The House of Hotchkiss

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It started as a French armaments company making rifles for Napoleon III, and became one of the most admired early car marques. Bill Boddy recalls the Hotchkiss Company.

I think it is safe to say that the Hotchkiss Company was one of those manufacturers who never made a bad car, or at least very few of them. Others come into this enviable category – Lancia, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, and no doubt you have opinions about this. The Hotchkiss from Saint-Denis by the Seine was esteemed in Great Britain, maybe because it was controlled by Englishmen, who would have known the differences between the roads of wide-open France and those of this compact little island.

Certainly in the post-vintage years Hotchkiss advocates could sit in their 100mph Paris-Nice saloons feeling in no way inferior to their neighbours who had invested in Bentley’s new ‘Silent Sports Car’. The Hotchkiss name was also known to those who rode behind engines of this make in early Morris Cowley cars, and later, the BSA three-wheeler fraternity had Hotchkiss-designed vee-twins in their front-wheel drive tricars.

Hotchkiss had armament origins, hence the crossed-guns motif on its radiator badge. Benjamin Hotchkiss had started making quick-firing rifles for Napoleon III in 1867 and he soon set up his factory at Saint-Denis. It all went very well until the demand for weapons receded, causing them to appoint Charles Parsons as the company chairman, thus establishing a first management link with this country.

To offset the effect of peace on the business, Parsons began the manufacture of parts for firms such as Panhard and de Dietrich, and in 1903 he advocated making cars under the Hotchkiss banner.

To this end M Terrasse, who had been responsible for the impressive Mors racing cars, was engaged as chief designer and his assistant was the brother of Henri Fournier, the renowned racing driver, who himself was appointed the Paris agent for the scarcely weaned Hotchkiss. This motor racing background probably provided the reason why an entry was put in for the important, but as it turned out tragic, 1903 race intended to go from Paris to Madrid. Sadly accidents caused an ignominious termination at Bordeaux. In fact, the new marque was shown at the 1903 Paris Salon.

These initial models were of 18 and 35hp, the latter with a four-cylinder engine of 75-litres. This was in the Edwardian tradition, and not long afterwards the 40/50hp six-cylinder Hotchkiss arrived on the scene to challenge the Rolls-Royce ‘Silver Ghost’. After its launch at Saint-Denis, the new French make was established in Britain in 1904 by JJ Mann, who had the foresight to install his nephew HM Ainsworth in the Saint-Denis drawing-office.

After a spell as head road-tester, Ainsworth rose to be production manager before war broke out in 1914, and was to remain the guiding influence at Hotchkiss in the inter-war years.

By 1905 it had become the car which many of the English aristocracy were using, the owners including the Duke of Westminster and Lady Lonsdale, while that motor-minded Master of Foxhounds John Hargreaves kept quite a stud of Hotchkiss cars at his Somerset seat. The car with the circular radiator and much-louvred bonnet was taking its rightful place with the best money could buy.

Had you gone to the Olympia Motor Show in, say, 1910, you might well have admired the range of exhibits, from the 16/20hp Melhuish torpedo, priced at £540, to the 20/30hp X-Iandauktte with body by the same coachbuilder, at £765, which would seat “4 or 5 inside, 2 outside”. Then there was the Hamshaw cabriolet, its six-cylinder paired-cylinder engine having its side-by-side valves discreetly enclosed. A further walk around the show would tell you that not only did these two bodybuilders have Hotchkiss cars on their own stands but that the celebrated firm of Thrupp & Maberley had put a blue 16hp Hotchkiss ‘single landaulette’ among the 40/50hp Rolls-Royce, Mors and Dodson cars on their stand.

Another aspect which probably made Hotchkiss well-respected in this country was the fact that from the start these cars were handled by the London and Parisian Motor Co Ltd of Davies Street, London W1, which remained unchanged for some 25 years, until Harold Radford took over.

The Hotchkiss reputation had been embellished by its appearance in long-distance trials, in France, in Ireland, and even in India where the Nizam of Hyderabad was a satisfied owner. Those who went to Brooklands would perhaps have seen Guy Lewin driving his 80hp Hotchkiss there, one of the big racing cars obviously.

In fact, Hotchkiss had very early on decided to invest 150,000 francs in a racing programme, commencing in 1904. It did not really pay off, although there was a fifth place for Le Blon in the 1905 Circuit des Ardennes race.

Neither the 18.8-litre 1905 Hotchkiss racing cars nor the 1906 GP entry of 16.2-litre cars for Le Blon, Salleron and Shepard had any success; the pay-off came in America, in minor forays. The company gave up racing after this, and it appears that Ainsworth got little credit for competing in the important 1914 Austrian Alpine Trials.

In 1912 the main line was smaller-engined models, with L-head power-units, the smallest the Type-Z monobloc four-cylinder 2.2-litre, made from 1910. But it was those Type A1318/22hp and 20/30hp cars, still with paired cylinders, which were the mainstay, until war broke out when production reverted to guns.

Indeed, Hotchkiss played a major part in this direction, the output of its machine guns rising from 50 to 4000 a month; there had been the dramatic evacuation of 4000 workers and loads of machine-tools from Saint-Denis to Lyons as von Kluck’s armies advanced. By the end of the hostilities Hotchkiss et Cie found itself with more than four munitions factories in France, and one in Coventry making automatic weapons. With the Armistice, the Lyons group of works was sold to Saurer but the Coventry factory, which Ainsworth had instituted, began to make engines for Morris, until bought out in 1923, to become Morris Motors Ltd (Engine Branch).

