Delage Data

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Dr. Gerald Ewen discourses on the various versions of that famous French vintage sporting car, the “14/40” Delage.

Opinions vary about the desirable qualities of sports cars, even amongst vintage enthusiasts, but I would like to put forward the claims of the 14-h.p. Delage for a high place in the list of desirable carriages. The performance is not spectacular, but it has solid qualities of steering and roadholding that grow on one, and the more one drives other vehicles, the more these qualities are appreciated. Add to this an exceedingly smooth engine, exceptionally so when compared with cars of similar vintage and size and you have some idea of the charm of these old motors.

There were three basic variants of the type, the D.I., the D.I.S. and the D.I.S.S. The D.I. was the standard touring version which was made in all years from 1924 to 1927, the D.I.S. was the sports version made in 1925 and 1927, and the D.I.S.S. was only made in 1926. They all had push-rod o.h.v. and four cylinders of 75 by 120 min., and the crankshaft was identical for all models. The D.I. had small valves and touring cam-contours, with a final drive ratio of 11/49 or, in a few cases, 10/49. In most other respects it resembles the sports versions, the chief differences being in the arrangement of the accessories. There were slight variations with year of manufacture, but nothing basically affecting performance.

The 1925 D.I.S. had larger valves (and consequently a different cylinder head) and a “hotter” camshaft, and a final drive of 12/49. It had magneto ignition and a North-East dynostarter driven by chain from the front end of the crank shaft. The clutch was a multi-plate affair, which worked pretty well, but was apt to drag. Gearbox (4-speed central change) had the same ratios as the DI., fairly widely spaced.

In 1926 the D.I.S.S. was produced. There were some fairly large alterations from the 1925 D.I.S., but nothing which affected the performance materially. Crankshaft, bore and stroke, valves, camshaft, gearbox and final drive all remained the same.

The changes consisted of a lowered chassis, a single plate clutch, thermo-syphon cooling, with a big header tank, a larger oil pump and a new dynamo starter of Ducellier make, driven direct off the nose of the crankshaft and having a very comic and unreliable epicyclic gearing for obtaining a reduction of ratio for use as a starter, this being thrown out of action and a fixed drive engaged when the engine was running. This set-up was all controlled by a very complicated starter switch having a great number of sliding contacts. It appears that this layout gave so much trouble with wear and noisy operation that nearly all the early D.I.S.S.s were recalled to the works and fitted with another Ducellier dynamotor of immense size, which was expected to start the large and heavy engine, having five main bearings, without any reduction gear at all. I always feel that Mr. Ducellier must have designed the thing overnight and have had it put straight into production off the drawing board without waiting to get the bugs out of it. Suffice it to say that it has four main brushes and a minute control brush, which wears out in 1,000 miles of running. It will just about turn the engine when really cold, at great detriment to the long-suffering battery, but it seldom acts as a dynamo for more than a month at a stretch. However, it is possible to make it fairly reliable, as I will explain later. In 1927 the D.I.S.S. was dropped, and another D.I.S. was produced in its place. This had the same large valves, camshaft and final drive, but sported a closer-ratio gearbox, the old type of North-East chain-driven dynamotor, coil ignition and pump cooling. The clutch was also modified to the six-spring (in place of four) type, with toggle operation making for much lighter pedal pressure. Strangely enough, the smaller oil pump was re-introduced.

Features common to all models were cable-operated four-wheel brakes, conventional semi-elliptic springs all round, with double Hartfords, the rear “shockers” set transversely, well-made worm-and-nut steering, with a white metal lined nut, torque-tube transmission (except 1925 D.I.S.), Autovac, triple-diffuser Zenith carburetter and induction manifold integral with the cylinder block as in the old Morris-Cowleys. This feature seems to give quite incredible cold starting and power when pulling away from cold. There is never a miss or a spitback in any weather, even with little use of the choke. It is quite probable there is some loss of efficiency when hot, due to pre-heating the charge, but it is not noticeable in practice.

