The cars of France

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WITH the surrender of France to the Nazis our thoughts cannot fail to dwell on the cars of our gallant allies—and sterner things. The motor car was developed far more rapidly in the closing days of the last century in France than it was in this country, and such great marques as Peugeot, Ballot, Bugatti and Delage subsequently made racing history ring with the name of La Belle France, ere Germany began her previous invasion in 1914. After the Armistice, the French automobile industry was quick to recover its prestige, and in many other countries French cars of the early nineteen-twenties were looked upon as leaders of the world.

The Hispano-Suiza made in the French factory was amongst the finest of cars, both luxurious and very fast; the Delage, in “Pullman” 40/50 h.p. form, was a worthy sister. Delaunay-Belleville had a great reputation for extremely high-grade workmanship ; Papa Voisin tested each of his sleeve-valve chassis individually, and Hotchkiss made cars like the guns that had helped to vanquish the recent enemy. The Brescia Bugatti was untouchable in the 1½-litre sports class. In 1939, we find French cars still well established on the British market, and represented by Bugatti, Citroen, Darracq, Delage, Delahaye, Hotchkiss, Peugeot, Renault, and Salmson.

By the time these words appear, one hopes the fate of at least some of these great concerns will be clearer. Inevitably the French seem to make cars which either love the typically long, tree-lined, straight roads that stretch from town to town, or else represent a really genuine attempt to cater for those families which have to motor with a minimum of expense. Some people have it that French motor prestige fell after the early post-war era, and that it had its peak when magnificent Hispanos and Delage and their exotic owners were carrying all before them in the earlier concours d’elegance. It is, perhaps, true that France offers nothing to-day, as once she did, that can quite compare with the greatest cars of other nations; our own V12 Lagonda and Phantom III Rolls-Royce; the 5.4-litre straight-eight Mercedes-Benz of Germany.

But then, we live in an economic age, and Italy, too, lost her big Isotta-Fraschini and her better Fiats, Belgium her big Minerva, America her V12 Packard. And the nine French marques on the British market at the commencement of the Second World War certainly represent some essentially practical and sane designs. In her preparation for the very invasion that she so nobly resisted France must have sacrificed some of her finer cars. Hispano-Suiza, famed from the days of the pre-war “Alphonso” and post-war “Boulogne” Six, now turns out potent aero-motors instead of the V12 Hispano-Suiza car. Ballot seems to have been absorbed by this concern, after many years building that 2-litre four-cylinder, so recently praised in this paper. Amilcar made history with a very sound little four-cylinder sports-car, so typically French, that we all know, and gave us the beautifully made twin o.h.c. racing sixes that so nearly showed the leading 1½-litres the way home in our own 200 Mile Races, although they went into production as cheaply as £695 in 1929. There was also the lesser-known 2-litre straight-eight. Aries made some sturdy cars to race at Le Mans, the Berliet was another sturdy construction, and Chenard-Walcker pioneered servo-braking (on the front wheels only), and faired coachwork at Le Mans. The De Dion Bouton was one of the truly great cars when cars were few and far between, and after 1918 the company built some very good medium-size fours and also a really big four-cylinder of 95 x140 mm. The Delaunay-Belleville faded quietly from this country in 1931, when the 21 h.p. and “25/75” sixes were withdrawn from the British market. The French Derby, as distinct from the Vernon-Derby which Vernon Balls made over here, was the basis of the front-drive eight-cylinder, immortalised by Mrs. Stewart, and a V8 2-litre was also constructed. The Farman went out in 1931, when the 7-litre 40 h.p. chassis cost £1,600 in London. The four-cylinder D’Yrsan three-wheeler, really quick in sports forms, and the little 736 c.c. Lafitte, with three-cylinder radial engine, typified France’s resourceful economy cars, and the historic Leon Bollée concern was cared for in its later stages by Morris Motors, Ltd. The Lorraine won the Le Mans G.P. d’Endurance in 1925 and 1926, and this beautiful car, in the 3½-litre “20/70” form, had quite a following in this country; Bernard Shaw ran one for several years. Mathis introduced the really small six before most other makers, and as J. G. P. Thomas drove one round Brooklands, one concludes the design to have been presentable. The Panhard et Levassor is, as it were, the father of all cars, and very, very reliable it was, long before the last war. Knight persuaded the Panhard engineers to adopt his double-sleeve valve engine, and as late as 1933 you could purchase a 4-litre sleeve-valve Panhard from the British agents. Unic, immortalised by the London taxi, for many years after the Armistice built a sober and varied range, and Lord Rothschild used to keep one for personal use in London. Voisin, too, built in many sizes and did not stop short of a straight-twelve. So, over the makes that have faded, as makes fade in every country where cars are made, France can hold up her head.

