by “Baladeur”

A full and authentic biography of Ettore Bugatti still, I think it is generally admitted, remains to be written. Even less attempt, so far as I am aware, has been made to trace the career of that equally enigmatic Alsatian, sometime, I believe, Bugatti’s partner, Monsieur E. E. C. Mathis. One day, perhaps, when his Minicar, which was one of the sensations of the last Paris show, has swept the markets of the world, M. Mathis may be persuaded to imitate another of his partners, the late Mr. Henry Ford, and give us a French edition of “My Life and Work.” In the meantime, I am impatient, for I consider that I received a large part of my early training on a Mathis. The machine in question had a tiny 4-cylinder engine, a delightful 4-speed gearbox, and next best thing to no brakes. Gear-changing was the order of the day. Eventually I put it rather too enthusiastically up-wind in third, there was suddenly a most expensive noise from under the bonnet, and subsequent revolution of the starting-handle revealed the fact that the process had no effect on the position of the pistons. It was the first engine that I had good and properly “burst.” Small wonder, therefore, that I cannot wait for “Les Ouvrages de ma Vie.”

At the same time, the results of individual research are, it must be admitted, to say the most of it, sporadic. Alsace, be it remembered, was until 1919 in Germany, and one has only got to trot out the names of some German cars which took part in races before that date, such as Dixi, Dürkopp, Ehrhardt, Eisenach, Gaggenau, Hanzer, Loreley, N.A.G., Nesseldorf, Schaudel, to realise how obscure is their early history. Indeed without the list of starters in the Tourists’ Section of the 1901 Paris-Berlin race I should never have been able to trace back the story of our friend Mathis very far. But this list is of inestimable value, for all sorts of purposes. For example, Delaunay-Belleville, which I had always imagined to be two people, turns out to be only one — Monsieur P. Delaunay-Belleville was a starter on a 12-h.p. Panhard et Levassor. Again, the Gobron-Brillée opposed piston engine, in which I have taken an especial interest since one of them, with D. B. Tubbs at the controls, whirled me round the roads of Surrey last year, might, from the works of Mr. Worby Beaumont, who consistently refers to the Brillée motor, etc., be supposed to be the product solely of the latter part of the name. Once more, however, the list comes to the rescue with the clearest indication that Gobron also existed — and not only Monsieur Gobron, but Madame Gobron as well. “Prince d’Aremberg,” says a contemporary account, “and M. and Madame Gobron ran with alcohol.” All three finished, from which it may perhaps be fairly inferred, in spite of the fact that, by the time he got to Berlin, M. Gobron was apparently calling himself “Gobron Hutchinson,” that the alcohol was carried in the fuel tanks rather than the tonneau.

Finally, and we are about to resume the theme of the argument, De Dietrich also was a real person, for, of the 10 h.p. De Dietrichs, one was driven by the Baron. E. De Dietrich — and one by Monsieur E. Mathis. Now the De Dietrich company was founded in Alsace as a firm of ironmasters as long ago as 1769 — and I believe that some of their foundries there had been in existence for a century or more before that. Then in 1869, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, it had prudently removed itself to Luneville in Lorraine, so that at the end of the century it was still comfortably making rolling stock in France for the French railways. The Baron De Dietrich, however, was not the only member of the nobility among its directorate, which also included Baron Adrien de Türckheim; and from the first, the latter was impressed by the possibilities of the new means of locomotion by road. The company, it would seem, let it be known that it was interested in acquiring the rights to a suitable design, and a design which he doubtless considered suitable was duly submitted in 1898 by the 17-year old Ettore Bugatti. In view of their subsequent association, it is perhaps permissible to guess that the introduction came through M. Mathis. In any case, the chrysalis-Bug, which had the engine at the back, was duly constructed, but apparently failed to take wing.