I suppose No. 1 snag is the inevitable tendency to clutch-slip. It has happened sooner or later on every 14-h.p. Delage I have driven or have heard of, excepting the early models with multi-plate clutches. The single-plate type has its linings riveted to the flywheel face and the presser-plate, the spinning member being a steel disc 1/2 in, thick, which is gripped between them. This arrangement gives a nice quick gear change, due to the small inertia of the spinning member, but there is no weight of metal to absorb heat, and consequently the centre-plate distorts and its surface picks up into high spots, thereby reducing its bearing area on the linings. Once this happens, clutch-slip is inevitable, and the more it slips the higher get the high-spots. This is made worse by the dust from the burnt linings not being able to be thrown clear, the clutch being hermetically sealed into the flywheel. This dust then acts as a good polishing agent for the centre-plate and linings, so that a nice vicious circle is set up.

The cable-operated brakes are quite good, but have a horrid spongy feel, which can be cured by fitting rods off a MorrisCowley instead of the standard 1/4-in. diameter cables. This means that one abolishes the compensation mechanism between pairs of wheels, but in practice it makes no difference at all, and gives vastly pleasanter braking. With the old system most of one’s pedal movement is spent in straightening out the kinks in the cables.

My own example of the marque is D.I.S.S. with Kelsch clover-leaf 3-seater body, pointed tail and mahogany decking on the top of the bodywork. I bought it for £25 in 1934 and have since covered 100,000 miles in it.

I rebored the block when I got it and fitted B.H.B. pistons, and the wear on those bores to-day is a maximum of 6 thou. It never uses oil, and I have yet to find one that does. The carburetter was soon changed for an S.U., and I can get 24 m.p.g. at normal cruising speeds (55 m.p.h.). As mentioned previously, the dynostarter has probably given more trouble than anything, and I have eventually cured it by fitting a larger control brush in a suitably modified holder. Even so, wear on this brush seems excessive, in spite of a perfect commutator and a very moderate spring pressure. I only hope it will not develop further snags in the future.

I have modified my clutch by drilling some radial holes in the periphery of the flywheel to let the dust be thrown out, and also by fitting a back-plate which gives toggle operation, and six springs instead of four. I have also got Raybestos linings instead of Ferodo. The centreplate had many high-spots, which were glass hard and not fileable, so I had to rub them down individually with a hand oil stone, a very tedious process. However, it all works very nicely, and I have had no sign of slip in 1,500 miles, but time will show, and I’m just keeping my fingers crossed. The pedal pressure is quite absurdly light. Most people at some time have tried fitting eight instead of four clutch springs to try to cure slip, but in my experience all it does is to make the pedal pressure very heavy and not cure the slip.

The rocker and tappet gear on these cars is always noisy, but it can be quietened by attention to the pins and rollers which bear on the camshaft, and most markedly by increasing the oil supply to the valve gear by grinding grooves in the cup-shaped ends of the rockers to allow oil to pour down the pushrods and lubricate the tappet gear beneath. This modification is well worth while.

I have managed to acquire a close-ratio gearbox off a 1927 D.I. which has vastly improved the general performance. It is very quiet on all gears and the change is instantaneous, and it gives a completely different feel to the car when full use is made of it. The acceleration above 30 m.p.h. is now very creditable. It is quite common to find that the oil from the back axle winds itself up the torque tube and out on the floor at the universal joint at the front end. I have never quite been able to cure this, in spite of fitting a full-diameter thrower plate between the pinion and its first ball race.

My first experience of Delages was when a fellow medical student at Bart’s Hospital announced that he had found an old Delage in a garage in Somerset and had bought it for £10, with a big-end gone. It proved to be a 1925 D.I.S., and we soon fitted a new bearing and started motoring. I was very impressed, and immediately set about finding myself one. I eventually found my present D.I.S.S., and bought it promptly, since when I have had experience of many of the breed. My friend with the D.I.S. soon exchanged it for a very clean 1927 D.I.S. 4-seater, which we proceeded to overhaul before taking it on a Continental tour. We didn’t find much wrong with it (bar clutch slip!), so we relined the clutch and fitted a new centre plate, and drove off four up and luggage.

