The Editor looks at the legand of the invincible Talbot-Darracos

One of Louis Coatalen’s great interests was motor racing and when he became Chief Engineer of the STD organisation he was able to indulge this whim to the full, perhaps at the expense of the share-holders. Naturally, he set his sights on winning the Grand Prix. In 1912 his small cars, based on the standard Sunbeams, had given the bigger cars a fright. In 1913 Coatalen’s side-valve GP Sunbeam had finished third at Dieppe behind the specialised twin-cam 16-valve Peugeots. Using a similar design for 1914 only fifth place was achieved. After the war Coatalen’s cars were unready in 1921, in 1922 he was let down by employing the great Ernest Henry to design his 2-litre Sunbeams when that engineer was losing his eminence, but in 1923, aided by a modicum of luck, the dream came true, Segrave’s 2-litre non-supercharged Sunbeam winning the French Grand Prix at Tours. Supercharged, these Sunbeams might have repeated the performance in 1924, had their German magnetos, fitted on the eve of the race, not let them down, and they went on to win the Spanish GP that year. It was, however, with his voiturettes or 1½-litre Talbot Darracqs that Coatalen really had the motor racing world in the palm of his hand….

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Coatalen had used the Henry type engine for his 1914 GP Sunbeams and for the unsuccessful 3-litre straight-eight Talbot Darracqs he had built for the 1921 season. These latter racing cars had been built in the Darracq works at Suresnes, outside Paris, at Wolverhampton, and in the old Clement-Talbot works at Kensington. At the same time as they were being constructed, Coatalen had a team of 1½-litre four-cylinder racing cars built at Suresnes, their engines constituting, in effect, half those of the GP cars. This meant that they used aluminium cylinder blocks with bronze valve inserts and plug bosses and steel liners, the bore and stroke being 65 x 112 mm. (1,486 c.c.). Four inclined valves in each head, actuated by twin-overhead-camshafts were driven by a train of pinions at the front of the engine. A 3-bearing crankshaft ran in plain bearings, lubricated from a dry-sump system. Cooling was by pump and twin Solex carburettors were used. Ignition was by Delco battery and coil and more than 50 b.h.p. was claimed at 4,000 r.p.m. The engine drove through a multi-plate clutch to a 4-speed gearbox and the differential-less back axle was driven by an open propeller shaft. The ½-eliptically-sprung chassis had a wheelbase of 8′ 0″ and a track of 3′ 7″ and cable-operated four-wheel-brakes were used. These little Talbot-Darracqs were ready by the late summer of 1921 and one authority has described them as the direct spiritual descendants of Henry-designed Peugeot light Coupe de L’Auto cars of 1913 and 1914, and as pretty a team of light racing cars as perhaps the motoring world had ever seen. They were to live up to this high opinion, in the two years of their racing careers.

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The first race in which Coatalen’s new Talbot-Darracq voiturettes appeared was the Coupes des Voiturettes organised by the AC de l’Ouest at Le Mans (very definitely a road circuit in those days). For this debut Coatalen had secured the services of the Frenchman Rene Thomas and the Britishers Henry Segrave and Kenelm Lee Guinness as his drivers. Bugatti failed to appear but the T-D team faced opposition from Harvey’s side-valve Alvis, three la Perles, Bedford’s Hillman, Hawkes’ Horstman, Marshall’s Aston-Martin, an ancient Corre-la Licorne and five others. They had to race for 279 miles over the hardly sophisticated course. The little blue T-Ds ran away with it. Guinness did his s lap at 66.7 m.p.h. and later Thomas lapped at 74.5 m.p.h. The only mechanical stoppage they experienced was when Thomas came in to replace the clip on his front universal joint. These 500 kgm., Pirelli-shod cars finished the race in the order, Thomas, at an average speed of 72.1 m.p.h., Guinness, 1 min. 54 sec. behind, and Segrave, who was 40 sec. behind Guinness. They had never been challenged, yet they speeded up as the race proceeded, to the extent that had they been competing in the Grand Prix over the same course, in the latter part of that race only the winning 3-litre Duesenberg would have gone faster. It was a pretty convincing performance. Incidentally, to keep within the weight limit dynamos were dispensed with but the batteries lasted the four hours of the race.

