As an American, Schell would be rather alone as he looked to a career in motor racing. He was in Europe, but he was still an American. to those in the States he wouldn't be considered American enough. To those who would get to know him in motor racing circles he would just be himself—a fun-loving playboy who was a gentleman on the track and a lot of fun away from it.

    By the late-1940s, Schell would be beginning to make his mark in motor racing. In partnership with his brother, and through support of his mother, Harry would purchase a Cooper Mk IV for the new Formula 3 series. The example he would buy would be the long chassis enabling either the 500cc or 1100cc JAP engine to be used.

    Purchasing the longer chassis opened up greater opportunities to Harry. One of the biggest of those would come in 1950. However, before that opportunity came along, Schell would look to get his fill of motor racing in other ways. This would include driving a D.B. in races, such as the Paris 12 Hours, or, a Cisitalia in the Coupes de 'Agaci in which he came away with a second place.

    One of the best available cars at the time of 1949 and 1950 would be the Talbot Lago. The American would utilize this French chassis to great effect earning no less than four straight victories between 1949 and 1950. Not only did Schell have the family pedigree, but he was also a well known figure in his own right. This Franco-American would already be a capable figure in the European racing scene before a certain Formula One World Championship came into being. In addition to the motor racing, Schell would make a name for himself owning a popular stop for grand prix drivers. Called l'Action Automobile, this sporting bar would have astronomical prices, but, it would attract some of the best drivers in the world making it one of the hottest places in all of Paris.

    The Formula One World Championship would be brand new for 1950. Following the first round, the British Grand Prix, the new series would make its way to Monaco. Even in 1950, the nature of the circuit made it possible for an underpowered car, such as Schell's JAP-powered Cooper, to have a decent showing.

    Harry would take advantage of the situation and would enter his Cooper in the race right along with the likes of Fangio, Farina and Villoresi. Not surprisingly, he would start the race from the last spot on the grid, but it really wasn't about being able to challenge for victory. It was about showing just what he could do against such competition.

    Unfortunately, Schell would find himself caught up in an incredible moment of Monaco history, instead of challenging for a place in the top ten, he would find himself needing to remember how to tread water.

    Fangio led the way around on the first circuit when a large wave would crash over the circuit right at Tabac. Such a dousing of water would take out nine of the competitors right then and there. Farina would be one of those, Schell another. Just like that, what was to be a memorable moment for Harry would be washed away leaving the American to suffer a truly outrageous retirement to his first-ever Formula One World Championship race.

    Over the next few seasons, Schell would take in a number of Formula One races for teams like Enrico Plate, Equipe Gordini and even his parents' old team Ecurie Bleue. The results would be mixed as he found himself not behind the wheel of either an Alfa Romeo or Ferrari. Throughout the first four years of the Formula One World Championship Harry Schell would be forced to look for the scraps that happened to fall to the floor. Sportscar and Formula 3 would be something of a different story.

    Class wins driving for Alfonso de Portago in a Ferrari 250MM would dot the American's sportscar career in the early 1950s. Schell would demonstrate consistency all throughout the years, and, if the car managed to stay together to the end, he would be right up there fighting for a spot in the top five normally each and every time. Despite being a playboy away from the circuit, Harry's performances would earn him a reputation as a consummate professional on the track. He would demonstrate a talent to snatch a victory here or there; he just needed that factory ride that could make those victories much more commonplace.

    Between 1955 and 1956, Harry would get those opportunities nearly everywhere he turned. At the end of the 1954 Formula One season he would earn a ride with Officine Alfieri Maserati. This would be an on-again, off-again over the next few years. In 1955, he would get a one race deal with Scuderia Ferrari driving the 555 in the Monaco Grand Prix. Sadly, this deal would not be fruitful as Schell's race would come to an early end. Nevertheless, Harry would be quickly snatched up by Vandervell Products driving their steadily-improving Vanwall.

    Mike Hawthorn had been with Vandervell in 1955 but would leave the team in a rather irate mood after some struggles during the early part of the '55 season. Schell would basically come in and take over Hawthorn's pace within the team. The rest of the '55 would not be particularly notable. However, Tony Vandervell would be intent on making the team into a contender and things would begin to dramatically change the following season.

