The Mathis

Ambitious from the start, Emile Mathis built cars that competed with the best, both on the track and in the showroom

In its day, this French car was not a make of which the British motorist took as much notice as he or she did of Austins, Morrises, Fords and Hillmans. That it took a scholar to pronounce the name Mathis correctly cannot have been why it sold better in its native land than in post-war, motor-expanding Britain. Even if English buyers had known that the great Ettore Bugatti was reputed to have designed the Hermes cars for Emile Mathis in Edwardian times, it would hardly have boosted interest in these cars from Strasbourg.

Yet Emile E C Mathis was a formidable personality. Alsatian born and the son of an hotelier, he had by his early teens become the controller of the biggest car-dealer organisation in Germany before the Kaiser War. The Mathis agency continued until 1911, when he began to manufacture cars of his own, embracing such makes as Mors, Minerva, Panhard-Levassor, Rochet-Schneider, Lorraine-Dietrich, Rebourand and, in particular, Fiat. The business expanded to such an extent that Emile Mathis became not only well-known throughout Germany and some of Austria, but also Deputy Chairman of the German Motor Trade Association, DAHV.

It seems that the French-orientated German had built up his business by a few shall we say unusual methods. It was rumoured that Stoewers were given Mathis radiators and hubcaps and then sold at higher prices than the original cars commanded. Also, sleeve-valve Minervas were similarly disguised as his own products, which may be why, when he sent his personal S61 10-litre Fiat to London for sale (as a Mathis!), he insisted that only he give demonstration runs. To cross the channel for this purpose was one thing, to travel all the way from Strasbourg quite another. To be fair, it was perhaps that Emile was conscious of how difficult such big cars were to drive properly and as they cost £1300 here he may have been hoping, by his presence, to promote more sales of this model, having managed to make a customer of the German Emperor. There could have been no better demonstrator than Mathis if we allow that he drove in competition events in Germany, France and Switzerland and was well-known to Ettore Bugatti, with whom Mathis had ridden on a 60hp Hermes-Bugatti at the 1905 Kaiserpreis.

In 1911 even the temptation of the lucrative Fiat agency did not stop Mathis from changing his business to that of manufacturing cars of his own, although he apparently remained good friends with Agnelli, the head of the influential Fiat company.

In a sense this move succeeded Mathis’ entry into the manufacturing field, because he had exhibited Hermes-Bugatti cars at Olympia in London in 1905. After various mixed ventures of this kind the first Mathis production models appeared, but while the factory was being completed these were again Stoewers, made in Stettin, with Mathis radiators. In this interim period Emile Mathis had not been averse to entering these Stoewers as his own in the 1910 Prince Henry Trials, not withstanding that the manufacturers had a team of identical 2.8-litre cars running… None finished. The 15hp Mathis which did well in the Austrian Alpine Trials that year was also pure Stoewer, as was the 3-litre car which Emile drove in the 1911 Coupe de l’Auto race. Those cars were fill-ins while work went on to complete the Strasbourg factory, which apparently was still not ready by the summer of 1912.

Still, our man now had a genuine Mathis to sell and signed up a London agent, with promises of 200 chassis to be delivered that year, increasing to 800 in 1913. This car was the Mathis Babylette which had at first a 58x90mm four-cylinder engine, later increased to 1056cc by using a 100mm stroke. It was a typical small car of the period, with three-speed gearbox, splash lubrication from the flywheel, but with a differential back-axle on the touring cars. The sporting version dispensed with the dill, but had pump instead of thermo-syphon cooling, a plate clutch, and wire in place of artillery-type wheels.

Mathis was to concentrate on small cars, some very small, from then on. Indeed, he had run cars of 1.8-litres in the 1912 and 1913 French Grands Prix, appointing Esser as his driver. Against the giant cars he had no chance, nor did his cars qualify for the 3-litre Coupe de I’Auto section of the 1912 GP (they were too light) so the exercise was pointless, apart from publicity. The Babylette had been run in voiturette races at Amiens and Le Mans but, not surprisingly, was no match for the cyclecar brigade.

In the 1921 French GP, the old ploy was again followed, when a 1 1/2-litre single overhead camshaft, vertical valve, dual ignition 4WB Mathis, driven by Ernie himself, was pitted against the latest 3-litre GP cars. Mathis was drawn with Ralph de Palma in the twin-cam straight-eight Ballot to start first. He was outclassed and retired with engine trouble after five laps of the 30-lap race at Le Mans.

