Blue belles

For low-cost performance between the wars, it paid to look to France. Bill Boddy recalls the impact of French blue on road and track

Sportscars need not be expensive and exotic. In the 1920s, many under-1100cc cars were reasonably affordable, while giving much fun and often surprisingly good performance. Most of the desirable ones were made in France, and of these the outstanding pair were Amilcar and Salmson.

The Amilcar from St Denis had a reasonable start, as a proper light car with a 900cc four-cylinder engine, before becoming a sportscar. The Salmson from Billancourt perhaps made less of a splash, starting as a cyclecar built under licence from GN in England. But when Salmson, with its aero-engine ancestry, went to a four-cylinder engine, a mere four pushrods to prod eight overhead valves could not have been everyone’s idea of design progress. However, both makers were soon making delectable little sportscars.

The first of this range was the Amilcar CC. The car’s name was a combination of Lamy, who had come from the pre-war Le Zebre company, and Akar who put up the finance. Edmund Moyet was the designer. These were simple little cars with quarter-elliptic-sprung chassis, but soon a series of proper little sportscars with half-elliptic front springs, but retaining side-valve fourcylinder engines, now of 1078cc, arrived. The first of these was the CGS or Amilcar Grand Sport, so typical of these small French sportscars. It appeared in 1924 and was followed in 1926 by the celebrated CGSS or Surbaisse Amilcar. These had full pressure lubrication and good performance. The six-cylinder supercharged twin-cam C6 was a proper little racing car, which could be road-equipped if required. The four-cylinder Grand Sport would do 70mph, with high gear-ratios aiding speed rather than mud-storming in trials.

The Salmson was more ambitious, with a twin-cam 1085cc engine. The Grand Prix version was a 75mph car, and 95mph was claimed for the supercharged San Sebastian model. These were not the only cars of their kind. The Ruby-engined 1094cc Senechal from Courbevoie could do 70mph in TS3 form. The Rally, campaigned here by Driskell, was another, and there were the BNC, DFP, EHP, GAR, Lombard, Mathis, Ratier, the Vernon-Derby from Vernon Balls, who sold and raced Amilcars, and others, often powered with Chapuis-Domier, Ruby, SCAP and other engines. Nor must one overlook the sporting Darmont-Morgan, d’Yrsan and Sandford three-wheelers.

Such were the cars from over the Channel. By 1927 they were at their most popular — understandably, because you could then buy an Amilcar Grand Sport for £285, a Salmson Grand Prix for £275 and a TS3 Senechal for 1215, when a 12/50 sports Alvis cost 1535, a GP Bugatti £550, Vitesse-Boulogne Frazer Nash or a Hyper Lea-Francis £495. A 3-litre Bentley, a 30/98 Vauxhall or a twin-cam 3-litre Sunbeam were for the wealthy, at £1125, £1150 and £1150, respectively. It is obvious why the 1100cc sports cars were selling — for fun and games, at Brooklands, in trials speed and mud, or for taking the girlfriend out, etc.

In 1924 the first issue of Motor Sport — then The Brooklands Gazette — luxuriated with test reports on the Red Label Bentley and the S S80 Brough Superior motorcycle, but we were soon driving the cars I have just described. In 1925 the then-Editor, Capt Richard Twelvetrees, went down to Brooldands with an L-type six-cylinder overhead-camshaft four-speed Mathis, which even Parry Thomas came to look at. Refused entry to the track at first, as the exhaust was noisy, and hampered by a slipping belt on the speedometer, top speed was estimated at about 74mph, from this disc-wheeled, long-bonneted, sports-bodied screenless little car. It was later driven to Box Hill, a favourite tester’s spot, whereit made a fast ascent in spite of rolling on the hairpins on its balloon tyres. This 1187cc Six with stark flared wings was guaranteed to do 70mph and it cost £395.

Twelvetrees, again wearing a fine fur-fronted flying helmet, competed in the 1925 London-Gloucester Trial in a Grand Prix Salmson with the characteristic ‘X’ on the radiator. At first its driver found the steering difficult at low speeds, the lack of a differential noticeable, and he had to get used to the gearchange. This little sportscar was clearly different from his 1923 11.9hp Bean and the Riley he had driven in recent MCC trials with frame aerial, radio set, and loudspeaker, which once caused him a reprimand for playing dance music in an enclosure at Royal Ascot. But over the trials route the Salmson ‘performed magnificently’ and later vanquished a muddy Leith Hill, and Pebblecombe.