After this disappointment, De Dietrich abandoned budding genius in favour of experience. Over at le Mans Amédée Bollée, the son of the builder of road steamers, had just perfected his petrol car, and De Dietrich decided to acquire the licence to build it. This was the machine that before the Paris-Amsterdam-Paris race of 1898 had so terrified M. Bochet, consulting engineer to the prefet de police, that he had turned out half a squadron of hussars in an attempt, fortunately unsuccessful, to stop the race. All the same, it was a pretty alarming automobile. There was a horizontal engine situated, as in the proto-Bugatti, at the rear — a point which may or may not have commended it to the De Dietrich company — the driver sat behind a completely horizontal steering-wheel towards the bows of a high boat-shaped body, and transmission was by belt. In spite of its unconventional features, however, the design was not unsuccessful. The Barons De Türckheim and De Dietrich, with cars built under licence, both finished the Nice-Castellane-Nice race of 1899 in creditable style, while in the Tour de France later in the year, the Bollées were the only cars that could live with the Panhards. As time went on, however, it became increasingly obvious that belts were quite unsuited to the transmission of the power that could now be got from engines. The Amédée Bollée itself made its last racing appearance in 1900 and by the time of Paris-Berlin, the De Dietrich company’s policy was thoroughly confused. One model built for the race still had belt drive, but the other, while relying on fast and loose pulleys instead of a clutch, had chain final drive. In the Tourist Class, the company even ran a steamer, but they entrusted this particular machine not to M. Mathis but to M. Muth.

This would seem to have been the youthful Bugatti’s opportunity, but his second recorded design, although it had the engine at the front, was apparently no more successful than his first effort. Despairing of local talent, having failed in the West of France, De Dietrich at last turned to the South, where Turcat-Méry of Marseilles were ready to provide them with a design for the Paris-Madrid race of 1903, which was so successful that Charles Jarrott was able with it to capture third place in the big car class.

As for Mathis and Bugatti, they both disappear temporarily from history, and when they are again discovered, both have become manufacturers on their own account. The date, as far as Mathis and I are concerned, is 1907 and the occasion is the Kaiserpreis race held that year at Homburg. This race was for cars of up to 8 litres capacity, in order to exclude the heavy racing metal, and proved so popular that far more entries were received than could be accommodated on the course, seeing that it was a mere 73 miles round and that in those dusty days it was considered necessary to leave an interval of at least a minute between each starter. In consequence, it was found necessary to have a couple of Eliminating Races, which was unfortunate for Mathis, whose car finished the first of them — but was decisively eliminated. Indeed it only averaged 36.1 m.p.h. against Lancia’s 49.8 m.p.h. on the Fiat which was fastest in the heat. M. Mathis (Herr Mathis I suppose they called him at Homburg) drove his own car. In fact while le patron has never shown much ambition to shine in this particular sphere, Mathis was rather inclined in his earlier days to take the wheel himself. As a rule, as on this occasion, his was a lone entry, which suggests that the Mathis undertaking may not have been on a very big scale. Besides, his car was usually pretty slow, which made the services of a professional racing driver less necessary. However, it meant, in the Kaiserpreis, that the decision to hold Eliminating Races bore all the more heavily upon him. As to his car, it had a bore and stroke of 140 x 130 mm, which were the most popular and the most successful dimensions, and just kept within the 8-litre limit. Mathis, if he had done nothing else, had made his bow.

Within the next few years, the 8-litre style of engine seems to have been neglected in order to concentrate on the voiturette. On 25th June, 1911, Monsieur Mathis (insistent, no doubt, at Boulogne, on the “Monsieur”) made his first appearance in the Coupe de l’Auto race. Unfortunately, I have so far recovered no details of his racer and know nothing more about it than that it was apparently slow and apparently did not finish the race. The reporter’s lack of interest in the less successful cars in a race is chronically the historian’s despair. Indeed, I should not be entirely surprised to discover that poor M. Mathis really did finish, but that the timekeepers had by then lost interest and omitted to record the fact. In any case, a month later, on 23rd July, a car built by the other gentleman from Alsace, with one Ernest Friedrich, of whom more was to be heard later, to drive it, started, as I had occasion to remark in these columns recently, in the Grand Prix de France at le Mans, and, on this occasion certainly, the authorities opened the roads before it had had time to finish. Now this little Bugatti, although the capacity limit for voiturettes in the race was 3-litres, had a bore and stroke of 65 x 110 mm, which brought it within the 1,500 c.c. class; and at this same time Mathis was marketing a 10/16 h.p. model with an engine of the same dimensions. From which it may be fair to surmise that the 1911 Mathis and Bugatti “racers” had basically the same engine, although I doubt whether the former sported the overhead camshaft which Bugatti was about to make famous.

