Grand Prix - History

This month’s story was sparked off by a small but interesting happening in the recent Nice Grand Prix retrospective, when René Dreyfus appeared in a 4½-litre V12 cylinder sports / racing Delahaye. It prompted me to do some research into the subject of V12 Delahaye racing cars, and the first thing to do was to re-read the delightful book by René Dreyfus on his racing life (see MOTOR SPORT review, page 379, April 1984) and the book “Delahaye – Sport et Prestige” by Francois Jolly, published by Jacques Grancher, 98 rue de Vaugirard, Paris 75006 in 1981, a well illustrated book in French. These two books, together with my own archives and those of my chums Geoffrey Goddard and Cyril Posthumus, and with Anthony Blight’s help with information from the book he is preparing on racing / sports cars of the late nineteen-thirties, enabled me to unravel the interesting story of the Delahayes in the Grand Prix scene in 1938 and 1939, one of which is said to be the car that made its reappearance at Nice recently. The German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union cars swept the board during the two years under review but Delahaye struggled along at the back of the grid, and without them the Grand Prix scene should have been very sparse.

The Formula for Grand Prix racing that came into force in 1934 was planned to run for three seasons, with a new Formula to be announced for the years 1937, ’38 and ’39. However, as things turned out the 1934 Formula was extended for an extra year, into 1937 and the new Formula ran for the years 1938, ‘39 and ’40. It specified a maximum capacity of 3 litres for supercharged engines and 4½ litres for unsupercharged engines, with a sliding scale of minimum weights dependent on the engine size. In theory it was supposed to encourage engines of all capacities up to the maximum, but in fact those firms involved went straight for the maximum capacity, blown or unblown.

For many years the Delahaye firm had been producing very mundane cars and commercial vehicles, with no interest in racing, but as the clouds of the 1929/31 world depression began to disperse, Monsieur Charles Weiffenbach, the owner of the Delahaye firm, was encouraged to pursue a more sporting image for his French cars. Among those who encouraged him were Laury Schell and his wife Lucy O’Reilly-Schell, both of American nationality, he with French origins and she with Irish origins. They lived in France and to all intents and purposes were French.

After producing some cars of a distinctly sporting demeanour, Delahaye came out with a pure competition car in 1936. This was a two-seater sports / racing car with 3½-litre 6-cylinder push-rod overhead valve engine and as the French Federation were about to instigate an active programme of races for sports cars rather than Grand Prix cars, the Type 135 “competition” Delahaye was acclaimed on all sides and proved to be very popular and very successful. Almost at the same time a design project was started for an engine, and subsequently a chassis, for the new Grand Prix Formula. The designer was Jean Francois and he plumped for an unsupercharged 4½-litre power unit, laying out a 60-degree V12 with overhead valves operated by pushrods and rockers rather than the fashionable twin overhead camshafts. The engine made extensive use of light alloys, elektron and magnesium figuring strongly, the seven bearing crankshaft was carried on roller bearings and lubrication was by a dry sump system.

The first V12 Delahaye appeared on test at Montlhéry at the end of June 1937 and was designated the Type 145. The V12 engine had been installed in a two-seater sports chassis basically similar to the Type 135 sports cars, and it appeared complete with mudguards, lights, wiring, starter, dynamo and two seats, as a fully competitive sports car. A week later the Grand Prix de l’ACF was due to be run at Montlhéry, and as in 1936 it was a 500 kilometre race for sports cars. This decision had been taken by the French manufacturers, for 1935 had shown quite clearly that the German firms were forging ahead in Grand Prix racing, closely followed by the Italians, and the French were being left behind. While the Type 135 Delahaye had been an attractive car to look at the Type 145 was bizarre to say the least. The aluminium bodywork was sparse and was little more than a skin wrapped round the mechanical components, with little or no thought for aesthetics, while the mudguards were individual streamlined affairs mounted well clear of the wheels and giving the car the look of a particularly evil insect. It was driven in the race by René Dreyfus, but was too new to last more than a few laps.

