The 1923-1925 2-litre Grand Prix Delage

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The recent coverage of the Jameson two-stroke racing cars, which used chassis, or parts thereof, from the 1924/25 2-litre GP Delage cars, has aroused interest, not only in these Jameson cars themselves, but also in the GP Delage cars, of which two apparently came to this country and a chassis of one of which was used by C E C Martin, for a sprint special, using four JAP Speedway engines.

These Delage cars were significant for being the first of their kind to use a vee-twelve-cylinder engine and were, in any case, very fine pieces of engineering. It began before the 1923 racing season. Louis Delage had tasted racing before the war and had seen one of his 1913 6.2-litre bolster-tank Grand Prix Delage cars come home victorious in the 1914 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race in America, driven by René Thomas, at an average speed of 82.47mph, taking away prize money of 39,750 dollars. Thomas had beaten the smaller-engined Peugeot driven by Arthur Duray and another Delage, in the hands of Albert Guyot, was third, ahead of Goux’s Peugeot. (In the 1913 Grand Prix itself, Babloes Delage came home fourth, behind the two invincible Peugeots and a Sunbeam.)

That Indy-winning Delage was actually owned by the son of the chocolate-king, Jacques Meunier, at the time of its American triumph, but its good showing in the USA may well have prompted Louis Delage to have another crack, in European racing. The best his advanced 2-litre Delage cars could manage in fact was fifth place by Duray in that eventful and dramatic Lyons Grand Prix on the eve of war, after Bablot and Guyot retired.

The 2-litre GP formula was announced in 1922 and Delage decided to return to racing the following year. Charles Plancton was the engineer chosen to design a suitable car, possibly because he was a cousin of Louis Delage. He embarked on a very ambitious approach, using a V12 engine for the first time in Grand Prix racing. His aim was that of obtaining a large piston-area with the advantage of light reciprocating parts, tiny pistons and lightweight valves making possible high crankshaft speeds.

Assisted by a capable young assistant, Albert Lory, Plancton supervised the building of the car in the Delage factory at Courbevoie, the first hint of this advanced new 2LCV Delage reaching this country in March 1923. In fact, considering the complexity of the engine, very little time had been left in which to build this 1923 GP Delage; it is said that it was completed in 120 days, or a day before the French Grand Prix was due to take place at Tours. While 1923 was a year when supercharging began to invade the road-racing scene (although the race was won by the Fiat-like normally-aspirated Sunbeam of de Hane Segrave), all the rest of the entrants apart from Delage were satisfied to use six-cylinder or straight-eight engines.

The V12 Delage (as I have said, then a GP novelty although we now have the successful cars of McLaren-Honda, Ferrari and Brabham-Yamaha employing this cylinder formation) had two iron cylinder blocks of monobloc type, with plenty of water space around the barrels mounted at 60-deg on an aluminium basechamber, off-set to enable the big-ends to be side-by-side on the six-throw crankshaft. The water jacket was of duralumin, screwed to the cylinder blocks. Each cylinder bank had two overhead camshafts, driven from a train of gears at the front of the engine, which also drove the two Scintilla magnetos, the waterpump and the oil-pumps. The camshafts actuated two valves per cylinder, at an included angle of 84 deg, through light cam-followers. The camshafts were carried in aluminium casings mounted on the cylinder heads.

The crankshaft was machined from a solid steel billet, leaving disc webs; it ran in seven roller-bearings and the I-section con-rods had roller-bearing big-ends, all these bearings fed with oil under pressure, from the dry-sump lubrication system. The water-pump was of double centrifugal type, supplying coolant to both cylinder blocks. The pistons were tiny, weighing less than a sparking-plug, it was said, and all twelve less than one of the magnetos. The engine dimensions were 51.4 x 80mm. ( 1992cc) and the cylinder blocks were each 21 in in length and light enough to be easily lifted. Much was made of each cylinder having a capacity of only about 166cc and of the light weight of the engine components, enabling the Delage engine to run at more than 5000rpm. The torque was such that a flywheel was hardly required; it formed a disc for the plate clutch.