I should, however, hazard this guess with more confidence were it not for what happened in 1912. In that year the Grand Prix was run, on a free-for-all basis during two successive days at Dieppe, and it had combined with it the Coupe de l’Auto race for 3-litre cars. The situation was thus exactly similar to that ruling the year before in the case of the Grand Prix de France at le Mans. Now M. Mathis was obviously stung to emulation by the fact that Friedrich’s 6-cwt. Bugatti had been considered too light in 1911 to run in the light car class; but instead of entering one of his 1,500 c.c. cars for the 1912 Grand Prix, he decided upon the 16/20 h.p. model, with a bore and stroke of 70 x 120 mm (1,843 c.c.). So that is the one he may have used the year before. This machine weighed fully 10 cwt., but as the minimum required of the small cars was 15 3/4-cwt., all was well, and he was put down to race with the 200-h.p. 14-litre Fiats, instead of the 3-litre cars. A photograph of the Mathis betrays the standard model, in that the chassis is quite unnecessarily long. Otherwise it is not unlike the 1911 Bugatti, except that instead of the famous reversed 1/4-elliptics at the back, it has 3/4-elliptics.

This time, too (emulation again?) M. Mathis got someone else, in the shape of Esser, to drive the car; and this time the officials stuck to their job and timed it to a finish in 20 hours 18 minutes and 5 seconds, which was less than 6 1/2 hours more than Boillot’s time on the winning Peugeot and which beat the slowest Cote by several minutes.

Things did not go quite so well the next year at Amiens. The 1913 Grand Prix was run under a fuel consumption limit, so M. Mathis enlarged his car’s engine, by increasing the stroke to 140 mm, thus giving it a capacity of 2,154 c.c. According to the Autocar, “this was the first question M. Mathis put to the Chevalier de Knyff, on driving his car into the enclosure. ‘Can you tell me how long the course will be open for to-morrow?’ ” History, unfortunately, does not record the Chevalier’s reply. But it seems doubtful whether even 20 hours would have been sufficient for M. Mathis’ purpose. Esser again drove the car in the race, but there is no indication that the thing was done on an unduly lavish scale. Describing the pits, our contemporary remarked that “Mathis was somewhat empty.” Esser, perhaps, was not the sort of driver who required the luxuries of a depot. The Autocar’s reporter who watched the race from Démuin recorded that, “on the second appearance the little Mathis pulled up on the grass and did some adjustments to the carburetter, but soon got off again . . .” However, fuel consumption races are tricky things and shortly afterwards it was reported that, “the Mathis had stopped again for more carburetter attention, and this was almost its last appearance.” In fact, after doing the first lap faster than Bablot’s Delage, which finally finished second, the Mathis was officially posted as retired on the ninth.

If M. Mathis was baulked of giving a reliability demonstration in the Grand Prix proper, however, there was this year a special race in which his products could show their paces. The next day, in fact, over a shortened edition of the Amiens course, was run the Junior Grand Prix for 1,100 c.c. cars, which was triumphantly won by a Morgan. Next came a Bedelia, with an air-cooled engine and belt drive, followed by a Violet-Bogey, with a single chain to the back axle and a string of other more or less ingenious cycle-cars. The Mathis, however, was quite different, being, in the words of the Autocar, “really a complete car in miniature, having a four-cylinder engine (58 x 100 mm) sliding three-speed gear and bevel-driven rear axle.” The direct ancestor, in fact, of that car that I so sadly maltreated! “The Mathis cars are well known in England,” added our contemporary, “and are in no way a cheap job, their constructors’ idea being to make them as well and solidly as their larger cars.” The “racer” was, in fact, clearly a slightly modified edition of the 9-h.p. “Babylette” model, which had a bore and stroke of 58 x 90 mm (952 c.c.), the increase in the stroke to 100 mm bringing the capacity up to 1,058 c.c., which was near enough to the limit for comfort. The price of the “Babylette” chassis was £160, which may have been a stiff one in 1913, but the complete car only cost £175, so that not much money, clearly, was wasted on the body.

