Disregarding the fact that Marius Berliet’s first productions were in the crude horseless-carriage idiom, as were they all at the time when he started manufacture in his little factory in Lyons, namely in 1895, this make became an exciting kind of car and one that was well made — in 1913 The Autocar said of it that “no motor-car of French extraction can boast a sounder reputation in this country than the Berliet.”
Although those very early Berliets were made in very small numbers indeed, they classed the French make as a true pioneer, and to its credit features even then included engines easily removed from the rear of the contraption for inspection on a workbench, four-speed gearboxes, and wheelinstead of tiller-steering. Then it all began to take on momentum when in 1901 M Berliet acquired the Audibert-Livorotte Conipany, an amicable take-over, with the firm’s founder remaining the managing director. It was then that vertical four-cylinder engines joined the former flat-twin Berliet power units, in chain-drive chassis, although these frames were constructed of wood, armourplated. The prestige of the Berliet was such that when Sunbeam of Wolverhampton were branching out their T C Pullinger adapted the Berliet engine design for the British Company’s new 1902 12 hp car, with no regrets. This was just before Automobiles Berliet took another significant step forward, following the advanced specification of the German Mercedes for their future models. They were not alone by any means in this ploy of copying such things as the honeycomb radiator, pressed-steel chassis frames and mechanically-operated overhead inlet valves.
From this time on, for a considerable number of years, the Berliet from Lyons was a motor-car for keen drivers and those with sporting instincts to contemplate with unalloyed enthusiasm. They must have been served well, in the exhilaration and speed departments, for instance, by the 8.6-litre Berliet Sixty, (which owed so much to the great 60 hp Mercedes) and the even more outrageous 80 hp Berliet with an engine of more than 11-litres capacity… Ever ambitious, Marius Berliet allowed the American Locomotive Company to make Berliets under licence from 1906, sold in the USA as Alcos: this, and their own railway engine connections, explains the use of a locomotive logo on Berliet radiator badges. Their pre-WW1 catalogues were works of art, with magnificent art-work and silk tassels, which I regret do not figure in my own modest collection of rare motoring publications…
In the Edwardian years, then, the Berliet was a much respected French make, very firmly established, both in Europe and here. The British branch of Berliet was located in Piccadilly House, Sackville Street, in London’s West End, where the staple models included the 15 hp and 22 hp four cylinder cars, with a 20-25 hp chassis announced for 1911, priced when it made its Olympia debut at £485. The specification of the new car was quite conventional, with a 100×140 mm (4398 cc) engine, a side-valve four cylinder of neat exterior, with a fixed head necessitating screw-out valve-caps, the carburettor was incorporated partly within the cylinder block, on the off-side. The tappets were enclosed by two cover plates on the same side of the engine and because the centrifugal water pump and Bosch magneto were driven by a skew-geardriven cross shaft at the front, as on later ohc engines of other makes, not only was the near-side of the engine very neat, only the breather-tube projecting, but easy access to both contact-breaker and waterpump gland were assured. The crankshaft ran in three generously long white-metal bearings, pressure lubricated, the camshaft was gear-driven from the crankshaft, ducted oil fed the big-ends, and – a reminder that we are in the Edwardian era – surplus oil was taken via a triple drip-feed to the gearbox, back axle and prop-shaft universal joint.
There were some nice details, such as a big, capped water-draining outlet for the water jacket, the size of the belt-driven cooling fan and twin top water pipes to the radiator feeding to its cooler sides. The chassis was, again, quite conventional. A multi-plate clutch took the drive to a fourspeed-and-reverse gearbox, which had short, stiff shafts running in ball bearings, inspection via a large cover plate, and final drive was by an enclosed universal joint and enclosed propshaft to a bevel-gear back axle with fully-floating half-shafts. A pedal-applied transmission brake formed part of the universal joint and the rh lever operated internal-expanding back-wheel brakes. The 25 hp Berliet was sprung on half-elliptic front, ¾-elliptic back springs, ran on 880×120 tyres and had a wheelbase of 10ft 6in.
