Veteran Edwardian Vintage, September 1985

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Fine French Vintage

When I was of schoolboy age the great Bentley successes at Le Mans naturally caught my imagination, interspersed with the second place by the twin-cam three-litre Sunbeam of Chassagne and Sammy Davis in 1925. Be there were other cars running at Le Mans at this time that much appealed to me. For example, there was the straight-eight four-litre Chenard-Walcker, which appeared in 1924. Admittedly it retired, hut then the fastest cars in a race often do this and this big French sports-car, in the hands of Lagache, who had Leonard as his co-driver, had made the quickest lap, at just over 69 mph, before, soon after dusk had fallen, it caught fire coming out of Pontlieue hairpin while the latter was driving and was left to burn out. But while it was running it had been a strong challenger of the duelling Lorraines and the winning Duff/Clement Bentley, leading until the disaster, after which a 3.2-litre Aries, another impressive French car, took over that position until it blew its head gasket just before midnight.

In fact, Chenard-Walcker were great Le Mans exponents and the more successful tries were their overhead-camshaft three-litre cars that were first and second, in 1923, and the very effective 1,100 cc tank-like Chenards which took the Biennial and Triennial Cups in 1925, which was what Le Mans was really about in those days. The firm also ran 1¾-litre and two-litre cars, but for me it was those aggressive four-litres that were the attraction. They were back again for the 1925 race, in the care of Lagache/Leonard and Pisard/Elgy, and although both retired, again Lagache made fastest lap, at 70.2 mph. Altogether, Chenard-Walcker entered a total of 15 cars for the Le Mans 24-hour marathon and won the Index of Performance in 1925 with one of the streamlined 1,100 cc cars, designed by M. Toute, who later went to Aries.

The 3.9-litre Chenards had cowled radiators for 1925 and a humped scuttle containing the extra water header-tank. The model had been shown for the first time at the 1923 Paris Salon and was, in effect, two of the two-litre engines used to form an in-line eight, the vertical drive for the overhead-camshaft being between the two cylinder blocks. The engine dimensions were 69.5 x 130 mm (3,945 cc) and the power output was given as 120 bhp and the top speed was said to be 100 mph. Two independent lighting sets were fitted and the back mudguards were hinged to the running boards at the forward end and attached at the rear by balls and sockets formed from the steering-gear of the small Chenard-Walcker, to try to obviate any breakage. The bodywork, of four-seater type, was of lightweight construction with a blue fabric covering and an undershield, which came in for some criticism, as not being of standard concept. On the cars of this make there were large drums on the front wheels but none at the rear, servo actuation being obtained from the drumtype transmission brake, on the Hallo’ system. (Front-wheel brakes were then in vogue and all my Meccano chassis had to have them, formed of one-inch pulley-wheels behind the road wheels!) In practice Leonard’s car struck a lorry while accelerating away from Pontlieue and was considerably crumpled, but able to run in the race. The specification of these 3.9 Chenard-Walckers included unit gearboxes and torque-tube transmission, which should have pleased Louis Coatalen! — see page 000.

In the race at Le Mans in 1925 Leonard was in third place behind the three-litre Sunbeam of Segrave and the three-litre Bentley of Kensington-Moir, Duffs high-geared Bentley losing ground while its hood was up. Then mysterious overheating assailed the Chenard-Walcker and it retired, the cause later being found to be a split water hose. This trouble also beset the other big Chenard and thermo-syphon cooling did not help. It was decided to run it at a crawl until it had covered the requisite distance for replenishment of the radiator, and it eventually retired on the morning of the second day. Nevertheless, I would dearly have liked one as my personal road car! But although it was listed in this country in 1925, I do not think a price was ever quoted.

One cannot overlook the very successful Marius Barbaroux-designed Lorraine-Dietrich Le Mans entries, run at first as La Lorraines. In 3.4-litre form they finished second and third behind the victorious three-litre Bentley in 1924, came home first and third, making a sandwich of the three-litre Sunbeam in 1925, and filled the first three places at Le Mans at record speed in 1926, the Bloch/Rossignol car averaging over 66 mph. In the 1925 race this make secured the Index of Performance award, and as late as 1931 one of the old 3.5-litre cars came home in fourth place. The Le Mans cars were short-wheelbase versions of the standard cars, using the six-cylinder 75 x 130 mm 13,438 cc) engines with those light “knitting-needle” push-rods that seem to have inspired Georges Roesch when he came to plan the 14/45 Talbot. These thin push-rods were exposed, but the rocker-gear was cased in. The French liked coil ignition and two near-vertical distributors were driven from the front of the crankshaft, being two plugs per cylinder. Oil coolers were incorporated on each side of the water radiator. Then there was that long-tailed three-litre Aries that so nearly snatched victory from the Benjafield/ Davis three-litre Bentley at Le Mans in 1927, after the dramatic White House crash, until the French car, driven by Laly and Chassagne, finally gave up with engine trouble with less than an hour to go, and after it had fought a ding-dung battle with the crippled Bentley. Great days! — W.B.