Indeed, Coatalen must have had every confidence when he entered his T-D team for the JCC 200-Mile Race at Brooklands that October. As this was in Britain Rene Thomas was replaced by Malcolm Campbell. Also, although as road-racers the cars had pointed tails, Coatalen thought that something even more streamlined was called for in this track race and got the Hawker aeroplane people at Kingston to cobble up lightweight long-tailed bodies for the “200”; the radiators were cowled, and the front brakes removed. The aluminium seats were not upholstered and the drivers and especially the mechanics suffered badly in consequence.

In this pure track marathon the Talbot-Darracqs faced fast cars such as the newly-engined sixteen-valve o.h.c. Bugattis, two Alvis, the Le Mans Hillman, Anzani-engined Horstman, Coventry-Simplex-powered Horstmans, and a bevy of Aston-Martins, of which Count Zborowski’s had the new Robb o.h.c. 16-valve engine, and many more. However, among the anxieties of practice, which were many, the T-D team was put away early in the depot on the Byfleet side of the Track, and on race day Louis Coatalen was there, to see them dominate the race. They led throughout and finished in the order, Segrave, who averaged 88.82 m.p.h., Guinness who was 5.8 secs. behind, and Campbell, who finished 3 min. 56.2 sec. behind Guinness. Campbell had the misfortune of a burst tyre, on the o/s back wheel and running to his pit on the rim and changing it, inspite of the hubs being of knock-off type, cost him second place, for it seems that Coatalen intended the finishing-order to have been Segrave-Campbell-Guinness.+ Had it not been for this tyre failure Talbot Darracqs would all have made non-stop runs, although Segrave finished the race on a flat tyre. As it was, Segrave and Guinness both lapped at 94.86 m.p.h. and actually broke several International class records in the course of the “200”, including the hour at 88.67 m.p.h. The engines ran at 4,000 r.p.m. with equinimity. The nearest the opposition got to this splendid performance was fourth place by de Vizcaya’s Bugatti, but it was 5 min. 57 sec. behind Campbell. It may well have been more than coincidence that the announcement of the new 8 h.p. Talbot-Darracq light-car came with the Press reports of this 200-Mile Race that had been such a convincing T-D walk-over … Coatalen must have faced his first full season of 1½-litre racing in 1922 with every confidence.

The first 1922 engagement for these remarkable T-Ds came in June. The RAC had decided to revive the TT in the IoM and not getting much support for the main 3-litre race, added a 1½-litre class. Coatalen saw an opportunity to employ his unsuccessful straight-eight Talbot-Darracqs, now called Sunbeams, in this road race, nominating Segrave and Guinness to drive them. He also decided to run a full team of T-D voiturettes, the 1921 cars, overhauled at Suresnes but with their bearings unchanged, it was said, since their first racing appearance. The engines were said to be giving 54.6 h.p. on the test bed. The road-racing bodies had been refitted, likewise the front brakes, and the drivers were Sir Algernon Guinness, and two ex-mechanics, Albert Divo and Moriceau. They met a full team of Brescia Bugattis, and Enfield-Allday, an outdated Aston-Martin and Bedford’s Hillman.

The race was run in appalling conditions and the inexperienced Moriceau skidded on the wet road while trying to overtake de Vizcaya’s Bugatti, a tyre burst – here I would make the point that these really were small racing cars, using 710 x 100 back tyres – and the T-D left the road, and was eliminated. From the beginning the other two Coatalen cars had it all tied up, Guinness leading Divo. However, Guinness then suffered a puncture, but was able to re-start without being passed by de Vizcaya and he was able to overtake his team-mate and win at 53.3 m.p.h., after driving for 4 hr. 14 min. 56.4 sec. Divo ran in 2 min. 41.6 sec. behind Guinness in this very beastly race, and if this seems a biggish gap, let it be said that the best a Bugatti could do was to come home some half-an-hour behind Divo. Sir Algernon had averaged within 2.48 m.p.h. of the winning 3-litre Sunbeam driven for two more laps in the TT proper by Chassagne. Moreover, the little T-Ds were only slower than two of the big cars in their admittedly lager race.

