The Talbot Lago-America

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When driving in France, I am always conscious of a paradox: so many motorists seem to drive in a sporting way, with verve and obvious enjoyment, yet almost all drive fairly mundane saloons. There is no French equivalent of Aston Martin, Bentley, Lagonda, Jaguar, Marcos, Midas, Caterham Seven though, I suppose, Alpine roughly equates to Lotus. How different things were before the war when France could boast a range of quality and sporting cars to match any country in the world: Bugatti, Lorraine, Amilcar, Hispano-Suiza, Hotchkiss, Chenard-Walcker, Delaunay-Belleville, Salmson, Talbot’, Delage and Delahaye.

That great tradition of car making, allied to a parallel one of coachbuilding the products of which went unsurpassed for elegance and flair, came to an end in the late Fifties arid the last manifestation of it was the Talbot Lago-America. Recently I had an opportunity to briefly drive one of the 12 Americas made. It fulfilled a personal ambition for I had admired the car since first seeing a photograph of the prototype in Motor Sport, April 1957. It was also a sad occasion for reasons which will become clear later. Suffice to say at present that the car has so much personality that it sent me digging into the records to find out why it was the swan song of the tradition. It was like coming across the last survivor of a once-proud civilisation, the obvious question to ask is “why?” Why did the tradition crumble and die? The answer generally given is that it was killed by taxation but though there is a lot of truth in that, it is an over-simplification. This is what actually happened.

Lorraine’s last car was a 4.1-litre 20CV model introduced in 1932 but it was too heavy and expensive to attract many buyers and two years later the company closed down its car making division to concentrate on the more profitable aero engine side of its business. Thus a marque which had twice won at Le Mans faded. A similar fate met Hispano-Suiza cars in 1938; though the cars were no longer made the company made aero engines but, ten years later, it did exhibit a prototype fwd car with a V8 engine which never went into production. Amilcar was absorbed by Hotchkiss in 1938 and the result was the “compound”, an interesting, pretty, sporting saloon with all round independent suspension and front wheel drive. The name was not, however, revived after the war.

The war left French industry devastated and some makers were too sickly to survive long. Chenard-Walcker, winner of the first Le Mans 24 Hour race, produced a handful of cars until, in 1947, it concentrated on a light van. Four years later the company was absorbed by Peugeot. Delaunay-Belleville which pre-WWI had rivalled Rolls Royce for the title of “The Best Car In The World” was nominally a manufacturer until 1950, though produced very few cars post WW2. By the Thirties, the company had not only lost the greater part of its reputation but was producing Franco-American hybrids which, ironically, was the course chosen by Facel-Vega in its brief attempt to revive the Great Tradition in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In 1950 the Delaunay-Belleville works were given over to the manufacture of the nasty little Rovin minicar. In the case of both companies, the war cannot be used as an excuse, they would have folded anyway.

Bugatti was a different case. Ettore Bugatti had new designs in stock and, during the war, had even produced a 370 cc minicar prototype, the T68. His death in 1947 robbed the firm of much of its drive and though he left behind the T73 with its 1,486 cc sohc 4-cylinder engine fitted in a vintage style chassis which was worked on by his son, Roland in conjunction with Piero Marco to eventually produce the mono bloc dohc T102, Bugatti as a make was really dead.

Two of the little cars were made but apart from the death of Ie patron and the death in 1939 of his natural successor, his son Jean there was also a long and crimonious court case between the children of Ettore’s first marriage and the children of his second. The smart body of the T101 in normally aspirated and supercharged forms, drew attention away from the fact that it was really only are-bodied T57. Still, brochures were printed and the cars were exhibited at shows yet only ten ever reached customers, a fact not unrelated to its outrageous tag.

It is kinder, perhaps, to forget tile radical, disastrous, T251 GP car which made a single GP appearance in the 1956 French GP. The performance of the car broke Roland Bugatti’s enthusiasm and ambitious plans were quietly shelved. The company died officially in 1956. It had really died, of course, in 1947 on the death of its founding genius. It had been like a chicken which can run with its head cut off, on nervous reflexes alone. Such a chicken does not lay’ eggs.

Delage had been absorbed by Dehhaye in 1936 whereupon it became basically a badge-engineered Delahaye fitted with a three-litre, six-cylinder, rather lumpy, engine which won few friends. Still, as we approach the year 1950 the French quality / sporting motor industry was looking fairly sound, all things considered.

The design might all be dated, but the world was hungry for cars and the few entirely new designs on the world market, such as the Jaguar XK 120, were either not in volume production or in the case of the American manufacturers, not globally acceptable; a gas-guzzler wins no friends when fuel is rationed. Besides, import tariffs and the like, natural when countries are struggling to get back into business, added another dimension along with the fierce patriotism which the war naturally created.

