I have happened upon an entry of a La Buire streamlined saloon in the 1924 Touring Grand Prix at Lyons,” writes a correspondent, “to be driven by the veteran Szisz”; and he goes on to ask whether this is the great Szisz of 1906 Grand Prix fame. I have every reason to suppose that it was, and while I do not know whether M Szisz is yet with us, I heard of him some considerable time after 1924 when he was managing a big garage at Neuilly—but I suppose that that must be twenty years ago now. Szisz often used to be described as an Austrian, but that always seemed surprising to me because although Austrians do some queer things with spelling, like putting an ‘I’ on the end of a word without a vowel to support it, Szisz does not look like even a south German name. Then I read somewhere that he was a Hungarian, and I was quite prepared to accept that as all I know of the language is the Hungarian for Grand Hotel, which is not pronounced at all as you would expect; but lately I have seen that in 1905 M Charles Faroux referred to him as a Croat and I am sure that, as usual, M Charles Faroux was right. (At that time Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so I suppose, really, that everyone else was right, too.)
I do not know how he first came into contact with Louis Renault, but at any rate the latter took him as his mechanic in the Paris-Vienna race of 1902, and I have always supposed that the idea was that he could talk any of the languages that they were likely to need, such as German or Hungarian—or even Croat. Very likely this came in very useful, for while they were waiting in the control in Innsbruck, and were in fact leading the whole race on their light car, Baron de Caters arrived on his Mors, tried to pass too close to the Renault, and cut several spokes out of its front wheel. Faced with this disaster, it must have been useful if Szisz knew the German for wood, and perhaps could even specify hickory or whatever wheel spokes were properly made of. In any case they got it, and succeeded in rebuilding the wheel in about four hours, so that they duly arrived in Vienna. Of course, they were no longer among the leaders by then, but as the race was won by Marcel Renault that did not matter as much as it might have.
I do not know whether Szisz accompanied Louis Renault again in Paris-Madrid in 1903, or whether this time the latter took a Spaniard, or perhaps a Catalan, or a Basque or something, but in that race Marcel Renault was killed, and Louis resolved never to drive in a race again. Indeed, in 1904, no Renault cars, even with other drivers, took part in the Freneh races; but in those halcyon days no manufacturer could keep away from it for long, and in 1905 a team of Renaults was entered for the French Eliminating Race in the Auvergne to decide which three cars should represent France in the Gordon Bennett Race. One of these Renaults was driven by Szisz, who immediately showed his form by finishing fifth, a performance which he repeated in the Vanderbilt Cup Race over the Long Island course at the end of the season.
After that it was a foregone conclusion that he would drive one of the Renaults in the 1906 Grand Prix at Le Mans, and after he had got into the lead on the third lap it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would win the two-day race, which he duly did, at 63 mph. Moreover, he nearly did it again in 1907 at Dieppe, although in the end he had to be content with second place behind Nazzaro on the Fiat; but in 1908 everything went wrong, and Szisz did not succeed in finishing either in the Grand Prix or in the Grand Prize of the Automobile Club of America in Savannah.
After 1908, as is well known, the big French firms refused to take any further part in racing, so that for a time the Grand Prix was abandoned, and it has always seemed to me curious that the drivers apparently acquiesced so calmly in their consequent enforced idleness. The main difference compared with nowadays, I suppose, was that even while racing was flourishing there had only been two or three big races a year, so that the drivers could hardly have made a living out of it. Of course there were voiturette races after 1908, but Szisz, like most of the famous drivers who were his contemporaries, does not seem to have taken any active part in them. Even when the Grand Prix itself was revived in 1912 he did not make any immediate return to racing, and it was not until 1914 that he again put in an appearance.
Louis Renault never built any more racing cars after the break of 1908, but the car that Szisz. drove in 1914 was made by a man who had been at least as famous a driver in his day and had almost retired from driving when Szisz went as a mechanic to Vienna in 1902. Fernand Charron had first driven Panhards, then had started to build the CGV, then changed the latter’s name to Charron and finally had sold the business. The car which he built and Szisz drove in 1914 was an Aida, but it does not seem to have been very fast, or at least it did not figure very prominently in the race. However, it was fitting that the winner of the 1906 race had something to drive, as all the winners of the subsequent Grands Prix were also at the start. Nazzaro, who had won in 1907, now on a car built by himself, Lautenschlager, winner in 1908, again on a Mercedes, and Boillot, winner in 1912 and 1913, again on a Peugeot.
