The Tracta driver who ploughed a different furrow

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Nissan is far from the first to field a front-drive car at Le Mans. This extract from a new book recalls an unsung innovator – a man who also showed heroic fortitude

writer Quentin Spurring

Jean-Albert Grégoire was the hero of one of the great Le Mans adventure stories in 1927, driving his innovative front-drive Tracta sports car on début in the Grand Prix d’Endurance.

The little team from north-west Paris had prepared two of these ground-breaking small cars, but all four of its drivers were injured in a road accident on their way to the circuit on Saturday morning. Grégoire escaped from hospital through a window and shared one of the cars with a volunteer from the crowd. Severely bruised, and with his head bandaged, he undertook the great bulk of the driving, and qualified successfully for the final of the 1927-28 Biennial Cup competition.

The Automobiles Tracta company was registered in January 1927 by 27-year-old Grégoire and his socialite friend, fellow engineer Pierre Fenaille, who both wanted more from life than selling Delage and Mathis passenger cars in their Garage des Chantiers agency in Versailles. The pair had competed in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1925 with an Amilcar and in 1926 with a Majola. They had then resolved to create their own marque together, with an emphasis on motor sport.

Their backer (and principal shareholder in the venture) was Pierre’s seriously rich father, Maurice Fenaille, a 71-year-old French entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist who had made a fortune in the United States by selling his petroleum business to Standard Oil. Fenaille père made it a condition of the finance that the young men had to offer something different – with an emphasis on making money.

Grégoire and Fenaille fils noted the success that was being achieved by American racing car engineer Harry Miller with his front-drive cars. They resolved to design their own device for deploying engine output to drive the front wheels, with a view to selling manufacturing licences into the automobile industry. Their ingenious constant-velocity universal joint comprised just four components: two yokes (one driving and one driven) and two semi-spherical swivels that interlocked in a ‘floating’ connection. A patent was filed in December 1926.

With the help of an automotive engineer named Charles Nugue, a prototype car was produced to prove the technology, known as the Tracta Gephi (word plays on traction-avant and Grégoire et Fenaille). The right-hand-drive car was powered by an off-the-shelf 1100cc SCAP four-cylinder engine with pushrod-operated overhead valves. This was turned through 180deg and linked with the four-speed gearbox and the final-drive in a line. Even though the engine was mounted as close to the centre of the car as possible, hard up against the bulkhead, the installation resulted in a very long front frame and bonnet. The chassis was specially made in Courbevoie by the Langlois & Jornod company, which assembled the car and arranged its components to provide a low centre of gravity; the little car was so low that its seated driver could easily touch the ground. A transmission brake was fitted to the gearbox and the Tracta had independent front suspension via a transverse spring coupled to the stub axles, the tubular rear axle being located on semi-cantilivered leaf springs.

***

In its first event, the Coupe de l’Armistice regularity trial in Paris in November 1926, the prototype briefly caught fire, but Grégoire went on to compete in hillclimbs with some success. In 1927, it was decided to put a small team together to run two cars in the 1927 Grand Prix d’Endurance: where else better to prove the young firm’s joint homocinétique? Pierre Fenaille would drive one with another friend, well-known aviator Etienne Boussod, and Grégoire the other with Roger Bourcier, Fenaille’s personal chauffeur.

On arrival in Le Mans they discovered that all the hotels were fully booked, but found accommodation in a small private house in the village of Mulsanne. After two uncomfortable nights there, Fenaille suggested that the four drivers should spend Friday night in rather more luxurious surroundings. So he rented rooms in the Chateau des Châteliers near Angers. Leaving the two mechanics, named Guérin and Tribaudot, with the cars in Mulsanne, the four drivers set off for Angers on Friday in Fenaille’s big Panhard 20CV sports-tourer.

Refreshed on Saturday morning, they were returning to the circuit when Boussod misjudged a corner near the village of Arnage, and the big Panhard hurtled into a ditch at 60mph. The driver emerged badly shaken up to find Grégoire covered in cuts and bruises, Bourcier screaming in agony from a crushed knee – and Fenaille unconscious with a serious head injury.

