The rise of modern motorsports in post-war Europe had a number of important actors whose influence would reach across decades and oceans. Their accomplishments rose above their racing accomplishments, however, particularly in the case of Jean Achard, who for a brief time became the best-known French racer in the Old World. His death on July 14th, 1951, was a bitter pill for a nation still recovering from war.
Born in Paris in 1918, Achard was just 21 when Nazi tanks drove around the Maginot line and invaded France, forcing the nation to capitulate in just 30 days. Achard, like many Frenchmen, took up arms for the French Resistance, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of one of the many resistance newspapers, Debout (French for “On Our Feet”). Once Hitler was defeated, Achard turned his attention to his long-simmering passion for race cars, quickly becoming one of the best-known French racers in post-war Europe.
Achard’s success on the track was limited, though he saw some success through the 1946 and ‘47 racing seasons as he attempted to move up the ranks of the Grand Prix championship. His personal racing team, France Course, was managed by Jean Leroy, though he would also race under the Ecurie Atalante banner from time to time. His fourth-place finish at the 1947 Pau Grand Prix behind the wheel of a supercharged Maserati 1500 would be his personal best. Achard also spent time driving a V12 Delahaye 155, and it was this car that Achard crashed at the Grand Prix de l’Albigeois at Albi. One of the wheel’s from Achard’s Delahaye flew into the grandstands, killing a female spectator and sidelining Achard from racing for the rest of the decade.
Towards the end of 1950 Achard sought to make a racing comeback, buying Philippe Etancelin’s Talbot-Lago T26C and moving to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Achard was even accepted into the 1951 running of the Indy 500, but he never made it to the race. Instead Achard kept racing in Brazil, driving a Ferrari for Antonio Pinheiro Pires, a young Brazilian driver to whom he had sold the Talbot T26C. Unfortunately for Achard, the Ferrari had an unfamiliar pedal setup, with the accelerator and brake reversed, and he crashed into a wall at a hillclimb event, ending what had been a promising racing career.
Achard was a symbol of hope to post-war France, giving people someone to cheer about as motorsports fever swept the continent once again. His career ended too soon, but he helped pave the way for other French racing legends such as the first French Formula 1 champion, Maurice Trintignant.