That 1924 Touring Grand Prix in which, as my correspondent points out, Szisz was driving a La Buire was also a meeting of old-timers. In the first place there was Gabriel, the hero of Paris-Madrid, about whom I wrote at some length in these columns not long ago, and who on this occasion was driving an Aries. Another Aries was driven by Louis Rigel, who, I believe, was racing a De Dion tricycle RS long ago as 1898, and continued to do so until 1903, when he was suddenly promoted to a 70-hp Mors for the Paris-Madrid race. One has to be rather careful about this, because, later on at least, there was more than one Rigal who appeared in races, but I think it was Louis all right who after 1903 had a most varied career. In 1906 he drove an Itala in the Targa Florio and the next year started in the same race on a Berliet. By then, perhaps, he was not sufficiently well established to despise voiturettes, so that in that same year, 1907, he drove a Werner in the Coupe de l’Auto, and finished fifth on it, which did not prevent him driving a 120-hp Darracq in the Grand Prix, and finishing fifth on that also. The next year he switched over to Bayard-Clement for the Grand Prix and this time finished fourth, easily ahead of all the other French cars in the race, having distinguished himself by changing nineteen tyres in the course of ten laps and yet averaging 63.6 mph. In 1911 he was back in the Coupe de l’Auto, driving a Delage, and in 1912 he scored his great success when he won the Cup on a Sunbeam. After that he took Zuccarelli’s place in the Peugeot team, but he was never very successful there for some reason.
Yet another Aries was driven by Arthur Duray, who had started in Paris-Vienna on a Gobron-Brillie light car, soon after which he exchanged it for one of the huge 110-hp racers of the same marque, on which for some time he and Rigolly were almost invincible in sprints and hill-climbs. In 1904 he drove for Darracq, and in 1905 joined De Dietrich, winning the marque a place in the French Gordon Bennett team that year, winning the Circuit des Ardennes in 1906, and having his famous duel with Lancia in the 1907 Grand Prix. In the Coupe de l’Auto era he usually drove an Alcyon, and he had a Delage in the 1914 Grand Prix, having distinguished himself earlier that year by running second at Indianapolis on a 3-litre Peugeot.
Rougier, who drove a Voisin in the 1924 race, had been in the De Dietrich team with Duray from 1905 onwards, and before this he had driven a Turcat-Mery in Paris-Madrid in 1903. The 1903 De Dietrichs, it will be remembered, were built under Turcat-Mery licence, so that the 45-hp car on which Rougier finished ninth in the heavy class was, presumably, more or less identical with the 45-hp De Dietrich on which Charles Jarrott took third place. But 1904 was in many ways Rougier’s great year. The 1904 De Dietrichs were called 80 hp, but Rougier’s Turcat-Mery apparently had a bigger engine, as it was rated at 100 hp, and on it he both secured a place in the French Gordon Bennett team and ran third in the Gordon Bennett race in Germany. The car had a curious streamlined bonnet, and Rougier had it painted to look like a shark’s head, with two eyes and a row of mouth-organ teeth, which would probably not be considered at all good form on a racing car nowadays. After 1904, however, they do not seem to have made any more Turcat-Mery racing cars, and so Rougier joined the De Dietrich team, with which, or course, the connection had always been close, and drove De Dietrichs regularly in all the big races until the great shut-down in 1908, without, however, distinguishing himself so markedly as he had on the Turcat-Mery in 1904. After 1908 he seems to have kept away from Grand Prix racing until 1923, when he and his old team-mate Duray both drove Voisins in the race at Tours that Segrave won on the Sunbeam.
Another La Buire, like the one Szisz drove, was driven in the 1924 Touring Grand Prix by Porporato, who was hardly a newcomer either, as, like Louis Rigal, he had started in the 1907 Targa Florio on a Berliet. At least I suppose he did, because it seems that there may have been two Porporatos who drove Berliets at about this time. I am led to suspect this, because, according to Gerald Rose’s “Record of Motor Racing,” the 1908 Targa Florio was run on May 18th, and Porporato on his Berliet finished fourth in it, at 33.1 mph. Then, on the very next day, May 19th, was run the St. Petersburg-Moscow race, and Porporato on his Berliet is shown as a starter in the class for four-cylinder cars with a bore of more than 130 mm. Now with the communications of 1908 what they were, I cannot believe that anybody could have raced in Sicily one day and left St Petersburg for Moscow the next, so that if Porporato really did both these things, I can only conclude that there must have been two Porporatos. On the other hand no Porporato at all is shown among the finishers in St. Petersburg-Moscow, and it is thus possible that what appears to be the list of starters is really no more than the list of entrants; in which case perhaps Porporato found out in the end that it was further from Palermo to St Petersburg than he had thought, and that he was not really in Russia on May 19th at all. In fact, for all the evidence that there is to the contrary, by as late as September 7th he may have got no further north than Bologna, for on that date we find him winning the Targa Bologna on his Berliet, at 65.3 mph.
