Forgotten Makes: The Tracta

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These days a large proportion of the motoring population is drawn along by its front wheels. But in vintage times front-wheel drive was little known. It was some years before the arguments involving it — you push a wheelbarrow but a horse pulls a cart: neither relevant, in fact, because driven wheels are not a factor — were being discussed. Sparing you a dive back to the very early days when the monstrous Christie would have been one of the few FWD cars to be quoted (although before that Spyker had introduced 4WD), we can date the arrival of fairly practical front-wheel drive in the mid-vintage period, with the historic breakaway from tradition by Alvis of Coventry, for both production and racing motor-cars.

In France JA Gregoire had similar ideas, at much the same time. He had built up a useful garage business, the Societe des Garages des Chantiers, in Versailles. The chairman of this company was the wealthy Pierre Fenaille, the co-directors Jean Gregoire himself and F Douriez. It ran from 1915 into the 1920s, and along the years acquired agencies for such cars as Zadel, Mathis and Delage. In conjunction with the Mathis representative Trarbach, the Garage des Chantiers sold 60 of these cars a year, particularly the 1926 MY model, the quiet functioning of which made Monsieur Mathis particularly proud. Later this French motor business sold outdated Chenard-Walckers, which the factory was selling off in 1933 after introducing a front-wheel drive model, with which Gregoire had given some technical help. But by then he had been manufacturing front-drive cars of his own, under the appropriate name of Tracta.

The Tracta was a car born for taking part in racing and other speed-events. It seems that Gregoire had enjoyed some competition motoring in Majola, Amilcar, Mathis and Bugatti cars, including a successful onslaught on the 1928 Paris-Nice Rally in a boat-tailed Mathis, with Douriez as his co-driver (the car carried number 13, which belies superstition on the part of the French, although motorcycle riders carry this same number at our MCC trials). In 1927 Gregoire drove a Mathis saloon in the Monte Carlo Rally. It was enthusiasm such as this which gave birth to the FWD Tracta, at a time when Alvis was just about away with this form of drive in England, the still born, Edmund Massip-designed Bucciali had appeared at the Paris Salon, and in America Miller was about to race his front-drive cars, which in turn led to the production FWD Cord L29.

Pierre Fenaille, who was an enthusiastic user of chauffeur-driven Farmans (see Motor Sport, May pp 468-470) encouraged Gregoire to build a car with the Le Mans 24 Hours in mind. He decided to use a supercharged 1100 cc SCAP engine, said to develop 55 bhp. Whereas Alvis and Miller employed a De Dion tube to link their front wheels (I have discussed in these pages whether one copied the other of whether they arrived at this layout independently) Gregoire used Lancia-type vertical slides and coil springs. The engine was set far back in the chassis, up against the bulkhead, to make space for the gearbox and drive to be ahead of it, but behind the radiator. The car was very low and behind the bulkhead the chassis was unimpeded, a body-builder’s dream. The frame was made for Gregoire by Langlois et Jornod in Courbevoie, who also assembled it, using a De Dion Bouton steeringbox.

The Cozette-supercharged engine was, of course, turned round, to provide for the front-wheel drive. A brake was fitted to the front of the “reversed” gearbox, front wheel brakes being dispensed with, and ahead of this was the differential. The tubular back axle was sprung on semi-cantiliver springs mounted above the chassis side-members. The frontal layout necessitated a long bonnet. On this prototype Tracta the drive was by means of Hardy-Spicer universal-joints on the differential and spherical joints at the steering-posts. A light two-seater sports body was fitted and it first ran in the summer of 1926. The gearchange and the brakes caused considerable headaches, until sorted out.

Entered for a regularity run round Paris the car caught fire, but after that successes were achieved in speed hillclimbs, such as those at La Turbie – where the Tracta’s radiator boiled dry – and Mont Agel, opposition coming from the Salmsons. By the time of the 1927 Le Mans race two Tractas were ready, for Gregoire/Bourcier (one of Fenaille’s chauffeurs) and Fenaille/Boussod (an ex-pilot). Gregoire naturally had the better-prepared car. Alas, going to Le Mans in Fenaille’s big sleeve-valve Panhard-Levassor saloon, Boussod crashed it, severely injuring Fenaille. Anyway, with Gregoire’s head bandaged beneath his motorcycle-type crash helmet, a second driver unfamiliar with the car – although it is not explained why Bourcier stood down – and the need to rest during the 24 hours, the Tracta finished in seventh – and last – place. It had run with full-length running-boards, full-width windscreen and a Klaxon horn.

This performance qualified the make for the next Le Mans race and caused useful attention. Production of these attractive little sports cars, with low angular radiator, differential faired-in by a louvred apron and low-hung body, was now being undertaken. For the 1928 Le Mans race three were entered, to be driven by M (not R!) Benoist/Balart (12th), Bourcier/Nasena (16th) and Gregoire/Vallon (17th, and last). These racing accomplishments had brought the Tracta to the notice of the British. It did not actually appear within the stuffy halls of Olympia, but could be seen outside the 1929 Show, being handled here by Arthur Stewart & Co, who had two depots in London’s tramlined Vauxhall Bridge Road. Interest would have been sustained by Gregoire/Vallon coming home ninth (but last) at Le Mans that year in a 988 cc Tracta, although the 999 cc car of Bourcier/Tribandot and the 993cc Tracta of Lamagle/Benoist both retired. In 1930 a Tracta was third in the Biennial Cup at Le Mans, behind the Bentleys, driven by Bourcier/Debeugny.