Though its cars were still of pre-war design, Hotchkiss managed to win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1949 and 1950, with Delahaye taking the event in 1951. The six cylinder, 4½-litre Talbot had won the 1949 French and Belgian Grands Prix and continued in F1 until 1951 as well as winning the 1950 Le Mans race, the only time which a single design has won both Le Mans and a classic Grand Prix. In 1952, a re-bodied version of the same design very nearly won Le Mans again. These designs were dated but they were sound and they had the cachet of pedigree and sporting achievement.

To this day the French operate a system relating engine size to car tax which is why no contemporary French car has an engine greater than three-litres. In 1950 a car nominated as between 12CV and 15CV attracted road tax of £23 pa, but a car of 16CV (roughly three-litres) required a tax of £79 pa. This figure was more than a quarter of the cost of a contemporary Citroen 2CV. Taking the current price in Britain of a 2CV as a guide, this translates into a 1985 equivalent of around £650 pa road tax. But there was even worse news. In 1950 the French government introduced a levy which required an employer to pay the government 48% on top of his workers’ wage bill. So, for every 100 Francs he paid a worker an employer had to pay an additional 48 Francs to the government. This obviously affected the specialist car builder, and the coach builder, whose products were labour intensive.

It is not difficult to see the reasoning behind this move. In 1945 there were possibly only 300,000 usable cars in France, the mass-production makers had to be encouraged to produce a lot of cars cheaply and the labour tax rewarded those who used automation. There were social programmes to fund, too, and if you could afford a Delahaye with coachwork by Franay, then you were the person to dig deeper into your pocket to finance schools and hospitals, especially since, in many cases, that money might have come from war-profiteering. With raw materials in short supply it made sense to try to build two or even three economy cars with the same amount of material which went into one Grande Routiere. France desperately needed vehicles in number and needed a strong popular motor industry as part of her economic revival. In strictly rational terms one can understand, and sympathise with, the French government’s reasoning.

Those of us who love great cars must deplore, however, the effect these taxes had on the French specialist car industry. In absolute terms these firms could have only made a small contribution to the Exchequer since they were in a limited line of business. By being taxed out of existence they were unable to make even that contribution. While craftsmen lost their jobs, and France lost a source of prestige, doubtless more bureaucrats were employed to administer the redundancies.

The other side of the coin is that the French motor industry at the popular end of the market was soon very competitive with the Renault 4CV, at £335, undercutting both the Fiat Topolino and the Morris Minor. By 1960 the industry as a whole was in a very healthy condition and a major exporter. The loss of the skills and expertise which went into the production of the fine French cars remains a tragedy.

The effects of the levy could be seen at the Paris Salon of 1950. A Jaguar XK120 cost £998 while a Samson S461, a mildly revised pre-war design capable of all of 75 mph cost £1,200 and the cheapest Delage, £1,400. Moving upmarket, a Bentley Mk VI cost £2,595 while the most expensive standard Delahaye, a pre-war design with mechanical brakes and supplied only with right-hand drive cost £2,777. Specially commissioned bodywork could more than double the price of a Delahaye.

The effect of the levy was immediate and crippling. In 1950, Delahaye / Delage sold 483 cars, just 77 in 1951 and three in 1953 at which point the company was absorbed by Hotchkiss. The name “Delage” disappeared altogether while “Delahaye” survived until 1956 on a range of trucks.

In 1950 Talbot sold 433 cars but only 80 the following year and this figure was down to ten in 1953. Along with the demise of these firms went the coachbuilders Figoni, Faget et Varnet, Guillore, Sanoutchik and others.

In 1950, Salmson sold over 1,000 cars, mainly the modest little S461 four-seater but production dropped sharply after the imposition of the levy. In 1953 the company introduced its 2300, a pretty GT with the usual Salmson dohc engine enlarged to 2.3-litres. It was an agreeable Italianate design capable of a genuine 100 mph but only 227 were built up to the time the company stopped making cars in 1957.

Hotchkiss stayed in production until 1955, still listing the 20-year-old 20 CV. The company had begun slowly after the war, making only 117 cars in 1946. By 1951 that had risen to a total of 2,700 which was still far too small an output for a company which was essentially an equivalent to, say, Rover. Alongside a range of mildly updated pre-war designs it belatedly introduced a truly modern replacement in 1951. This was a Gregoire design with integral construction, all round independent suspension, fwd and a flat-four 2.2-litre engine, in essence following the thinking of the firm’s 1938 Amilcar “Compound”. It had a claimed top speed of 95 mph with an average fuel consumption of around 30 mpg. The company encountered endless teething troubles with the car, even ceasing its production altogether for a while in 1952, and met with sales resistance over the car’s smooth but bulbous shape. By 1953 Hotchkiss’ total production was down to a mere 230 examples of all models and by the time the company ceased car production only 250 Hotchkiss-Gregoires had been made. Since that car was the company’s future there was no point in continuing.