The Mathis was not seen much at Brooklands until after the war. But there is a lovely story of how the then pre-war English agent, wishing to impress M and Mme Mathis while they were in this country, entered a 10.4hp car for a 1913 meeting at the track. Alas, it oiled a plug and as some 40 screws held down the bonnet of this mauve single-seater it missed its second race and had lapped at only 58.11mph in its first. This sad tale was released by S Gordon Marshall, who had been appointed the Mathis British agent but who had been enraged when M Mathis offered Harrods a large consignment of cars direct, without consulting him. He went over to distributing Rileys…

Mathis did far better after the war with B S Marshall who, in all-black attire, raced his black Brescia Bugatti so successfully in voiturette races and, when he wasn’t doing that, put the little 1.3-litre Mathis on the map at Brooklands. I have a rather nice silver rose-bowl which was awarded to Marshall after he had won an Essex MC 1920 Short Handicap race at 63 1/4mph. Marshall gave the bowl to Edgar N Duffield as a wedding present and I was able to purchase it from Duffield’s son.

Duffield’s individual prose appeared in The Auto, and he was among those motoring journalists who were content to be driven by the demonstration drivers who delivered the test cars, even round Brooklands, rarely sampling the cars themselves.

To return to the cars of M Mathis, his pre-war sports Babylette handled well but was almost sans brakes: it could be bought here in 1914 for £120 with racing-like bodywork and it weighed under 8cwt. The theme was extended after the war, helped by the little 65x100mrn 8hp racing Mathis which Bertie Marshall campaigned so successfully. It blossomed during the 1920 season, before Marshall (who sadly later died of consumption) became involved with his Bugattis. The car also won four other races at the Track, as well as six class wins in the Westcliffe speed hillclimb.

The production model was similar but with more suitable bodywork. The make was gaining recognition here; even the great “Cupid” Hornsted condescended to take a Mathis though the 1924 JCC High Speed Trial at Brooklands, and long before that Count Zborowski had ordered a small Mathis for the Countessa, with body by Bligh Bros of Canterbury. The Mathis badge fronted a wide and confusing range of models, sold under the advertising slogan” ‘Ware the Enemy – Weight”.

At the 1921 London Show the Mathis chassis was praised for its very clean external appearance, and a four-speed gearbox which was “the size almost of a watch”. The racing light car was shown beside a red sports two-seater with black mudguards, priced at £475. Staggered seats and a small single windscreen emphasised the car’s sporting potential.

Small cars were becoming smaller still and by 1922 Mathis had to compete with the 7.5hp (5cv) Citroen and Peugeot Quadrilette. The response to the increased competition was a new model of 55x80mm (760cc), which sold here in 1922 for £250 and the even smaller 50x80mm (628cc) Baby, at £197-10s. I preferred the more stylish lines of the 855cc Cloverleaf Citroen and the cheeky look of the 668cc Peugeot. The Mathis was competition for them, although in that year’s Scottish Six Day Trial, away from the flat, straight French roads, the Highland hills defeated one Mathis which broke its back-axle.

Those small Mathis were followed by a range of larger cars which B S Marshall sold from Hanover Square. Most of these were utility cars for family use. One such was the 1922 1140cc Six which was available with both side-by-side and overhead valves. But sports models were also available. At the 1921 Paris Salon, for instance, a sports version of the Type SB Mathis with overhead valves and a vee-radiator was displayed, for which 60mph was claimed. But to build up production the dull 1.8-litre family cars was the immediate concern. These placed Mathis a good fourth behind Citroen, Renault and Peugeot in France, and by 1927 the output was said to be 73 cars a day from a production line a mile long. But that took time and in the early 1920s Emile was supplying chassis to BAC (see MOTOR SPORT, September 1994) who put on its own radiators for the original run of cars; a reversal of the former process.

Another worthy Mathis sports car was the development of the L-type 60x70mm (1187.5cc) chassis in overhead-camshaft six-cylinder form. One of these became available for MOTOR SPORT to test in 1925 and the then editor, Capt Richard Twelvetrees, found that the £375 Mathis from Alsace came with a 70mph guarantee. He wrote that the four-speed gearbox encouraged acceleration, yet in traffic the small six-cylinder engine (which Mathis was pioneering in big-scale production) would run in top gear at a low pace. A trace of slip from the plate clutch when shifting gears and rather harsh springing until speed could be increased were his only criticisms. The steering and four-wheel brakes were “perfect”.

This Mathis Six looked every inch a sportscar, with long bonnet right up to the scuttle (no screen), flared mudguards, pointed tail and balloon tyres on its disc wheels. It enticed Parry Thomas out of “The Hermitage” to inspect it. After some altercation over noise the car was allowed onto the track and seven laps were run off, timed at about 74mph; the beltdriven kph speedometer was useless as a timing adjunct. The vacuum petrol feed and a blockage in the pipe resulted in some hunting at high speed and up hills, the latter including an ascent of the Box Hill zig-zag which showed secure cornering to be one of the best features of this exciting car, in spite of the Michelin balloon tyres.