From Berliet and Bologna Porporato next, moved to Gregoire and Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he ran fifth in the Coupe de l’Auto in 1911. In 1913, still on the 3-litre Gregoire, he won the Coupe le la Sarthe at le Mans, and, after a brief defection to drive a Nazzaro in the 1914 Grand Prix at Lyons, returned to Gregoire and le Mans in the Coupe des Voiturettea of 1921. By the time he had joined La Buire in 1924, he was back to a car which, like his original Berliet, was built at Lyons.
This La Buire, although neither in 1924 nor since can it be counted among the great racing marques, was undoubtedly a make with a history. Indeed the firm’s catalogue for 1907, which I have before me as I write, and which is one of those charming documents composed by a Frenchman who thought he knew English, is perhaps unduly modest when it starts off : “The Societe Anonyme des Automobiles de la Duke, although one of the youngest firms as motor-car builders, have succeeded in getting even at their birth one of the first places on the market, on account of unobjectionable finish of the frames and the excellent quality of the rough materials they use for the construction of the cars.” I am sure that no enthusiast for the Edwardians would now damn the finish of their frames with the faint praise of calling it “unobjectionable,” nor admit that the cars were constructed of “rough” materials; and even if the Societe Anonyme des Automobiles de Is Buire was in 1907 still ” one of the youngest firms as motor-car builders,” the connection with motor cars of the parent concern, the Chantiers de la Buire, went back almost as far as it was possible to go. In January, 1890, it may be remembered, Leon Serpollet had the hardihood to set out for Lyons, accompanied by Ernest Archdeacon, ” l’homme de totes les sports,” on the rather primitive horseless tricycle built by Armand Peugeot and fitted with the Serpollet flash boiler; and the objective in Lyons on this occasion was the Chantiers de la Buire. At that time, according to Serpollet, this concern “was under the direction of M Augustin Seguin, the son of the illustrious Marc Seguin, the man who caused the railways to take a decisive step forward—at the time of their creation—by his marvellous invention of the tubular boiler.” M Seguin, it appears, was very much impressed with Serpollet’s tricycle; and it is accordingly rather curious that his firm should have waited until about 1904 before starting to make motor cars themselves.
What is almost more remarkable was that at that period they did not seek to win fame for them by entering them in the big races, though it may be remarked that the same is true of other important Lyons makers, such as Berliet and Rochet-Schneider, who seem never to have suffered from the Parisian frenzy for the grandes epreuves. Bernet, as we have seen, had run in the Targa Florio and Targa Bologna, and had also run in the Tourist Trophy, all these races being at least nominally for touring cars. Bechet-Schneider, after taking part in Marseilles-Nice in 1898, had made fairly frequent appearances in French races up to 1901, after which, however, they had contented themselves with the Kaiserpreis of 1907, which was for “small cars”—with a maximum capacity of 8 litres.
Nevertheless La Buire regarded itself in 1907 as quite a sporting marque. “The constant success these cars have had in the numerous races in which they have been engaged,” declares the catalogue, “have displayed their remarkable qualities of resistance and especially their marvellous capacity for climbing the longest and heaviest ascents, caused [sic) them to deserve the name of ‘coast climbers’.” I cannot believe that in fact they deserved anything so silly : I suspect in fact that whoever translated the catalogue looked up cote in his dictionary and said it meant “coast,” without stopping to see that it also means “hill.” At least he was consistent, as at the end of the catalogue he gave a long list of the “coast races” in which La Buire cars had won awards in 1905 and 1906, culminating in the “Coast Race of Mont Ventoux” in the latter year, in which M Mottard had distinguished himself on a 30-hp, with the result that “the de In Buire carriages hold the record of the tourist’s (sic) category of the Ventoux 24 min 19 sec.” He also gave a picture of the bearded M Mottard, “holding the record of the Tourist Category of the Ventoux”—in sober fact holding his steering wheel, while his mechanic gazes at him with eyes of admiration. “Consequently,” adds the catalogue, “it is with the greatest confidence that the Societe offer their customers their frames 1907, which can easily be compared with the most famous marks, even in what concerns the features of which some firms have made a speciality.”
