Cyclecar survivor

Enthusiasts will tell you that you can still find old cars in barns. Being an optimist, I like to believe this, so I was heartened to stumble across one myself in the States last summer. No, not an unknown Royale covered in straw; it is actually slightly rarer, in a well-preserved state, and the barn itself is now a rather grand house.

The car is a 1926 Rally, an example of a French light sportscar of the Twenties, and there are only thought to be about four extant. (Comments, please?) But the charm of this particular example is not in its rarity, but its condition. Since it arrived from France after WWII, it has never been restored. The single coat of paint is gently flaking from the alloy wings; cracked and peeling leather clothes the staggered seats, and the fabric body is faded and threadbare. Frankly, it is a treat to see a car of this age untouched by polish and plating. It has what the antique trade call “patina” — and it’s not cleverly added afterwards, a growing trend in some restoration shops.

Like so many of its kin, the Rally grew from cyclecar origins, using proprietary parts. Our subject has a four-cylinder CIME engine fitted; SCAP, Ruby and Chapuis-Dornier units were also used. A dohc four with Rootes supercharger and a twin-cam straight-eight were more exotic options, but the little push-rod four was the bread-and-butter model. Nor is there anything sophisticated about the rest of the car, which is built around slender, even flimsy, chassis rails with semi-elliptics, though it does have front-wheel brakes.

But the real appeal of this machine is the wonderful doorless fabric body. Wildly assymmetrical about the cockpit, the passenger is half tucked behind the driver; there is enough space for his bottom, but barely any to squeeze his knees alongside his mate in the one-and-a-half-seat wide car. It’s obviously meant for competition, with no silencer on the external exhaust, and the pointed tail gives it a Grand Prix flavour, though its 1100cc singlecam engine is hardly in Bugatti territory.

Behind the frameless, scalloped V-windscreen, half-hidden under a thick coaming, the fascia carries only a tachometer and ammeter. Other equipment extends only to the dainty headlamps; so one wonders why the search for reduced weight did not extend to those one-piece wings, which have to be heavier than separate ones. This is one of many French sportscars collected by the late Jerry Sherman, whose Pennsylvanian farm was a treasure-house of (mainly unrestored) machinery until a disastrous fire a couple of years ago which destroyed a short-chassis Hispano-Suiza, a supercharged BNC and a Type 57 Bugatti, amongst others. (Before any over-zealous “restorers” leap into action to fill the gap, all the ferrous remains, including chassis plates, of these have been rescued and are currently awaiting attention — I’m not saying where.) Luckily, Jerry passed on the Rally to another enthusiast 15 or maybe 20 years ago, so it survives in its remarkable unspoilt condition. The current owner rebuilt the engine when he got the car, and assumes it still runs, though we did not try to start it. Currently, he is occupied with a couple of other rebuilds, in the carefully restored workshop and garages which form the basement of the enormous barn which is now his house. Within the old stone and timber walls lives an interesting selection of pre- and post-war cars, maintained with the help of period equipment in the workshop. Meantime, the Rally has a special place within the living area above, in a sort of entrance hall cum farm museum where it stays warm and dry, and where its lovely curves can be appreciated, especially from the gallery above, as static sculpture, if not yet as mobile art. The delight of this car is that it is not being neglected; it is merely in suspended animation. It needs to be restored so that it can be used. and it will be — eventually. In the meantime, it is not deteriorating, and we have a chance to see a scarce sporting car substantially as it left the hands of its French builders 66 years ago. GC