I have always thought it one of the most curious ironies of motoring history that in the years between the wars the leading French makers should have largely left the defence of France’s colours in the great races to an Italian who had set up making motor cars in Germany. Unless, of course, you hold that he really began it in Italy; for the first reference to le Patron which I have ever come across is in connection with the Paris-Bordeaux race of 1899 in which, it is said, “a Signor Bugatti of Milan rode an Italian-built tricycle of exceptionally interesting design”; and absence of any further details has permitted my imagination to run riot with regard to the possible features of interest in the youthful Ettore’s 3-wheeler.
According to the erudite article on Bugatti history written by Cecil Clutton and published in Motor Sport in 1941, however, Ettore probably got his Molsheim factory going some time in 1907 or 1908. Molshem, of course, was then in Germany and it is a further curious piece of irony that whereas in the Kaiser war Bugatti nevertheless spent his time building aero engines for the French, in the Hitler war, although Molsheim had by then moved into France, Allied aeroplanes found it necessary to blow the Bugatti factory there to smithereens. So much so, apparently, that Ettore decided to move to Paris and occupy one of the Licorne factories. What has happened to the ousted unicorn has not, as far as I am concerned, as yet transpired; but the curious thing is that by moving into its factory Bugatti has at last become heir to that long French tradition which he has hitherto lacked.
The history of the Société des Automobiles Corre la Licorne would seem to go back to the Paris-Toulouse-Paris race of 1900, in which M. Corre started in the voiturette class on a 4-h.p. Fouillaron, which turned the scales at the hardly excessive weight of 250 kilogrammes (or say 5 cwt.).
“The Fouillaron,” says Mr. Hasluck, when writing on the subject of transmission systems, “is the best known and most representative of those in which the power is transmitted by belts working over extensible pulleys, the speed varying according to the mechanically-produced alteration of the ratio that the diameter of the driving pulley bears to that of the driven one . . . In a car exhibited at the Paris Salon, 1902, the sympathetic movements of the two pulleys were obtained by chains, not unlike cycle roller chains.”
The Fouillaron did not finish the Paris-Toulouse-Paris race and it seems possible that the movements of its two pulleys did not appear as sympathetic to M. Corre as they did to Mr. Hasluck. In any case, for the Paris-Bordeaux race of 1901 the former built a car for himself, with a 6-h.p. single-cylinder engine, 90 by 100 mm. bore and stroke (634 c.c.), and — shaft drive. It did not finish either; but by the time that Paris-Berlin was run, Corre had two cars ready and although he did not do any good himself, his team-mate Morin was third in the voiturette class, at 23.7 m.p.h., being only beaten by two 8-h.p. Renaults with engines of 100 by 130 mm. bore and stroke.
The weight limit for voiturettes was 400 kgm. and the 6-h.p. Corre was pretty close up to it. Nevertheless, by 1902, even if the Renault performance could not be equalled, it was found possible, without exceeding the limit, to instal an engine which was also nominally an 8-h.p., the dimensions being 100 by 110 mm. (861 c.c.), in spite of which, and of the rough Austrian roads, Aurand’s Corre was fourth in its class in the Paris-Vienna race. Corre himself, as usual, did not finish; but he had his revenge by scoring the first win for the marque a month later in the voiturette class of the Circuit des Ardennes.
Paris-Madrid in 1903 was almost more remarkable, for in that “race to death,” four Corres started and four finished, an achievement which, very properly, earned their constructor a gold medal. The engine by now was a 2-cylinder, 110 by 130 mm. bore and stroke (2,466 c.c.), rather modestly called a 12-h.p. Two of the cars, in fact, ran in the 650-kgm. class, but Corre himself was fastest on one of the voiturette machines.
This performance was too much for General Booth, of the Salvation Army, and when he went on his grand evangelising tour in 1905 he decided to use no less than seven Corres, a 9-h.p., a 10-h.p., three “twelves,” a 14-h.p. and a 15-18-h.p., the last two being 4-cylinder machines. “We have now been motoring for nearly a week,” reported the Daily Telegraph, “and it is not too much to say that, with the exception of being a little late for one or two meetings, there has not been one single hitch in the programme.”
