Complex inferiority

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In 1924, Delage unveiled France’s new Grand Prix hope. Its sophisticated V12 engine promised much but in vain, as Anthony Pritchard explains

Amongst the exotic noises at the 2003 Goodwood Festival of Speed, one of the sweetest came from the Brooklands Paddock behind the stables. A high, multi-cylinder rasp, it spoke not with an Italian accent, but with a French one, for it came from Lukas Hüni’s 1924 V12 Delage, newly restored by Sean Danaher.

In the period of grand prix racing between 1921 and the introduction of the 750kg formula for 1934, the 2-litre formula of 1922-25 was the most successful, attracting more serious contenders than any other of this era. The Italian red of Fiat and Alfa Romeo battled with the British Sunbeams and the French blue of Bugatti, Delage and Rolland-Pilain. Although not the most successful, the V12 Delage had by far the most technically innovative engine.

Having worked for Peugeot, Louis Delage was experienced in the motor industry when he set up his own firm at Courbevoie in 1905. He was keenly interested in motor racing as a sport and as a means of promotion. As early as 1908 André Guyot drove a Delage to a win in the Voiturette Grand Prix at Dieppe. In 1911 Paul Babloes Delage won the Coupe de l’Auto at Boulogne, and two years later the same combination won the Grand Prix de France at Le Mans. And it is almost forgotten that René Thomas and Guyot took first and third places with Delages at Indianapolis the following year.

During the Great War the Delage factory turned to munitions manufacture, but in 1919 car production resumed. Charles Planchon, a cousin of Louis Delage, was now chief engineer, assisted by Albert Lory, and as well as production models they designed the first postwar competition cars. The six-cylinder Delage I and II sprint cars that appeared in 1922; then in ’23 came the famous V12 10.7-litre record-breaker with which Thomas set a new Land Speed Record of 143.31mph at Arpajon. Car sales were buoyant, and in late 1922 Louis Delage instructed Planchon to build a car for the 2-litre grand prix formula.

In only three months Planchon designed and built the remarkably advanced and exceptionally complex 2LCV model. Delage had developed an idee fixe about V12 engines and instructed Planchon to use this layout It was the first practical racing V12, and it remained one of the smallest-capacity V12 engines ever made until Ferrari built his Tipo 125 in post-war years. Almost every component was an intricate example of micro-engineering. The advantage was a large piston area and the low reciprocating weight of components, but its downfall and that of its designer was its complexity.

Planchon arranged the cylinders at an angle of 60 degrees and the capacity was 1992cc, with the exhausts in the centre of the vee rising high above the engine in traditional Delage manner. A single Zenith carburettor for each block of cylinders was mounted on the outside. The two valves per cylinder were at an included angle of 100 degrees in accordance with Fiat practice, feeding hemispherical combustion chambers. The pistons (which one commentator described as “Lilliputian”) were aluminium alloy. Staggering the fixed-head, cast-iron cylinder blocks allowed Planchon to use side-byside connecting rods, which were of I-section and ran on roller bearings.

In the light-alloy crankcase there was a one-piece crankshaft with circular webs and seven split-cage roller bearings. At the front of the engine a train of 23 spur gears mounted on ball races drove the four overhead camshafts, the twin magnetos, and the water and oil pumps. Because of the engine’s very smooth torque there was no need for a flywheel, merely a clutch disc for the multi-plate clutch. Power output was about 116bhp at 5400rpm. A four-speed gearbox was in unit with the engine and there was a very orthodox 8ft 6in wheelbase, channel-section chassis with rigid axles front and rear. Like Delage l and II, it had a rounded radiator and the body had a heavily louvred bonnet and long, pointed tail. This car was painted French racing blue.

Delage believed that the car was ready to race by the French Grand Prix at Tours in July 1923, and Planchon could not dissuade this sybaritic autocrat from making an entry. Thomas, who headed the Delage competition department, drew pole position by lot, led fleetingly and soon retired because of a broken crankshaft. As Planchon feared, the V12 was underdeveloped.