    The Vanwall continued to improve but still showed a strong tendency to be fragile. All throughout the season strong performances would be cut short. This would be perhaps demonstrated at the Italian Grand Prix at the end of the year when Schell challenged for the lead and ran in second place for the majority of the race but would end up succumbing to mechanical woes.

    But not all was disappointment during the '56 season. Schell's brightest spot in Formula One would actually come at the wheel of the Vanwall when, at the Belgian Grand Prix, he managed to hold it all together to finish a best-ever 4th.

    While Schell would find a home with Vandervell for 1956 in Formula One, Scuderia Ferrari would welcome the Franco-American to its sportscar effort, and it too would become like home. Driving a 750 Monza, Schell would finish 2nd in the Agadir Grand Prix. This would be followed up with another runner-spot in the Dakar 2 Hour. A third straight 2nd place at Sebring would set the stage for an impressive win with Officine Alfieri Maserati in the Nurburgring 1000 Kilometers. Following this one-off with Maserati at the Nurburgring, Schell would travel the short distance from Modena to Maranello to rejoin Scuderia Ferrari in time for the Paris 1000 Kilometers. Once again, a 2nd place would be Schell's result.

    Though the victories at times eluded him in sportscars, Schell would prove over and over he was one of the best sportscar drivers in the world and this would lead to a contract to drive with the factory Maserati team throughout the remainder of the '56 season.

    Schell and Moss would virtually swap places heading into 1957. In Formula One, Vandervell was getting stronger and stronger and Tony certainly was more than happy to have a Brit of Moss' caliber behind the wheel of the Vanwall. Actually, it would be the addition of Tony Brooks to the team that would force Schell out of the picture. Harry wouldn't be at all happy about this as he recognized the growing strength of the Vanwall. Schell understood patriotism and all that, but he also knew something about loyalty. After all, it had been Schell that had delivered the first win for a Vanwall when he drove the car to a non-championship victory in the BARC International Trophy race held at Snetterton in 1955. Still, without an option, Schell would leave the Vandervell team. However, whatever drive he may have been lacking would seemingly be infused with a little bit of anger. A drive with the factory Maserati team provided just the opportunity he needed to make Vandervell think twice about the decision to go all Brit.

    Interestingly, the '57 season would begin with Schelling driving with Moss in the Sebring 12 Hours in a Maserati 300S. Schell would do his part to help earn a 2nd place result and class victory. It would be perhaps the best the pair could hope to achieve considering the pairing of Jean Behra and Juan Manuel Fangio were the victors.

    Throughout the World Sportscar season there would be nothing but hardship for Schell. Mechanical failures, mistakes and terrible luck would lead to a season nearly destitute of any positive results whatsoever.

    Formula One offered Schell a better opportunity, but his performances throughout the season would always be overshadowed by a certain Argentinean well on his way toward a fifth World Championship.

    It is true. Over the course of the 1957 season Harry Schell would put together some of his best performances, but they would be largely overshadowed by Fangio. Heading into the season it was not unknown Maserati were likely to pull out of Formula One at the end of the season. The venerable 250F was being stretched to its absolute limits having been first introduced in 1954. In spite of these short-comings, Fangio would have some of the most memorable drives of his career. Schell would do the same. A 5th place in the French Grand Prix, another 5th in the Italian and a career best 3rd in Pescara would prove Schell could take the aged man o' war and do some incredible things with it himself. Unfortunately, neither Fangio's, nor Schell's, performances would be enough to keep Maserati around after the end of the season.

    The 1957 season demonstrated the fact Schell was actually getting stronger behind the wheel of a Formula One car, and, when given a competitive car, he could surprise even the best in the world. This would never be more true than the following year amidst great uncertainty.

    The 1950s would be a period of racing in which drivers competed in a number of different motor racing disciplines. The very best could be among the best in single-seaters, but also, when behind the wheel of sportscars. Schell was both American and French, and he would prove he could take to both equally well and 1958 would be yet another year in which Schell demonstrated his racing pedigree.