But, just at present, it is for the cars that were in production up to the time of the German invasion that anxiety is most keenly felt. Ettore Bugatti, the nationality of whose cars was dramatically changed by the 1914-18 war, has never produced a casual design. Sheer genius has always prevailed in the model factory at Molsheim, and most of the enemies Bugatti has made he has made on account of jealousy. The current 3.3-litre Type 57 twin o.h. camshaft straight-eight ranks amongst the highest-performance production cars ever built; and they are not expensive chassis. Only to-day I was reading a letter written by a critical judge of cars after he had had a long run in Col. Giles’s Type 57S. This gentleman writes: “If it will carry any conviction, I can only say that the whole thing was so extraordinary that I could not have written it up. I like to twist my story in accordance with the vagaries of my own mind, which likes to go all the way round the houses and suddenly pop out where you least expect it. I couldn’t exaggerate humorously or say anything quaint about the ‘3.3’ Bugatti; she left me awed.” Here is a car which does 125 m.p.h. and cruises at 90 m.p.h. and which has exchanged the noise that made the marque the envy of us all as schoolboys for completely silent progression. In addition, Bugatti’s gear-change is as quick as anyone can wish, and Ettore gets road-clinging with ordinary rigid-axle suspension and a fairly high chassis, unsurpassed in any other car, with absolutely perfect steering. The little Brescia was rough, and in many ways temperamental, but it could outrun every other small car of its day. I recall bitter disappointment in failing to finish a Night Trial in one of these cars for no worse reason than that our driver ran out of road a few miles from the start and impinged us on an iron fence. Other friends ran this type of Bugatti until quite recent times very successfully, and I spent many happy hours in, or helping to push, two in particular, one owned by a man who had an uncanny ability for mastering the gearbox of any car, no matter how tricky, in the very shortest space of time. He was also a Bentley enthusiast, but his 3-litre is in storage now. The Type 40 followed the Brescia, and offered excellent performance, a maximum of 70-75 m.p.h., tremendous character, and such reliability if nothing naughty was done to the internals, that it was often affectionately referred to as the “Molsheim Morris Cowley.” (There is a legend that a Bugatti is perfectly all right at Ettore’s “4,500” or whatever the rev, limit for a given type is, but promptly blows expensively to bits at 4,501.) When it came to straight-eights, the 2.8-litre Roots-blown twenty-four valve Type 43 was one of the very fastest and most exciting real sports-cars of its time, and, if the touring Type 38 had certain faults, the Type 44 3-litre came out a year later to very thoroughly make up for them. The Type 44 was a remarkable car because it possessed much of the out-of-the-ordinary, while offering definite performance, Bugatti steering and road-holding, and really good workmanship —so often cars that are unusual enough to be interesting to the enthusiast have no performance to put up against more conventional jobs, and too often their construction does not bear close scrutiny. Those who aver that France has had nothing in the Rolls-Royce category since the heyday of the Hispano, find the great 5-litre Bugatti, with three-speed gearbox in the rear axle, difficult to answer for, even if they dismiss the 14-litre Golden Bugatti as a freak, or as a lorry carrying a car body. And so to the present 3.3-litre, which is one of the world’s very greatest very fast cars. How much the Bugatti is respected here is evident when you reflect that a special club existing for its followers, under the able leadership of Brig.-Gen. G. M. Giles and his brother Eric, has a membership of at least one-eighth that of our biggest every-make club, and that Col. Sorel, the High Priest of the Molsheim marque in this land, is a very highly respected gentleman indeed.

Citroen is a make known and loved by many Frenchmen and a whole lot of Englishmen. From early times M. Andre Citroen catered for the man of modest means. Just after the last war he made the little clover-leaf “7.5” and the “11.4” models, which were always lent most generously to motoring writers of the period. An uncle of mine used to run an early 11.4 h.p. Citroen tourer as subsidiary to his Austin 20 landaulette, and the worst complaint he had about it was that the body was too narrow to seat three persons comfortably on the back seat, and too wide to be comfortable for two. Incidentally, Citroen made excellent clockwork toy reproductions of both types, at a time when toy cars in general resembled nothing to be seen on any road anywhere at all. His four-cylinder front-drive cars display real genius, inasmuch as they are inexpensive family cars used casually by thousands of owner-drivers who never give a thought to the front drive and torsional suspension because they never need to. Citroen has given front-drive to the ordinary man, while others have been toying with it in sports-cars, just as Citroen built a creeper-track vehicle good enough to establish a trans-Sahara service when most engineers considered this type of drive hardly out of the experimental stage. Citroen also makes an exceedingly good, big four-cylinder engine—I came across it again, quite recently, in the 2-litre Georges-Irat—which is delightfully smooth, has surprising life for utility purposes and which merits the attention of enthusiasts in its more advanced forms.

