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Ecurie Tortue team (1950-1954)

08 August 2015

By Clive Branson

To comprise a "professional" racing team, it must consist of three automobiles, no matter the make, but their engine size and power had to be more or less the same and in racing condition. Since there was no prize money for winning a race in these events during the '50s, most racing drivers had to either be independently wealthy, own their own garages, or be offered to drive someone else's car.

Ecurie Tortue logo

There were very few suitable race tracks in Canada during this period, so disused wartime airstrips were utilized. The team entered races held in the USA at Bridgehampton, Sebring and Watkins Glen, and at a track near Buffalo. North of the border, the team competed in races held in Edenvale, Carp and Mt. Tremblant (hillclimb). Also, two cars were entered for consecutive years in the 2000-mile Canada/USA rally in 1953/54. In all events, except the cross Canada rally, the team won prizes.

Morris Minors

The first team event was an American stock car race in which the team entered three Morris Minors. To the annoyance of the partisan crowd, the three Morris Minors finished a distant 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in their class. L'Eurie Tortue's main drawing cards were the exotic Jaguars XK 120s and 300 SL Mercedes-Benz and a DB2 Aston Martin. Later, on the XKs was converted into a D-Type.

Ecurie Tortue Team

To maintain the cars, there were two full-time mechanics hired by Gisbert Boch. Boch imported the mechanics from Europe. One, a brilliant Italian mechanic from Alfa Romeo, the other, from the prestigious Mercedes-Benz works. The name of the team, L'Ecurie Tortue, loosely translated as the "Steady Tortoise," was chosen by Peter Hessler, the originator of the team. One of the greatest racing drivers ever was Nuvolari, who had a model of a tortoise fitted to his car's dashboard. One of Hessler's girlfriends designed and silver and green crest. Each driver who won a race was awarded the emblem as an honour.

Ecurie Tortue Team

The Drivers

Peter Hessler (Anglo-Austrian)

A WWII RAF fighter pilot who, after the war, raced Lancias in England at a number of events. He had enormous energy and imagination. He owned two car shops (Porsche in Toronto and Austin in Quebec City). He raced the XK 120 (with a Le Mans modified engine), and the Jaguar D- Type. Hessler was possibly the fastest driver in the team. He was renown for his keen engineering mind but also for his playboy image.

Perpetually in debt and constantly eluding the law, there was supposition that he was wanted even by the FBI. He was a bit of an enigma coming close to fatality in Montreal. It was speculated that it was a failed suicide. Unfortunately, fate caught up with Peter in L.A.

Whether it was an accident, suicide or a possible murder, it was never divulged.

Mechanic, Gisbert von Boch, and Peter Hessler.

Gisbert von Boch-Gallau (German)

Gisbert fought in WW!! with the German Army during the seige for Stalingrad. Six-hundred thousand Russians alone died in that battle. Captured by the Russians, he escaped from Stalingrad with his batman only to be re-captured by the Allies. However, his cousin, who was in the Irish Guards, heard about Gisbert's whereabouts and was able to have Gisbert transferred back to his home of Matlock after the war. Gisbert was heir to the china and bathroom textile empire, Villeroy & Boch. Before the war, he drove in local races in Germany, mainly in suped-up Mercedes. His cars were the XK 120, a Porsche 356, and the 300 SL "Gullwing" Mercedes-Benz. Though an excellent driver, on several occasions narrowly averted serious accidents. He also owned two vintage 1937 540K Mercedes, which he entered and drove at the 1952 Bridgehampton Vintage Car Race. Years later at an auction, the 540K was priced over half a million dollars. In the 1960s, whilst living in Quebec City, Gisbert learnt to fly and traded in six of his vechicles for a Lear jet. In the 1970s, he was stationed in Buenos Aires as President of Villeroy & Boch's facilities. A social and politically volatile period in Argentina, Gisbert apparently was on the Tupanmaros' hit list. On retirement, Gisbert moved to St. Moritz. He died of a stroke in the mid-80s. He left behind a wife and two daughters (from a former marriage).

Gisbert von Boch

Michael Branson (Anglo-Canadian)

Michael helped Peter Hessler establish the team and later became the Team Manager. He was a team driver and drove an MGTD, and in one race, one of the XK 120s and the 300 SL. During winter rallies, he was the navigator. Prior to arriving in Canada, Michael was an officer with the British Army stationed in Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt. In 1948-49, he served in Palestine during the Civil War between the Arabs and the Jews when the state of Israel was being carved out. He also an officer with the 7th Gurhkas in Nepal. Disenchanted with the bleak prospects in India and England, he left for Canada. After L'Ecurie Tortue, Michael re-joined the forces with the Royale-22nd, which extended his career to Camp Borden, Toronto, Germany, Montreal, Belgium (with NATO), and finally Ottawa, where he retired.

Peter Dillnut

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