Now the interesting feature about the “Babylette,” to my mind, is that its introduction coincided very nearly with that of the “Baby” Peugeot, which had an engine of 55 x 90 mm. bore and stroke (856 c.c.) and which, as recorded by a recent contributor to these columns, was designed by Bugatti. In this matter of the large car in miniature, both he and Mathis were clearly thinking along the same lines; and their thoughts were destined to have tremendous consequences after the interruption of the Kaiser war. In the meantime, the Peugeot appears to have been rather the more successful design, for at le Mans, where another “Junior” Grand Prix in August succeeded that at Amiens the month before, M. Mathis, driving himself, came home behind the team of three Baby Peugeots, with, presumably, rather smaller engines — and all of them were as usual beaten by the cycle-cars.

The Kaiser war came and went. Strasbourg moved out of Germany and into France, and in 1921, after a lapse of seven years, the Grand Prix was revived. The capacity limit was now 3-litres, and the smart thing to do was to use a straight-eight engine. M. Mathis duly entered a car, painted it blue instead of white, but was found on arrival at le Mans to be using a 4-cylinder engine of 1,500 c.c.!

At about the same time, it will be remembered, the other gentleman from Alsace was making something of a name for himself with a similar size of car at Brescia. At le Mans, M. Mathis, put on a pair of goggles; treated any other form of headgear with contempt, and drove his car himself. Perhaps those, too, were times of post-war austerity. I am sorry to say, however, that his little racer, which was rather a business-like looking machine, with a huge outside exhaust pipe and front-wheel brakes, did not last very long, but retired on the sixth lap.

Having, moreover, been brought up rather sharply lately by correspondents who have tripped me up with regard to the designers of Edwardian Fiats, the technicalities of automatic inlet valves at high engine speeds and sundry other matters, I think it best to disclaim any intimate knowledge of the 1921 Grand Prix Mathis. Instead I will content myself with noting certain points which faintly illumine my ignorance. No very significant appearance, as far as I am aware, was made by Mathis in the racing events of 1922. In 1923 and again in 1924, however, teams of cars from Strasbourg walked off with the 2-seater class of the Touring Grand Prix, and on both occasions it was stated that a “small 4-cylinder engine with an over head camshaft” was used. By 1925 Mathis was making a straight-eight, with a shaft-driven overhead camshaft and a bore and stroke of 60 x 76 mm (1,720 c.c.) — a sort of short stroke edition, in fact, of the Type 30, 60 x 88 mm, 2-litre Bugatti. And for the 1925 Grand Prix, run under the 2-litre rule, M. Mathis, in his usual style, entered a single car. When this materialised, however, it proved to be not the straight-eight, but one of the same cars which were entered in the Touring Grand Prix and which had 4-cylinder, 1,500 c.c. engines, their dimensions being 69 x 100 mm. Very cautiously, I suggest that this was the, engine which had been used before, not only in 1924 and 1923, but even in 1921. Moreover, although in 1925 at any rate, this engine’s overhead camshaft was driven by chains, I may perhaps be permitted to remark that since 1923 69 x 100 mm had been the dimensions of the Type 22 Bugatti, which before that date had had a bore and stroke of 68 x 100 mm, the same dimensions, that is, as the experimental straight-eight 3-litre Bugatti engine of 1913. From all of which let whom draw what conclusions he may.

In any case, for us that is nearly the end of the story. Bugatti might go on with his racing, Mathis was becoming more interested in big business. In 1920, it was reported that he had done a deal with General Motors, in 1930 that Mathis cars were being made in America. But the engagement with General Motors seems to have been broken off to make way for an even more remarkable marriage. In 1934 Mathis cars appeared for the last time — until last year — at the Paris Salon; and in the autumn of 1934 the wedding of the Société Mathis with the French Ford company which heralded the birth of the Matford was announced. I believe there was something in the nature of a divorce in 1941; but then, of course, I am not supposed to know what happened in France in 1941.