An American at Le Mans

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1929 was a good year for the American auto industry. And it was a good year for the Du Pont Motor Co, too. In its 10-year existence, only a few hundred cars had left the small, unpretentious factory, but they had established a reputation for quality and style which put the Du Pont name on a par with other American icons such as Lincoln, Stutz and even Duesenberg. Clients included Hollywood figures Gloria Swanson, Will Rogers and Mary Pickford, who bought one for her husband Douglas Fairbanks, while fighter Jack Dempsey ordered one for his actress wife Estelle Taylor.

But Du Pont’s golden time was short-lived. After Wall Street crashed in 1929, there was no way that a small company making expensive cars could weather the economic doldrums which followed. The end was not immediate, though; E Paul Du Pont had bought the Indian Motorcycle Co, and moved car production to Indian’s base in Springfield, Mass. But development of the bikes occupied him almost to the exclusion of the cars, and in fact only another three Du Pont autos were assembled at Springfield. Production stopped in 1932 with the 537th car.

Du Pont, however, arranged to retain the car company title by guaranteeing service for five years. Allen P Carter, a young engineer who had persuaded Mr Du Pont to take him on in 1926 as apprentice mechanic and who quickly became a central figure on the engineering side, was given the responsibility of looking after this facility, which reverted to the original premises. Not only is Carter still around, but remarkably he remains an employee of Du Pont — or rather, is the sole visible embodiment of the company, which exists today, on paper at least, with Lex Du Pont as President. In amongst a career in cars and racing, Allen Carter has continued to look after Du Ponts on behalf of the Du Pont family right to this day — still in the same building in Delaware where they were built so many decades ago.

Carter probably knows more about the marque than anyone else alive, and I was able to talk with him on a recent trip to the States. A fit and healthy 86, he drove out to meet me at D L George Coachworks in Pennsylvania, where he was giving helpful advice during the restoration of a 1929 Model G Du Pont sedan, and recalled one of his adventures: the year Du Pont went to Le Mans.

As these costly cars were more or less hand-built to order, often taking two or three months apiece, one-off bodywork or special equipment was easy to incorporate and few Du Ponts were to identical specifications. (Carter even had his own one-off closed coupé as a company runabout.) A staff of around 35 worked on no more than four or five cars at any one time, in a rambling timber building on the south bank of the Christina River in Wilmington, Delaware which was originally the home of the Du Pont Marine Co (manufacturers of boat engines, hence the riverside location). This became a motor factory when E (Eleuthere) Paul Du Pont, only distantly related to the chemical and textile dynasty, took it over in 1919 and produced the four-cylinder model A car. Hydraulic four-wheel brakes were an early fitment, and a six followed, using a bought-in engine, but it was the eight-cylinder Model G which pushed the Du Pont name into the top bracket.

Announced in 1928, the Model G used the 5.3-litre Continental straight-eight, which also powered a number of other American quality cars. This massive L-head produced 114 bhp on one twin-choke updraught carb, and rested in a 7 in. deep 125 in. wheelbase frame with extra-long half-elliptics all round. Brakes were all hydraulic, there was a four-speed gearbox, and the cam and lever steering featured vertical adjustment to suit different drivers. Conceived to carry large and luxurious town-car bodies, the new chassis soon also gained the options of a tuned engine and striking two- or four-passenger Speedster coachwork.

The new car was obviously a quality machine, and it caught the eye of Alfredo J Miranda, a Mexican with New York agencies for Maybach and Delage cars and Brewster bodies. His showrooms were in the Del Monico Hotel in Park Avenue (where the family arms dealership also displayed its wares), and he soon added the new Du Pont to his portfolio. But he could see further openings: he decided that the time was ripe to target Europe, and that the simplest way to hit the highest profile was to enter the 1929 Le Mans 24-hour race. US rivals Chrysler and Stutz were convinced of the benefits, and Miranda soon persuaded Du Pont himself to back the plan.

It helped that Miranda had an asset top teams prize today — a driver who brought money with him. Charles Moran came from a wealthy family who were Du Pont customers, and had been racing his own Riley in France. As a present for his graduation from Columbia University, his father agreed to fund the Le Mans scheme if Du Pont provided the car for his son to drive. (Many years later Miranda claimed that the Le Mans idea came from Moran, who had contested the 1928 Bol d’Or in France, but Carter remembers Miranda as the proposer.) So in autumn 1928, with barely eight months to go, the “competition department” set to work. It was not a large department; in fact it consisted mainly of Allen Carter, who prepared the car more or less solo, with the support of the chief engineer L F Hosley.

The team knew they could not beat the Chryslers and the Stutzes, let alone the Bentleys; the aim was exposure rather than victory, so the engine, running gear and chassis were left unaltered. Even the shock absorbers were standard, though Marchal lamps and Rudge-Whitworth racing wheels with Seiberling tyres were fitted. Briggs Weaver of Waterhouse (who shared the Du Pont coachbuilding work with Merrimac) designed a special four-passenger body, with cycle wings and a pointed tail which concealed the hood and the 60-gallon fuel tank needed for the day and night endurance race. Weaver designed all Du Pont coachwork from 1924 onwards, refining sketch ideas from other Waterhouse illustrators, and Carter remembers that the results were adventurous, but usually relatively easy to translate into reality.

Le Mans entries had to be based on a production touring model, which accounts for the Speedsters, homologated to the same spec as the Le Mans car but with a 45-gallon tank and, usually, a separate trunk instead of the pointed tail. With 140 bhp from a hotter cam, aluminium pistons and larger ports, 100 mph was guaranteed. Though the two-seater Speedster was shown first, at the New York Salon in January 1929, leading to speculation that the Le Mans idea followed later, Carter’s recollection is that the race project, which required four seats, had by then already been underway for several months. But customers fell for the car before they knew of the race project: Mary Pickford bought the New York salon car for her husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and a spate of orders followed.