During the next year, 1906, or so I think, there was built in the Corre factory a rather remarkable and eventually tragic, motor car. Corre, in fact, had decided to return to racing, but he did not propose to cross swords with the victorious Sizaire et Naudin in the first Coupe de l’Auto.
On the contrary, the new racer appeared among the heavy cars in the Circuit des Ardennes and was driven by d’Hespel, who had been at the wheel of one of the over-weight cars in Paris-Madrid. It failed to complete so much as one lap, but the last, I think, had not been heard of it. At any rate a car with the same bore and stroke — 150 by 150 mm.— and otherwise, according to the published particulars, identical except that it was called 80 instead of 70 h.p., was the sole representative of the house of Corre in the 1907 Grand Prix at Dieppe, where it was driven by Collomb. It finished the course, but pretty low down the list, and there was no sign of Corre among the entries for the 1908 race. The last, however, had not been heard of the 1907 racer, as shall presently transpire.
It was somewhere about this period that Corre cars came to assume the additional appellative of “la Licorne” (“the Unicorn”). The reason for it remains to me a mystery; another mystery, as far as I am concerned, is why, at about this time, French manufacturers who had hitherto stuck rigidly to their own names, started to wallow in this sort of zoo mania which led to the “Lion Peugeot” or “le Zèbre” (“the ‘Zebra”). At any rate Collomb’s voiturette racer of 1910, with the single-cylinder engine of 100 by 300 mm. bore and stroke, on which I remarked in these columns recently, was called a Corre “la Licorne,” but for all that was nothing like as fast as the 2-cylinder “Lion” Peugeot, which, in fact, successfully beat the Unicorn all round the town — or at least the road circuit at Boulogne!
D’Hespel, having apparently set up on his own, did not indulge in any such flippancies of nomenclature, but I regret to say that his cars which appeared in this race were not very successful. “One of the D’Hespel cars overturned early in the race,” reported the Autocar, “and the second one withdrew after going furiously round the course ten times. Burgess declared that for nearly half a round he followed the D’Hespel, unable to pass it owing to the wild manner in which it danced about on the road.”
In the meantime, racing for anything but voiturettes, which was hardly regarded as real racing anyhow, was generally considered as dead as the dodo. Just how dead may be gathered from a chance remark of Mr. C. L. Freeston in his book “The Passes of the Pyrenees,” published in 1912.
“I made the ascent of the Col du Tourmalet,” he remarks, ” . . on the 18-h.p. Austin of my friend Mr. J. T. Burton-Alexander, well known in the memorable and much-lamented days of automobile racing as an amateur driver in various classic events.” The days of classic events were evidently, in his opinion, a thing of the past. The birth, at a later date, of such a journal as Motor Sport, would doubtless have seemed to him miraculous. But even while he was ascending the Col du Tourmalet, away in Le Mans, that home of so many future classic events, something momentous was happening; nothing less than the resumption of big car racing with an event organised by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest under the title of the Grand Prix de France.
There seems to he some confusion in the minds of present-day commentators on those “memorable days” as to why this race is not included in the list of pre-Kaiser war Grands Prix, which is usually given as 1906, 1907, 1908, 1912, 1913 and 1914. But the explanation is perfectly simple. The full title of the races listed was the “Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France,” and although the A.C.F. authorised the 1911 race at Le Mans to be called the “Grand Prix de France,” it bore no closer relation to its own events than did, for example, the Grand Prix d’Endurance of later years. As witness the fact that when the Grand Prix de l’A.C.F. was revived in 1912, the Grand Prix de France continued to be run in addition. But enough of such historical technicalities. The fact remains that in 1911 motor racing, which was thought to be dead, was brought to life again. The only difficulty was that manufacturers had got out of the habit of building racing cars — apart from the faithful few who had all along competed in the voiturette races, and were represented on this occasion by Côte, the 2-stroke exponent, an Excelsior and an Alcyon. Only one firm, Rolland-Pilain, built a team of rather pleasant 6-litre racers for the event. Fiat, perhaps, did not need to in order to be worthily represented, since the 10-litre 1908 Grand Prix model had been put into production, and Hémery turned up with a stripped chassis which he happened to have on his hands because the proprietor of a Paris café had refused it in a rage as it had not been delivered to time — a fit of temper which, although that is quite another story, was to prove providential as it eventually resulted in the spurned motor car, which was of the same type as that on which Anthony Heal has so greatly distinguished himself, winning the race.
