Joe Scalzo tells the story of one of the most colourful characters in 1950s motor racing – an era where the drivers lived on the brink at the track and lived life to the full when away from it. ‘Fon’ de Portago was only 27 when he died in one of the worst crashes in motor racing history. Until then he had enjoyed life as a Ferrari team driver, an Olympic bobsleigh driver, Grand National steeplechase jockey, polo player, flier and lover of film stars and any other beautiful women that came his way. He was the epitome of the playboy celebrity racing driver.
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The end of the 11th Marquis de Portago on May 12th, 1957 marked the end of racing’s romantic period as well. Portago, all but unknown today, was reckoned to be the sport’s last and greatest romantic, that reputation being based mostly on the account of his starry-eyed biographer, Ken W. Purdy, whose Portago eulogy roared with deserved superlatives.
Portago’s full name and title was Alfonso Antonio Vicente Eduardo Angel Blas Francisco de Borja Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, Marquis de Portago but he was known to his friends and fans alike simply as ‘Fon’ and was praised by Purdy as having been daring, chivalrous, reckless and insouciant…
Daring enough to race a Ferrari at hurtling speed across the Apennines; chivalrous enough to flick a cigarette into the face of a motorist whose car had brushed too close to the beautiful woman he was escorting across the Champs-Elysees and then knock the man down for good measure. Reckless and insouciant enough to seduce nearly anyone who caught his eye, including the wicked adulterous Ann Woodworth, owner of the great racehorse Nassau, who turned a shotgun on her husband and later killed herself..
Portago was a Spaniard and a blue-blooded aristocratic grandee, a legitimate Marquis whose godfather was the King of Spain. His sanguinary ancestors included some of the most fearsome conquistadors from the Middle Ages – freebooting plunderers who sacked, pillaged, raped, and enslaved their ways across Europe and later much of South America and Mexico.
His real mentor in leading a life that was out of control and eventful was his father, the rakehell 10th Marquis, a powerfully sexed “soldier of the bedroom,” well known all over the Mediterranean resorts and in high society London. He was a flamboyant gambler who allegedly won $2million in the casino at Monte Carlo and who even acted in movies for the fun of it. In Sanders of the River he was cast as a British patrol captain in equatorial Africa who takes up the horsewhip to administer the lash to Paul Robeson and a loin-clothed retinue. Happily worn out from a life of pleasure and scandal, Portago the Elder experienced an exhausted death on the polo field.
The younger Portago’s early calling as a gentleman with a penchant for dangerous sports was steeplechase horse racing and he twice rode in England’s notorious Grand National. He also drove the Spanish bobsleigh entry in the 1956 Olympics and, by finishing fourth, almost won Spain a medal.
His introduction to motor racing had come three years earlier when, continuing to look for new worlds to conquer, he went to the southern tropics as a passenger to Luigi Chinetti in the Mexican Road Race (thus becoming the first of his family to set foot in those parts since his conqueror ancestors, centuries earlier, had penetrated clear to Mexico City and reduced the Aztecs to utter subjugation).
Chinetti was a Le Mans winner in 1949 and was North American importer of Ferraris. It was he who made the connection for Portago with Enzo Ferrari in Modena, which led to Fon first either purchasing his own racers or paying to rent cars from Ferrari race by race before being drafted into the factory team for 1956.
“Terrifying,” Portago declared after his race with Chinetti had ended prematurely on the second day of the 1953 race in Mexico. “But automobile racing does have a charm all its own.”
The charm was the danger: the headlong and utter pleasure of totally risking one’s life in an age when a racing driver’s chances of survival in a high-speed crash were little better than nil. That charm was enough to tempt Portago into racing and he jumped right in at the deep end, purchasing a Ferrari and making his debut in the 1954 1000Km of Buenos Aires, a round of the World Sportscar Championship.
He partnered with professional racing driver, Harry Schell, a wealthy American living in Paris who also combined racing with a playboy lifestyle. Schell drove for the first part of the race but during Portago’s stint the car was retired with a wrecked transmission. As the story goes this was because of the Spaniard’s clumsy gear changing, In a later recorded interview he admitted that had never driven a car with a manual gearbox before!
He must have soon got the hang of it, however, as he developed into one of the best drivers of the big sports racing cars and even had some Formula One Grand Prix outings. But following three wild seasons of daredevil risks around the world and a fair measure of racing success against the best drivers in the world, Portago, still only 28, was tiring. “My early death may come this Sunday” he wrote to one of his many girlfriends.
That particular Sunday was the occasion of the 1957 Mille Miglia, Italy’s glorious city-to-city public roads classic race of 1,000 miles, a marathon which Portago’s fast approaching demise was to forever terminate. His fatal crash and the deaths of several spectators even drew approbation from the Vatican. The Pope denounced motor racing as an unholy sport and the Mille Miglia as a pure flat-out race was finished forever.
On the last day of his life, Portago and his thrill-seeking passenger and friend, the also-doomed Edmund Nelson, boomed out of Brescia at dawn, their huge V12 Ferrari loosing banshee bolts of sound that echoed off graffiti-smeared walls. They rocketed south along the Adriatic shore and crossed over the Apennine mountains to Rome where Portago slammed to a smoking stop to hungrily kiss yet another girlfriend who he had somehow recognised in the crowd at trackside, the movie actress Linda Christian.
This was Portago’s most romantic act, and his last one, because death was waiting three hours later, on the other side of the mountains, in the Po Valley – his Ferrari is said to have blown a tire at what was reckoned to be 150mph. It hurtled off the road, rolled over into a ditch and disintegrated, killing Nelson, Portago and 11 spectators.
Portago never should have taken up with the film star. She later wrote a blistering, tell-all biography criticising her lover as a sloppy dresser who couldn’t dance, who was pompous but shy, despised wine, seldom had a haircut and had bad teeth.
Nevertheless, the Portago legend has lived on amongst the motor racing fraternity of a certain age and legend has also long surrounded the car’s magnificent V12 engine which was about the only thing salvaged from the wreck. A year later it was fitted into an open-wheeled Formula Libre single seater that Luigi Musso drove at Monza’s Race of Two Worlds which pitted European GP drivers against American stars of the Indy 500. Musso put it on the pole in qualifying at 174.5mph (280.8kph) and was hailed by his American rivals as being the “bravest man in two shoes” for his efforts in wrestling the car at that speed around Monza’s steep bankings.
I never saw either the Mille Miglia or the Race of Two Worlds but I did hear the brutal sound of that big Ferrari engine when it was fitted into the sports racing car that Phil Hill raced in Southern California’s Times-Mirror Grand Prix at Riverside. From the trackside I watched and listened to its V12 roar and, before or since, I never heard another Ferrari which sounded like it.