Delage sacked Planchon, and the unfortunate engineer sank into such obscurity that few writers could even identify him or spell his name correctly. There was a search for a successor but there were few who were suitable, and even less who were willing to work for Delage. Lory became chief engineer by default and carried out substantial development work on the four cars for 1924. His most significant change was the adoption of a disc-shaped bearing for mounting the engine at the front, which relieved the engine from torsional stress.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? THE SURVIVING V12 DELAGES

ONCE THEIR RACING DAYS WERE OVER, DELAGE SOLD THE CARS. Of THE NINE BUILT (ONE IN 1923, four in 1924 and four in 1925, together with spare engines), there are three identifiable survivors, together with various components.

The 1923 car survives as the Becquet Special. M Becquet was chief test pilot for SPAD aircraft, which were mainly powered by Hispano-Suiza V8 engines. Becquet had built an earlier Hispano-Suiza-powered special, before he fitted a 12-litre Hispano engine in the Delage chassis. This car was later bought and restored by Nigel Amold-Forster, and Alex Boswell now owns it. It is generally accepted that the Delage V12 engine and the gearbox in the Turin Motor Museum are from this car.

Lukas Hüni’s car is known to be chassis number three and is an interim 1924 model. Rene Thomas probably raced it in 1924 and Paul Torchy early in 1925. A Mr Malcolm bought it in 1927 and drove it to a win in that year’s Argentine 500 Miles race at Rafaela. Other owners raced this car in the Argentine as late as 1942. Bob Sutherland in the United States bought it in 1978. Then Arnold-Forster brought it to the UK and had it rebuilt, but the body proportions were incorrect and the engine would not run properly. It has now been completely restored by Sean Danaher.

The third survivor is a 1925 car modified in 1935 for voivetie racing; the engine was reduced to 1500cc and LMB-type split-axle IFS was fitted. The engine blew up during testing and the project was abandoned. It was later restored and driven in VSCC events by John Rowley, who fitted the original front suspension. Julian Majzub now owns this car, together with the remains of another car and a ‘spare’ back axle.

The writer would like to thank Sean Danaher for his help with this article.

Lory experimented with supercharging (a Roots blower compressing through a single carburettor on each cylinder bank), but the cars continued to be raced sans compresseurs. In this form, with a 7:1 compression ratio and twin-choke Zenith carburettors, power output was 120bhp at 6000rpm, so these cars were still developing 20bhp or so less than blown rivals such as the Alfa Romeo P2, Fiat 805 and Sunbeam. Lory also made changes to the chassis, tidied up the bodywork – which was much neater than in 1923 – and a much squarer, larger radiator was fitted. The colour finish was a clear blue lacquer over the unpainted, milled aluminium-alloy panels.

In 1924 there were four races held to grand prix rules: the Indianapolis 500, together with the French, Spanish and Italian races. On August 3, the French race (which carried the title of the European Grand Prix) was held at Lyon over a distance of 503 miles. Delage entered three cars for Robert Benoist, Albert Divo and Thomas. The 14-mile triangular circuit was rough, dusty, narrower and bumpier than most, but the Delages proved remarkably robust and were constant front-runners. Campari won with his P2 Alfa on the marque’s grand prix debut, but Divo (66 seconds behind the winner), Benoist and Thomas finished second, third and sixth.

Delage next ran his cars in the San Sebastian Grand Prix in September, although both Alfa Romeo and Fiat missed this race. There were four Delages for Benoist, Divo, Thomas and André Morel, and the main opposition came from Bugatti and Sunbeam. The 11-mile Lasarte circuit was narrow, winding and poorly surfaced and the race was run in the wet. Benoist battled with the leaders until he went off the road, Divo was delayed by a leaking fuel tank, while Thomas retired because of engine problems. Segrave (supercharged Sunbeam) scored a fine win from Costantini (Bugatti Type 35) with Morel and Divo in third and fourth places. Delage then entered October’s Italian Grand Prix, but failed to appear.

