Forgotten Makes: Vinot et Déguingand

The Vinot et Déguingand was a typical product of France, hailing from Puteaux beside the Seine, so that perhaps some of the great reputation of Renault should have been passed on to it. I was reminded that it is not quite a “forgotten make” when I encountered Tobias Ward’s 1922 15/20hp two-seater in Presteigne High Street and again later attempting to climb Pilleth One, on the occasion of the recent VSCC Welsh Trial, and was told that he has a collection of these cars. However, let’s get on…

Known at first by its full title, the Vinot et Déguingand was soon called a Vinot-Déguingand and later, in this country, became just the Vinot, a relief, no doubt, to those lacking scholarship in the Gallic language. (What, I wonder, would present-day clever motor journalists have named it — Wino probably). It had begun at the Puteaux works in 1901, when simple vertical-twin cars were made, with the inlet valves opened by the force of nature without engineering aids, and transmission by a mixture of belt and chain. Clearly before the age of Mercedes enlightenment. These small 5½hp Vinots were imported into Britain as La Silencieuses, a name which must have been just as much an embarrassment to illiterate Englishmen as if the full French title had been employed… They must have been tricked, too, by the vertical gear-gate, as on much later ABC light cars, but at least the chassis had a frame of pressed steel.

However, enlightenment was soon an influence. By 1903 the transmission of a Vinot was conventional for the age, with final drive by side chains, the twin-cylinder had progressed, now incorporating several improvements, and it had been joined by two four-cylinder Vinot et Déguingands, the 14hp Type-H and the 18hp Type-F, both with normal T-head engines and four-speed gearboxes, although for some reason the chassis were now of armoured timber — a steel shortage, perhaps? The make was soon well-known in this country, Vinot Limited taking premises at 147 Great Portland Street, W1, much later to become the haunt of the used-car dealers, when you might see the omnibuses pulling out to avoid the Brooklands Lanchester Forty single-seater parked in all its racing starkness, or be able to admire a Strasbourg GP Sunbeam in the showrooms of Sprosens Ltd — with the kerb-side “motor-copers” doing dubious business in not-far-away Warren Street.

But all that was very much in the future. Great Portland Street was then London’s “street of cars”, with important new models on display in the then-fashionable showrooms. It seems that by 1906 the French manufacturer had sufficient supplies of steel to re-introduce such chassis on its larger cars, which had been graced by honeycomb radiators. Clearly prosperity prevailed, for the Vinot model-range now included a fine 30hp car with dual ignition for its 5.8-litre power-unit, and a 6.5-litre six-cylinder. Nor was the competition side neglected by the English branch of the Company. This was a time when motor racing and record-breaking figured quite prominently in motor manufacturers’ advertising, Martini for example announcing in 1910 that a three-year old car of theirs had won a race at Brooklands, and Benz publicising their Land Speed Record of 127.877mph and successes in hill-climbs and reliability trials over the worst roads in Europe, such as that from Moscow to St Petersburg. Vinot had had W F Adams down at the Track in 1913, where he broke Class-B records with a 70X 110mm-engined Vinot for distances of 50 kilometres to 100 miles, including taking the hour record at 68.13mph.

And long before that the make had been in the public eye (or eyes) at Brooklands iii the first year of its existence, when motor racing was new in this country and thus received much Press attention At the Opening Meeting in 1907 Mr C Harman Wigan’s Vinot, driven by Norman Littlejohn, ran in the first Heat of the Marcel Renault Memorial Plate, and the make was represented during the 1908 season by Gerald Bliss with his 41hp car and subsequently by J A Viasto’s 24.8hp “Doozie” which lapped at over 72mph in winning the 1910 Easter Junior Private Competitors Handicap. This was fast enough for it to be placed frequently on the scratch mark, as was Gordon Usmar’s 15.9hp Vinot, driven for him by E W Brooks, with a lap capability of 50mph in 1910.

In 1912 the London depot sent its rather neat trade van down to the track as support during the RAC long-distance standard car race, but to no avail, as a Vinot was not placed.

If you regard this as low-key, Vinot had run a car, driven by Littlejohn, in the 1905 loM TT, its 90x130mm 14hp engine running up to 900rpm. It came home third, not far behind the winning Arrol-Johnston and Percy Northey’s Rolls-Royce. A slightly larger Vinot, with a bore of 95mm but the same 130mm stroke, was entered for the 1906 TT, the output now 22bhp at 1000rpm, and the highest (direct) gear-ratio being 2 to 1. But Usmar ran out of petrol and failed to finish. Undeterred, a bigger 105x140mm Vinot, rated at 27.5 RAC hp and developing 28bhp at 1000rpm, was put in for the 1907 TT but without distinction. For the famous “Four Inch” TT of 1908 they tried again, with a 4 x 5½in four-cylinder engine and a three-speed gearbox, claiming 42bhp at 1600rpm to play with, sufficient to bring Ross Browne’s car sixth, behind a Hutton, two Darracqs, a Calthorpe and a Thornycroft.