There were, indeed, some very nice “frames” ranging from 15 to 50 hp “with turning axle,” and from 18 to 40 hp with chains. The motor, of the 24-hp model, had “four upright twin cylinders with operated and interchangeable valves and . . . the cam shafts are entirely enclosed in the motor case or carter . . . Our speed gear box comprises four speeds and retrograde-motion . . . The suspension . . . is exceedingly smooth, whilst doing away with the lateral rocking.” So far, so good; but when we are told that “the lubrication of the cylinders is effected by means of two drip lubricators with sight feed, located on the mud guard,” I suspect that the author and I mean two different things by a “mud guard,” even though he adds that “in this manner, any oil container at the front of the mud guard is done away and, when the container is entirely filled, the staining of the carriage-work is not to be feared.” After this one takes quite calmly the news that in the 50-hp model, ” time motor comprises six cylinders twin connected by pairs . . . this model is provided with a discompressor for the putting in motion or starting and with an oil delivery for the gears of the rear bridge.”
In conjunction with the Grand Prix in 1907, the ACF ran an additional race for the Coupe de la Commission Sportive, in which competitors received only half the petrol allowance of the bigger cars, and had therefore to average very nearly 19 mpg. La Burire decided to enter three of the 18-lip cars for this event, the engines with a bore and stroke of 95 by 120 mm, being the smallest in the race. Nevertheless they did extremely well, Mottard again distinguishing himself by finishing second, at 52.8 mph, while the other two cars were fourth and fifth.
After this promising beginning one might have expected further developments in the La Buire racing career. But in 1908 there was nothing like the Coupe de la Commission Sportive, for which a standard model La Buire had proved suitable, and instead the Grand Prix was preceded by a voiturette race in which four-cylinder engines were limited to the almost ludicrous bore of 62 mm. Then in 1909 the slump, which in 1908 had proved disastrous to so many other French firms, hit La Buire, rather late in the day, and it seems that the Snake Automobile failed, having, according to one comninentator, “hastened its fall by engaging so unfortunately in ancillary enterprises such as ‘Transports and Garages’ and ‘Postal Transport’.” They seem to have reconstructed the company and there seem to have been conversations about an amalgamation with Pilain of Lyons. I do not think that anything came of them, as the latter firm amalgamated, I believe, with SLIM instead, and used to make a car called a Slint-Pilain. It was alleged that La Buire was going to enter for the Coupe des Voitures Legeres for 3-litre cars in 1911, but nothing seems to have come of that either. After that one does not seem to hear much of La Buire until that Touring Grand Prix of 1924, and nowadays I do not hear anything of it at all. Perhaps the Societe Automobile is no more; but you can never tell with French cars—I believe that old friends mentioned in this article like Berliet, Boehet-Schneider and Lorraine-Dietrich are still making lorries—and if I saw an announcement one of these days of a new La Buire touring car I should not be unduly surprised.
Further congratulations to Mr Butler, who has decided not to inflict his now £12 10s per annum flat-rate “road fund” tax on cars rated at 6 hp. and 7 hp. It seems likely that, instead, the 6-hp car now contributing £7 10s, will next year contribute to the tune of something like £9 7s 6d, and that the 7-hp car, costing its owner at present 15s, will pay in 1953 about £10 18s 9d. Thus will secondhand sales of baby Fiats, aged Jowetts, etc., perhaps soar away from those of Austin, Morris, Ford, Singer and other 8-hp cars, the tax on which soars from £10 to £12 10s.
The News Chronicle of May 9th stated that Mr Butler’s concession will affect fewer than 10,000 7-hp cars (presumably mainly Fiat 500s, a few Peugeots and DKW two.strokes) and under 100 6-hp cars (one supposes made up of certain single-cylinder veterans owned by VCC members, home-built road-equipped “500s,” and possibly a few surviving examples of four-wheeled mini-cars of the Scootamota order, but it is surprising they tot up to around 100). Linered-down Eights may now become a minor vogue. Relinering by Government subsidy, in fact !