The next appearance of the Invincible T-D team was in the 1922 JCC 200-Mile race, which was again run over the outer-circuit at Brooklands. The race had been moved forward to August and the drivers were to be Jean Chassagne, fresh from winning the TT for Sunbeam, Segrave, and K. Lee Guinness. The TDs faced the Aston Martins, now with Henry-type cylinder heads, the Bugattis, and many others. In the opening stages of the “200” Moir’s Aston Martin led, and Zborowski’s GP Aston Martin was fourth, closely pursuing Guinness and Segrave, Chassagne having stalled on the starting-line. It was clear that for sheer speed the AMs matched the T-Ds, for Moir was pulling away from Segrave, and Zborowski was almost level with Guinness, and soon passed him. The pace, however, was too great for the AMs and both the GP-engined cars retired, leaving the race, as before to the French cars. It was not quite a walk-over, though, because Guinness had to stop because the o/s rear tyre had left its rim and one report says he stopped again later to change over to the magneto from the coil ignition, both systems now being used, as his engine began to misfire. Then it was Chassagne’s engine which began to mis-fire and he stopped to look to its plugs and test its compression. He was told by Coatalen, who was again at the Track watching over his team, to continue and after the mis-firing had cured itself the Frenchman set about making up lost time at great speed, taking the Railway straight at not far short of 100 m.p.h. This, perhaps coupled to the weaving past slower cars, caused the o/s rear tyre to burst. The Talbot-Darracq swerved and went over the top of the Byfleet banking, throwing out Chassagne and his mechanic Dutoit, on the way. Both escaped practically uninjured, and Chassagne’s shoes were found neatly parked on the concrete. Next it was Segrave’s engine that played up and although he stopped and put in new plugs, his lap-speed dropped by over 10 m.p.h. Possibly Coatalen had intended the finishing order to be Segrave, Guinness, Chassagne. But this final trouble changed things and Guinness ran home the winner, at 88.06 m.p.h., having lapped at 95.78 m.p.h. and second place went to Stead’s old side-valve Aston Martin “Bunny” at 86.35 m.p.h., an astonishing performance, Segrave having to swallow his pride and accept third place, at 85.55 m.p.h. Guinness had been racing for 2 hr. 17 min. 37 sec. Stead finished 2 min. 43.2 sec. behind him, and Segrave was 1 min. 19.4 sec. down on the Aston Martin. The T-D team was in the 1921 guise of long-tailed bodies, cowled radiators and no front brakes, and the engines had been raised to give better Track clearance.

The T-Ds, then went to the Coupe Internationale des Voiturettes at Le Mans. In one way this was a rather hollow finale, because the only other runners were a Corre La Licorne and a back-braked Crouch. However, although the race distance had been increased since 1921 by 96½ miles Guinness averaged almost the same speed as he had the year before, 72.1 m.p.h., in a race occupying 5 hr. 12 min. 7.4 sec., and he lapped at 77½ m.p.h., an improvement on the old lap-record of three m.p.h. Divo came in within five seconds of Kenelm Lee Guinness but Segrave was delayed for more than half-an-hour with misfiring, suspected magneto trouble being, in fact, fuel-feed blockage. Nevertheless, he took third place. This was a fitting conclusion to a two-season racing appearance in which these 16-valve, twin-cam T-Ds had never been vanquished, and which were, by the end of 1922, regarded as too old for further first-line racing.

One more race remained for them. Coatalen had been offered transport by Guinness, on his yacht, for the T-D team and two 4.9-litre-engined 1922 TT Sunbeams, together with a Sunbeam tourer, to Spain where the former would run in the Penya Rhin GP, and to Sicily for the big cars to compete in the famous Coppa Florio race. Presumably seeing this as a holiday and a solution to the problems of getting the racing cars out by land transport, the Patron accepted. The T-Ds met much more competition than they usually did at Penya Rhin and Chassagne retired with a broken valve. This malady then occurred in Segrave’s car, which broke an inlet valve, and kept on catching fire. Bill Guinness won in 4 hr. 55 min. 46 sec., at 65.4 m.p.h., 8 min. 14 sec. ahead of Zborowski’s Aston Martin. A Chiribiri was third, Segrave fourth. So the Talbot-Darracq remained unbeaten, this being their sixth victory in six races.