The wounded men were taken by ambulance to the Delagenière clinic in Le Mans. By late morning Grégoire was in a hospital bed with orders to stay there for 48 hours, Bourcier’s leg was under the knife on an operating table – and poor Fenaille was in a coma with brain damage.

Grégoire had a head wound and a painfully swollen and now purple face, but no broken bones. He knew that the mechanics would have taken the two cars to the circuit, and could not resist very long. The athletic young man – a former national 100-metre sprint champion – dressed while the nurses were distracted, exited the hospital through a window and took a taxi to the circuit. He got there at 2pm (two hours before the start) – to find no sign of Boussod, nor the mechanics, who had left the paddock
to search for their missing drivers in the
local hospitals.

Grégoire sought the help of race director Charles Faroux. In due course a request was broadcast on the public address system for anyone with a licence to come to race control. The call was answered by a mechanic named Lucien Lemesle. Grégoire just had time before the start to brief him about the unusual steering and gearshift of the Tracta. The other car stayed unused in the paddock.

The team mechanics returned before the start, and Grégoire drove for the first four hours before handing over to his new team-mate. Shortly afterwards, it began to rain. Lemesle came into the pits, complaining that he couldn’t see, so Grégoire put on his helmet and returned to the cockpit.

As night fell, the Tracta was very nearly caught up in the famous multiple pile-up at Maison Blanche that eliminated two of the front-running Bentleys, but Grégoire just made it through the wreckage. The circumspect Lemesle relieved him from time to time but, in all, Grégoire drove almost 15 of the first 20 hours. By midday on Sunday, despite the fact that a flying stone had punctured one of its two fuel tanks, the car had exceeded by four laps the target distance it needed to qualify for a slot in the final of the Biennial Cup in 1928.

Grégoire decided to push his luck no longer. Despite the objections of the mechanics and some friends who now filled the pit booth, he decided merely to go through the motions of getting to the finish. He did not want to park the car in the pits, in full public view, in case the spectators concluded there was something wrong with it. Instead, he selected a remote spot between the Mulsanne and Arnage corners, stopped the car, and lay down in the pine forest there.

The race director became concerned. Faroux sent out the course car bearing his assistant Géo Lefèvre to investigate. Lefèvre saw the prone, bandaged figure beneath a tree and wanted to call an ambulance. Grégoire assured him he was only resting.

Over the final three hours, Grégoire started the engine occasionally and took the car back onto the circuit. After he had driven the Tracta over the finish line, he was unable to move his limbs properly and developed a high fever. He was delirious all Sunday night and stayed in bed for 24 hours. A month later – having been given a gold medallion struck in honour of his exploits by suspension damper manufacturer François Repusseau – he was fit enough to race the same car in the Coppa Florio, in which he finished second in the 1100cc class behind a Salmson.

Pierre Fenaille was not as lucky. He was in a coma for two weeks. He was partially paralysed down one side when he left hospital, unable to write and barely able to speak. His recuperation would take more than two years.

***

Grégoire began producing cars for sale to the public and continued Tracta’s racing programme. In the 1928 Le Mans he and his professional co-driver, Fernand Vallon, were classified third in the ACO’s 1927-28 Biennial Cup with one of three cars. Tracta raced four in the 1929 race, including a ‘tank’-bodied special powered by a unique, ‘opposed-piston’ engine – a 1-litre four-cylinder two-stroke created by supercharger specialist René Cozette. The company reverted to two cars for a fourth and final Le Mans outing in 1930, and went out of business as an automobile brand some two years later, having sold about 200 cars.

Meanwhile, however, the patented Tracta CV joint had come into extensive use in the motor industry, notably by Adler and DKW in Germany. Later versions of the device would be used in millions of vehicles, including all the Jeeps in World War II, and it is still employed in front-drive cars today.

Grégoire subsequently used the factory in Asnières for other innovative projects, including cast-aluminium chassis frames and both gas-turbine and electric powertrains, and also became a noted author, humanist and wine expert.

Jean-Albert Grégoire – the hero of the 1927 Le Mans – died in 1992, at the grand age of 93.

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