The Ravel

Practically unknown, I would say, in this country, the Ravel was a well made car, designed by an engineer who some considered of the calibre of Mark Birkigt and Barbarou. It was of sporting pretentions and had a tenuous racing association. The Editor of La Vie au Petrole thought that for clean external engine appearance you had to look at Hispano Suiza, Lorraine-Dietrich and Ravel cars — the opposite of the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost engine!

Be that as it may, Louis Ravel made some good cars. He had gained an agricultural degree at the French School of Agriculture in 1897 but had preferred engineering. Around 1898 he had built his first car, in a rented shed in Neuilly, then in open country. It was a rear-engined twin-cylinder, two-speed Vis-à-Vis voiturette, very similar to the De Dion Bouton of this odd seating arrangement. From that humble beginning Ravel went into production by 1901, having erected a factory with its own forge on land he had bought at the Rue Gamier, Neuilly, set up a company with a capital of 200,000 francs, and opened a Paris office a few yards from the Arc de Triomphe. At that year's Paris Salon Ravel exhibited a Vis-à-Vis small car similar to his prototype, but with an enlarged engine, weighing 400 kg, capable of over 20 mph, and priced at 4,500 francs. Output was said to be satisfactory but when Louis married, his father-in-law, who saw little prospect for the automobile, invested Ravel's dowry in Russian bonds. The car company was wound up and the smaller factory rented to the maker of Gentil bicycles, who bought it eight years later.

In his other factory Ravel turned to making car engines of small size, so like those in De Dion cars that he claimed De Dion spares would fit them. These engines were supplied to the makers of the friction-drive Le Mêtals, Asthal and various other cars. Some larger four-cylinder engines were also made.

In 1906 Louis Ravel moved to the watchmaking town of Besançon, where skilled workers were to be found, and took as a partner Emile Amstoutz, who was of Swiss descent, aged 40, and whose father had been chosen to make a watch for Pope Louis XIII when he visited the city. Emile had worked for Peugeot before the turn of the century and had patents for an automatic gear change and for carburettors. With the factory Emile had already established in Besançon and another built later in 1906, the partners continued engine manufacture, including a compact four-cylinder engine which could replace single and two-cylinder engines in comtemporary voiturettes, and a larger T-head one for city cars. In December 1907 Ravel bough Amstoutz's share in the company, but retained his friend as General Manager. But whereas formerly the engines had been named Amstoutz-Ravel or RAV, forthwith they were known as Ravel engines, as shown at the 1908 Paris Salon.

Ravel was anxious to expand still further and in 1910 he joined with Theodore Schneider, in his renowned 1,000,000 franc Besançon Company; he is said to have contributed his own little factory and 75,000 francs to the Th Schneider empire. But that is another story. In 1922 Louis Ravel left the Th Schneider Company to return to car making on his own.

At first he had works close to the Th Schneider plant in the Rue Fontaine-Argent, but he soon moved to premises at 13 Rue de l'Église. He had shown a very neat 12-cv car at the 1922 Paris Salon and in May 1923 formed the 6,000,000 francs Le Societé des Automobiles Ravel. The new Ravel had a four-cylinder 75 x 130mm overhead-valve engine in unit with the clutch and gearbox, with a neat integral cast-aluminium tray extending to the side members, which developed 50 bhp at 3,000 rpm and 35 bhp at 2,500 rpm. High grade materials were used, and light Alpax pistons ensured a lively performance. The engine was carefully balanced, the engine and gearbox bearings properly aligned, and there was pressure lubrication, a Paris-Rhone dynamotor, and a Rolls-Royce-shape radiator made for Ravel by Moreaux of Levallois, in Paris. Stainless steel was used for the oh-valves, NY steel for the tubular con-rods, and carburation was by means of a Zenith 36mm triple-diffuser carburettor, fed from a 16-1/2-gallon tank. Pump cooling was used and if a head gasket "blew", water could not enter the cylinders because the return feed bypassed the back of the head.

The Ravel chassis complemented the engine. The four-speed-and-reverse gearbox had shafts of CN7 chrome-nickel steel and ran on double-row ball-bearings. The back axle had a one-piece casing for the Gleason differential. The smaller chassis had at first an inverted cone, then a multiplate clutch, but later chassis used single-plate clutches. The usual 4 mm pressed-steel chassis frame had ample crossmembers and was further stiffened by the aforesaid, patented, unit engine/gearbox block. The early Ravels had RAF wheels with 820 x 120 tyres but soon Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels and 32 x 4-1/2in tyres were fitted. There was LUB chassis lubrication. For almost the entire time Ravel cars were in production they had no rear-wheel brakes, but a transmission brake which also helped apply the front-wheel brakes, a method used also by Chenard-Walcker and Bignan. From about 1926 a Westinghouse servo was added, and normal 4WB were used in 1928/29.

