The supercar that Wimille designed

Jean-Pierre Wimille was the finest racing driver of the late ’40s, but as early as 1943 in wartime France he’d conceived a lightweight, streamlined ‘supercar’. It was to be rear-engined with a 1500cc 120-deg V6 driving via a four-speed Cotal electro-magnetic gearbox. At the 1946 Paris Salon, the prototype JPW appeared with 54bhp Citroën engine amidships, central driving position and three seats in arrowhead formation – preceding McLaren’s F1 by over 30 years.

In 1947 Wimille won backing from Maurice Dollfus, MD of Ford France. They signed a contract in February ’48, establishing a Voitures Speciales division rather like Ford Advanced Vehicles. The aim was to redesign the JPW around cheap Ford parts. Philippe Charbonneaux restyled the body, Ford Vedette 2158cc V8, front suspension and brakes were adopted, but the Cotal ’box retained. Two long-wheelbase prototypes were built as the new ‘Wimille’ was launched at the 1948 Paris Salon. But in January 1949, Wimille had to swerve his Gordini to avoid spectators on the Palermo Park circuit in Buenos Aires, and the French champion’s skull was fractured against a tree. His death deprived the car project of its best salesman. Ford-SAF pressed the team to adopt a conventional front-engined layout. Detroit shelved the project, but Dollfus allowed a new concern to adopt the Ford prototypes and rights. The Compagnie Parisienne d’Automobile planned a production run of 500 in 1950. But then Ford withdrew parts supply and access to its dealer network. Ultimately, one chassis was adapted by Turbomeca to carry its Artouste gas turbine engine on test, à la Rover JET 1, but the Wimille programme was over.

My pal Geoff Goddard hated anything French. At his funeral Canon Lionel Webber began his address by saying, “I was thinking of Geoff, reporting to St Peter at the Pearly Gates, who asks him his profession. ‘Motor racing photographer,’ says Geoff. ‘You’ll like it here then,’ says St Peter. ‘But there’s good and bad news. The good news is God’s a great racing driver. The bad news is his name’s Jean-Pierre Wimille!’” Funerals are seldom fun, but this brought the house down.