Great cars: The 24hp 1920 Delage

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Louis Delage was a much respected member of the French automobile industry. Rightly so, for in the very first year of production, Delage was on the circuits with a racing voiturette designed by the ex-Peugeot engineer Legros. Delage had left Peugeot to produce his own cars only in 1906, yet that year he had two de-Dion powered cars competing in the Coupe des Voiturettes, which was at that time a six-day trial. One Delage hit a tree, the other was second. This set the pattern for this autocratic manufacturer to make good cars and have a very notable impact on racing.

Before the war he had cars in the 1908 Coupe des Voiturettes at Dieppe, won for him by Guyot, the Boulogne race of 1910 was a Delage victory for Bablot, as was the 1913 GP de France, even if neither the advanced GP Delage of 1913 with horizontal oh valves nor the 1914 twinacam fourwheel-braked GP car finished higher than fourth in the French Grand Prix.

Then came those splendid 1923 V12 and 1926/27 straight-eight Grand Prix Delage cars, technically advanced and complicated, but beautifully made and winners of the 1927 Manufacturers World Championship. It can safely be said, I think, that Louis Delage, from his Courbevoie factory, never made a bad car. Most of them were exceptionally good, bringing wealth to their constructor, who was able to spend it on lavish balls of up to 500 guests at his magnificent chateau. Justifiably, because in the 1920s and 1930s Delage produced some splendid automobiles, notably in six-cylinder form, and then those great D8, D8S and D8SS, D8 20 and D8SS100 straight-eight cars.

Here we are concerned with a Delage which, scarcely before the war clouds had begun to disperse, was as good as any of the later models, given the state of engineering development at that time.

This new 24hp Type C0 six-cylinder Delage was announced before the end of 1919, in sporting-bodied form as elegant as any other fast European car. A socialite Louis Delage may have been, but he tested his new model himself, first with a run from Paris to Nice in 15hr 55min, the running-time average speed being 41.53mph. This may not impress those who compete in today’s retrospectives, but the poor state of France’s war-torn roads should be remembered.

The car was laden to the equivalent of six people in the open body, and 49.2 miles were covered in the ‘best’ hour. Delage drove the whole way; 1 1/2 pints of oil were used, the brakes adjusted once, and the Michelin 935×135 tyres gave no trouble. The new Delage had a 4524cc engine (80x150mm) and the sidevalves were very slightly inclined. The inlet manifold was cast with the mono-bloc cylinders but the exhaust manifold was separate. Oil from the 2.5-gallon sump was fed to the bearings and two Zenith carburettors fed the neat engine. A multi-disc clutch and unit four-speed gearbox were modern features, and the Perrot four-wheel brakes, of which Delage had had experience on his 1914 GP cars, worked extremely well. The celebrated motoring-writer WF Bradley had gone on this Paris-Nice run — his express train back to Paris took 5hr 17min longer… But Louis Delage was not content. He set out on a six-day 1320-mile run round France, covering 626 miles in one day, Bradley again the observer. The fearful state of the roads broke one of the three-quarter-elliptic back springs, quickly repaired by the mechanic. The handsome tourer cruised at 60 to 72mph and again the efficiency of the brakes was evident. The new Delage appeared at the London shows of 1919 and 1920, chassis price £1400.

But better was to follow, in the guise of the push-rod ohv Type CO2 Grand Sport version. The valves were now vertical in a detachable head, with wick-feed to the push-rod extremities. Oil was fed under pressure to the rockers. The engine was, if anything, neater than the side-valve unit, with its enclosed valve-gear. A single double-choke Zenith carburettor was now used, on a six-branch water-heated external manifold. With sporting open bodywork the top-gear ratio was 3:1, tyre size now 880×20. An alloy dash and a neat aluminium instrument-panel were individual features. The new engine gave 88bhp at 2380rpm, being planned to provide an 80mph maximum with good pick-up, rather than a higher pace. It was possible to start the 24hp Delage in top gear. Incidentally, the ohv engine had a dual magneto firing plugs on both sides of the head, and even the sidevalve power-unit had central plugs. Ready for test very early in 1921, the prototype averaged 83mph over a two-way four-mile check on an ordinary road.

Very sporting bodies were soon to appear on the 24hp overhead-valve Delage, which was a magnificent car, but which never got quite the acclaim accorded to the 372hp overhead-camshaft Hispano Suiza, although the four-speed gearbox of the Delage should have been better suited to British roads than the Hispano’s three speeds. And in 1923 the Delage cost £800 less than the Hispano in chassis form.

I find this tendency to praise the Hispano but to overlook the Delage rather odd; one discerning observer said “The six-cylinder Delage, which was produced during the war and offered to the public immediately after the Armistice, was not long in earning for itself a reputation for high maximum and average speed, this double result being obtained by the use of a very efficient engine and a chassis developed by long racing experience”.

It was not surprising that discerning motorists over here bought the 24hp Delage. Special bodies began to appear on this chassis, such as a rakish Speed Model with disappearing hood in 1919, while the Curtiss Company chose one on which to display their all-weather four-seater coupe coachwork, Charlesworth made a six-light saloon for a Liverpool client, and by 1921 an Australian motorist had had a body made on one of these fine chassis. So, among the great cars of the past, let us not forget this masterpiece of Monsieur Delage.