Having been defeated in the Grand Prix by Fiat in 1922, Coatalen secured the services of the Fiat designer, Signor Bertarione, to engineer his 1923 cars. This paid off, because, with a certain amount of luck, Segrave won the 1923 French GP at Tours for Sunbeam, in one of the Fiat-like Bertarione 2-litre Sunbeams, after the new Fiats had retired. The car Bertarione had prepared for Coatalen’s 1923 GP season was used as a basis for a new team of T-Ds, built at Suresnes, but eventually called Talbots in France, Darracqs when they raced in England, to tie in with STD policy. They had four-cylinder all-roller-bearing 67 x 105 rnm. (1,481 c.c.) engines with separate steel forged cylinders. There were now only two valves per cylinder, operated by twin overhead-camshafts, still driven by a train of gears. Thus while the heads no longer bowed to Henry influence, the camshafts-drive did. A writer in The Light Car & Cyclecar had described the heads of the 1921/22 T-D engines as hemispherical but I would have thought they were more nearly pent-roof. Now the new engines got close to a true hemispherical combustion chamber. An output of 70 b.h.p. at 5,000 was quoted for them, using a single Solex carburetter and magneto ignition, and this was not regarded as an exaggeration. The chassis were still sprung on ½-elliptics and again there was no differential.

The new Talbot voituretres made their debut in a Boulogne race in September, which Segrave won, from some Aston Martins and Bugattis but both his team-mates, Guinness and Divo retired. Next, the cars repaired to Le Mans, for the 257 mile Coupe des Voiturettes contest. Boulier’s Talbot succumbed early, after going on fire, but Divo won in 3 hr. 36 min. 1.4 sec., at 71.5 m.p.h. which was only 0.6 m.p.h. slower than Segrave’s 1922 average over 375½ miles, and Divo lapped at 81 m.p.h. Moriccau in the third Talbot was delayed when a throttle-cable broke and the o/s rear tyre left its rim, but he came second.

At this stage Coatalen must have been less pleased than in 1921 and 1922, especially as Fiat, too, had some 1½-litre cars which had so far also proved unbeatable (with a change of chassis on the way), having won at Brescia and Monza. So when it was known that two of these supercharged Fiats were coming to Brooklands for the 200 Mile Race, with Salamano and Campbell to drive them, interest was intense. But if the spectators expected to see a Darracq/Fiat battle, they were to be disappointed, and indeed these two “unbeatable” 1½-litres cars never met. It has been said of Coatalen that he so feared a confrontation with these blown Fiats that he took his non-supercharged T-D team elsewhere. If so, can one blame him? I am not certain, however that this is quite a true story, that he entered and then withdrew his cars from the “200.”

We have seen how Coatalen used sea transport to get his racing cars to Spain in 1922 and perhaps transport problems, which must have been quite acute over such distances 56 years ago, made it impossible to have them at Brooklands in 1923 and in Spain as well. The Spanish race took place nine days after the “200”, which you may think lends strength to my argument. Coatalen had in any case won the “200” twice in succession. On the other hand, in 1924, when only eight days separated the “200” from the Spanish GP, at Sall Sebastian, Segrave and Guinness managed the journey in time – but then they had been driving the 1½-litre Darracqs in the former race and the GP Sunbeams were run in the latter, so only urgent transport for the two drivers was involved, which the Paris Express looked after, admirably; the Talbots themselves had 23 days to their next engagement, just across the Channel at Montlhery. So we must ask ourselves, did Coatalen ever enter for the 1923 “200” – the day before the race The Autocar did not have his cars as runners, although The Light Car & Cyclecar listed Segrave as a lone Talbot driver … The ironical thing is that had he kept his cars in England he would almost certainly have won the “200”, because supercharged though the Fiats were, they proved singularly unreliable on this occasion and both Salmano and Campbell soon retired with serious engine troubles…

Anyway, the Talbots went down to Barcelona and Divo won the Penya Rhin race in 4 hr. 45 min. 34 sec., at 67.5 m.p.h., the speed 2.1 mph. up on the 1922 average, although the distance was only ten miles less. Dario Rests had led the race to half-distance but then experienced engine trouble, stopping for water. Zborowski’s Aston-Martin was second, 3 min. 27 sec. behind Divo, and Resta managed third place, 32 min. 8 sec. behind the British car. Moriceau had a mishap in practice and non-started. Incidentally, the Talbots had been using Dunlop tyres (but with Michelins on the back wheels of Segrave’s car at Boulogne) for some time and were on Discol fuel.