Although the Ravel factory had three lathes, two boring machines, a planing machine and a crankshaft balancer, much of the work was farmed out, notably to the Plançon works in Ranchot, with raw materials supplied by the Monnlotte foundry at Dôle. Louis Ravel would drive a Ravel chassis with a wooden seat to and from these places to collect parts and the entire family would help test new chassis, loaded with pig-iron, using the hilly Brégilly road, the Fort on which became the company's trade mark. Bodies were made by Mamy and by Monjardet et Cie of Besançon; the body on the car in the Schlumpf museum, for example, was by the latter company.

Along the years Ravel models included the 1925 65 x 110 mm (1,460 c.c.), the 76 x 110 mm 2-litre of 1926, and the six-cylinder 70 x 109 mm chassis for 1928. The last-named had only three main bearings, which restricted its top speed to about 63 mph, whereas the 12-cv Ravel would do some 70 mph. Various wheelbase lengths were offered, and the 12-cv model was available in sports form, with a shorter wheelbase. A new 9-cv car was offered at the 1926 Paris Salon. There were several Ravel agents in France, especially in the Lille area where many of the shareholders lived, and there were outlets in Paris, notably at the Garage de Ranelagh. The Ravel was also represented in Belgium and Switzerland, and here Selborne Motors in Great Portland Street would sell you a 12-cy Ravel in 1927 for £575.

Although all this sounds to have been encouraging, Louis Ravel apparently never made a fortune; it is said that when the aforesaid Plançon works (which has been started in 1919 by the former foreman of Th Schneider's) was running two of his cars, he was motoring about in an 8.3 hp Renault. Which may have been why he turned to racing in an attempt to publicise his cars. In 1923 the Le Mans 24 Hours was a novelty but it was well established, and regarded as important, by 1925. So for that race Ravel entered two of his 2-1/2-litre cars, to be driven by private owners Van Den Bossche/Abel Smeets and Barra/Delhauvenne. The cars were ordinary touring models, with heavy 4-seater bodies. Unfortunately, going out to practise in the second car on the Saturday morning the mechanic, Guilbert, met a Panhard-Levassor truck approaching on the wrong side of the Hunaudières straight. It failed to return to its proper side of the road and the two vehicles collided so violently that Guilbert died in hospital three days later.

This did not stop the other Ravel from starting in the race. It failed to complete its required minimum distance in the 24 hours but was running at the end, in 16th place. For the 1926 Le Mans race Ravel entered three of his new 1-1/2-litre cars, with lightened chassis, two-seater Duco fabric bodywork, and triple headlamps. Entrusted to Louis Abit/Charles Duverger, Van Cuiyck/Roger Camuzet and Georges Kling/Rey, two of the Ravels retired, on laps 45 and 46 respectively. The Cuiyck/Camuzet car suffered from being too low-geared but, although unclassified, was still running at the end. A 9-cv Ravel started in the 1926 Spa 24-hour race, driven by Albi/Rey. Although again not an official finisher, it completed the distance, in a token 17th place. That was the close of Ravel's official race participation, but these cars appeared in the hands of private owners in some French hillclimbs. Thus in 1925 Courtot won his class at Planfoy with a 12-cv 2-1/2-litre Ravel, and later a six-cylinder Ravel competed at Ballon d'Alsace.

The Ravel Factory had been enlarged in 1926 but by 1928 finance was running out. Louis Ravel was a sick man (he died in 1930) and the Company was sold in January 1929 to a local purchaser. The make was scarcely known here; I have never seen a road-test report on a Ravel, or one advertised for sale, in an English paper but in France it was a highly respected make, the output of which was about 350, between 1922 and 1929. Two still exist, one each in the Mulhouse and Brussels Museums. What is more, the original factory, now a garage, has hardly changed — for a while it was a depot for the famous Lacroix bleach, a concern that used Rochet-Schneider trucks — and at the Plançon workshops most of the Ravel drawings and many of the machine-tools that helped to build these cars are apparently intact. Indeed, their last Ravel car was not sold until 1936 and long after WW2 I am told that Ravels were to be seen in the Jura district, and that a few were still in use in Besançon in the 1960s: indeed one garage was found to be running a Ravel until about 1970, and the last one to be seen was a van belonging to the Gérard laundry.

Many thanks to Marc Douezy, great-great grandson of Louis Ravel, for his helpful assistance, and supplying the pictures from his and the Dornier collections. W B