Back to Plancton’s pioneer V12: the exhaust pipes were within the vee of the cylinders and the carburettors, one Zenith for each cylinder bank, on the outside of the blocks. The sparking-plugs were of 18mm size, the use of smaller plugs of aircraft type being eschewed, as they were not then available in the different heat-ranges required for warming up, then opening up, a racing-car power-unit. They were fired by two Bosch magnetos at the front of the engine, angled in line with the cylinder blocks.

As the July date of the Grand Prix came nearer it was apparent that the Delage would carry racing number One and it was no surprise that René Thomas, although he had driven for Peugeot and had raced Talbot-Darracq, Sunbeams, Ballot and Th Schneider cars, now as leader of the Delage Competition Department and who had won the aforesaid Indy race for them, had been preparing the interesting new GP Delage and that he would drive it. The V12 engine had been installed in a chassis whose wheelbase was 8 ft 6 in, its track 4 ft 1 in, with a four-speed gearbox and Perrot front brakes. It was apparent that Delage would be severely handicapped by having but the one car with which to compete against teams of four Bugattis, four Voisins, three Fiats, three Sunbeams and three Rolland-Pilains. Moreover his lone car arrived late at the circuit, Thomas having been occupied in Switzerland, and had not practised by the time Bordino’s Fiat had lapped the course fastest at 85.6mph, and Segrave had gone round 34sec slower, in the fastest of the Sunbeams.

Consequently, the Delage was something of an unknown quantity when the race lined up for the start of the Grand Prix, although it was stated to develop 110bhp at 5500rpm and to weigh 13cwt unladen. In appearance it was not unlike the earlier cars Delage had built for hill-climb events, of which the largest had a vee-twelve engine of 10,688cc and had held the LSR for a short time. When René de Knyff dropped the yellow starting-flag for the commencement of this 1923 Grand Prix, 17 cars were released, the Delage in the front row. It led for a short distance, until Bordino’s Fiat overtook it. Not long afterwards, when in fifth place, Thomas’s run ended when a stone from the rough road pierced the Delage’s petrol tank, after eight out of 36 laps. In the end it was Segrave who won, a victory as someone observed, for a half-lrish, half-American driver of a British Sunbeam that in design was half-Swiss, half-Italian! It averaged 75.3mph for the 496 1/2 miles.

It was perhaps a surprise win, for the Fiats had bad luck, after Bordino’s had made the fastest lap at 83mph and was timed over a 300-metre trap at 122.3mph. Incidentally, so long was a lap that spectators had to wait for more than nine minutes before Bordino, leading at the end of the first lap, again appeared, yet vast and enthusiastic crowds attended, filling every available parking-place with their cars on the Sunday, for the start at 8am on the Monday. The road camber and surface made the course unsuited to these fast, light 2-litre cars but field ambulance-stations had been set up at intervals and soldiers and French Air Force Officers controlled the crowd, even to making arrests of those who refused to move from danger points.

For the 1924/25 racing season the 2-litre formula was retained and it was obvious that success would only be attained by supercharging. But although Plancton and Lory had made provision for this, the blowers were mounted at the front of the engine so that they could be removed easily to allow the engine to run non-supercharged, as in fact it did for the 1924 French Grand Prix at Lyons. When in use, the two superchargers fed air to each of the two carburettors. If the engine was run without them, a compression-ratio of 7-to-1 was employed. The twelve exhaust-pipes from the two cylinder-banks fed into a single off-take pipe which swept over the top of the engine, to exit on the near-side. The gearbox was in unit with the engine, and had a central ball-change gear lever. Brakes with a gearbox-driven servo featured on the 1924 cars, which ran on Rudge-Whitworth wheels shod with 765 x 105s Michelin beaded-edge tyres. The track of the chassis had been reduced, to 4 ft 3 in at the front, 3 ft 11 in at the back. A much cleaner outline had been achieved for 1924, the fuel and oil-fillers beneath flaps on the body. Hartford shock-absorbers were fitted and, no doubt remembering the debacle in the 1923 GP, the tail-mounted fuel tank was made quickly detachable. The power output in atmospherically-inducted form had increased to 115bhp at 6000rpm. Otherwise, the layout was the same as before, with half-elliptic suspension, the radiator reshaped and partially cowled, and the front dumb-irons covered by an apron.