While the tax levies are usually given as the reason for the destruction of the French quality car industry, and unquestionably played a major part, they were not the sale reason. Some of the fault undoubtedly lies with the manufacturers.

One of the advantages which a small specialist manufacturer enjoys is the ability to respond quickly to changing circumstances but by and large the French companies did not do this. Delahaye’s response to the levy was not to produce a smaller sporting car but to introduce the yet more powerful Type 235. This 1952 model had a top speed of 125 mph but it still had a vintage style chassis and mechanical brakes. Yet in the same year Mercedes-Bez had the 300SL and Jaguar had the C Type. It was folly. Nobody should be surprised that Hotchkiss were unable to sell a pre-war design in 1955, the year in which Peugeot introduced the 403 and Citroen, the DS19. Salmson could have at least re-bodied the S461 to offer the customer some style for the price. £1,200 was a lot to pay for a car of mediocre performance.

By and large, the companies did not respond quickly or effectively to changing circumstances and it must be said, too, that they were not always helped by the coachbuilders who frequently sacrificed the charm of the distinctive Gallic line for copies of American styles which reflected neither the price nor pedigree of the chassis.

With some sound markets still capable of taking reasonable numbers of expensive cars, Switzerland and the USA among them, the companies scored an own goal by still building cars largely with rhd only. Up until WW2, this had been the usual practice among quality / sporting European makers; Bugatti, Alfa Romeo and Lancia produced only rhd cars. In preparing this article, I consulted three eminent authorities as to why this should be and received three different theories. If any reader could provide any more reasons or could settle the matter once and for all, I should be grateful to hear from him.

The first is that it allowed a gentleman to draw up outside a hotel or restaurant and step directly onto the pavement without endangering life or limb by stepping into the traffic. This seems the least likely reason for it takes no account of a driver’s gallantry towards his lady passenger.

The second is that it was a hangover from racing practice. To this day most sports racing cars are built with rhd, for most circuits have more right-hand bends than left since it is the European custom to run clockwise. Porsche and Ferrari, however,  have no difficulty in producing rhd or Ihd cars as the individual market dictates.

The third theory maintains that when driving over mountains on the right-hand side of the road, rhd is inherently safer. There is something in this for Alpine coach and truck drivers frequently still prefer rhd.

Whatever the reason, insistence on rhd only proved disastrous in export terms and the blame rests solely with the manufacturers.

This brings us to Talbot, a company which did, late in the day, offer lhd and it brings us particularly to the Talbot Lago-America which, as its name implies, was a last-ditch attempt to keep the company going by exporting to the USA.

Automobiles Talbot of 33 Quai du General Gallieni, Suresnes, Paris derived from Darracq. Eventually it was taken over by Simca and by a series of mergers both Talbot and the unrelated Sunbeam Talbot company now find themselves nominally in the same consortium which has revived the name “Talbot”. From the early Thirties it was run by a Venetian-born Anglo-Italian, Major Antonio Lago. As early as 1949, Lago had attempted to introduce a smaller model to his range, the 2.7-litre Baby Talbot. This had a four-cylinder engine with a three bearing crankshaft and was a reduced version of the great 4.5-litre straight six. Both the chassis and body were outdated, however, and the engine was generally agreed to be a lumpy abomination more suited to a dumper truck than a quality car. It did not rake the world by storm.

In 1955, this engine was replaced by an essentially similar four-cylinder, 120 bhp 2.5-litre engine, this time with a five bearing crankshaft, and this was put into the chassis I body assembly of what was to become the Lago-America. Though the engine was unquestionably an improvement over the previous “four” it still lacked refinement and Lago cast around for a suitable replacement for production had dropped still further and only around 65 “fours” were produced between 1955 and 1957. A Maserati unit was considered, as was a Raymond Mays-modified Rord Zephyr engine but finally he chose BMW’s smooth 2.5-litre V8 as used in the 503 and 507. This unit gave 138 bhp at 5,000 rpm and 1561b/ft oftorque at 2,600 rpm (55 mph in top gear).

One of the few magazines to test the car, Road &Track, reported a top speed of 118 mph, 0-60 mph acceleration in 10.6 seconds and a time of 17.4 seconds for the standing quarter-mile. At 7,000 dollars it fitted into the same price niche as Aston Martin. Theoretically it should have had a place in the market but only twelve were ever sold, ten in lhd form and two rhd models. The company was taken over by Simca in 1959 and attempts were made to sell the car with the ex-Dagenham, ex-Ford France, ex-Simca Vedette flat head V8 engine. Needless to say, the car did not sell and apart from an outrageous prototype shown at the Paris Salon in 1960, the marque vanished.

