In the early editions of the Le Mans 24-hour race, Lorraine-Dietrich cars were serious rivals to the Bentleys. Oone of those marques became a legend; The other faded into history. Anthony Pritchard describes a brief moment of Gallic glory
Eighty years ago three Lorrain-Dietrich 15CVs lined up for the start of the first Le Mans race. Two of them finished, albeit well down the field, and these six-cylinder cars appeared in the next three 24-hour races. Their later successes, and their battles with W O Bentley’s products, led to the model becoming known in Britain as the ‘French Bentley’. Although the two makes were similar in performance, and not so far apart in engine capacity, the 15CVs were cars of a very different character and background to their British counterparts.
When the Le Mans 24-hour race was first held in 1923, the entry list was dominated by some of the most popular names in the French motor industry: Berliet, Bignan, Chénard et Walcker, Georges Irat, Rolland-Pilain – and Lorraine-Dietrich – names that are now almost completely forgotten. Challenging them was a single British Bentley, and over the years 1924-26 a needle match developed between Bentley and Lorraine-Dietrich.
The origins of the two makes and the design philosophy behind them were very different De Dietrich, with roots going back to the 18th century, was an early heavy engineering company with factories at Luneville in Lorraine and Niederbronn in Alsace. Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, France ceded Alsace and part of Lorraine to Germany, so the Niederbronn factory was in German territory and the Luneville one on French soil. In 1905 de Dietrich was split into independent French and German companies.
The Luneville company, known after the split as Lorraine-Dietrich, had started building cars in 1897. It first adopted the designs of the younger Amédée Bollée and then of Turcat-Méry, while Niederbronn built cars to the designs of Ettore Bugatti. Niederbronn ceased car manufacture in 1904, but it flourished at Luneville, where Lorraine-Dietrich cars were built in substantial numbers. The company also competed in early grand prix racing, albeit with limited success.
The German invasion of France at the start of the First World War engulfed the Luneville factory, so Lorraine transferred production to the factory that it had opened in 1908 at Argenteuil to the north-west of Paris. During the war years the company concentrated on aero-engine development and manufacture. In post-war years the cars took a secondary role and most of them were dull and undistinguished touring cars. The one exception was the B-3-6 15CV model, the work of designer Marius Barbarou. It was an ugly duckling that turned into a very beautiful swan.
The six-cylinder 3446cc engine had a fixed cylinder head, exposed, very long needle pushrods and coil ignition. There was gravity fuel feed to a Zenith triple-diffuser carburettor, and in its original form the 15CV engine developed a modest 40bhp or so. Transmission was by a single-plate clutch, a three-speed gearbox with a central ball-change and spiral-bevel final drive. The front axle was suspended on semi-elliptic springs, but there were cantilever springs at the rear. Steering was left-hand and there were artillery wheels. A new rounded radiator shell closely resembled that of the Bentley and carried a prominent cross of Lorraine. There was the choice of wheelbase ranging from 9ft 6in to 10ft 8in.
Lorraine-Dietrich introduced the 15CV in 1920 as a relatively unsophisticated, rock-steady and reliable family car. Unlike the 3-litre Bentley, which was to become its closest rival, the 15CV had no recent sporting pedigree; but that was soon to change.
A sports version of the 15CV was introduced in 1923, but there were few mechanical alterations. When details of the Le Mans 24-hour race, intended to demonstrate the reliability of ordinary touring cars, were announced many French manufacturers were very interested, including Lorraine-Dietrich. For any production car to survive 24 hours of racing, day and night, on the very poorly surfaced, ill-maintained, dusty roads of the period would be something well worth advertising. That there was no outright annual winner mattered little, for a win in the Triennial Cup would provide even greater publicity.
So three 15CV Lorraine-Dietrich tourers lined up for the start of the first 24-hour race, held on May 26-27, 1923. Private owners had entered the cars, but the works provided enthusiastic support. However, in terms of speed, the three Lorraines were hopelessly outclassed: two 3-litre Chénard et Walckers led throughout, chased hard by the Duff/Clement Bentley, until the British car lost over two hours while a holed fuel tank was repaired. As the race progressed driving conditions were made difficult by the roads breaking up, and by gusting winds and rain squalls during the night hours.
The Lorraine-Dietrich entries were not without their problems during the race, but the 15CV of Gérard de Courcelles and André Rossignol covered the eighth-greatest distance, 1158.417 miles, at an average of 48.267 mph, just under 40 miles less than the Bentley which was a joint fourth on distance. Robert Bloch/ Stalter had a troubled race, covering 943.896 miles to put them joint 19th with a 2-litre Rolland-Pilain. The third Lorraine-Dietrich, driven by Flaud/Lecureuil/ Gonzargue, retired.
In 1924 the 15CV was fitted as standard with front-wheel brakes and Barbarou evolved a Sports version on the short chassis, with dry-sump lubrication. The sports model also had a multi-plate clutch, the Perrot-type brakes were larger than standard, and there was a Dewandre servo too. A tachometer and Rudge-Whitworth centre-lock wire-spoked wheels were usually fitted. This model was available with a four-seater tourer body by Labourdette or as a sports saloon, and with a 3.5:1 back axle ratio fitted, the makers guaranteed 80mph. Because of the similarity of radiator design, you might think that a Lorraine coming at you head-on was a Bentley, but there was no mistaking it from any other angle.
