A visit to Cibie

The French home of powerful illumination

If readers were asked who produces more car lights than anybody else in Europe, ten to one they’d reply Lucas, or maybe Bosch. They’d be wrong. Number One in Europe in the car lighting business is the French company of Cibie. In 1975 alone, Cibie manufactured no less than nine million car lamps, one million motorcycle lamps and three million front and rear light clusters.

Unless they’re very bad or brilliantly good, most of us take lights for granted. But sit in a Lancia Stratos at 100 m.p.h. through a rally forest special stage at night behind the artificial daylight of six halogen lights, as I have, and lights take on rather more significance. And those Lancia lights, in common with those of practically all the quickest rally cars in Europe, apart from Datsun and Leyland, I think, are Cibie. There’s no question of nationalistic pride among the world’s teams; they must have the best and the best lights for rallying are Cibie.

“Mr. Cibie” in Britain is the fascinating Czechoslovakian-born Charles Meisl, Managing Director of Britover (Continental) Ltd., a firm founded in London by he and his father in 1938 and Cibie’s British concessionaires since the late ’50s. This energetic, multilingual, wartime radar operator/gunner in Wellingtons and Liberators, English teacher in the Czech Air Force, competitor with an HRG after the War, is nowadays a prolific author and raconteur when his hobby as one of Britain’s leading hot-air balloonists allows (he is President of the International Ballooning Committee). From 387/389 Chapter Road, London NW2 5NG, Britover’s original concentration on the replacement/ accessory market has expanded into original equipment since 1970 and Cibie lights are fitted as OE to some models of Leyland, Ford, Vauxhall and Chrysler, in addition to several commercial vehicles. Here too, under the direction of Nick Hewer, Britover fit lamps to customers’ cars for specialist purposes such as rallying and long-distance racing.

Earlier this year Cibie announced for sale a new concept in headlamps, the Z-beam. To celebrate, and to give Cibie’s general activities more exposure, the garrulous Meisl hauled a few of us to the company’s Paris headquarters at Bobigny and to the largest of the satellite manufacturing plants at Angers.

What promised to be a boring subject turned out to be fascinating, though the background to the Societe des Projecteurs Cibie, to give’ the company its proper title, held just as much interest. It was founded in 1919 by the remarkable Leon Cibie, who in 1913 had produced the first aircraft landing lamp in the world, in collaboration with Bleriot and Farman, using a propellor-driven generator controlled by his own design of voltage control. When Leon Cibie met his death at the age of 91 in a car crash on the way home from a Monte Carlo Rally reception, he still controlled the company he had founded and today control of this massive company remains with the Cibie family. The Chairman is Leon’s son Pierre, at 66 an amazingly modest, unassuming patriarch, an appearance which conceals the brain of one of the world’s foremost lighting engineers. His charming daughter MarieClaire did part of her engineering training with Joseph Lucas in Birmingham and is Cibies Director of Publicity and Public Relations; her husband is Director of Purchasing. The two have a Kawasaki 900 which they regularly blast down to the South of France. Pierre’s other daughter is married to the Director of Engineering Design. The family’s almost endearing lack of ostentation was exemplified by father and daughter driving themselves to lunch with us in Peugeot 104 and Autobianchi respectively. Their assets include factories in France at Vendome, Bobigny and Angers, with subsidiary units at Bagnolet and Langault, in Belgium at Hainaut and a 50 per cent or greater interest in companies manufacturing Cibie lights in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Tunisia and Australia. Additionally they have manufacturing licences in companies in Peru, Yugoslavia, Columbia and Australia.

Uniquely, Cibie-Projecteurs makes exclusively vehicle lights or associated equipment such as the automatic headlamp levelling equipment used on Lancia Betas. There is no diversification into ignition equipment or similar, though other companies in the Paris-Rheine Group of which Cibie is a member and Pierre Cibie is Chairman, deal with car and household electrical equipment.

At Bobigny we were given an effective demonstration of the new Cibie Bi-Oscar, a single auxiliary lamp incorporating both spot and fog, in an ingenious laboratory utilising tulle screens to simulate different densities of fog. Comparisons were made between individual pairs of a battery of lights attached to the front of a Dodge Monaco; the Bi-Oscar spots were slightly, inferior to the famous Super Oscar rally wear, but fog performance was superior to everything. Bi-Oscars are of course ideal for Group One rallying, with its two-only auxiliary lamp limitation.

At midnight we were dragged away from a gastronomic experience at Versailles to the chilly expanse of the nearby Guyancourt airfield for a demonstration of the Z-beam halogen headlamps. Conventional headlights use a V-shaped beam, horizontal towards the road centre, sloping upwards at 15 degrees towards the kerb. On motorways particularly this can lead to annoying, even dangerous mirror dazzle for cars being overtaken. The Z-beam eradicates this and dazzle on left-hand bends (in British terms) by employing two horizontal beams, the kerbside one higher than the other, but never higher than the height of the lamps, linked together by a third line at 45 degrees. The central limit, at 45 degrees, makes it possible to increase considerably the distance of the light projected in front of the vehicle, on the left-hand side. By contrast with the scientific, computerised methods used to achieve this breakthrough in glass and lens design, which we had seen earlier in the laboratories, the method of demonstration, which involved us driving a fleet of Renaults towards the Dodge Monaco or having it attack us from behind, seemed crude, but proved inarguably the Z-beam’s worth.

The Angers factory produces nothing but headlights at the rate of 12 to 15,000 per day from its 800 employees, 75 per cent of them women. Heading the list is the most sophisticated of Cibie’s headlamps, gratifyingly that for the Jaguar XJ-S. From here too come lights for Renault 20s, 30s and 5s, Citroen CX and GS, Volvo, Peugeot 504 and the Chrysler two-litre. Lenses are brought from another factory, while Angers constructs the rest from raw materials. There is a basic reflector shape to which various intermediary pieces are attached to accommodate the various glass shapes, an idea pioneered by Cibie. The reflectors are stamped from metal sheet, the intermediary pieces folded before being joined together. Subsequently the reflectors go through the rigours of automatic polishing, phosphating, and varnishing before the reflective surface is applied in a vacuum evaporator. The glass lenses are then sealed on to the reflectors by white-gloved ladies, who install the bulb holder. Optical and sealing tests are made on a large proportion of production. The lights are then boxed and stacked in the factory’s warehouse.

Headlamp development and production is a far-too complex thing to deal with here, encompassing such Tomorrow’s World-type equipment as laser beam checks for optical prisms. I was left a little bit dumbfounded by it all and with even more admiration for Cibie products than I have always had. Unfortunately we could not see the centre of the company’s competition activities, but a string of successes in events like the Monte Carlo Rally, the Safari and Le Mans speak for themselves.—C.R.