The marque Darracq recalls plenty of sporting memories, sometimes allied to our own Sunbeam and sometimes allied to our own Sunbeam and sometimes not, from the wonderful V8, driven with such inspiration by Sir Algernon Guinness, to the historic one, two, three victory of the supercharged 1½-litres in the 1924 “200.” For a considerable time after the war the Darracq concern turned out worthy semi-sports cars, very often with stylish Weymann-fabric closed coachwork—I have seen one or more in use very recently—notably the Type TL “20/98” Six. Then came the essentially modern six-cylinder, with which Comotti won the T.T. at Donington in 1937 at 68.7 m.p.h. Ian Connell’s performances continually reminded us that the current Darracq is as potent in sports-car racing as the marque once was in 1½-litre contests. This chassis was run in G.P. racing at Rheims and Pau, going very well with an unblown 4½-litre engine, though the racing, supercharged V16 unit intended for it unfortunately never materialised. The Darracq well represents France’s present-day trend in fast ears, which implies extremely high performance and controllability from designs which offer no very clear clues as to how the urge is obtained, for Darracq, like Delage and Delahaye, uses sober push-rod motors.

Delage is one of the most respected of all the great cars France has produced. M. Louis Delage owed much to racing, for it was watching the Coupe de l’Auto Voiturette Race, in 1905 that determined him to build a better car for the next year’s event. By 1908 Delage built a car to win this race, Guyot beating the Sizaire by 7 mins. The outcome was seen commercially in the 8, 10 and 12 h.p., four-cylinder shaft-drive jobs which you could buy at front £220-£290 in the year A.D. 1909. After the war, the series of very reliable, very well-braked, and unexpectedly quick 2-litre four-cylinder cars established a firm reputation for the House of Delage, backed by the fantastic “40/50” Six, although only very clear-thinking persons can recall from memory which type is faster than which, and which has the greater number of “esses” to its christian name. The old “14/40” Delage was about the first fast thing that I drove, and I had a brief run in one again just the other day, with John Bolster driving. It was followed by a lot of medium-sized “sixes,” some admittedly better than others and, later still, by the D8 4-litre straight-eight, followed by lots more eights and sixes. The potency of the present Delage, in 3-litre six-cylinder form, was unforgettably demonstrated by Louis Gerard at Donington in 1938, when he won the T.T. at 67.61 m.p.h., the car standing up to the long, fast race with an entire absence of bother, though it frequently looked as if it might retire from cockpit trouble, but never did. The same combination was second at Le Mans. Delage has ever had progressive ideas. He very early adopted four-wheel brakes for both racing circuit and road, and always used shaft-drive. Of recent times he has employed the delicate Cotal electric gearbox, of which the MOTOR SPORT tester has written “to my mind the only serious improvement on a good crashbox with a clutch stop.” Incidentally, the D8 120, tested in 1938, carried luxurious drop-head coupe coachwork, and achieved 97-98 m.p.h. on the road. That is the kind of answer France has been able to give of recent years to those sceptics who say she has fallen from grace as a country building first-class cars. It is rather like the answer the late Dick Seaman gave to the earlier E.R.A.s in international small car racing not long ago, with his thirteen-year-old Delage that, in 1925, had been recognised the world over as the greatest Grand Prix car ever built.