The French sports car race era was not meant to be permanent, but merely a way of stopping Germany over-running French sport during the 750 kilogramme Formula. There was every intention that France could return to Grand Prix racing with the new Formula in 1938, apart, of course, from the 24 Hour Le Mans event. To encourage French manufacturers to take an active part in the new Grand Prix formula the Automobile Club de France organised a prize of one million francs for the manufacturer whose car achieved the highest average speed over 16 laps of the Montlhéry road course. After some nail-biting moments, which Dreyfus describes so well in his book, Delahaye won the Prize which they shared with Laury Schell. The Schells had formed the racing team Ecurie Bleue and took on the responsibility of the factory racing programme.

After the success of the new V12 in the “Million Franc” competition, Delahaye and the Ecurie Bleue were well set to start 1938 with the new Grand Prix Formula. The first race was at Pau, on the same circuit that is used for Formula 2 racing today, complete with its four tight hairpins. However, the week before this first grand Prix event the Mille Miglia sports car race took place in Italy and two V12 Delahayes took part, running with full road-equipment, carrying works mechanics as passengers, Dreyfus drove one car and Gianfranco Comotti drove the other, the former finishing fourth overall, in spite of frequent stops to replenish the radiator with water following a leak caused by a stone piercing the core. For the Pau race Dreyfus had the “Million Franc” car, stripped of all its sports car equipment, but still with two-seater body and sports car chassis, the driver sitting on the right of the propshaft with a cover over the passenger space. The flexible V12 engine was very suited to the slow twisty Pyrenean circuit and though it had only 250 bhp it was able to match the lap times of the Mercedes-Benz opposition that had over 400 bhp. On such a tight circuit the German drivers could not use the full potential of their engines, added to which the cars were brand new and nothing like perfect. There were two V12 Delahayes on the grid, Comotti with a similar car to Dreyfus, but with a totally different radiator cowling. Two Mercedes-Benz (supercharged 3-litre V12-cylinders) were to be driven by Rudolf Caracciola and Herrman Lang, but just before the start Lang’s engine lost all its oil pressure and was withdrawn from the race. This left Caracciola alone to face the two Delahayes, though in practice Comotti had been no real threat.

Fuel consumption was to play a big part for the Mercedes-Benz was going to have to stop at least once to refuel, whereas the Delahaye was planned to run through non-stop. The Mercedes-Benz was running on a special fuel “brew” of methanol, nitro-benzine and acetone and gave off nauseating fumes from its exhaust, so that when Caracciola took the lead Dreyfus was unable to stay in his slipstream due to the fumes, and had to drop back. However, providing the V12 Delahaye ran reliably the outcome was almost foregone, for when the Mercedes-Benz stopped to refuel the French car sailed by into the lead and there was little hope of the German car making up the lost ground. Caracciola was totally dispirited and, feigning fatigue, handed the car over to Lang who did his utmost but it obviously was not going to be good enough. When he had to make a 1 min 20 sec pit stop to have the gear linkage repaired, all hope was lost. A radiant Rene Dreyfus drove smoothly to victory, Lang being a fighting second and Comotti was third with the second of the Ecurie Bleue cars.

On the face of things France had started off the new Formula on a high note, but anyone with any racing knowledge and sense could see it was a result of freak circumstances and that no way could a deficit of nearly 200 horsepower be overcome. Two weeks later the second race to the new Formula was held, this one being the Cork Grand Prix in the Irish Free State on the Carrighone circuit. The entry was abysmal, the only possible opposition to the two Ecurie Bleue cars being a lone Bugatti from the Molsheim factory that arrived late and did only three laps of practice, and was too new to pin much hope upon. The remaining five cars were three sports cars, a 1934 Maserati 8CM and a 1935 Alfa Romeo Tipo B, so Dreyfus had it all his own way. The Bugatti lasted for 21 laps and then blew up while third. Two Grand Prix races and two victories from the Type 145 Delahaye V12 sounded fantastic, but it was not reality. The next Grand Prix was reality and set the scene for the rest of the season. This was the Tripoli Grand Prix in North Africa, on the super-fast Mellaha circuit.

The Ecurie Bleue took their full complement of four cars to this event, two for each driver, and Comotti had one with a full fairing over the whole front of the car, in what Derek Gardner called “the bluff nose” when he re-introduced the idea on his Tyrrells in the nineteen-seventies. Being 200 horsepower behind in the power race was instantly translated into a similar disparity on sheer maximum speed and the French V12-cylinder cars were hopelessly outclassed. The best they could do was seventh place for Dreyfus.