In 1926 Motor Sport’s Editor tested a Type TS3 Senechal, a pointed-tail three-seater with side-mounted spare wheel. Using a popular testing ground in Surrey, petrol starvation at first proved frustrating, preventing a timed (and illegal!) ascent of Box Hill. In the end a magnificent climb of Leith Hill, right up to the tower, was accomplished, and powerful brakes helped in returning, backwards. Coldharbour and Pebblecombe also provided no trouble. The 1094cc engine had plain phosphor-bronze big-ends and care had to be taken as it was still tight, but 0-50mph was timed in 21sec and top speed was 67mph. Steering was light and quick, the clutch and gear change ‘faultless’, the price £240 or £255 with four-wheel-brakes.

Next, Twelvetrees was off to cover the 1926 Surbiton Grand Cup Trial, now in an Amilcar Grand Sport (PE4667). It had the typical one-piece channel-section mudguards and semi-cowled radiator. Bob Porter of Boon & Porter’s handed it over saying, “Give it a good caning”. From the start at Ripley, the rain poured down, the hills became almost impossible, and the lanes and forest a sea of slime. Hail and more torrential rain greeted competitors on Ranmore Common, but through it all the Amilcar went splendidly, until the starter jammed and the chains began to detach themselves from the rear wheels. The report concluded: ‘The Amilcar is good, real good, and a good car is good enough for most critics.

Also in 1926 Motor Sport tested another Salmson, described as a Grand Sport, loaned this time by racing driver George Newman. In November weather the Editor put on his Stormguard coat and the cameraman followed in a Morgan. With no trial to report they could concentrate on the Salmson. Wheelspin spoiled timed acceleration tests on the new Croydon bypass, but already the steering was found to have been improved and the lack of a duff ‘was only apparent at dead slow speeds’. The brakes were also much improved. The gears required a certain amount of ‘clashing’, but the racing Salmsons had the same gearboxes and no replacements had been made in three seasons.

By 1927 Editor LA Hutchings was testing an Amilcar Grand Sport, YL 69. It had been overhauled after failing on the Essex MC Six-Hour Race but was not fully freed-up for the MOTOR SPORT test But it did 66mph on a ‘slow’ speedometer, and the lowered chassis, if not suitable for rough trials, enhanced the already good road-clinging. The engine stalled in traffic and as the handbrake ratchet stuck on, much hooting from those held up ensued. But the coupled brakes, hand and foot, were truly excellent, the new model costing 1285.

The following year Hutchings was out in a Vernon Derby. Vernon Balls had given up the concession to Morgan Hastings and their Mr Kinneson gave Motor Sport a short run in an OHV Ruby-engined car. In top, under bad conditions, it gave 62mph before the ‘town’ plugs protested. The gearchange itself was very easy, the gears quiet The door on the near side ‘was appreciated by the not-so-young and the fair sex.’ After which the financial depression restricted sales of all these cars.

But their reputation had been well-established by then in voiturette races abroad and, for the more colloquial, by the good showing of them here, in racing both in long-distance and short events. At Brooldands they had gained some memorable results, such as Salmson being first and second in the 1100cc class of the 1921 JCC 200-Mile Race, which win was repeated in 1923 and in 1924, followed by a repeat 1-2 over the ‘road’ course by Goutte and de Mamier in 1925. The Amilcars took over in 1926, with a class 1-2-3 by Martin, Duray and Morel, repeated in 1927 by Morel, Balls and Martin Morel beaten only by Campbell’s Bugatti, by 1.45mph.

In the 1928 ‘200’ Balls and W B Scott were first and second in the 1100cc class, but this was with the supercharged Amilcar Sixes. Nor should one forget Goutte’s 1100cc Brooklands lap record in the very fast, hard-tohold supercharged single-seater Salmson of 114.49mph, a record unbroken for seven years, before Ron Horton went faster by 0.8sec or 1.06mph in an MG Magnette.

The length of the list of those who drove Sahnsons and Amilcars at Brooklands in the span 1920-39 gives some indication of how popular these small French sportscars were. Compact, inexpensive, sprightly and usually attractive, they brought a touch of Gallic flair to British shores.