There was a controversial change in the regulations for 1925. Although two-seater bodywork remained compulsory, a riding mechanic was no longer carried. Delage was now also confident enough to run the V12s in supercharged form with two very large Roots-type blowers. According to some sources, the bore was reduced, without change of stroke, giving a capacity of 1973cc. Power output was now 195bhp at 6500rpm. There was a lower and more aerodynamic body, and the already heavily slotted bonnet was replaced by one with more louvres than metal, which extended up the scuttle. Lory now had a car with an engine too powerful for its chassis, which had indifferent handling and poor braking.

The first grand prix of 1925 was the European event on the 8.76-mile Spa Francorchamps circuit on June 28, held over a distance of 503 miles. There were only seven starters, three 1924 Delages with superchargers for Benoist, Thomas and Paul Torchy, together with a 1925 car for Divo, and three P2 Alfa Romeos. The race proved a very famous fiasco. All the Delage drivers retired, two of them because Lory had omitted to install blow-off valves in the inlet manifolds and the build-up of pressure led to valve problems. The race found its place in motor racing history because Alfa Romeo team manager Vittorio Jano called in Antonio Ascari and Guiseppe Campari to refuel, and sat them down for a quick meal while their P2s were cleaned, to jeers from the crowd. They were the only finishers, and Monsieur Delage was humiliated.

July brought the 621-mile French GP at the new Montlhéry Autodrome. Although the course used part of the banked circuit, there were many difficult corners. Courbevoie produced a full team of 1925 cars driven by Benoist, Divo, Thomas and Louis Wagner. There were also three Alfa Romeos, three Sunbeams and five unsupercharged Bugattis.

Divo retired early in the race because of supercharger problems, but Benoist had moved up into second place behind Ascari by quarter-distance. Rain began to fall, and two laps later Ascari crashed with fatal results.

Campari took the lead from Divo (now at the wheel of Benoist’s car) and shortly after half-distance, once Jano learned that Ascari had died on the way to hospital, the two surviving Alfa Romeos were withdrawn. The Delages were now unchallenged and Benoist/Divo won by nearly six minutes from Wagner, whose car was also driven by Torchy. Giulio Masetti finished third for Sunbeam. It was a fortuitous victory, but did something to redeem Delage’s reputation.

Delage failed to contest the Italian race in which P2s took the first two places, but things were reversed for the 450-mile San Sebastian GP. This time Alfa Romeo stayed away, while four Delages ran, and the only opposition came from unblown Bugattis. Divo, Benoist and Thomas took the first three places, but even this landslide in a poor race was marred for Louis Delage by Torchy’s fatal crash with the fourth V12 car.

That Spanish event was the last to be held to the 2-litre grand prix formula, but the works did field the V12 cars once more. This was in the 1926 Formula Libre Spanish Grand Prix in which Goux and Wagner/Benoist took second and third places behind Costantini (Bugatti). The 2-litre formula had been marked by significant technical progress; power outputs had more than doubled since 1922 and peak engine speeds had risen by almost two-thirds. That the V12 Delages were substantially unsuccessful is difficult to challenge, but they were technically advanced and delightfully complex. For 1926, Lory designed the much simpler straight-eight 1500cc car which achieved little in its first year, but in 1927 swept all before it, winning all four races entered, together with the European Championship.

The cost of these two racing programmes was astronomically high, and Delage became financially squeezed as the road cars became difficult to sell in a worsening financial climate. He faced increasing problems in maintaining his expensive lifestyle and he finally lost almost everything, including his luxurious Château du Pecq at St Germain, when the company folded in 1935 and was acquired by Delahaye. Louis Delage died in penury in 1947. Now a mere handful of his beautiful racing cars remain to invest his name with some of the glory he craved.

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