We went up most of the well-known passes in Switzerland and the Tyrol, including the “Grossglockner,” and eventually got to Budapest, where we turned round and came back through Germany, clocking “75” on one of the autobahnen. During the whole trip the clutch didn’t slip once and we had no mechanical trouble at all. Consumption averaged 21 m.p.g.

Later this car was sold to another friend of mine who lives close by, and he rebuilt it like new and had much pleasant motoring out of it. In a moment of aberration, some year or so ago, he sold it, but has now been so overcome with remorse that he has acquired another 1927 D.I.S. chassis, for which we have to find a body and do much hard work before it will be motoring again. At present it reposes in our workshop stripped very naked, undergoing chassis overhaul, but I think it will turn out to be a good ‘un, because I knew it before the war when Terry Breen was running it.

Another of my friends recently bought a D.I.S.S. fitted with a French saloon body. It is a magnificent chassis, but the body was coming apart, so while he was on leave we spent a week patching up and re-spraying, and it is now a very fine carriage, with one of the smoothest, quietest engines I have come across. What is more, the clutch does not slip. Why, I have no idea.

I have come across many other Delages in the past 11 years, and have generally found their owners most enthusiastic, but one and all have beefed about the clutch slip. I am beginning to think that the only real cure will prove to be the riveting of the linings to the centre plate, as in a Borg and Beck, and sacrificing some slight speed of gear change, but I’m still hoping my own conversion will do the trick. I can’t really tell for another 10,000 miles.

During the non-basic period, after my release from the R.A.F. in 1943, I spent the time rebuilding my own D.I.S.S., and have just installed a completely reconditioned engine, which has now only done 1,500 miles. I had the crank ground and the bearings relined with R.I.I., which will, I think, be a great improvement. It certainly motors very well, and is now only just nice and free. Performance is not up to a 3-litre Bentley, but it will cruise all day at 55-60 m.p.h. with much less roughness than one usually gets with a big old 4-cylinder. This, coupled with the excellent road qualities, makes it a very comfortable and untiring car to drive fast for long distances.

Maximum speed is about 74 m.p.h., and revolutions in top are 1,000 r.p.rn. at 24 m.p.h.; 0-50 takes 19 secs. Weight in road trim is 28 cwt.

There is a widespread belief that a D.I.S:S. is more potent than a D.I.S., probably because it has more S’s in its name, but in practice this is not so. There is no reason why it should be, because they are the same car in all essentials that have any bearing on performance, including weight and frontal area.

I have driven in company with three different D.I.S.s and have not been able to find the slightest variation in performance from my own car that was not accounted for by their respective mechanical conditions.

Since writing the above I have dismantled another 1927 D.I.S., and was shaken to find that the camshaft was noticeably different from a D.I.S.S. camshaft, the chief change being a much shorter dwell on the inlet valves. The exhaust cams seem similar, and the lift of both inlet and exhaust is unchanged. As the motor is not yet running, I cannot say if the performance is in any way affected, but will be interested to compare it with my D.I.S.S.

My previous remarks were based on experiences with another 1927 D.I.S., on which we changed the original camshaft for a D.I.S.S. one. They were identical, and there was no noticeable difference in performance after the change.

Of course, this meant abandoning the water pump, and going over to thermo-siphon, which entailed using a D.I.S.S. radiator with big header-tank, but it was worth it, as these engines seldom run hot, and the pump is nothing but a large nuisance, with its clattering drive when it is a bit worn.

To conclude, I only hope some more of these very endearing cars will come to light in the future, and that this article will help to arouse a little enthusiasm for what I feel is a most worthy vintage type.