After life returned to something like normal, Hotchkiss was back with car production, the quality of its products maintained, and held in high esteem. There at the 1919 London Motor Show was the 18/28hp four-cylinder chassis, costing £1075 and shown with a Barker landaulette body. The radiator was now of an oval, slightly horseshoe shape. The new Orano plant, opened in 1925, saw Ainsworth in charge from 1928 – he did not get on with William Morris the Saint-Denis factory now used for bodywork production, and a foundry opened in 1927, at Clichy.

The rather heavy side-valve Type AF 18/44hp model was enlivened by the use of push-rod and rocker overhead valve gear on a sports engine by late 1921. The long inlet-manifoldriser was fully water-jacketted to humour the triple-diffuser Zenith carburettor and the HT leads passed through the cylinder-block, from the magneto on the o/s to the horizontal plugs on the n/s. This Type AH 3969cc model cost 28,000 post-war francs, and of it one reporter said: “The new Hotchkiss in every way typifies the high-class workmanship associated with this make, the design of every part bearing the stamp of experience. It is a beautiful chassis, albeit an expensive one.”

The Type AH 37.2hp six-cylinder 4WB companion chassis cost around £2200 with Bleriot electrics. On this, Hotchkiss had been unable to resist following others with ‘aero-car’ valve-gear, but in their case the miniature overhead-camshaft had the complication of actuating the valves through links to the rockers.

It is interesting, in view of the origin of the ‘Hotchkiss Drive’, that an open prop-shaft had been substituted by a torque-tube, the front end of which was anchored to a chassis cross-member! Both 1922 models had cantilever back springs, the Super Car with rigid girder-members above them to give progressive action. Only one of the Hispano-challenging Super Hotchkiss was built, however.

Terrasse left and it was now Ainsworth’s turn to maintain the make’s good name. How very well he did this! He settled for a one-model policy until 1928, with a new Type AM. It was a straightforward 2-litre side-valve four, not over fast but with nice handling. Incidentally, it had reverted to Hotchkiss drive. (After Terrasse left, Vincent Benet became Chief Engineer until 1928 when the famous ex-Fiat and STD racing-car designer Bertarioni took over).

But this was only the beginning. Next came the push-rod ohv AM2, at 1,570. Better was to follow, in 1928, when the AM80, 3-litre 80x100mm six emerged, using most of the AM2 chassis, but again with torque-tube transmission! The engine had a seven-bearing crankshaft, was rubber-mounted, and possessed a Lanchester vibration-damper to smooth out its 70bhp. The latest car had a means of squirting oil onto the cylinder walls. MOTOR SPORT tried one in 1932 and liked it.

All manner of small but worthwhile improvements were made along the years, to this delectable motor car. Ainsworth had its excellence demonstrated in various ways. At Montlhery track a 40,000-mile demonstration run had been completed at 66mph on five cylinders, after a big-end had gone, instead of the opening 79mph; but there were five ‘clean-sheets’ in the 1929 Paris-Nice Rally. In those times it was the winter Monte Carlo Rally that was the one to win and Vasselle did this for Hotchkiss in 1932, with a 100bhp 3.5-litre saloon that anticipated the production 1933 £820 AM80S, which could exceed 80mph.

There were some smaller new fours, too, but it was the six-cylinder models that earned Saint-Denis its reputation. In 1933 Vasselle again won the Monte Carlo marathon, after starting from far away Tallin in Estonia. With a good showing in that year’s Paris-Nice and a team class victory in the tough Alpine Trial, how could sporting Britishers ignore this fine French car?

There were other race and rally successes and those who went to their beloved Brooklands in 1935 and saw the veteran Albert Divo – cap worn, as ever, back-to-front – finish sixth in the BRDC 500-Mile Race, might have been reminded that this beautifully streamlined 2-litre single-seater Hotchkiss had taken class records of up to 5000 miles at 94.73mph at MontIhery. And, at the 1934 Paris Salon, the Paris-Nice Hotchkiss was unveiled. Here was a comfortable closed car (although roadsters were listed) which would exceed 90mph, do 70 in third, yet was still flexible, in spite of 115bhp at 3500rpm by reason of a raised compression ratio and twin downdraught Solex carburettors, the gear-ratios raised to comply.

It did not end there. From a complex range of models, some with what must be regarded as retrograde features (transverse drag-link steering, for example) the 95 to 100mph Type GS, a Grand Sport developing some 130bhp by reason of a 72:1 CR applied to the Paris-Nice engine, was available at the remarkably competitive price of £675. Couple this with some more rally accolades, such as a second by Jean Trevoux in the 1938 Monte Carlo Rally, with Mme Simon winning the Coupe des Dames, and in 1939 Trevoux and his co-driver Leserque tying with a Delahaye for top place in the ‘Monte’, Mme Simon again best of the lady competitors. All of which put the Hotchkiss in pretty high regard in those heady 1930s.

MOTOR SPORT was in there, testing a 2.5-litre tourer, and in 1939, the month before war was declared, HM Bentley & Partners gave us a day with a Grand Sport saloon, having taken on the agency, really for the £250 Gregoire-Hotchkiss small car. At Brooklands the docile GS clocked 97.83mph over the flying-start 1/4mile, just a fifth of a second off ‘the ton’. It accelerated from 0 to 60mph in 14 seconds, to 80 mph in 27 seconds, and in the 5.12-to-1 third gear, did just over 70mph. ‘Goes Like a Gun’ we headed the test report.

It all ended with that aforesaid small car, for conditions were against big cars in France in the mid-Thirties, although Hotchkiss kept up its impressive Monte Carlo Rally performance, with outright victory again in 1949 and 1950. Alas, having shaken off a Peugeot takeover, Hotchkiss temporarily shut down in 1952, then merged with Delahaye. That meant making mostly commercial vehicles, apart from a try with facelifted cars at the 1954 Salon. Proof that even the mighty can fall, and sad for a make which had performance as good or better than the Derby Bentleys and similar cars in their day, for around half the price.

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