What was more important was that a full team of three Delages was available, and Louis Delage had secured the services of the great Robert Benoist, Albert Divo and René Thomas to race them. It is possible that Jano, who had left Fiat to fashion the famous P2 Alfa Romeo along with fellow engineers Molino and Bazzi, may have felt intimidated by the V12 Delage cars, relying as he was on a conventional straight-eight, supercharged twin-cam technique, which, however, was giving him some 140bhp at 5,500rpm. Until, that is, he heard that in practice for the French GP the Delage cars, while very fast, were having troubles that necessitated raising their gear ratios to save their engines. And until he realised that the Delage team was to run in non-supercharged form. To show that nothing changes, during the training period Chassagne complained of Divo’s overtaking methods, an argument in which Thomas joined…

Jano need not have worried, because after Bordino’s supercharged Fiat had stopped with brake trouble at half-distance, the Alfa Romeo forged ahead in the race, and Campari’s won at 71mph after a drive occupying more than seven hours. However, Divo’s Delage had been closing on the two fastest of the Alfa Romeos to the avid enthusiasm of the French, and the sleek blue car finished second, just over a minute in arrears, as a non-supercharged car, which not every report pin-pointed. Ascari should have won, but on the last lap his engine gave up, refusing to respond to a push-start, and ending up red-hot, flames shooting out of the bonnet even after he had switched off, with water streaming from the exhaust pipe, according to one reliable account. Wagner’s Alfa Romeo had similar troubles, so Benoist’s Delage was third, Thomas’s Delage sixth, behind Wagner’s Alfa Romeo and Segrave’s mis-firing Sunbeam. It had been a hard race, Divo’s first riding mechanic having to be replaced. It is interesting that tyres played a considerable part in the cars’ fortunes and that Dunlop, Pirelli (on the winning Alfa), Rapson and Michelin were represented.

Delage did not go to the Italian GP, so Alfa Romeo had an easy 1,2,3,4 victory.

Delage next sent a team of four of the V12 cars to the 386-mile Spanish GP at San Sebastian, a race marred by many accidents but which compensated for Sunbeam’s unfortunate magneto episode at Lyons when Segrave won, at 63.5mph. Delage was using an indirect fifth gear and had signed-up Morel to back up Benoist, Divo and Thomas. The French cars soon showed they were able to mix-it with Mercedes and Sunbeam and after four laps Benoist led. Thomas retired with magneto failure and Divo was delayed when a leaking fuel tank put him on to an emergency supply. Benoist overdid things and was ditched, leaving Morel to finish third behind Segrave’s Sunbeam and Costantini’s lap-record Lyons GP Bugatti, with Divo fourth, ahead of two well established Bugatti exponents.

Louis Delage continued to support racing (again under the 2-litre formula) in 1925, although he was complaining of the small number of runners, which reduced the publicity value, and the cost of his racing cars, tool-room jobs, valued at £30,000 each. Nevertheless, he entered four for the French GP at Montlhéry. Incidentally, although there were not all that number of top drivers available, the sparsity of GP cars meant that it was possible to appoint French drivers for French cars, Italians for those from Italy.

First in 1925 came the Belgian GP at Spa. All four Delages retired. After only two laps Benoist was out, with it was said a leaking fuel tank. Then the new driver, Torchy, after a change of plugs, soon afterwards withdrew. Next, the No 1 driver Thomas, had his car go on fire, and burning his hands, was forced to retire. That left Divo in the only new car of the team, Thomas having taken the 1924 Delage Divo should have driven after he had complained that it wouldn’t stay in third gear (the No 1 driver had a more subservient role in those times!). Divo was giving Ascari’s P2 Alfa Romeo a hard time, but pit-stops for tyres, then plugs, was followed by retirement.