Nothing very exciting, emphasised when Salmons of Newport Pagnell put a large all-weather body on one of these chassis. However, it was the sporting version of this side-valve 4½-litre big-bore Berliet that had a strong following among the ranks of keen drivers. From earlier days the appearances of Berliet cars at race meeting and the fact that racing drivers I E Hutton and W Watson, from their premises respectively in London’s Shaftsbury Avenue and Liverpool’s Renshaw Street, were agents for the 22 hp, 40 hp and 60 hp cars, must have been a useful sales incentive. The Berliet Sixty had a 140 x 140mm “square” engine and cost £800 as a chassis in 1908. At the Opening Meeting at the new Brooklands Motor Course the previous year, Hutton the Mercedes driver had entered 40 hp and 60 hp Berliets. In the Spring Stakes that opened Brooklands’ 1908 season the entire entry comprised three 35.7 hp Berliets and from then until war closed play in August 1914 these cars, in various forms, were well-known at the Track.
Their drivers included D Pigot, P D Stirling, H Farquharson, N Nalder, C A Cuthbert, H Tapner, J Aldridge, B F Hale, E Turnball, C Leese, G Dumbleton, J Burdock, S Gore-Brown, J Prioleau, A J Mander, R S Whitehead, L C Rawlence, R C Fish and N S Hind, most of them with 37.5 hp cars, proof of the esteem in which the Berliet was regarded here as a sporting motor-car. Of them, Hind was a very staunch supporter of the marque. He was still racing his old 6.3-litre chain-drive “Black Beetle” with handsome wood-planked body as late as 1913 and had also one of the new 25 hp Berliets as his touring car while racing the short-chassis version “White Beetle”, etc. He also raced an 8-valve Bugatti. He put a saloon body on “White Beetle” for the August 1914 Brooklands Meeting and told me how annoyed he was, after stripping it of mudguards, lamps, etc, in the sweltering heat, to have the officials ban it from racing or even practising…
The 25 hp Berliets appeared again at Brooklands after the war was over. They were driven by A W Robinson, C G Brocklebank and by Sqdn Ldr C F Portal who became an Air Chief Marshall, GCB, OM, DSO, MC later in his RAF career. Portal had bought his car from a London dealer in 1918 for £215, using it for touring until 1923. With the seats covered over with canvas, the mudguard removed and Zephyr pistons and a big Claudel-Hobson carburettor from a small aero-engine installed it was ready to race, but was written off near Northampton in 1927 while stationary, hit by a skidding car. Incidentally, these 25 hp Berliets were called “Whistling Rufus” because of the noise air made going through their radiators as speed rose, a characteristic also of the 1914 TT Humbers. With side-valve engine and a comparatively low compression-ratio the Berliet was good for 80 mph on the road, and some 90 mph when stripped for racing, confirxmed by lap speeds at the Track of 83/85 mph. I do not quite know how to put this into perspective. Let us just say that 14 years later the £1250 4/2-litre Bentley, which had the same bore and stroke but a 16-valve racing-type overhead-camshaft engine, had a top speed, road equipped, of 92 mph…
L C Rawlence, who later became well known for his activities with OMs, took over the Berliet concession at Sackville Street and for the first post-Armistice London Show in 1919 produced two 25 hp chassis, followed later from Lyons by the 15/20 hp model. Both had the gearbox mounted on the nose of the torque-tube and the larger car now had long cantilever back springs. One of the 25s had twin tyres on its back disc wheels, unusual for a car of this size — maybe the French thought our roads as war-torn as theirs. . . The 15/20 hp car had an engine of 90 x 130 mm (3307 cc), like that of the other car, but with a 3-speed, not a 4-speed, gearbox. The lift 6inwheelbase 25 hp chassis now cost £1175. The maker’s name was writ large in script across the radiator, and their carburettor had a slow-running jet that went out of action automatically as the main-jet took over.