Delahaye was a famous name in “horseless carriage” days, and it continued so after the first world war, somehow inevitably associated with that sober coupe de ville type of bodywork, complete with carriage sidelamps, which French coachwork craftsmen were so fond of about the middle twenties. Then all of a sudden the programme changed, and the very potent six came into being, so typical of what France does to-day in sports-car racing. A straight-forward engine, with valves in the head, operated by conventional push-rod gear, independent suspension of normal layout at the front, and light, wind-defeating coachwork, and a truly astounding performance . . . Chaboud and Tremoulet won the 1938 G.P. d’Endurance at 82.25 m.p.h, and last year took the lap record there at nearly 97 m.p.h. The Delahaye came into prominence for this sort of work in 1939 and. the 3½-litre T.T. car purchased by “Bira” won the L.C.C. Three Hour Sports-Car Race in 1938, driven by Jarvis and Willing, at 63.46 m.p.h. By this, and heaps of other successes, the modern Delahaye has proved itself one of the most dependable sports-racing cars of our time. The Hotchkiss, made by the famous French armament factory, has long been recognised by knowledgeable persons to possess “a little something others haven’t got.” I was reminded of this some years ago, when a motor dealer praised highly an elderly tourer he took me out in, and went to some pains to find a more modern closed Hotchkiss for his own use. The 3½-litre offers very exceptional performance for a car in the £600 price-class, allied to very high qualities of control, refinement and finish. And the ambitious Type B38 Hotchkiss Ten, of alloy construction with front-drive, has passed arduous tests which leave no doubt as to its complete dependability in spite of its low price. Peugeot is a name which recalls the big 4-litres at Le Mans, or Boillot’s great racing successes of 1912 and 1913. But the house of Peugeot also looks after the poorer people of La Belle France and the “Bebe” of pre1914 days, the “quad” that was derived from it, and the narrow-track 719 c.c. baby of the later twenties, took many happy folk many happy miles. So it is fitting that the present Peugeot, apart from the Cotal-transmission streamline Le Mans 2-litre, is the lively little 12 h.p., which Tom Knowles was handling in this country.

One of the very greatest of all the French marques is, without any question, the Renault. Szisz won the 1906 French G.P. for Renault Freres, but the make was famous long before that. In our time, each model of the big Renault range has been equally respected, from the 8.3 h.p. economy car, to the fantastic “Forty-Five,” which, with 9 litres of sober side-valve motor, would run up to something approaching the magic century. If I am reminded that one of the slowest journeys I have ever had was five-up in an “8.3”Renault, from London to the New Forest, that little car, one of which stands derelict to this day in a yard not far from Putney Bridge, was essentially reliable. If the big 45 h.p. is no longer seen on our roads, nevertheless, it was a very important luxury car in its day, and, incidentally, was used for some early applications of streamline enclosed bodywork in competition, when surprisingly high speed allied to reliability was realised, record-breaking at Montlhery. Great firms usually set much store in tradition—witness our unchanging R-R radiator—and when Renault first decided to move his radiator forward from behind the engine he did his best to disguise the fact, notably when the shutters were closed. If all the Renault range, from “8.3” to “45” were noted for dependability in post 1914-18 days, the same applied before that war, as the Mills brothers remind us by their quite recent exploits with the 1911 8 h.p. “Sarah” and the 1907 42 h.p. “Agatha,” the last named giving me a very good run to Shelsley and back with Marcus Chambers as late as 1935. And it was the former type, as taxis, which rushed troops to the front line so successfully in an emergency during the last Emergency. As the House of Renault has paid more attention than most to economy cars, it is fitting that the present range should include an “Eight.” Built largely by British labour at Wembley, in this country, the 1-litre £140 Renault saloon handles really well and has just that much more willingness than any other baby, qualities that have won for it countless friends in a very short while.

Finally, the Salmson. Intending to construct a French version of our G.N. cyclecar, the Salmson works soon introduced the eleven-hundred four-cylinder Samson, which in twin o.h.c. form wiped up all other 1,100 c.c. cars— until the Amilcars came. This model is still sought by impecunious youngsters as one of the more desirable vintage cars, and it had a wonderful engine, gave 80 m.p.h. for a most respectably small outlay, and invariably had the very shapely racing two-seater bodywork at which the French excel, found also in Amilcar, Senechal, Derby and others. Goutte’s 1,100 c.c. Brooklands lap record, at 114.49 m.p.h. in 1926, stands ever to the credit of the type. Such a following did the Salmson build up in this country that the concern of British Salmson Aero Engines Ltd., started assembly over here. The “20/90” Six was largely their own affair, but the very well made fours were of essentially French origin, and just before the war they were importing direct the 18 h.p., 2.3-litre, four-cylinder car, some of which found their way on to our roads before armaments production overshadowed car sales.

Those, then, were the great automobile producing concerns of France at the time of the Nazi invasion. What may be their immediate fate, what their possible future, none may know. But certainly, when the Nazi aggressor has been rolled back, and France knows peace once again, her motor industry will rise to its former strength. We will hope that Bugatti, Citroen, Darracq, Delage, Delahaye, Hotchkiss, Peugeot, Renault and Salmson will then again build cars as essential to a nation in peace-time as armaments are in war.

 

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