French evolution

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This unique Delage D6 proved itself at Le Mans and in grands prix during a lengthy career. Richard Heseltine tells its story and goes for a drive

Photography by Glenn Dunbar/LAT

Speed is an optional extra. It’s the Delage’s civility that astounds. Push in the Scintilla key and you’re rewarded with a little pop and fizz, then a raspy toned-down backbeat. Reach under the dash, find the handle and pull to engage forward drive. Flick the dainty lever into first on the column-mounted Cotal change, a few revs, and take off.

More speed — it does like to rev, which is surprising. Up, across the reverse-action gate and marvel at how smooth, swift and eerily silent the electric-shift action is. It’s almost restful in here if you can ignore the Arctic breeze and abrasive hum from the tyres. The car feels unexpectedly taut and tied down, sky blue not being sent sky high with each asphalt ripple line. It’s lovely, this.

Madame Richer-Delavau clearly thought so. On buying the Delage D6 in 1936, it became a concours d’elegance regular, taking in events at Le Touquet, Bois de Boulogne and, er, Eastbourne, where she received the faintly patronising award of ‘smartest car owned by a lady’. All the more remarkable as the engine’s high compression often resulted in flames being spat out in the judges’ direction.

Except back then the car really was elegant, not the pared-back functionality you see here. Chassis 50688 originally wore a coupé body designed by Louis Delage and built by Joseph Figoni, this devilish red confection coming complete with rear-wheel spats and ‘dickey’ seat. Built to contest that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours race, the car’s 2984cc straight-six was prepared with a special bronze cylinder head and triple Solex carburettors set-up, only for the race to be cancelled due to industrial turmoil.

Once its preening career was over, the Delage was displayed in Walter Watney’s Paris showroom, where it caught the attention of, ahem, colourful ‘slot-machine king’ Louis Gérard. Or rather his smitten nine-year-old son Jean-Yves, who coerced him into buying the car. Apocryphal, maybe, but legend has it that he paid in 20-centime coins.

Despite no prior competition aspirations, Gérard was persuaded by Jacques de Valance that the car needed to be exercised — it was a racing car, after all — so they should team up for Le Mans. Thus, at the age of 38 he made his racing debut in the 1937 24 Hours, diable rouge  (thanks to his bright red overalls) and de Valance finishing a remarkable fourth overall behind Jean-Pierre Wimille’s winning Bugatti and the works Delahayes. What’s more, they bagged 3-litre class honours.

After completing the rest of the season, the D6 underwent weight-saving surgery, the coupé bodywork being removed and transplanted onto a Delahaye 135 (that was later campaigned in rallies by Germaine Rousalt). With full factory support, Gerard commissioned Figoni to reclothe the chassis with a new open-configuration affair, saving some 156kg in the process.

With its new look the Delage led an active 1938, Gérard finishing second in the Spa 24 Hours behind a supercharged Alfa Romeo 2900B. Undoubted highlight, though, was his storming drive in the RAC Tourist Trophy at Donington Park. Despite a 100mph spin he braved the appallingly wet conditions to score an emphatic win. But this would be his last season with the D6 before trading the car with the Hon Peter Aitken for a Maserati 6CL. Gérard would continue racing until 1951, taking runner-up spot at Le Mans in 1939 and second in the 1950 GP de Paris. He died in May 2000 at the impressive age of 101.

Under Aitken (better known later as Lord Beaverbrook, the moneyed newspaper mogul) there would be no more overall wins. During 1939 the car was raced at Brooklands and Crystal Palace, where he took class victory in the Plate Handicap, before the arrival of WWII saw the end of play. But not the end of the car’s career. Once the conflict was over, the Delage was spotted for sale at Robert Arbuthnot’s High Speed Motors by Pat Garland. The impressively moustachioed former motorcycle racer had long harboured ambitions to switch to four wheels and, backed by a post-war inheritance, had the means to do so. Originally he’d been interested in an Alfa 8C35 but concluded that he’d likely kill himself with it. Also in the Paddington showroom was the D6, which seemed more user-friendly. With a paucity of available racing cars, it came with a hefty price premium: Garland forked out £2000 for a car which had cost £900 new. What’s more, it wasn’t even ready to race.