By 1925 Delage, like Sunbeam, had decided that a supercharged engine was essential, and Pomeroy, in his great book “The Grand Prix Car” (Temple Press, 1949) gives the Delage’s trouble as lack of blow-off valves in the inlet manifolds, which on acceleration caused blow-backs that forced open the inlet valves, which hit the exhaust valves. (The superchargers now sucked from the carburettors. Plancton having abandoned the method pioneered by Mercedes of blowing air into the carburettor, as used also by Fiat and Alfa Romeo.) It seems curious, with the supercharger properly understood by 1925, that the Delage engineers should omit blow-off valves and I would have thought that the supercharger blades would have suffered before the inlet valves were forced open. Be that as it may, Alfa Romeo had an easy victory. Ascari winning at 74.56mph, Campari the only other finisher.

By the time of the French GP, Delage had built five new cars and had put superchargers on the four 1924 cars, so that each driver had his own spare or practice car, with an additional spare car, the cost totalling some £270,000, in 1924/5 francs… The Roots blowers were mounted neatly below the magnetos, driven from the timing train, which numbered 23 spur gears, all running on ball bearings. The blowers delivered through straight inlet-pipes and one assumes these now had blow-off valves! As mechanics could no longer be carried, a large tachometer was placed before the driver, with a green sector at 5000 to 6200rpm, a red one at 6200 to 7000rpm. The cars had been tidied up and again re-bodied, the bonnets and scuttles laced with louvres, no doubt to combat the increased heat from supercharged engines. In racing trim the 1925 cars weighed approximately 17cwt, coming within about 135kg of one another. The power-output was now 195bhp at 7000rpm, although the normal maximum was 6200rpm. After a month’s testing the new engines developed con-rod problems and the rods were redesigned just before the race.

Thomas was still suffering from his burns, so for the Montlhéry GP, over the artificial road course, only three Delages ran, driven by Benoist, Divo and the veteran Louis Wagner, with Torchy on hand as reserve driver. Alfa Romeo might well have won, but, alas, Ascari overturned into a ditch and was fatally injured. Why this happened to such an experienced driver on a not-too-sinuous circuit is a mystery, but one theory of that Ascari and Campari were great rivals and out to compete personally in the fast P2 cars. As a mark of respect the two Alfas were withdrawn just after half-distance. The Delage cars then ran on to victory, although after working on the carburettors, Divo had given up with one supercharger faulty. Thereafter he shared Benoist’s car and for a time Torchy took over Wagner’s. Benoist won this French GP at 69.7mph, Wagner second, and in drizzling rain Divo set a lap-record on 80.3mph. After the race Benoist and Louis Delage, and later Wagner and Torchy, were presented to the President of the French Republic, after which Benoist laid his wreath on the place where Ascari had crashed. The Delage car used Castrol oil and Champion plugs, as I consider everyone should still do today.

Delage did not go to the 1925 Italian GP, so Alfa Romeo again had an easy time. Conversely, Alfa did not race at San Sebastian in 1925, so Divo now had the easy win, at 76.4mph for the 450 miles, watched by the King of Spain. Benoist and Thomas were second and third but, sadly, Torchy skidded into a tree and was killed. The 1 1/2-litre formula was introduced for 1926/27 and Lory was given his chance, designing the fabulous straight-eight Delage from which 100 bhp per-litre was comfortably extracted. But that, and how ten years later Ramponi gave one of these cars a new lease of racing acumen for Dick Seaman, has oft been told.

The later dispersal of these V12 Delage team-cars is unclear but we do know that one of them was sold to Guilio Masetti, who hoped to secure his third Targa Florio win with it and that Louis Delage made use of these now obsolete V12s by supporting him with a full team, in that arduous 1926 Sicilian race. However, their road-holding long suspect, the Delages were no match for the Bugattis and when Masetti’s car overturned, with little damage, unfortunately the Florentine Count was found to be dead. Dispirited and outclassed, soon afterwards first Thomas, then Benoist, then Divo pulled in, and retired. Bugattis filled the first three places. WB

An article on ‘Delage Domination” which we published last summer has prompted a French-domiciled enthusiast to query the present whereabouts of the all-conquering 1927 straight-eight 1 1/2-litre Delage team-cars. His letter is appended, to give some more conundrums to which readers of historical bent may care to apply themselves. WB

Sir

The feature on “Delage Domination” gave me the opportunity to browse through my collection of MOTOR SPORT, and I came across a study by Alan Burnard, and subsequent letters published back in 1964. With the help of other sources, I tried to disentangle the straight-eight Delages’ post-1927 complicated history.