The Type 145s took a rest from Grand Prix racing to take part in the Le Mans 24 Hour race, and two cars were entered for Dreyfus / Louis Chiron and Comotti / Albert Divo. The cars were fully equipped as two-seater sports cars and had additional headlamps mounted high up on the radiator cowling, making them look even more bizarre. When pressed hard the engines had a bad tendency to overheat and to develop internal water leaks, and the 24 hours had barely begun before Dreyfus was forced to retire with piston trouble caused by overheating. The second car did not last long either and retired with gearbox trouble. It was a total disaster for the works / Schell team and to add insult to injury the race was won by two amateur drivers with a 1936 Type 135 “competition” Delahaye.

The team should have gone back to Grand Prix racing in the beginning of July, but prior to this the ACF and the committee who managed a national “fighting fund” for financial help to French manufacturers taking part in Grand Prix racing, decided to make a large monetary grant to the Talbot firm, and when Delahaye intimated that they expected to get the same grant they were told there was nothing for them, “. . . and anyway, you had a million francs last year . . .” This incensed Lucy Schell, who ran the management of Ecurie Bleue and Charles Weiffenbach and they went to no small pains to point out that they had WON the million, they had not received it as a grant. The upshot of all this was that Weiffenbach and the Schells agreed to boycott the French Grand Prix, due to run at Reims on July 3rd. As this was the first Grand Prix de France to Formula rules since 1935, it was a very forcible slight. The race turned out to be a bit of a farce and a walk-over for Mercedes-Benz, not that the entry of a couple of Type 145 Delahayes would have made much difference to the outcome, but it did not look good.

The dual-purpose Type 145 cars were really meant to be a stop-gap until a proper Grand Prix car was ready. This was to be Type 155, a pure single-seater, using the same V12 power unit, but with much more sophisticated chassis, suspension and weight distribution. On paper it should have been a huge improvement over the two-seater cars, but in fact it did not turn out that way and was something of a Grand Prix disaster. It appeared in practice for the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, but did not race, and Dreyfus and Comotti had to flog on with the two-seater cars, totally outclassed but scraping into the winnings by reason of the reliability and economy, but the results were false in the overall picture. Dreyfus came home fifth in Germany.

In the first week in August he took a Type 145 in full sports car trim to La Turbie hill-climb just outside his home town of Nice, and went extremely well. His time of 3 min 40.6 sec, which won him the sport category, and also gave him second place overall, a bare ten seconds behind Hans Stuck with the winning Auto Union.

Following this the Ecurie Bleue set off on a Grand Tour of Grand Prix racing, with three races in three weekends. The first was the Coppa Ciano, at Livorno on the Mediterranean coast of Italy. The stripped Type 145 cars were used throughout this tour and Dreyfus trailed home fifth in this first event, more due to retirements by faster cars than by speed. The next event was the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, and here there was something of an internal fuss in the Ecurie Bleue. Comotti had been achieving little in the way of success, compared to Dreyfus, and probably felt that the Frenchman was getting all the attention. In the Acerbo Cup he got away ahead of his team-mate and then refused to let him go by. The normally cool and unruffled Dryfus got a bit upset by this and in his frenzy to get by he wrecked his gearbox and had to retire, leaving Comotti to cruise on to a fourth place. As a result of this Lucy Schell “suspended” Comotti from the third race in this “tour”, saying that it was because he had not driven fast enough at Pescara. A nice way of putting it.

The third and final race of the “tour” was the Swiss Grand Prix on the magnificent Bremgarten circuit on the edge of Berne. The French amateur driver Raphael Bethenod del las Casas was co-opted into the team for this event. Although he had done a fair bit of sports car racing he was new to Grand Prix racing, but was steady and sure if not excitingly fast. He raced under the pseudonym of “Raph”. The Type 145 cars really were also-rans by this time, but they both kept going and Dreyfus was eighth and “Raph” was 11th. There was little point in going to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, for both Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were at full strength now. Alfa Romeo were fighting hard to keep pace and Maserati had produced a real rocket of a car, that could match the German cars for speed, but was desperately fragile. In consequence Ecurie Bleue took a Type 145 in sports car trim for Dreyfus / Divo to the Paris 12-Hour race at Montlhéry, but it failed to last the distance.