After rebuilding the engine’s top end and fettling the brakes, the former Ricardo apprentice made his competition debut at Prescott on May 19 1946. Then came Shelsley Walsh. And disaster. On spinning off in the wet, he ploughed down a recently planted sapling before connecting with the timing gear.

Having developed an aversion to hillclimbing, Garland’s first race was at that year’s Belgian Grand Prix. With Spa closed, the event was staged around the Bois de la Cambre. Despite his lack of experience, Garland held on around the 3km street circuit to finish a creditable sixth overall.

His effort didn’t go unnoticed — the organisers of several French races offered Garland starting money. But there was one proviso: he had to paint the car green so as to give their grids a more ‘nationalistic’ feel. His next outing was at Nantes, where the inherent dangers involved were bought into sharp focus. Against a backdrop of deep ditches either side of the road, Garland passed Robert Mazaud’s upturned Maserati, the French ace having apparently being punted off by one Louis Gérard. The Delage ran its big ends before the finish of a race in which even leader Wimille withdrew while leading, presumably without too much regret.

By now relocated to Paris, Garland ordered one of the first Talbot-Lago T26Cs, but continued delays with its arrival meant the Delage raced on into the late ’40s. Competing at Chimay, Lille and Montlhéry — where he co-drove in the 12 Heures de Paris with John Gordon, future instigator of the Gordon-Keeble road car — Garland picked up minor places: at the same banked circuit he finished sixth in the May ’48 Grand Prix de Paris.

Failing health ultimately forced Garland to give up motorsport (if only for a while: he was still entering sprints in his eighties), the Delage and Talbot being put into storage in Kingston-upon-Thames. The garage was burgled in 1951 and the cars stolen; police investigations failed to uncover any leads, the Delage disappearing from view until discovery by Anthony Blight in the early ’80s. Semi-derelict and missing its bronze cylinder head, the car’s identity was nonetheless in no doubt. Eventually Colin Crabbe saved 50688 for a customer, a two-year restoration seeing the D6 returned to former glory. Much of the original bodywork was saved, Rod Jolley replicating the wings destroyed during Garland’s off-road excursion at Shelsley.

And it’s those swept-back wings that lend the Delage such an air of individuality, even if unwanted reference points with Kougar kit cars tend to blight the picture. Though not as attractive as many period rivals, there’s a slightly awkward grace that captivates; the flashy chrome-wire wheels a constant through the car’s competition career. It really is very special.

With useful half doors, it’s easy to clamber aboard, though the size of the steering wheel and close proximity of the dashboard encroach on knee room, a situation not helped by the closeness of the throttle and brake pedals. Yet once comfortable, or at least in a close approximation, there’s much to love, not least the view across that louvred acreage of bonnet; the winged radiator cowling mascot was a Garland addition.

With around 130bhp the initial acceleration is immediate, the Cotal change proving a doddle with familiarity. You expect to be all fingers and thumbs, but there’s nothing to it. The changes are near seamless, providing a sense of refinement alien to many competition cars of the period. The steering, too, is responsive, without the expected kickback. Though the underpinnings are prosaic — a box-section frame with independent front suspension, beam rear axle on semi-elliptics, friction dampers all round — the D6 doesn’t try to throw you off the road with each camber change or second-guess your resolve when cornering.

Considering it was a racer, the Delage makes for a convincing road car. You can just picture Pat Garland loading his suitcases and tool boxes onto his boot rack and setting off for the races, moustache billowing in the airstream. That he used the D6 as everyday transport for much of his ownership comes as no surprise. In coupé form, the car was a gran turismo  before the term had even been coined. Letting in daylight didn’t change that.

 

Thanks to Peter Jacobs for historical information: www.delage-world.co.uk

 

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