The fine performances of these cars pre-war should have enhanced sales in the post-Armistice depression, but with so many failing to return from the war, how many were left who remembered the wins at Brooklands and the many successes in speed-trials and hill-climbs, the latter having included the 1907 Shelsley Walsh record by Hutton’s Berliet, in 67.2 sec? And only close followers of the sport would know that Bablot had won the 1905 Coupe des Pyrennees in a Berliet or that this Marseilles agent for the make was third the following year in the Targa Florio. Some might, of course, just about remember Bablot’s second place in the 1906 loM TT behind the Hon C S Rolls’s Rolls-Royce and that a Berliet won the 1912 Monte Carlo Rally.
There was just a faint whiff of this in the torpedo-bodied tourer shown by Wendover’s at that 1919 Olympia show. But all too soon Berliet was opting for one-model quantity-production on American-car lines, emphasised by the central control levers and North East starter-motor on the 15 hp Dodge-imitation model. So it did not much matter that even rabid motor-racing followers, aware that a Bentley had come in fifth at Le Mans in 1923, had probably overlooked the fact that Berliet, too, had run in what was soon to become the World’s most important sports-car race, one of their 2.6-litre entries finishing 19th out of 30 finishers, although the other retired. But whereas Duff and Frank Clement would have been well-known here, who had heard of these Berliet pilots, Prost/Redon or Jacquet/Ribail?
However, Rawlence soldiered on. He got three Berliets to Olympia in 1920, two of them bodied by the little-known coachbuilders, C A Roper of Camberley and Storey & Sons of Holloway, backed up by a Charlesworth “Interior-drive” saloon. Automobiles Berliet, to meet the growing demand for cars, opened new showrooms and offices at Sackville Street in 1921, sending M Henneguy over to run them, and the service and repair depot was at the Richmond Bridge Works in Cambridge Road, Richmond. Some of the former French flavour lingered on but the glory days were over. The 20 hp car in utilility and de luxe forms marked the change. But the respected 25 hp Berliet did not disappear from the lists until 1923, but its chassis price fell to £825, then to £795. Meanwhile the Lyons Company began to experiment with the lmbert gas-producer, installing it in the pointed tail of a touring 15 hp Berliet, with a claim that running costs were reduced in the ratio of 4.5 to 1 over a petrol-burner.
There was a brief renaissance when the 15.9 hp car, now with a 2143 cc engine, did rather well in the Tour de France and the Alpine Trials, both tough events, but a new trend was the introduction of the 1087 cc Baby Berliet, with overhead valves and a plate clutch, for the economy market; it was priced at £350 as a four-seater, and for 1924 the Type VK 4-litre 23/70 hp model was introduced, with tubular con-rods and aluminium pistons, developing maximum power at 3000 rpm, the chassis selling for £750.
After this the Company seemed unable to decide quite what the customers might want. A complex and changing variety of models emerged, giving a choice of side or upstairs valves, three or four speeds, even wooden wheels in one instance. The inevitable small six appeared in 1927, a 1.8-litre 4 bearing 3-speed offering, with those wooden wheels. Things seemed to level up in 1933, with the advent of the Type 944, a modern concept with X-bracing for its chassis, a 4-speed silent-third gearbox and i f s on the de luxe offering. Even so, those attracted were left to decide for themselves whether to opt for side-by-side or oh valves and for a 1.8-litre or 2-litre propellant. Until 1938, that is, when all the engines possessed overhead valves. The swan-song was the 2-litre Dauphine, by which time rack-and-pinion steering, synch ro-mesh gear engagement, i f s and trunked bodies were the mode, and in the end it borrowed the saloon body of the Peugeot 402.
The post-war years left the organisation better known for its railway locomotives to absorb Rochet-Schneider for the purpose of expanding the commercial vehicle business. Cars became just a memory. I have only driven one Berliet and that only for a short distance, during the 1986 Brighton Run on Louis Holland’s 1903 Twenty; as expected of a car designed largely on the Systeme-Mercedes it proved very satisfactory.