Resta made up for his poor showing by winning a race at the opening meeting on the Sitges banked-track, in 4 hr. 22 min. 1.5 sec., at 85.1 m.p.h., for the 373 miles. Among the ten starters were Nuvolari’s Chiribiri and the Aston Martins. Divo was chased all the way by Resta, who passed when Divo eased up. He finished 10.5 sec. behind his team mate and 16 min. 52 sec. ahead of Zborowski’s Aston Martin.

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For the 1924 season Coatalen retained these eight-valve Talbots but increased their power by supercharging them with a Roots blower, driven from the front of the crankshaft, which increased their power output to over 100 b.h.p. They were, I think, given new bodies, or radiators, so that they no longer looked exactly like Fiats, and they were shod with Rapson tyres. The chassis were lower than before and a 3-piece front axle was used. The successes attained with the cars in this form were as impressive, as monotonous, as before. At Geneva Guinness won the Swiss Voiturette GP at 70 m.p.h. for the 248 miles from Resta’s Talbot. A Fiat was third but as the blown 1½-litre Fiats are said never to have met the Invincible Talbots it was presumably of some other type – further information about this ill-documented race would be appreciated.

In the 1924 JCC 200-Mile Race the cars ran as Darracqs and scored a convincing 1, 2, 3 victory. This time Coatalen thought special bodies unnecessary and the road-racing ones were used, and the front brakes were not removed. The cars finished in formation, like a line of destroyers, Guinness winning in 1 hr. 58 mm. 30.2 sec., at 102.27 m.p.h. George Duller was next in, 1.2 sec. later, followed by Segrave, 0.8 sec. after Duller. Guinness had bettered the hour record, with an average of 101.93 m.p.h. and fastest race lap was shared between Duller and Segrave, at 106.55 m.p.h. Impressive! If you are wondering why Segrave was only third, it seems that Coatalen allowed his drivers to draw lots for their finishing order on this occasion. There was a repeat performance at Montlhèry in October 1924, when three Talbots overwhelmed the 186½-mile 1½-litre race, the drivers changing places among themselves before completing the race in line-ahead formation, in the order Scales, Segrave, Bonner. The speed was 100.3 m.p.h. and Segrave lapped at 109.6 m.p.h.

It all happened again in 1925, with the cars virtually unaltered, but rebuilt, somewhat lighter than before, and slightly more highly supercharged, in the GP d’Ouverture at Montlhèry in May. George Duller won this 312-mile race at 97.2 m.p.h. but Count Conelli, closing right up at the finish hit a wall, skidded, and overturned, just beyond the line. As Motor Sport had a photograph of the actual incident at the time, I am able to reproduce it here, for you to see how this extraordinary calamity began. Conelli was not badly hurt, although an official who was hit lost a leg. Conelli was given his second place and Segrave was third.

It was the same in the 1925 JCC 200-mile Race, now run over a Brooklands’ artificial road circuit. The team drivers were Segrave, Count Masetti and Count Conelli. Tyres of 29″ x 4.4″ were used. Conelli retired on his first lap, having taken a tooth out of the back-axle bevel with an over-keen start, and Masetti lost time by stalling. But Segrave ran on untroubled, until the n/s rear tyre burst. Masetti slowed at the end to wave Segrave past, de Hane winning in 2 hr. 35 min. 14.8 sec. at 78.89 m.p.h., the Count 1.8 sec. behind. There was really no-one else in sight! At Miramas, Segrave won the GP de Provence, from Cornelli.

That concludes my case for the “Inivincible” Talbots. By 1926 the Grand Prix formula was for 1½-litre cars and Coatalen had built straight-eight Talbots, which were a failure and caused STD retirement from racing, prodded no doubt by their financial situation. The old four-cylinder cars continued to notch up victories, however, Segrave using one to win the GP de Provence at Miramas in 1926, with Moriceau second. They were also used for the 1925 MontIhèry Touring Car GP, dynamos replacing their superchargers and touring bodies being rigged up, but one retired with steering trouble and the other ran out of fuel, to coast home in fifth place. One also figured as the pace car on a bicycle racing track.