The majority of the rest were relics of the past, dug up for the occasion by men who were really vintagents before their time. Duray appeared with a 1906 Grand Prix De Dietrich, Anthony with a 1908 Porthos, and, to return at last to our Unicorns, Maurice Fournier, the younger brother of the winner of Paris-Berlin ten years before, with a big Corre racing car said to be four years old —presumably, in fact, the 1907 Grand Prix car, which, as already stated, I suspect was really built in 1906. Finally, as a counterpoise to this heavy metal from the past, the gentleman from Molsheim, herald of the future, sent a 6-cwt. Bugatti, which must have been at least first-cousin to Type 13, although the engine dimensions are given as 65 by 110 mm. instead of 65 by 100 mm.
Horror-struck at such audacity, the stewards solemnly declared that it was too light to run in the light-car class! There was in fact something to be said for the contention that it was too light to run at all, because it seems that le Patron had omitted to provide any fixing for the spare wheel, with the result that the unfortunate mechanic was forced to hug it for the best part of six hours. For all that it finished the race in remarkable style, while the old Corre, after being in the lead, broke its front axle and Fournier and his mechanic were killed.
But even if contemporaries thought so, motor racing, in spite of such tragedies, was not also dead. Move the time-machine ten years forward, and the Grand Prix de l’A.C.F. has been run again; Le Mans is once more noisy with the exhaust note of the competitors in the Grand Prix des Voiturettes for 1,500-c.c. cars. Everyone was looking forward to a duel between the team of four Type 23 Bugattis, fresh from their triumph at Brescia ten days before, and the remarkable new Talbot-Darracqs. But it was not to be. “The entire Bugatti team failed to appear,” reported the Autocar, “much to the disappointment of the spectators and the competitors. It was held that, having officially entered, a competitor should be obliged to start in a race . . . in the theatrical profession no artist would dare fail to appear, without valid reason, after having been billed.” The idea of le Patron feeling himself obliged to do anything has, of course, something of the comic about it; and as in fact the difficulty of getting a team of racing cars all the way from Brescia to Le Mans in time to take part in a race there ten days later seems to me to constitute an unquestionably valid reason for non-appearance, I can but think myself that it was only Ettore’s artistic temperament that ever allowed him to be “billed” at all. Our contemporary, however, could not resist a final dig. “Perhaps,” it remarked, “it was a case of proverbial discretion. The opposition this year was very formidable to the Alsatian voiturettes.”
But, curiously enough, if Bugatti was not there, Corre was, and also the faithful Collomb, who was running fourth, immediately behind the victorious Talbot-Darraeq team, in the opening rounds of the Grand Prix des Voiturettes of 1921. “The Corre La Licorne,” remarks the Autocar, in the course of its “Jottings on the Race,” “was known among the British contingent as the ‘Crawling round the corner ‘. It was capable of a pretty good ‘crawl’. Incidentally, it was fitted with a pre-war engine.”
But not, clearly, with the racing “single” of 1910, because its capacity would have exceeded the 1,500-c.c. limit by the best part of a litre, and, besides, whatever else that formidable machine may have done on corners, I very much doubt whether its height permitted it to crawl round them. More probably, I should imagine, Collomb’s new racer had a modified form of the Type KX 4-cylinder 65 by 130 mm. engine with its stroke reduced to about 113 mm. to bring it within the limit. If so, it is rather remarkable that this engine which had, I think, an “I over E” valve arrangement, was able to put up as good a performance as it did against more serious racing designs.