Peter F Baumberger, 1925-2009
By Charis Whitcombe
Swiss gentleman driver and car collector Peter Frederic Baumberger has died aged 84. Heir to a 200-year-old Bernese brewing dynasty, Peter was born in London in 1925 and went on to study law in Basle.
He then moved to America, living there for 20 years and carving out a brilliant career in which he rapidly rose to become MD and Vice-President of RCA Overseas. His genial manner proved invaluable in the recording industry, bringing him into contact with such legendary artists as Elvis Presley: Peter recalled with vivid detail a lunch at 'The King's mansion where, amid lavish decor, elaborate place settings and attentive staff around the vast dining table, silver covers were whisked off the guests' plates to reveal...hamburgers.
Fast cars were a passion from an early age and Peter began motor racing in 1955 with a Porsche 1600. In 1957 he was 2-litre Class Champion in the SCCA East Coast series. He also owned and raced a Jaguar XK120 before turning to Lotus for 1958. With a group of friends, he formed Team Lotus USA and ordered six new Lotus cars from Colin Chapman. The team ran Lotus 11s, 15s and 16s and they raced regularly at Watkins Glen, Lime Rock and Bridgehampton.
Peter Baumberger became friendly with Walter Cronkite, then a promising and ambitious American driver who went on to become the most trusted and respected American news broadcaster of all time. Cronkite, who reported JFKs assassination and the moon landings, also died in 2009, aged 92.
In the Sebring 12 Hours of 1959, Baumberger and Cronkite were joined by Warren Rohlfs: driving a Lancia Appia Zagato they finished 40th overall and 5th in the 1300GT class. As Cronkite was also the official voice of the Sebring race, his co-drivers were left to do a nine hour stint on their own.
Considerable, seemingly favourable, publicity resulted from this and other exploits, extensively covered in the New York Times' weekly racing column, but Baumberger's bosses at RCA thought otherwise. Peter was forced to hang up his helmet for a while.
In 1961 he married Mary-Alice Dorrance, recently divorced from a scion of the Campbell Soup family and, together with her two sons and a daughter, the new family set up home in Geneva, renting a Gothic castle which was later the backdrop for an episode of The Persuaders.
By 1966, with his stepsons then in their late teens, Peter was free of all restrictions from the RCA bosses, or anybody else. He bought not one but three new Ferrari 275GTB/4s, two in steel and one in alloy, since one of his stepsons believed it would be better as a long-term investment (it's no surprise he has since done rather well in business).
Peter, well organised as ever, ran the family racing team in a thoroughly professional manner. Adopting the bear of the Swiss canton of Bern, they ran under the Three Bears banner, indicating 'Bear right, bear left and Papa Bear' and, unusually for those days, they wore stylish, liveried team clothing. The Three Bears team ran for just one season, 1967, taking part mainly in European hillclimbs - and also some club races at such circuits as Monza and Hockenheim - before the boys went off to university in the USA. Strict team rules were enforced; they could only race the Ferraris, not drive them on the road. Not a bad motoring debut...
Peter retained the alloy-bodied 275GTB/4 as part of his large collection of fine classic cars. In 1972, with fellow Swiss enthusiasts Maurice Labhardt and Charles G Renaud, Peter was a founder of the Swiss Ferrari Club.
Later in life, Peter Baumberger's wisdom, experience and pragmatism led to board positions with blue chip companies including Lindt chocolate, ABN Amro and Swatch. In 1987, however, he returned to motorsport once more, starting with the Mille Miglia retrospective in which he drove his Ferrari 250GT Tour de France.
Peter continued to enjoy historic rallying until his final months, in recent years standing out as the most senior participant in major events such as the Tour Auto and Tour du Maroc. His stable of immaculately turned out Porsche Carrera RSs ran under the revived Three Bears livery. Peter Baumberger's generosity, jovial manner and warm smile will be fondly remembered.
Main image: Peter Baumberger in 1966 with his Ferrari 250 SWB outside his chateau in Geneva (Massini AG photo)