The parent company was even more ambitious, building a team of three cars for the 1912 Coupe de L’Auto race at Dieppe, with 89 x 120mm engines using push-rod overhead valves and side exhaust valves, and graced by long streamlined tails. The drivers appointed were the brothers Leon and Lucien Molon who came from Le Havre, and Vonlatum, in the small-car division, after Leon Molon’s engine had shed all its oil, the GP placing being 11th out of 13 finishers. The Molon brothers were out again in the Grand Prix de France at Le Mans that September and they finished in third and fifth places, sandwiching the Th Scheider with which they had duelled. It was perhaps too much to expect the now yearold Vinot- Déguingands to cope with the 1913 Coupe de L’Auto race and, indeed, both retired. But, you see, the competition aspect of the long-established make was not entirely lacking.

How much good these racing appearances did to Vinot cannot be established. But the fact is that when these cars were exhibited at Olympia they were seen to be much improved for 1911, with L-type sidevalve engines, the 25/30hp model having a three-bearing crankshaft with a large centre bearing, full pressure lubrication, and with enclosed valve stems on the popular 12/15 hp model. Prices were competitive, a three-quarter landaulette on the big chassis being offered for £700 and the small chassis being priced at £300, or at £475 as a landaulette. A torpedo version was also available and Salmons and Sons of Newport Pagnell had been pleased to show a special fully convertible from closed to open body on the four-cylinder 25/30hp Vinot chassis. The motor papers, very non-committal in pre-WW1 times when publishing road-test reports, decided that the 15hp Vinot was a nice little motor-car, able to climb Newlands Corner hill near Guildford from the South side in the middle speed of its three-speed gearbox, which was easy to use with expressions such as “…fast enough for British roads, the vibrationless engine turning fast, but it turns well” and “the road is securely held”. The 15 cwt two-seater was regarded as “a car likely to be most satisfactory to the owner-driver at the price”, especially as Captain detachable wheel-rims were standard equipment. The 70 x 110mm engine was rated here as a 12/14, and the annual tax in 1910 was a mere £4.20, and on the big car £6.30.

After France had emerged from the devastating war years the old Vinot models were produced again in 1919, but with electric lighting. There were those who considered that the pre-war reputation of the make had diminished, and certainly prices had almost doubled. But for 1921 a new 1.8-litre Type BP 12/25hp car was announced. (From 1910 Vinot owned the Gladiator marque but these cars had been dropped in 1920). The new offering was a curious combination of pre-war and new design, as were some others at this difficult times. For example, a leather-to-metal cone clutch was retained, as was a separate gearbox and straight-bevel final-drive, but there was electric lighting and starting of Vinot’s own manufacture. The factory was now at Nanterre, and in London the Great Portland Street premises had been extended.

The post-war Vinots were mostly rather dull but well contrived family cars, with nicely laid-out electrical wiring and of conscientious general construction. However, the sporting side was not entirely overlooked. At Olympia in 1919 a last minute surprise was a rather fine sporting model, on the Type BO 15/20hp chassis, the four-seater body having a disappearing hood and curved-top boat-style panelling, finished in blue, with natural pigskin upholstery, priced at £915. The former unconventional gear-gate had been abandoned, but individuality was retained in this area by using a right-hand lever working in a ball-gate. The mainstays of the Company were the 12/14hp and 15/20hp cars. It is difficult to know what caused customers to buy Vinots at this time, when there was such a preponderance of different British, Continental and American cars available. But although Vinot finances were running out, the marque continued to be represented in this country and at the Olympia Shows until 1924.

For 1921 the 1.8-litre model was given overhead valves and aluminium pistons and had you gone to Stand No 282 that year at Olympia I expect a salesman would have been quick to tell you of the additional springs at the rocker extremities, to quieten the valvegear, and to point to the fully-enclosed clutch mechanism ahead of the barrel-shaped gearbox. The new valvegear had been carefully designed, the valves in cages in the cylinder head, their springs easy to replace (they were apt to lose their temper in those days) and with a compression-ratio of 4.5:1 the engine was stated give 30bhp at 2000rpm. The previous generosity of greasers had given way to oilers, replenished with a large pump kept in the tool-kit. CAV electrics now prevailed and the new o h v chassis was listed in 1921 at £525. The rear brakes were properly compensated (four wheel brakes came by 1924) and with wire wheels and a neat radiator the Vinot was a good-looking car.

Although racing had been virtually abandoned, the first Le Man 24-hour touring-car race aroused many makers in 1923, Vinot among them. They put in their 1.8-litre car, and remained faithful to the Molon brothers as drivers. It was not fast, but it was not disgraced; it completed the long grind in 26th place, ahead of a Brasier, a Corre la Licorne, a Georges-lrat and a SARA, in a marathon from which another SARA, a Berliet and a Lorraine had quitted. On that note, let this be the swan-song of an apparently rather likeable Gallic motor-car.

In fact, it was not quite the finale. Donnet had taken over the Nanterre factory, but the Déguingand name was revived in 1928 with the arrival of a little 7hp 961cc two-stroke with a wheelbase of eight feet and a track of only 3ft 5in, which gave it a pleasingly slim look. The Boston Automobile Engineering Company was hoping to sell this little coupe for £135 (the same as a saloon Austin 7) from premises in the Fulham Road. I liked the look of it, but what on paper appears good does not always bear this out on the road, and nothing more was heard of it.