Three Lorraine-Dietrich cars were again entered in the 1924 Le Mans race, which was postponed until June 14-15 in the hope of better weather conditions. All the entries in the race were French apart from the 3-litre Bentley of Duff and Clement. There was a new regulation which required drivers of open cars to stop at the pits after five laps to erect the hood and this had to stay in place for 20 laps. The 3-litre Chénard et Walckers led initially, but after six hours’ racing both had caught fire and eliminated themselves, so Bloch/ Stalter with their Lorraine led from Duff/Clement, with the other two Lorraines in third and fourth places. During the Sunday morning Duff had pulled ahead of the leading French car.
Just before 1pm the Bloch/ Stalter Lorraine retired because of what was said to be “serious valve trouble”, and although the Bentley lost a lot of time in the pits during a precautionary change of both rear wheels, when the finish came Duff/Clement had covered the greatest distance, 1380 miles. But the long pitstop had reduced the Bentley’s average speed for the final five laps to below the qualifying minimum, so those were discounted. In the official results the Bentley had covered 1290.44 miles, only marginally greater than the Lorraines that had covered the second- and third-highest distances. Stoffel and Brisson had completed 1280.49 miles and de Courcelles/Rossignol 1276.77 miles.
Lorraine-Dietrich had learned that Le Mans required a combination of speed, mechanical toughness, good preparation and thorough testing. Three Sports models were entered in the 1925 race held on June 20-21, the car driven by Stalter/Brisson fitted with twin Zenith carburettors. The opposition included two Bentleys and two of the new twin-cam Sunbeams. Bentley and Sunbeam fought a fierce duel, which led to mechanical problems. One of the Lorraines driven by Bloch and St Paul was in third place when it spun three times and overturned, and so, by 4am, the French cars of de Courcelles/Rossignol and Stalter/Brisson led from Chassagne and ‘Sammy’ Davis with the surviving Sunbeam. The Sunbeam drivers were still pushing hard and, by 6am, had moved into second place. These were still the positions when the race ended — victory of sorts for the Lorraine marque, whose leading car had covered 1388.129 miles at 57.838mph, though it should be remembered that there was no official winner of each annual race until 1928.
Once more three can were entered in the 1926 Le Mans race, held on June 18-19. This time there was a three-sided battle fought by Aries, Bentley and Lorraine-Dietrich. The Lorraine-Dietrich entries appeared in their manufacturer’s catalogue as the ‘Le Mans’ model, but only four were built, the three race cars and a spare. These differed from other 15CV Sports models in having twin-plug ignition, twin Zenith carburettors and torpedo bodies built by Kelsch. A novel feature of the coachwork was a flexible joint between the bonnet and the fabric tourer body, which reduced vibration and shake. The three-speed gearbox was more than adequate for Le Mans, for its high gearing gave a maximum speed in bottom gear of 50mph and a top speed of approximately 95mph.
In the 1926 race two of the three Bentleys retired, but ‘Sammy’ Davis with the surviving car found himself in third place, splitting two Loiraines. He was given instructions to try to catch and pass the second-placed car, but half an hour before the finish he slid into a sandbank at Mulsanne. So Bloch and Rossignol (who covered 1585.993 miles at 66.082mph), de Courcelles and Mongin and Stalter/ Brisson took the first three places on distance for Lorraine, ahead of two 2-litre OMs. De Courcelles/Mongin also won the second Biennial Cup.
Lorraine-Dietrich was increasingly concentrating on aero engines and after the 1926 race ceased to support entries at Le Mans. In 1928 the company changed its name again to Lorraine (but most people had been calling the cars this or ‘La Lorraine’ for some while).
A Lorraine did return to the Sarthe circuit, in 1931, and Robert Trebor and Louis Barlat drove it to fourth. They covered 1763.074 miles, 112 miles behind the winning 8C 2300 Alfa Romeo co-driven by Tun Birkin and Lord Howe. The last appearance of a 15CV at Le Mans came in 1934 when Just-Emile Vemet entered a car for himself and Daniel Porthault They retired early in the race.
In 1929 Lorraine joined a government-sponsored consortium of airframe and engine builders known as the Societé Generale Aeronautique. Wisely, many other aviation companies abstained from joining, as the consortium was unsuccessful, and in 1932 Lorraine’s bankers appointed a receiver. The company was not dosed down, but over a period most of it was sold off in parts.
The 15CV was finally fitted with a four-speed gearbox in 1930 and the model ceased production in 1932. The last Lorraine car was the 4-litre side-valve 20CV. A bored and penurious public had received it without enthusiasm at the 1931 Paris Salon; only a few hundred were sold and Lorraine ceased car production in 1934.
After he left Lorraine, Barbarou built powerboats at a factory alongside the Seine at Meulan, west of Paris. One of his boats, powered by a W12 450hp Lorraine engine, clocked almost 90mph on a stretch of the Seine at Sartrouville between Meulan and Paris. It was a last hurrah for a name which had briefly shone among the great sporting marques but, like so many others, then withered away under the hard realities of Europe in the Thirties.