Four cars were most certainly built up for the 1927 season; unfortunately, no record allocates a chassis to a driver for the five races entered.

At the end of this successful season, all four cars were disposed of: one car was sold to Louis Chiron (or kept by the works?), two cars were bought by Malcolm Campbell, while the last one is a mystery. Was it sold, or loaned, to De Rovin? Did it go to Spain, or was it kept by the Works?

1 — “The Chiron Car”. Having run at Indy in 1929, Chiron sold this car to Senechal when he rejoined the Bugatti Works team. Senechal ran the car in France in 1930 and 1931. Having destroyed his own car, Howe purchased that car in 1932. Purchased by Dick Seaman in late ’35, it was successfully run during 1936. Chula bought the car for Bira, but decided not to race a 10-year-old chassis. In the early war years, Reg Parnell bought the chassis and most certainly rebuilt a complete car.

In 1950, it went to D Hampshire, then to Rob Walker. This very car suffered from the fire that destroyed Pipbrook Garage during the ROC 68 week-end. Undeterred, Walker resurrected the car, which is the one that Serge Pozzoli reimported a few years ago, and which graced the “Benoist” stand at the last Retromobile Show.

2 — “The Campbell Car”. Impressed by the 1926 British GP performance, Malcolm Campbell purchased two cars (the other for WB Scott). This car was purchased in 1931 by Howe and was destroyed by him in the 1932 Italian GP. Dismantled, only engine and box were kept as spares.

3 — “The WB Scott Car”. Delivered late in 1928, it was raced by Scott till mid-32, when it was sold to Capt Davis. After having raced the car, Davis sold it to Chula late in 1936. As previously mentioned, Chula did not use the original cars. Bought by R Parnell, this chassis went successively to Capt Woodhall, J Rowley, then A Burnard. Where is it now, and in what state?

4 — “The 4th Works Car”. A lot of mystery shrouds the post-1927 career of this chassis. What is nearly sure is that De Rovin ran a 1.5 Delage at Monaco in ’29. Was it his property, or a loan from the Works, or A N Other?

I would think that this is the car which went over to the USA, went through Cunningham, and is now. . .?

Tragatsch says that this is the car that was destroyed by Benoist during the 1927 GP de Provence; I have no record of such an entry.

Further to the 4 ex-works cars, there are two known chassis, which are the ones that lng Lory built for Chula, fitted with IFS.

5 — “The 1st Chula IFS Car”. This chassis manufactured by Rubery Owen was used only twice by Bira, and retired in both cases. At the end of the ’37 season, Chula decided not to keep this equipment, and put this car, the other IFS chassis, and the two ex-works cars (or chassis) up for sale. No buyers enthused, until R Parnell bought the lot in 1940 (see above).

In 1947, the car was sold to Capt Woodhall, then was in the hands of the Bradleys. Recently, the car escaped to the States; where to?

6 — “The 2nd Chula IFS Car”. It never existed pre-war as a complete car, but was built up by Parnell with the lot of spares purchased from Chula. Dick Haberschon bought it in 1947, raced it a few times, and sold it in 1950 to Rob Walker.

This car was raced in 1950 by Tony Rolt, but tuned by Freddie Dixon who was reputedly “hopeless” with blown engines; the team soon ran out of suitable Delage powerplants. Walker then purchased the engine from the Peter Walker-destroyed ERA GP1; thus was born the ERA-Delage. Rather successful in 1951, ’52 and ’53, it changed hands to A Burnard in ’54, then J Goodhew, G Kerr and R Potter. In 1982, Pat Lindsay acquired the car. The E-type ERA engine was replaced by a 2.1 ERA unit and the car ran in VSCC events. The ‘E type ERA’ engine supposedly went to Alan Burnard. Where are they now?

Yves Kaltenbach, Lyons, France.

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