    Returning from his native France to his home in America, Schell would prepare to take part in the Sebring 12 Hours in a Porsche 718RSK along with Wolfgang Seidel. Despite driving a car with just a 1.6-liter engine, Schell and Seidel would perform beautifully in the 718RSK. At the end of the 12 hours, the pair would earn a 3rd place finish overall and 1st in the S2.0 class.

    This result in Florida would lead to a 7th place result in the Nurburgring 1000 Kilometers driving a 718RSK with Paul Frere and then 4th place finish in September on his more native French soil. The race was the Tour de France and it would be held on roads all around the country. Schell would drive the race in a Ferrari 250GT driving for Jacques Peron.

    But, while Harry's results in sportscars throughout the '58 season would be admirable, it would be in single-seater Formula One cars that Schell would make the biggest splash of his career. And, it would all begin on the streets of Monte Carlo.

    Despite Jean Behra being faster and leading in the early going, it would be Schell that would come through the whole of the race unscathed, which was a tremendous accomplishment considering he would be driving the extremely fragile BRM P25. When the checkered flag flew, Harry would be found in 5th place having earned a couple of championship points and setting the stage for Owen Racing to surprise the Formula One community.

    The greater surprise would come in the very next race of the season. Once again, Behra would be quicker in practice. But, in the race itself, Harry would make an incredible start and would elbow his way right up to third place through the first couple of turns. From then on, he would battle with Mike Hawthorn to retain 2nd place. Moss would end up taking the victory. Hawthorn would fade handing third place to Behra. However, Jean's performance would be overshadowed by Harry's performance making it seem as though the Franco-American was in another class from his teammate.

    Behra wouldn't appreciate this and it would come to a head by the French Grand Prix. Friends they may have been, but they were not blood brothers. This would become very apparent within the Owen Racing team when Behra demanded use of Schell's car for the race after Harry lapped the Reims circuit at a considerably faster lap time. It would neither work for Behra or Schell.

    Following a 5th place result in the Moroccan Grand Prix at the end of the year, his fourth 5th place of the season, Jean Behra would have enough and would end up Scuderia Ferrari's new driver after the losses of Luigi Musso, Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn.

    As for Schell, he would finish the 1958 season with a career-best 2nd place at the Dutch Grand Prix and four 5th place finishes. All-told, he would end the season having earned 14 points toward the championship. This would translate into a 6th place finish in the championship, one position better than the pervious year. It would end up being his best year in Formula One and would set the stage for BRM finally earning a breakthrough win at the hands of Jo Bonnier the following year.

    After the 1958 season, Schell would compete in Formula One for a couple more years. The '59 season would see him back with Owen Racing. Once again, his consistency would result in him scoring two points-paying finishes. One would be a 4th place in the British Grand Prix. The other would be a 5th place in the Portuguese Grand Prix.

    The 1959 season would also provide Schell the opportunity to revitalize a team name that had first made its appearance before the Second World War. Owen Racing would not make the journey across the Atlantic to take part in the United States Grand Prix held at Sebring toward the end of the year. The French-American would make the journey however and would enter a Cooper T51 under the aged Ecurie Bleue name, the very name his parents had established decades before.

    Schell would keep the Ecurie Bleue name alive for the 1960 season. Unfortunately, the stable would be short-lived as Harry would tragically die while practicing for the BRDC International Trophy race at Silverstone. Sliding off the damp circuit at the fast Abbey Curve, Schell would smash into a wall breaking his neck almost instantly. While no death such as this would seem justified, it would seem appropriate following Jean Behra's death at Avus the year before.

    In the years immediately following the Second World War a wave of U.S. nationalism would sweep across the country. Servicemen would return home setting foot on their native soil looking to resume lives that had once been put on hold. There would be one that would be left behind that was home. Schell took up his place as a displaced American proudly racing for more than just the United States. He was home, capable of transcending national borders. He was an American, but he also proudly fought for home on his native French soil. He was an American that had never stopped fighting a war in the European theater, and, he would proudly hold the ground until other Americans began to recognize the battle raging and returned looking to fight in a different kind of war.

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    Wikipedia contributors, 'Harry Schell', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 June 2015, 22:51 UTC, accessed 17 June 2015
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