The car had been tidied up, and now had a 1616 cc engine in production guise. Front brakes, of enlarged size, were now used, the inboard drums close to the differential, and there was 12-volt lighting, 29×5 tyres on wire wheels and a ‘spring’ steering-wheel. They would have sold you a chassis for £465 and an English four-seater saloon cost £575. As for speed, the claim was of around 68 mph, in closed form. The front suspension uprights were braced by a massive exposed tubular cross-member. Among the items which made the FWD Tracta a success were its steering joints. Many other front-drive cars, even those which arrived after the war, made do at first with adaptations of the Hooke joint, which caused steering snatch and wore out quickly.

The first Minis suffered in this way, and could be dangerous if a joint broke up and the released driveshaft locked a front wheel. Gregoire realised the need for a special universal-joint and developed the Tracta joint, helped by Fenaille, which was to have a wide engineering application. It was used under a royalty-patents agreement by DKW (whose FWD car had a transverse, two-stroke engine in advance of the immortal Issigonis Mini), the German Adler Trump and Willys Jeep. One description of it said that it was of too technical a nature to interest the average owner-driver and then went on to say: “The mortise and tenon are in a plane perpendicular to the plane of the forks, and the tenon which fits into the mortise can move into any position compatible with the mode of connecting the forks for making the drive.” If you understand that, you are an engineer! Let us just say that this Tracta joint was homokinetic, obviated steering kick, and was longer-lasting than simple Hooke-type universals. Yet the car which, more than any other, established the advantages of front-wheel drive, the Traction Avant Citroen, as proven by those stupendous long-duration drives of the fabulous Mon Lecot, didn’t use them…

Marketing of the Tracta may have been on a small scale here, with no Motor Show appearances, but it had its followers. For example, Marr and Gregoire ran one in the 1930 JCC ‘Double-Twelve’ race at Brooklands, finishing 25th out of 27 with a 1498 cc car, in a race from which 30 retired, and the Frenchman Vasena ran his s/c 1091 cc Tracta in the 1928 Ulster TT, arriving late as he thought the race was in the loM! He retired with engine trouble. Reporting on a sports two-seater of this engine-size, with its long pointed tail creating useful luggage space and with fixed cycle-type mudguards, The Autocar praised the “extraordinary road-holding and cornering” and timed the car at 71.42 mph over the quarter-mile at Brooklands. Pulling a top gear of 4.0:1 , 10-30 mph acceleration took 18 sec, reduced to 12.2 in the 6:1 third gear and to 9.8 in the 8:1 second gear of the four-speed ‘box, which had a 12.20:1 bottom cog. In fact, the car was also tried with a lower set of gears, intended for trials. The brakes stopped the car in 34 ft from 30 mph, in 58 ft from 40. The gearchange, controlled by a pull-and-twist lever protuding from the facia, was easy, the clutch on the heavy side, the steering very good, although devoid of caster-return section, and the weather protection excellent. Starting was by a silent dynamotor and the windscreen folded flat. The 67×105 mm (1498 cc) engine had twin carburettors, the fuel tank held 10 gallons (20-21 mpg), and this compact sports car had a wheelbase of 8 ft 6 in, weighed 18.5 cwt, and the tyre size was now 29×5 on centre-lock wire wheels.

Motor Sport had a go, also in 1930, in the same Tracta (UW118) and reported in much the same fashion. It was ascertained that there was no truth in the theory that a front-drive car had to be cornered “on the engine”. As most of us now know, lifting the throttle merely changed understeer into oversteer. But there was a tendency for the car to breakaway quickly on wet roads, which both testers commented upon – a low built car like this or a 4½-litre, 100 mph lnvicta gaining a bad reputation in this respect. The Motor Sport man found other Tractas to have lighter clutches than the test car, the brakes of which were noisy, and he disliked the noise made when engaging second gear, due to an idler pinion also being in action: “Not a very good piece of design.” He got 0-30 mph in 10 sec, and saw the speedometer record 83 mph downhill. The test car had done 73 miles in an hour at Brooklands. Both testers spoke of the powerful headlamps, a legacy of Le Mans racing, and the driving position and the Royal body were praised.

In Europe the Tracta’s reputation was no doubt enhanced by more racing successes, such as a class win in the Florio Cup and appearances in the Bol d’Or and in the Georges Boillot Cup at Boulogne. After 1930, factory entries ceased but these cars ran at Le Mans in 1933 and 1934 and Gregoire’s final appearance there, with Vallon in 1930, had given him eighth place with Bourcier/Debeugny in third place, behind the Bentleys, in the Biennial Cup. Here CM White used his black-and-red Tracta for competition work, even entering a Mountain-circuit race at Brooklands in 1935, for which it should have been well-suited, but wasn’t. Maybe ambition was the downfall, the little concern going for larger six-cylinder cars, at first with 2.7-litre Continental engines, then with 3-litre Hotchkiss power units. That lasted until 1934 and several hundred Tractas were made, Paul Gregoire assisted in designing them in later years by Charles Nugue. And those who “discovered” the Tracta seem to have liked it; Alan Southon, for example, who had a Tracta coupe when he was running the Phegree Garage at Hartley Wintney, close to the Phoenix pub, original home of the VSCC. Another Tracta has just turned up in Holland. It was a clever little car, well before its time.

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