I think it can safely be accepted that, of their generation, these four cylinder 1½-litre Talbot-Darracqs deserved the “invincible” label. Their successes can be summarised as:

1921 Le Mans 1st., 2nd., 3rd.
1921 Brooklands 1st, 2nd., 3rd.
1922 IoM 1st., 2nd.
1922 Brooklands 1st., 2nd.
1922 Le Mans 1st., 2nd., 3rd.
1922 Penya Rhin 1st.
1923 Boulogne 1st.
1923 Le Mans 1st., 2nd.
1923 Penya Rhin 1st., 3rd.
1923 Sitges 1st., 2nd.
1924 Swiss GP 1st., 2nd.
1924 Brooklands 1st., 2nd., 3rd.
1925 Montlhèry 1st., 2nd., 3rd
1925 Brooklands 1st., 2nd., 3rd.
1925 Miramas 1st., 2nd.
1926 Miramas 1st., 2nd

If we allow the Coatalen-inspired cars of 1921-1925 their glory as unbeatable, there have been other “invincible” racing cars down the years, and when I discussed this with D. S. J. he quoted Ferrari, the Alfettas, etc., and in the vintage period Delage. Keeping to the vintage years, at least for the moment, it is true that Delage, with those magnificent straight-eight supercharged Lory-designed cars, dominated the 1927 season, and in the Grand Prix field at that. But in 1926 they were far less successful, because they were burning their drivers’ feet and legs with their exhaust pipes. For comparison with the T-D table of race results above, the Delage successes can, I think, be listed as:

1926 French GP Bugatti-Delage-Bugatti (2nd)
1926 British GP Delage-Bugatti-Delage (1st, 3rd.)
1927 Montlhery Delage-Bugatti-Delage (1st.)
1927 Montlhery Delage-Bugatti-Bugatti (1st).
1927 French GP Delage-Delage-Delage (1st., 2nd., 3rd.)
1927 Spanish GP Delage-Bugatti-Delage (1st., 3rd.)
1927 European GP Delage-OM-Miller (1st.)
1927 British GP Delage-Delage-Delage (1st., 2nd., 3rd.)

You may say that the TD successes were done with two different types of cars, and rightly so, but the GP Delage cars were radically rebuilt between their two seasons as works cars, the cylinder blocks being turned round, a single supercharger substituted for the twin blowers of 1926, and the bodywork modified. It is true that in later years these GP Delages did well for their private owners, especially for Dick Seaman after he had had his car rebuilt and lightened by Ramponi. I well remember Seaman’s victories in the voiturette races of 1936, at Donington, the loM, in the Coppa Acerbo and at Berne, at which time the old T-D cars, after a few runs at Brooklands and Southport, etc., had long vanished from the motor-racing scene. They are, for me, however, the cars which truly deserved the title of “Invincible” in those vintage years. –

W. B.

+ It has been said that Coatslen prearranged the order in which his drivers would finish a race. Being a stern disciplinarian, when Rene Thomas disobeyed the Patron’s instructions at Le Mans in 1921, ignoring the pit signals, and, signalled by a friend at Amaze, came in first ahead of Guinness and Segrave (whereas it was intended that Guinness was to win, followed by Thomas and Segrave) the French driver was sacked immediately by Coatalen – he retaliated by joining the Deluge team. Before that, in the 1921 “200”, Segrave had been signalled from the Members hill by his wife, so that he could get a one-lap lead on Guinness and then ease up, behind the other Talbot-Darracq, leaving Guinness under the impression that he was in the lead. It seems that Coatalen’s orders were that no driver should pass another during a race unless signalled to do so and thus if Segrave had not quickly got ahead of Guinness he would have had to follow him in, as Coatalen had intended Guinness to win the “200” to make up for Thomas having defeated him at Le Mans, which Segrave knew from the start, from what the mechanics told him. By the time Guinness received “faster” signals it was too late, Segrave being careful to keep that 5.8 sec. gap between them on the final lap. In later times, when the invincibility of the STD cars was assured, it seems as if Coatalen sometimes allowed the drivers to decide the order of finishing themselves.