Born into a wealthy family, an heir to the industrial holdings of the Solvé family, Olivier Gendebien studied engineering at university but when World War II erupted and the Nazis occupied Belgium, he joined the Belgian resistance movement. Fluent in the English language, he served as the liaison with the British agents being parachuted into Belgium. Later in the War he went to England, serving with the British army as part of a Belgian paratrooper unit.
When the war ended Gendebien switched to the study of agriculture, spending several years working in forestry in the Belgian Congo where he met a rally driver named Charles Fraikin. Back in Belgium he teamed up with Fraikin to compete in rally racing, winning the Rome-Liège Rally and the Coppa d'Oro delle Dolomiti in 1955 driving a Mercedes 300SL. This brought Gendebien to the attention of Enzo Ferrari who offered him a contract to drive a Ferrari in sportscar events and selected Grands Prix. Much respected as a true gentleman by everyone who knew him, he remained a member of the Ferrari team until he retired from racing.
During his career he competed in only 15 Formula One races, making his debut at the Argentine Grand Prix in 1956. While he met with only nominal success on the Formula One circuit, most of the time he was Ferrari's spare driver, filling in only occasionally. He scored his best finish ever, taking second in the 1960 French Grand Prix and third place in front of a home crowd at the Belgian Grand Prix. However, it was in sports car racing, particularly the long distance and endurance events, where Gendebien excelled.
In 1958, partnered with American Phil Hill, he won the prestigious 24 hours of Le Mans. The duo were a natural fit and together they won the Le Mans race three times, with Gendebien winning it a fourth time, partnered with fellow Belgian Paul Frère.
Married with three children, Gendebien’s wife pressured him to get out of the dangerous sport of automobile racing where more than two dozen of his competitors had died at the wheel. At 38 years of age, in 1962 Olivier Gendebien retired following his fourth victory at Le Mans. Independently wealthy, and an avid skier, tennis player, and equestrian rider, he devoted the rest of his life to running a variety of businesses. In 1998 King Albert II awarded him the Belgian Order of the Crown.
Olivier Gendebien passed away in 1998 at his home in Les Baux de Provence in southern France.
Major race victories: