Motor Sport Crosses the Channel to Enjoy Motoring Freedom and Visit the Renault, Simca and Logo-Talbot Factories
Petrol rationing is irksome, so on the last day of February we left England for France, where a generous allocation of petrol to tourists is going to keep the Air Bridge and the cross-Channel steamers exceedingly busy this summer.
The plot was to spend six days visiting some Parisian automobile factories, as well as putting in some long-distance motoring which we could not enjoy in England. Taking an Austin-Healey 100M, its Michelin SWS tyres the only concession to the French scene, and the current copy of Punch in order to maintain a sense of proportion, we flew over from Southend to Ostend by Air Charter, after a delay because the Rochford Customs Officer displayed officious interest in the case of cameras necessary on an expedition of this kind. Incidentally, customs-delays are normally negligible, and those who contemplate using Air Charter this year may care to know that several new Bristol 170 Super Freighters have recently been added to their fleet; while those who fear for the safety of themselves and their cars may be surprised to learn, as we were, that these aeroplanes can climb on one engine with an appreciable load on board.
At Ostend it was possible to fill the tank with coupon-free Esso Extra and, after crossing the frontier at Menin, to obtain from the Touring Club offices in Lille sufficient coupons for the journey to Paris. This run was completed in the dark and on the final stage a Citroen DS19 saloon passed us and, although the Austin-Healey was taken up to 3,800 r.p.m. in overdrive, equivalent to a cruising speed of 95 m.p.h., this merely kept the French saloon in sight on the straights and we were obliged to let it get away over the pave, which racked the chassis of our British sports car in cruel fashion.
The next morning a visit to the Touring Club de France in the Avenue de In Grand Armee produced sufficient petrol coupons for our proposed journey almost to the German border and back with absolutely no fuss or delay, and as they allocate the quantity of 10-litre coupons by the number of days of our stay and the size of your engine as well as on your intended destination, visitors can look forward to virtually unrestricted motoring in France this summer.
A Visit to Regie Renault
After this simple passport to freedom had been complied with, we drove through the cut-and-thrust of Paris traffic to Billancourt, where Regie Renault occupy a vast factory on the bank of the Seine as well as on an entire island in the middle of this famous river. Here Mon. Sicot, whose duty it is to entertain foreign journalists, laid on for us a visit to this factory and the new Renault plant at Flins, outside Paris. We were exceedingly fortunate to have as our guide on both these expeditions, Mon. Hoffbourg. Now 71 years of age, this gentleman, who joined Renault on the repair side in 1907, knew Szisz, winner of the first French G.P. on a Renault, as a personal friend, and who went at Mon. Renault’s request to America in 1923 and again in 1948 to organise Renault service, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all there is to see in the vast Renault factories, He conducted us along with unflagging vitality, leaving your merely middle-aged Editor panting in his wake.
On what had necessarily to be a condensed tour, we were shown first the production of 2.1-litre Entendard engines for the Fregate saloons and Domaine estate cars, as well as commercial-vehicle and industrial engines, at the Billancourt works. This factory employs 40,000 persons and is as large as the town of Chartres. Cylinder blocks are cast in the foundry at the rate of 160 an hour and into these are pressed the wet cylinder liners which have been adopted for all engines after being introduced for Renault diesel engines in 1930. Forged crankshafts are used for the diesel engines but a cast crankshaft is used for petrol power units, apart from engines raced at Le Mans, etc. After completion each block is washed and then plugged so that air can be blown through it to complete the cleaning process. The block then goes off on a roller-conveyor for the insertion of the liners and addition of components. Renault make their own centrifugally-cast liners and, incidentally, their own springs of all kinds, their ball-bearings, water pumps and thin-shell crankshaft bearings etc. They also roll their own sheet steel for the body pressings, but since 1947 they have ceased to manufacture their own dynamos and starters. The micrometer checks for accuracy of cylinder liner fit and seal are elaborate, but unskilled workers are employed for the majority of the assembly operations. Engine components are brought on overhead conveyors to the points where they are required by operatives, and when each engine is completed a metal shield is fitted over the distributor and other vulnerable components and paraffin is sprayed over the exterior for some two minutes.
Every Entendard engine is run-in at two-thirds full speed for 1 to 1½ hours on a generator plant and every fiftieth engine is given a much longer test by the inspection department. These engines produce 77 S.A.E. h.p.
Apart from the car engines Renault make some very imposing railway and industrial i.c. engines. Each 120-h.v. flat-six lorry engine, in petrol and diesel form, is run for nine hours on a water-brake, eighteen of these brakes being available in the test-shop. One or two 32-litre V12 diesel loco engines are built daily by teams of skilled engineers. These have knuckle-type big-ends and Renault cast the huge cylinder blocks in their own foundry. These imposing power units deliver 300 b.h.p. at 1,500 r.p.m. or 400 b.h.p. when boosted with an exhaust-driven supercharger. They drive via a disc clutch to a four-speed and separate forward-reverse gearbox, and each engine is fully tested for 20 hours on the bench, during which time temperature checks, exhaust-gas analysis, etc., are made. In the loco-engine shops we came upon an old V16 engine in for repairs and as this, too, has four valves per cylinder, in all it possesses the imposing number of 64 valves! A very nicely finished V12 engine in workshop grey, coupled to a vast generator, was destined for a French atomic-power plant. Incidentally, the extensive Renault shops are naturally-lit by glass roof panels and the presence of full-size railway sidings running into many of them simplifies the transporting away of these huge loco and industrial power plants. Oxygen gas for welding is made on the spot and conveyed to where it is required through pipe-lines, obviating carriage and stacking of gas cylinders, and it is hardly necessary to add that the factory has its own fire-station.
Reverting to the car engines, the treatment from casting to completion of the cylinder blocks is a feature of the Billancourt factory. First, held at five special attachment points, the blocks are drilled by Renault two-stage drilling machines driven by Japy electric motors. These Renault drilling machines, proudly displaying the familiar diamond badge, are numerous throughout the works but are made for this purpose only, not being available to outside concerns. The block then goes on a roller-conveyor to a remarkable transfer machine on which all the remaining drilling operations are carried out. An unskilled worker places the block on a jig at one end and the finished job is removed at the other end by a single operative. A big control panel warns by lights if a drill breaks in a hole or any snag develops, and also when each different stage is completed. The block is turned over automatically for the different operations and a single machine deals with the boring of the cylinders themselves, with one spare machine as a standby. The bores are checked for tolerance before the liners are inserted, and pressure-tested for leaks. Neat inspection desks are used for checking at each stage. Each connecting-rod is balanced and cylinder heads are machined on twin assembly lines and then pressure-tested. Steel valve inserts are inserted at a temperature differential of 310 deg. C. by heating the head for some 20 minutes in a Ripoche oven. Every crankshaft has to pass a Magnaflux crack-detection check and each one is balanced by drilling holes in the webs; clutch and flywheel are also balanced. One thousand cylinder heads are cast daily in a foundry where modern casting methods are ousting the older system. Each head is pressure-tested both before and after machining. The foundry possesses four Bessimer converters and seven electric furnaces and prepares over 60 tons of steel daily. The iron works has 100 presses and drop hammers, producing 100,000 parts a day, the drop-forging presses ranging from 150 to 1,200 tons. The smaller parts are machined on batteries of Renault drilling machines embracing 50,000 electric motors, and gear-cutting is undertaken by Gleason cutters.
Apart from the vast Billancourt plant, of which we had time to see only a small part and nothing at all of the vast foundries and test track on the island section, Renault has works at Le Mans (where they cope with large forgings, plastics and paint production, and farm-tractor assembly), Orleans, Choisy-le-Roi and St. Denis, and steel mills at Hagondange, St. Michel-de-Maurienne and, newest of all, the Dauphine assembly factory at Fling, as well as sub-factories in Brussels and at Acton in this country. Yet, amongst this National motor-empire, employing a total of approximately 53,000 workers, there still stands the shed where the first Renault automobile was built in 1898. On our way to meet Mon. Sicot for lunch we saw a 1914/18-war Renault tank lurking on a lawn in front of the office block, in the great entrance hall of which hang huge aerial views of the Billancourt plant and where glass-topped cases of complicated parts accurately machined by Renault apprentices, such as sets of steel chessmen and a perfect sphere, etc., pay silent tribute to modern craftsmanship; as a reminder of craftsmanship of an earlier age, some veteran Renaults are stored at the Paris showrooms.
After lunch we accompanied Mon. Hoffbourg in a Renault 4 c.v. to the new plant at Flins. Strategically situated in open country with ample room for expansion, and surrounded by 580 modern flats and houses for the employees, this factory is conveniently served by river, rail and the Paris autoroad. (The last-named is taken through a hill on the outskirts of Paris by means of a wide, well-lit, one-kilometre-long tunnel, typical example of the French attitude to road-building.)
Commenced in September 1950, Flins was built above the level of the notorious Seine floods of 1910, and by January 1952 the first Renault, a Fregate, was assembled there. Today this plant is devoted to the assembly of Dauphines, the engines of which arrive by road from Billancourt.
The emphasis at Flins is on modernity. The strikingly light and spacious shops are capable of considerable adaptation, the concrete roof beams being movable so that varying numbers of assembly lines can be operated as required.
We saw the chassis/body shells spot-welded, the jig for this complicated operation rising out of the floor, travelling along as the spot-welding was undertaken, then sinking through the floor to travel back to the commencement of the operation. As the body takes form it travels on an overhead conveyor which brings it to floor level for roof and sides to be welded in place, after which it rises again and travels on to the point where the doors, etc., are fitted. Unskilled labour from the surrounding countryside copes with this electric spot-welding but the floor-cum-chassis assembly is transfer-welded on a remarkable La Soudure Electrique plant which welds 30, 68, 68, 84, 116 and 108 points, respectively, in single operations. In the press shop 30 Spiertz and Clearing presses ranging from 80 to 750 tons are fed with Renault steel sheet by two overhead cranes, and a 40-ton crane can move the smaller presses themselves if a re-arrangement of space is required.
The body parts move on chain conveyors, dispatched from bay to bay by compressed air, and at present a two-line final-assembly conveyor is working at Flins, turning out 700 Dauphines a day, which will gradually be stepped up to a target of 1,200 a day. (Other models are produced in the other Renault factories at the rate of 300 4 c.v.s, 70 Frigates and Domaines and 75 Dauphinioise (light vans) a day, apart from a daily output of over 200 of the smaller commercial vehicles.
When it is required to double back from one conveyor-line to a parallel line an electric trolley running on transverse tracks picks up the body and replants it for the continuation of its journey, which brings it eventually to the huge Carrier washing plant and 150 deg. C. drying tunnel. Primer is sprayed on and the body inspected under neon-lamps, and the undersurface of body, wings and even the seats are rust-proofed. Small parts are paint-dipped but the body shells go on three lines through the paint-shop, where the spray-tunnels are lightly-pressurised to obviate the ingress of dust. After painting, a sawdust-wash, and water spray, then drying in Carrier ovens, prepares the body for sound-proofing. The sealing compound is automatically sprayed on to the undersurface of the chassis, the conveyor operating contacts that bring the sprays into operation, but an operator reinforces this automation with hand-spraying under the wheel arches, etc.
All this assembly and painting takes place in one of a series of parallel buildings which are characteristic of the Flins factory; some idea of the area of these buildings is conveyed by remarking that from its beginning as a floor pressing welded to side plates to becoming a painted body shell, the structure travels some 2,750 yards. The hall where painting, upholstering and final assembly takes place is approximately 550 yards long by 88 yards wide, and the sheet-steel hall is nearly 470 yards in length.
The Dauphine can be obtained in a range of colours and one day’s output is in one colour, the next day’s in another. The painted shells are moved on hanging conveyors to the building in which chassis components meet them and are fitted. The arrival of components is controlled from a control-panel so that correct timing is maintained and the body shells come down to floor level, where fitters on wheeled trolleys move themselves along beside the conveyor, doing what is required. Neon-lighting is provided but day-light was sufficient on the day of our visit, for the sun was shining outside these clean, spacious shops.
Wheels and tyres roll down shoots to their correct stations beside the cars, which now travel on plate instead of roller-conveyors. It was here that we came upon an automatic tyre-fitter, which puts tyres, previously treated with glycerine, on to the wheels without human aid. After which the tyres were inflated automatically . . .
At the end of the line Dauphines for the U.S. market, with plastic upholstery, have special bumpers fitted, and we saw one with a special four-branch exhaust manifold. Renault intend to step-up sales to the U.S.A. and last year 80 Dauphines a day were exported there, total Dauphine production in 1956 being 78,007; 112,050 4 c.v.s were made but today the bulk of the output is of Dauphines, as forementioned. This year’s U.S. target is 16,000-20,000 Dauphines. The usual procedure is adopted of checking headlamp beams, starting the engine, and giving the car a short run inside the factory before it is passed as fit to go out into the world and be sold for dollars, pounds or francs, etc.
To revert to the painting shop, two-colour cars are dried in an oven possessing some 2,000 infra-red lamps. Singer sewing machines help to prepare the upholstery and an overhead low-voltage electric supply enables operatives to complete and check the electrical system as the cars move towards the end of the assembly lines. Clare hoists are used for conveying small components about the factory. The normal practice of buying batteries and tyres from rival suppliers is in operation, as our guide said — “to keep quality up and prices down.”
The Flins factory produces its own oxygen, has its own (coal) steam heating plant, and a converter for reducing the National 6,000-volt electricity supply to 380 and 220 volts. Fluids are conveyed underground from storage plants to supply points, a 6-ton and an 80-ton crane provide for loading and unloading river transports, and cars are removed by river, road and in two-storey railway trucks. A detached building for electrolytic chromium, nickel and cadmium plating, a pumping station for industrial water, two main sewers and a purifying station, and a store yard beside the railway siding are further amenities at this newest branch of the great Regie Renault organisation.
The workers are engaged under excellent conditions. In spite of the enormous output — as long ago as 1955 Flins produced 160 Fregates, 100 4 c.v.s and 60 7-cwt. vans a day and, now devoted entirely to Dauphine assembly, will soon turn out the millionth of these splendid little cars — they work a 48-hour by five days’ shift. Each worker has his own locker, which is heated to dry wet clothes, and there are showers as well as wash-basins. Workers from the dirtier shops, such as the paint shop, are allowed 15 minutes’ paid time for washing. Around the office block are the big canteens, in three tiers. The bottom one is for the use of those who bring their lunch with them. The next is the workers’ canteen. Above is the staff canteen, where the only difference is small tables instead of larger communal ones — the food served, and its price, are the same. The usual first-aid and hospital facilities naturally exist, workers and staff have excellent opportunities to buy flats or houses on the instalment system and French workers now get three weeks’ fully-paid annual holidays — and own, or are encouraged to own, their own cars. Incidentally, Regie Renault issue some gay catalogues of the various models, of which the Grand Pavois is the two-colour version of Fregate saloon. They make liberal use of charming girls to publicise their cars, instead of the precocious-looking schoolboys found in certain English catalogues.
This brief impression shows something of the efficiency and the modern methods used by Regie Renault but it is no use setting out to mass-produce a car unless that car will sell in enormous numbers. This the Renault Dauphine is doing. It is the brilliant achievement of a skilled stylist and Regie Renault’s Chief Engineer Mon. Picard, who, between them, have provided a car which is more roomy and has a better performance than the 4 c.v., yet which has engine and external dimensions well suited to prevailing economic/traffic conditions and which is outstandingly well-proportioned for an inexpensive mass-produced model. In France the Dauphine sells for the equivalent of £554, compared to £399 for the cheaper version of 4 c.v.;here, the price, with p.t., is £769 7s. It can be supplied with an automatic clutch, if required.
Drive in a Dauphine
As if to display their confidence in it, Renault told us we could park our Austin-Healey and take a more economical Dauphine away at 7.30 a.m. the next morning. This we were glad to do.
The Dauphine was the subject of a full road-test report in Motor Sport dated May, 1956. so there is no need to recapitulate its merits and characteristics here. Suffice it to say that it behaved impeccably, was timed to just exceed 70 m.p.h. on the level (and, remember, two of the latest British 1½-litre saloons only do about 75 m.p.h. whereas the Dauphine has but 845 c.c.), rode well over the poor road surfaces invariably found in minor French towns, and possessed a taxi-like steering lock very employable in Paris traffic. Almost continuous full-throttle driving for hours on end produced no ill-effects of any kind, in spite of the modest size of the engine.
In this Dauphine we set off down N19, covering the first clear 100 kilometres in 70 minutes and maintaining an average of 90 k.p.h. for hour after hour. That evening found us in Strasbourg, where, outside the Hotel Maison Rouge we encountered a cream Mercedes-Benz 300SL on French number-plates. Behind the seats sat two white crash helmets, yet the car looked too clean to have come from a rally or even to have been used for long on the road. We debated whether the owner felt the car to be in a category requiring crash-hats as part of the equipment or whether, in fact, he was about to take part in a competition. The mystery was never solved, because by the time we woke on the Saturday morning the car had gone.
During the drive from Paris to Strasbourg the Editor had been expounding to the photographer on how France is steeped in motor-racing history and he now proposed to demonstrate this. Inquiry revealed that the hotel hall-porter remembered the Grand Prix at Strasbourg in 1922, when Fiat won and Sunbeam competed. He told us where the circuit was situated but we could only drive along one leg of it, because an aerodrome seems to have obliterated the rest. That led us to Molsheim, where we paused to call at the Bugatti factory. As it as a Saturday we could not see the Grand Prix cars but were told that in about a couple of months’ time it should be possible to test the new, and so far legendary, sports Bugatti. Cheered by this news, and by the sight of a Type 57 motoring into the town, we headed the Dauphine towards Rouen, arriving in the early afternoon at Reims, where the grandstands and pits, with the barriers and banners of the fine permanent circuit in readiness, are ever a stirring sight to enthusiasts from race-shy England. The 12-hour sports-car race followed by the G.P. de Reims are due here on July 13/14th.
Earlier in the day, in remote Toul, the Editor had caught sight of a familiar vehicle on an old monument and, sure enough, it was Cugnot’s medieval steam carriage; the memorial is dedicated to Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, who apparently lived there from 1725 to 1804.
Between Reims and Rouen we had to drive through Beauvais, where the airship R101 crashed so tragically in 1930, with the loss of 48 lives. All the while the Editor kept one eye open for old cars but, apart from the usual vintage Citroens, Peugeots, Renaults, Donnets, Mathis and Chenard-Walckers in varying stages of decrepitude, and a vintage Grand Sport Salmson with modernised grille in Lille, we saw nothing of interest, apart from a nice wire-wheeled Chenard-Walcker truck of circa 1925 in Paris, until, outside a garage which is the humble headquarters of the A.C. de Beauvais there stood a 1908 Brasier with open brake body. Lack of time kept us to the main roads and had we been able to wander into remote places more cars like this Brasier might have been discovered.
The day’s drive had reminded us of the Dauphine’s excellent roadholding qualities, which are beyond criticism even by the anti-rear-engine school, while the large numbers we saw in use endorsed the sales-success of this brilliant little saloon. Mon. Picard must feel proud of having designed a car which has put the great French marque of Renault once more firmly on the map.
On Sunday morning we set out for Le Mans but first of all we lapped the Rouen circuit, where this year’s French G.P. will be held on July 7th. Here, as at Reims and Le Mans, the grandstands and pits flanking the public road are a stirring sight. On the pits wall is another memorial to a pioneer automobilist, this time to Edouard Delamare Deboutteville and his chief mechanic, Leon Malandain, who built a car the outline of which is part of the engraving, in May, 1883. This memorial was erected by public subscription three years ago. The Rouen circuit is in good order, apart from some rough patches, and should be faster than ever, this year. Contrasting with Reims it has an interesting downhill approach to the hairpin and a considerable climb away from it.
The sun had now risen and the warmth was that of an English summer’s day. Across the flat, straight road towards Sees, with no other vehicle about, an aged Renault with a tiny box-like saloon body came slowly into sight and, long after the Dauphine had passed, hung, a minute, haze-enshrouded speck on the horizon, a motoring scene unchanged in any material aspect since the days immediately following the Armistice of 1918. In the early afternoon we came to Le Mans and drove round the famous circuit, the remarkably smooth surface of which has blended well with Jaguar speed and stamina, to chalk up many British victories. This year’s 24-Hour Race will take place there on June 22nd/23rd. On the Mulsanne straight we stopped to photograph another reminder that France is the cradle of motor-racing history — a memorial stone to M. Fournier and his mechanic G. Louvel, whose Corre-la-Licorne came to grief here in 1911.
The ever-willing Renault Dauphine then took us at full throttle to Tours, where we drove round the circuit over which Segrave’s Sunbeam was the first and only British car ever to win a French Grand Prix. That success was gained 34 years ago, yet the scene today is much as it was then, and La Membrolle hairpin, outside Tours, where the Sunbeam signalling station was situated, remains unchanged. Encouraged, we drove into the town to glance at the hotel where Segrave celebrated that classic victory of 1923 and then returned to spend the night at Chartres, along the road down which the Paris-Madrid competitors drove their “race of death” in 1903.
The writer is always astonished at the manner in which monuments to racing drivers in France survive the passage of the years. The natives do not scribble on them or deface them, the authorities do not remove them, the weather fails to deface them. I had further proof of this when we made a detour, on our return to Paris, to look at the stone which indicates the place where Paul Zuccarelli, winner of the G.P. de France on a Lion-Peugeot in 1912, met his end beside the ruler-straight stretch of Route Nationale between Evreux and Normancourt when he hit a farm cart while testing a G.P. Peugeot on June 19th, 1913. On the other side of an easily-scaled ditch stands this simple but effective monument — and the low railings that surround it are almost as intact as when they were put there nearly 44 years ago! All who motor fast can visualise such an end and as we stood in the warm sunshine under a pale blue sky, with the flat fields of France fading into the distance, it was strangely moving to read the inscription dedicated to a great French racing driver by his fellow countrymen all those long years ago.
At Billancourt we returned the Dauphine, which had covered 1,280 miles in our hands and, in spite of being hustled all the way, had given over 38 m.p.g. of petrol and had consumed only three-quarters of a pint of oil. Telling Mon. Sicot this he pulled a face, for Dauphines normally require no oil between sump-drainings and use fuel more sparingly. He reminded us that this was a hard-used works hack, with over 20,000 miles to its credit. He told us that the fast R1063 version of the 4 c.v. has been discontinued and there is no definite news of the Gordini-tuned Dauphine, but that tuning-kits for both engines are available from specialist firms. Renault regard races and rallies as having good prestige value, and, indeed, issue an illustrated folder about Dauphine successes in last year’s Mille Miglia, Tour de France, Tour de Belgique and Tour de Corse Automobile, etc. This contains the statement: “All possible manufacturing procedures have been tested for 10 years on the implacable test-bench of racing. Only the best methods have been retained for the Dauphine and, whenever feasible, have been adopted for volume production.” Mon. Sicot recalled how a U.S. representative of Life was so impressed with the Dauphines in the Mille Miglia that he promptly ordered one and how other well-known motoring journalists in England and abroad are using these little cars as personal transport. Cars for events like Sebring, the Mille Miglia and Le Mans are prepared in a special depot away from the main works. Mon. Sicot was responsible for organising the dramatic Press preview of the Dauphine in Corsica and he is hoping H.M. the Queen will manage to visit Flins on her forthcoming State Visit to France, in which case, we gather, she may be presented with a Dauphine — but one assembled at Acton, where they turn out some ten cars a day.
Before we left the warm hospitality of Regie Renault we had a look at the remarkable circular test-bed at Billancourt, which is as up to date as Renault’s transfer drilling machines and chain spotwelding. On this, some 30 or more 4 c.v. and Dauphine “Ventoux” engines are mounted for running-in. Air, petrol and oil supplies come from the centre of the bench and plug into the appropriate places, the sump drain plugs being removed so that oil flows through the engine, which is then run for 24 minutes while readings are taken. The Ventoux engine develops 30 S.A.E. h.p. These engines are assembled in the same shop on an overhead chain-conveyor, from bare block to complete power units; one arrives every minute for testing. With all these engines running together there is a commendable absence of noise and fumes. One in every 15 or 20 engines is given a prolonged bench-test.
The Lago-Talbot Works
Our next objective was that fascinating automobile quarter of Paris where ancient factories are clustered together on the west bank of the Seine, beyond the big Bleriot factory. Today only one of these makes private cars but the names—Berliet, Saurer, Latil, de Dion Bouton, Unic and Talbot-Darracq — carry nostalgic reminders of Edwardian vehicles, and outwardly these buildings are much as they were four or more decades ago, the de Dion brass name-plates brightly polished, the circular Georges Richard badges shining in the Unic windows.
We were shown round the Talbot works by Mr. Povey, an Englishman who has been in France with Mr. Lago since 1934 and who was formerly in charge of the Lago-Talbot racing department. The offices and shops at Suresnes are virtually as Louis Coatalen and Georges Roesch knew them in the nineteen-twenties, but two shops have been let to other firms and some modern machinery now mingles with the antiquated lathes and drilling machines, driven by a veritable forest of unprotected overhead belting, in the machine-shop. In the entrance hall hang pictures of early Darracq racing cars, including the 200-h.p. V8, and George Eyston is there, commemorating one of his numerous record-attacks. Other interesting “exhibits” include one of the 4½-litre Lago-Record racing cars, a Le Mans Lago-Talbot still with a 2½-litre triple-Weber Maserati engine installed, a 1940 VI2 450-h.p. tank engine, a demonstration, glass-lidded pre-war Talbot preselector gearbox prepared at Mr. Roesch’s instigation, and a single-cylinder 1902 Darracq with tonneau body and Willocq Bottin brass lamps, lacking tyres but otherwise in a good state of preservation.
Lago is still building one or two cars a week. These have the 2½-litre four-cylinder five-bearing engine, which is a better engine than the earlier three-bearing job. It has inclined o.h. valves in hemispherical combustion chambers, operation being by push-rods from two base camshafts, so that separate valve covers enclose the inlet and exhaust rockers. A simple tubular chassis is used, the 80-cm. side tubes tapering towards the front, where transverse leaf-spring and wishbone i.f.s. is employed. Half-elliptic rear springs are used and the axle has a light-alloy centre casing. A four-speed ZF gearbox is used. The body is a handsome coupe, and the coachwork is made by Lago, each car being very definitely hand-assembled. About 60 or 70 of these 2½-litre coupes have been sold. For a long time right-hand steering was fitted because this was traditional for the French Talbot but this restricted sales in Europe and America, so left-hand control was adopted. There was a Show-finished chassis of this type with the historic cars in the hall.
At present Lago is working on a new 2/4-seater coupe, with wheelbase about 4 in. longer than for the two-seater coupe and a roof line about 3 in. higher. It is hoped to have this model, which will have a wheelbase of 2 m. 60 and a height of 1 m. 40, at the next Paris Salon. The engine gives 115 b.h.p. at 4,500 r.p.m. and each one is run-in for some four hours on one of the six old Heenan and Froude water-brakes before being run at full speed. Twin Zenith carburetters replace the former Webers on normal cars but the light-alloy finned brake drums are retained. It is rumoured that Lago is thinking in terms of a proprietary power unit. He has experimented with a Ford Zephyr with Raymond Mays two-carburetter head but this gave less than the hoped-for 120 b.h.p. We should not be surprised to find a 2.6-litre V8 B.M.W. engine in the new Lago-Talbot at the next Salon.
As we left this rather sad little factory where hand-built cars struggle to compete against the models from big factories, we reminded Mr. Povey that Lago competed in English trials in 1924 with a car the name of which might have come straight out of a novel. “Yes,” he replied, “the Restelli. I worked on that. It had no chassis, the engine, gearbox and back axle being rigidly connected and attached to trunnions on which the road springs were mounted. It was our own engine and the steering was unique, too, having ball-and-socket pivot-pins.” Thus, in the automobile quarter of Paris, facing the Seine, we added a little to our knowledge of obscure British sports cars …
A Simca Factory
On our last day in Paris we kept an appointment with Simca. This concern was formed about 23 years ago, to build Fiats under licence in France. Today, although Fiat and Ford have some financial interest in it, Simca is a French company, and besides cars, makes Unic commercial vehicles. The range of private cars covers the 1,290-c.c. o.h.v. Aronde in Elysee four-door saloon, De Luxe four-door saloon, Grand Large two-door saloon, Occane sports convertible, Plein Ciel sports coupe and Chatelaine estate-car forms, and the 2,351-c.c. s.v. Vedette, in Versailles four-door saloon, Trianon four-door saloon, Regence two-door saloon and Marly estate-car versions. The Aronde has the “Flash” engine developing 48 b.h.p. at 4,800 r.p.m., or the “Flash Special” engine with 7.8 instead of 6.8-to-1 compression-ratio, alloy head and larger valves, which gives 57 b.h.p. at 5,200 r.p.m., while the commercial versions use the “Flash Service” engine, which is governed to 4,900 r.p.m., at which speed it produces 45 b.h.p. Both car engines use a single Solex 32 PBICT carburetter, the Service engine a Solex 32 RBIT. The Vedette has an adaptation of the V8 Ford engine, termed the “Aquilon,” which gives 80 b.h.p. at 4,400 r.p.m., with dual Zenith 32 ND IX carburetter. The Simcamatic electro-mechanical clutch is available on the Aronde.
We spent a morning looking at part of the Nanterre factory on the outskirts of Paris, with Mon. R. Muller. This was formerly a machine-tool factory, taken over and modernised by Simca. As space is restricted they have built in storeys, but eventually Aronde and Vedette production will be concentrated at the Poissy factory and Nanterre confined to machining operations. At present the gear-cutting and press-shop is on the ground floor, bodies are welded-up on the fifth or top floor on a single-line conveyor, and are lowered on an electric hoist through to the fourth floor for painting, after which they are dropped to the third floor for upholstering and fitting of chassis components. Engines are run-in and tested on the second floor. The presses on the ground floor were bought under the Marshall Plan in 1951 and each is stencilled with its price — for example, a Bliss press stamping out axle casings cost 90 million francs. Ruskin, Clearing, Spietz and Bliss Toledo presses pre-dominate, but little use is made of advanced automation for the movement of steel sheet or finished panels. Yale trucks scuttle about this vast shop and a 20-ton and a 30-ton gantry crane provide the lifting power.
Cylinder blocks are drilled on Natco drilling machines, also installed in 1951, vertical and horizontal drilling being done on the same machine. Monocoup boring machines and three Micromatic honing machines finish the cylinder bores, the blocks moving on a roller-conveyor through the neon-lit shops. Solex fluid-micrometers are used for checking the accuracy of cylinder and bearing diameter and the three-bearing crankshafts are finished on Somua grinding machines. Snyder drilling machines complete five operations on the con.-rods.
Simca buy their steel from an outside mill and use a single-line conveyor for spot-welding the panels and sections of the Aronde body/chassis structure. The completed body is lowered through the floor for painting with a ticket attached indicating the colour required. The main colour is first applied and the secondary colour sprayed on afterwards. Complete seats in various trims arrive on an overhead conveyor for fitting and the final assembly of lamps, etc., is accomplished by fitters who ride on the cars as they move along the chain conveyor at floor height.
Each engine is run-in for 35 minutes on a battery of a dozen electric test-beds, oil flowing freely through it and the tappets being set as it ticks-over. It is then put on one of eight Heenan & Froude water brakes, each in a separate cabin, for a power check, final setting of tappets, etc.
Working continuously in three eight-hour shifts, the output of Arondes is 600 a day, of which 20 per cent. are exported. Each car is given a short road test before going to a dealer, and the usual headlamp adjustment, check of finish under neon-lamps, etc., is carried out.
Road-test reports on the Simca Aronde, Elysee and Grand Large have appeared in Motor Sport at various times within the past few years and few changes have been made to these shapely cars since, although the Grand Large and Elyse models now have Air France seats that convert into beds.
We were particularly interested in the extremely attractive Simca Plein Ciel hard-top coupe, a handsome car which, with the 57-h.p. “Flash Special” engine, should possess an excellent performance. The first examples are expected at Simca’s Wembley depot this month or next, export having been purposely held up until certain mild overheating troubles had been fully investigated. A new mesh radiator grille replaces the earlier bar-type opening and the Plein Ciel is ready to take its place as one of the really good-looking Continental cars. It is expected to sell in France in the region of one million francs but in England import-duty and p.t. inflates the cost of the 1,300 Elysee saloon to £889 7s, and the Grand Large to £994 7s., so the coupe will be relatively expensive.
Some people feel that they haven’t seen Paris without a visit to the Folies Bergere; we feel the same about Montlhery. In fact, we “did” both, the latter kindly being laid-on by Simca, who produced a smart Elysee saloon in which we were driven to the old banked autodrome by one of their head testers in French-blue overalls, who made this a break from preparing a Simca for a forth-coming attack on long-duration records. The car wasn’t sufficiently fast to be exciting but we drove some laps for the fun of it at around 85 m.p.h., keeping below the line on which it is possible to maintain approximately 95 m.p.h., hands off. The smooth-running of the car and Simca’s confidence in it were pleasing and it was nostalgic to chat of Eldridge, Parry Thomas, Victor Bruce, Gwenda Stewart and Freddie Dixon, etc., with Montlhery’s Clerk-of-the-Course, who has held that office for 30 years. Just as used to be the case at Brooklands, so there is always “something going on” at Montlhery, which makes a visit well worth while, especially as you can use the track yourself for three hours on payment of about 1,000 francs. At the time of our visit a Renault 4 c.v. and a Dyna-Panhard were surging round, a Simca Vedette was doing flat-out lappery, a Citroen DS19 was in the Paddock having its compression tested on the starting handle, and a Renault Dauphine (? Gordini-version) was about to go on.
The next day the rain came and it looked more like England and we returned home. By the time we had got to Ostend we had completed some 1,800 miles, or the equivalent of nine months’ “basic” motoring in England compressed into five days’ driving. W.B.