For years I have wondered why this car failed. To judge from photographs, the Carlo Delaisse-styled body is one of the most handsome of the Fifties. It had a famous name and impeccable pedigree. Though not cheap, it was not greatly expensive for the performance it offered and Road &Track described its roadholding in glowing terms: “at high speeds it held the road as if glued, and cornering as nearly flat as anything we’ve tried short of an out and out road-racing-only type of machine.

When I saw that Nigel Dawes was advertising an example in Motor Sport I was intrigued by the asking price of only around £10,000. Surely a car of its breeding and classic potential should be more expensive? ‘ I contacted Nigel and we arranged a brief drive. We agreed that this article should appear only after the car had been sold for it would be wrong for Motor Sport to favour an individual advertiser and endorse a vehicle he was trying to sell. The car has since found a new home, appropriately enough in the States.

Close acquaintance with the car tells all. The chassis is old fashioned with transverse leaf ifs and leaf springs at the rear. The engine is smooth and willing and the four-speed ZF gearbox precise and positive. Though Road &Track criticised the ride, I found it still good by contemporary standards. The steering is delightfully light and precise with a tight turning circle and 2½ turns from lock to lock.

Earlier in this article, I said I was affected by the car’s personality and this, I think, is the key to its failure. There is an air of desperation about it which is almost tangible. It is as though a once-beautiful actress is desperately trying to audition for one last role. She is too eager to please, the make up is a little too thick, she cannot disguise the wrinkles in her neck. While she is trying to be sparky, the observer sees only sadness, the sadness of “what might once have been”.

The Talbot Lago-America had the potential of greatness but economic restrictions led to penny-pinching which completely ruined the car. The stylish body was surely not really designed to have a fibreglass roof and Perspex sliding side windows? The rear window appears to be from a Jensen 541; there’s nothing wrong with that but aesthetics call for a slightly softer line at the back. Delaisse surely, too, had a slightly more curved and lower windscreen in mind? The Rudge Whitworth wire wheels are fine, but would not Borranis have added a little more panache?

Viewed by itself, the fuel filler cap is lovely, but this car cries out for a different cap. It looks as though it has been used not because it was intended but because the Talbot works had a lot of them in stock.

 When one comes to the interior, there is no complaint about the beautifully made leather seats which, though lacking some side support, are extremely comfortable. But this car poses as a 2 + 2 and the rear seating accommodation is a nonsense, even small children would be cramped.

The large steering wheel has four spokes each of which resembles a chromed leaf spring. It would be distinctive and lovely, in another context. It clashes with the silver BMW instruments which are so obviously German, while the wheel is so obviously French. They are the sort of instruments which are out of place in anything but the sort of Fifties car which had a mock-ivory steering wheel. The large white gear knob looks uncomfortable for the same reason. Most of the instruments fall to hand but the indicator switch is out of reach, and this type of lack of attention to detail is so annoying.

The doors resemble those of the first Minis, with sliding windows, hollow interiors and a rudimentary door release via a leather strap. On the Mini they were acceptable, but not on a car competing with the Aston Martin DB 2/4 Mk III. The Mini doors anyway have greater design integrity for the deep pockets gave a lot of useful carrying space whereas on the America the pockets are shallow. To compound matters inside each door is a small elasticated leather pouch which seems to try to say “Look at me. I am leather, I am quality.” The effect, of course, is just the reverse. It speaks of a dinner jacket worn with a shirt with frayed cuffs.

This car is so nearly one of the most lovely you’ve ever seen but the compromises which had to be made for economic reasons not only clash but seem in conflict. It was the last of a great line. It was the last-ditch attempt to keep alive the great French tradition and it reeks of desperation.

After I had seen the car and driven it, a brief drive, admittedly, but enough to know that it was a car with its heart in the right place, I looked up a few references. In Motor Sport, April 1957 is a photograph of the unfinished prototype, the photograph which had first caused me to be smitten by the car. W.B. had paid Lago a visit and a wrote prophetically of the shabby, old fashioned, works: “as we left this sad little factory… ” Later in the same year, D.S.J. at the Paris Show wrote: “rather despairingly the new Talbot is called the Lago-America…” Michael Sedgwick in “The Motor Car, 1946-56″ wrote: “(the use of Perspex) suggested that Talbot was scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

When you meet the car you know why it failed. We’re back to the analogy of the once-beautiful actress at an audition. She may be giving a piece from Oscar Wilde but she is really saying, “Please, please, still like me. I can be lovely in the right light. Remember how I used to be.”

Alas, we can remember what the French tradition once was, glittering. The Talbot Lago-America failed because it ignored the first rule of show business, it embarrassed the audience. – M.L.