Johnny Claes was born on 11th August 1916 in London to a Scottish mother and Belgian father who had fled from Belgium due to the Great War. He was educated in England at Lord Williams's School and became a successful jazz musician and bandleader "Johnny Claes and his Clay Pigeons" up to and through the second War with Les Leston on drums.
In late 1945, he returned to the family business in Brussels. His natural French made him popular with English drivers on tour on the Continent as an informal translator. Johnny made his debut in 1948, in his own Talbot-Lago, raced under the Ecurie Belge banner and his first win was at the 1950 Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay. He acquired a Cooper Mk IV which he used to finish fourth at Zandvoort on 23rd July 1950 and at Ostend on 14th August 1950, he managed a fourth his heat but DNF in final of the Coupe du Monde..
Johnny in the Coupe du Monde, August 1950. Photo courtesy Maurice van der Brempt
In 1952 he exchanged the Talbot for a Gordini, and later for a Connaught, always with the Ecurie Belge colours, but he also raced occasionally for works teams, including Gordini and Maserati and won the 1953 Liège-Rome-Liège Rally. Claes teamed with Pierre Stasse to finish 12th in the 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Porsche and with compatriot Jacques Swaters, in a D-Type Jaguar, Claes finished third in the 1955 Le Mans to the Aston Martin of Peter Collins and the winning D-Type of Hawthorn and Bueb.
Sadly, Johnnie contracted tuberculosis during 1955 and sold his team to Swaters, who merged it with his own Ecurie Francorchamps to form Ecurie Nationale Belge. Claes entered occasional events until the end of the year, but finally succumbed to the disease in February 1956, aged 39.