As a complete aside from their full and serious European racing programme the Schells entered two cars for the Dunlop Jubilee Meeting at the Brooklands Track, no doubt influenced by the fact that they had been racing on Dunlop tyres all season! The meeting comprised numerous short-distance races on the banked outer concrete bowl and on the artificial road-circuit that ran across the middle of the area encircled by the banked track, and used one end of the banked circuit. Comotti’s suspension had become permanent by now, and “Raph” was the full-time second member of the team, though the entry and programme had been made out for Comotti long before the rift. Cars and drivers were completely out of their depth in these typical British sprint races over 20 miles or so.

A final fling for the 1938 season was a more serious affair. It was the Donington Grand Prix, held on the Donington Park circuit, that Tom Wheatcroft has recently rebuilt and has now brought back to Grand Prix standards and length. There were full teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, which meant four cars apiece, as well as a lone works Maserati entry, so the underpowered Delahayes had little hope of success. Dreyfus actually drove the Type 155 “Monoplace” in this race, its only race, but it did not last long and retired with a terminal oil leak. From all accounts the engine had performed well in practice, but the roadholding left a lot to be desired and the whole “Monoplace” project was such an abject disaster that Dreyfus prefers to forget about it, and as far as he is concerned he never raced the car, thought start photographs clearly show it leaving the line in the wake of the German cars. “Raph” drove a Type 145 two-seater but did not last as long as the “Monoplace”, retiring with no oil pressure.

Behind the scenes all was not well in the relationship between the Schells and the Delahaye firm, and the cars were taken away from the Paris factory and based in Monaco, where the Schells resided. Disillusioned about the cost and the poor results, Lucy began negotiations with the Maserati firm for a pair of their supercharged 3-litre straight-eight cars. The Delahayes made only two appearances in 1939 and the name of the team was changed to the Ecurie Lucy O’Reilly-Schell. At the French Grand Prix at Reims they “toured” around at the back of the race, Dreyfus finishing seventh and “Raph” ninth. In the German Grand Prix on the Nürburgring the “Monoplace” was tried again unsuccessfully in practice, and in the race Dreyfus was fourth in a two-seater Type 145 and “Raph” was fifth in a sister car. While fourth place looked quite good on paper, Dreyfus was actually two laps behind the winner, and two laps on the Nürburgring is a long, long way.

That was the end of the road for the Ecurie Bleue or Lucy O’Reilly-Schell V12 Delahayes in Grand Prix racing, for at the next race Dreyfus and “Raph” appeared with pale blue 8CTF Maseratis, and then the war started.

Following on the first appearance of the V12 Delahayes the firm set in motion the production of a road-going version for sale to the public. The V12 engine was basically the same, except that the materials were less exotic, normal aluminium replacing elektron and magnesium, the crankshaft ran on plain bearings, a wet sump lubrication system was used and a single carburettor instead of the three units on the racing engines. The first production V12, designated the Type 165, appeared at the Paris Salon in the Autumn of 1938, bodied by Figoni & Falaschi with a striking two-seater roadster body that was fully enveloping and even covered the front wheels completely. The wide windscreen could be wound down into the scuttle by a sort of rack-and-pinion mechanism. The V12 engine had the same bore and stroke of 75 x 84.7mm as the racing cars, giving 4490cc and it was undoubtedly the Star of the Show. A run of twelve cars was planned, but it seems that only four, or possibly five were actually completed during 1939 before the war put a stop to everything.

In 1946 there appeared a V12 Delahaye that was said to be one of the pre-war Type 145 cars that had been rebodied by the coachbuilders Franay. It was an open cabriolet type of body, typically French in its garishness and impractibility, and like so many one-off bodies in those days was really only suitable for Concours d’Elegance gathering and to be put into a collection. After appearing in Concours with some success, it disappeared into a private collection and was later discovered to be the Pau Grand Prix winning car of 1938, so the story goes. In recent years the Franay body has been removed and fitted to a normal Type 135 six-cylinder Delahaye, and the V12 type 145 had been rebodied with the stark two-seater bodywork and bizarre mudguards in the form in which the two sports cars ran in the 1938 Mille Miglia, with head fairings for both driver and passenger. It was in this form that it appeared at the Nice Retro, with 79 year old René Dreyfus, as sprightly and debonair as ever, at the wheel. – D.S.J.