Emile Mathis’ real campaign was for fuel economy from lightweight cars and he eschewed the French GP after 1921, and Le Mans, for the Touring Car races which in the ’20s augmented the more important events. He was eminently successful. In the 1923 contest at Tour. four-cylinder 1100cc cars were entrusted to Lahms, Boecchi and Meyer, who were under strict orders not to exceed 2800rpm. Weight was pared down using a light-alloy back-axle casing, and in spite of the class minimum consumption being 47mpg, the Mathis were first and second in their class, ahead of a Salmson. Thus encouraged, Emile met opposition from Voisin, Aries and Senechal at Lyons with his 1 1/2-litre 45bhp cars in the 1924 fuel consumption race, but Lahms again had a 400kg class win, at 47.3mph, with Boecchi and de Bremond second and third.

After a prototype ohc 1.7-litre straight eight had failed to impress in the 1925 Touring Car GP a bigger effort was made for that year’s GP de Tourisme, the well-tried four-cylinder engine going into an underslung chassis and the well streamlined bodies enclosing the back wheels. Had water leaks not eliminated the entire team it might have resulted in the class victory, which went instead to a Bugatti. Bleak compensation for Emile was a class win in a little-known 1925 Boznam race.

After the war Mathis consolidated his position with a diverse selection of rather dull cars. They included the low-geared 1140cc fourbearing Type PS Small Six with solid rear axle and the slightly better ohv type L. In 1923 came a cheap four-cylinder 905cc Four model, and the 1 1/2-litre Type G by 1925, with a range of body styles from sports two-seater to van. The later Type GM actually had a detachable head and was comparatively light at 18cwt. Around 1926 some of these cars competed pricewise with Citroen and Renault, the GM at £385, and there was the G Sports for the lads.

No doubt the French were as satisfied with these rather dull Mathis variants as the English family drivers were with their equally uninspiring Hornets, 12/6s, and Majors. To cash in, Strasbourg opted for a mainly one-model policy in 1926, with the 1187cc two-bearing 25bhp 14cwt Type MY, in which Gallic citizens and some British buyers could progress at up to 50mph. Those who wanted better could choose a Weymann high waistline saloon with the then customary rear trunk, and there was also the 1696cc Six. This developed into Mathis’ well known 1.8-litre Emysix, which survived to 1935 with various refinements and its engine later enlarged to two litres. But even the late Michael Sedgwick, that great motoring historian who had a liking for nice but ordinary Morrises, called the Emysix a stodgy car.

Although he had abandoned racing, around this time Emile Mathis found himself unable to resist the MontIhery record bids which Panhard, Voisin, Delage, Hotchkiss, Renault and others were keenly pursuing. He produced a single-seater in which he set off for a 15,000-mile run in 1929, but not surprisingly after 47 hours at over 80mph, the prop-shaft broke.

More to the commercial point was how to keep the market. The response was to revert to a multitude of models, which can be quickly dismissed. They ran from the 2-litre Emysix to a big 4.1-litre and a 1628cc Type QM, but the MY-series was not made after 1930. A 1.2-litre small-four was added, owing its design to Continental and Violet, followed by the little 904cc Type TY.

Mathis had been to America in the hope of a deal with General Motors but this failed to materialise, as did his hoped-for link with Durant. But he soldiered on, with showrooms in the Champs-Elysees and all the expected innovations such as freewheels, syncromesh gears and hydraulic brakes to keep his cars in the running. Indeed, after 1932 the appearance of Mathis cars was improved, and leaf-spring independent rear suspension was used.

Mathis was also supplying engines to other manufacturers and was by 1940 into marine motors. Alas, sales dropped and by 1934 Ford was induced to make its innovative V8s as Matfords for the French market, alongside the improved Mathis cars. Perhaps helped by rally successes and a 2.2-litre Matford V8, the latter won.

In July 1938 Emile sold out to Ford. But that wasn’t quite the end for this hard-trying Frenchman. Mathis was back in 1945 with an ingenious 700cc egg-like three-wheeler. The French government killed that. But Emile would not give up. His swan-song was seen at the 1949 Paris Salon, in the form of a futuristic medium-sized car which had first appeared in 1947. That wasn’t wanted either and Mathis moved into obscurity.

Personally, I like those little economy cars most of all; the pre-1914 sports Babylette, the 1.3-litre Baby, the post-Armistice 760cc 8hp Type P and the 1923 628cc Type-T, complete with gas lamps. This Mathis infant had valves so small that one valve cap served to cover a pair of them in the fixed head. Like its brother, it had a four-speed gearbox. Never mind that dispensing with a differential permitted one foot and one handbrake to suffice on the axle. After all, these were little cars intended mainly for peasants in long black clothes, carrying long white loaves of bread, driving along long straight French roads. The bigger of these two baby Mathis was able to attain 53mph and was rated here at 7.5hp. What a pity we have yet to see one at a VSCC Light Car Section meeting. WB