Two race cars were begun, the second to have been driven by Du Pont’s Australian agent Major Sydney Cotton and his wife, but in the event only the first, chassis no G-876, went to France. The official line was that the second, G-877, was not ready in time, but Carter’s notes show that it was shipped to Argentina on June 5, only 11 days after the LM racer was despatched. It must have been very close to being ready in time; perhaps financial reasons intervened. Certainly The Autocar of March 15th referred to “the car” being readied for Le Mans.

The race car, finished in white and Sarasota blue, travelled to Europe by ship accompanied by Moran, Miranda, who was the second driver, Carter as team manager, and two mechanics. Unshipped at Ile de France, they went first to Montlhéry where, after Marchal had fitted the lamps, the team spent three days testing in daylight and night conditions. Disappointingly, the car proved notably slower than the Chrysler and the Stutz which were there too. Then the team drove down to the Sarthe. Carter does not recall which hotel they stayed at “but it was where a lot of the English guys stayed”. Arriving at scrutineering, the team were caught out by the requirement to ballast the already heavy car to the weight of four occupants. Most other entrants, having prior knowledge of this, had bolted lead to strategic points on the chassis; Carter and his team had to resort to piling sandbags in the footwells instead.

During practice, or training as period terminology had it, Carter took the car out on the circuit, and recalls that it behaved well, though he wasn’t brave enough to try for a maximum on the Mulsanne straight. He reckons that Moran was reaching 97 or 98 mph there in the absolutely standard car, and describes facilities at the part-time circuit as good for the period, with covered pits and a decently smooth track surface. He also remembers observers driving on the track amongst race traffic.

At the running start, Moran was the first driver to reach his car, starting No 2 because of its big engine (only the Barnato/ Birkin Speed Six out-sized it), but the Speedster then settled into eighth place, behind the Chrysler, two Stutzes and four Bentleys. After about three hours and 20 laps, though, the big Du Pont came to a halt: the transmission had failed. Since the aim was to prove its durability, this didn’t look too good, and the team instead put out that under the continual battering the ballast sandbags had smashed through the floorboards and damaged the driveshaft. Well, it was plausible. . . In fact it circumvented a problem for Moran; at Montlhéry he was doubtful about Miranda’s lap-times, and had hinted that he would try to drive the bulk of the race himself.

While the car and the rest of the team travelled back to Wilmington, Carter accompanied their young lead driver to the Moran family’s house in Paris, staying there until September. It was his first trip abroad, and he made sure it combined work with pleasure, visiting the Delage and Hispano Suiza factories during the day and enjoying the other pleasures of Paris by night. He chuckles to remember that a favourite sport was pinching the interior door handles from a row of Citroën taxis, leaving a cloud of Gallic wrath.

The whole French episode was fun for those involved and Carter believes that it pulled in a few orders for Du Pont cars from European clients. But a few overseas orders made little difference as the US market slumped and recession began. The initial flurry of Speedster orders slowed down — 21 were built in 1929, three in 1930, and only two in 1931 — and saloon sales declined similarly.

Hoping to gain some home glory, Du Pont built a single-seater Indy racer for the 1930 500. Charlie Moran drove it, but despite its big straight-eight, it was too slow, lapping in the low 70s while the winning Miller averaged 100.44 mph. The nearest it came to passing anything was when Moran had to swerve around a multi-car shunt, before hitting the barrier and retiring. Carter tried this car too: his over-riding memory of circulating the legendary track is of mouthfuls of cement dust, the result of attempts to smooth the notorious brick surface with plenty of mortar infill.

None of this, however, could kick-start the company’s cash-flow, with the results already described. Having no interest in the Indian motorcycles undertaking, Allen Carter was content with Du Pont’s minimal service facility, turning the bulk of his mechanical skill to looking after Rolls-Royces (a shift many Du Pont clients also made), as an independent service agent up until around 10 years ago. He continued his association with Charles Moran, who in the ’50s bought and raced one of Briggs Cunningham’s CR4 Le Mans cars, as well as a Bugatti and a Frazer Nash. Moran also mounted his own Le Mans entry in 1957, not with the Cunningham but with a 1,500cc Lotus-Climax, going on to race at Spa, Salzburg and various French hillclimbs, towing the car behind a Willys Jeep decked out in American racing white with twin blue stripes. He later became a central figure in American racing politics, running ACCAS, the fore-runner to USAC, equivalent to our RAC MSA.

It was an intriguing thought, as I chatted with this sprightly old-timer, that he and I had both driven cars which raced against one another at that 1929 Le Mans: he the rumbling Du Pont and I the shrieking supercharged Stutz of Watney and Eyston (Motor Sport, November 1987). The Stutz is now in a collection in Philadelphia, but the Du Pont has vanished; Carter remembers seeing a picture of one of the two Le Mans-spec chassis in a scrapyard in New England years ago and, given that the other went to South America, is pretty sure that was the race car. 26 Speedsters were built, of which 11 had two-passenger bodies, and there are still eight or nine extant.

The family can still claim a Le Mans Speedster; Lex Du Pont’s lemon-yellow four-seater is a star item in the clan museum. And Carter is currently servicing another Du Pont for Lex’s nephew David. I’m willing to bet there is no other car manufacturer which has not made a car for 62 years, but is still offering service under guarantee, in the factory, by the same staff! G C
Thanks to: Allen Carter, David Brownell, Special Interest Autos; Al Bochroch, Americans at Le Mans.