Building a reputation

The recent auctioning of the giant Metallurgique-Maybach, which was restored and campaigned by the late Douglas Fitzpatrick, makes this a good time to investigate this popular make. In doing so, I am endebted to Raymond K Wright, who many years ago supplied me with information about the earlier years of the company, his father Alfred having done much to introduce these cars to English motorists. It was in 1898 that the Belgian locomotive and rolling-stock manufacturer Societe Anonyme la Metallurgique, already well established in its field, first toyed with cars. These tentative operations occupied the division at La Sambre, but by 1900 an automobile plant had been opened at Marchienne-au-Point.

It produced 25 chassis, the start of a successful business which by 1907 was called L'Auto Metallurgique SA to distinguish it from the railway works. From 1903, ex-Daimler man Ernst Lehmann was responsible for engineering. A German side of the business came into being when Hans Aschoff, the Argentinian Consul at Aix-la-Chapelle, discovered the cars and formed Piedmont & Co with Adrian G Piedboeuf to sell them there. Lehmann had also obtained a British agency, but this he ceded to his friend Oscar Cüpper, also of Aix but living in England, who mined with Warwick Wright and Moore Brabazon (later Lord Brabazon of Tara) to form the well-known firm of Warwick Wright Ltd.

One very great advantage which Aschoff secured for Metallurgique, for Piedboeuf & Co and Warwick Wright Ltd, was the sales rights to the celebrated Vanden Flat of Brussels coachwork, although in 1905 Piedboeuf left to form his own company, which became Imperia Automobiles of Liege. ' In Germany, Aschoff continued on his own, achieving fame by driving a Met into second place behind a Benz in the 1907 Herkomer Cup. He operated as Deutsche Metallurgique Gesellschaft until he secured the right to manufacture the cars for the famous electrical engineer Sigmond Bergmann in 1909. Bergmann acquired 60% of the shares, Aschoff and his brother Otto holding the remainder.

They ran the sales division in Berlin, taking the cars made by the electrical company but also imported Belgian-made Wets. Sidney Smith, who had been the engineer in charge of S F Edges Napiers in England, became the companY, designer until the war killed it off. In England, Clipper opened premises to Canterbury Terrace in Maida Vale in 1906, adding a works at Lorne Gardens near Regent's Park and showrooms at 230 Shaftesbury Avenue the following year. Later he went in with Warwick Wright, who was selling Minervas from 110 High Street in Marylebone and Darracqs from his place in Oxford Street; Minervas were dropped in favour of Mess, and in 1911 Wright changed the name of his Marylebone firm to Metallurgique Ltd. The latter moved to 237 Regent Street in 1913, with a repair depot at a new building in Cricklewood; Wright's assistant was the brother of the actresses Zena and Phillis Dare, while Berrie Brown was in charge of the depot.

The Belgian company had taken on fresh capital from its German source in 1909. The high quality and excellent design of the Met (Belgian-made chassis were Type-MM, those from Germany Type-BM) earned it a very good reputation, featuring the Lehmann-patented expanding clutch and the added attraction of fine Vanden Plas carrosserie while the company held the British rights.

Cüpper was a great promoter of the make, endeavouring (unsuccessfully) to challenge Edge's Napiers in the series of Brooklands match races and racing in other British events; he even rivalled Edge's prolific letter-writing to the motoring Press, defending the make in every possible way. Brabazon (with Brown as his mechanic) and Wright ran in the 1908 Isle of Man TT, but failed to finish. The parent company did well in early touring car trials, ran 5.7-litre entries in the 1910 Prince Henry and Russian Trials, and built 8-litre Kaiserpreis racing cars.

Many models were offered during this period, the early two-cylinder cars giving way by 1907 to a wide variety of fours; like Henry Ford, Lehmann never made a six-cylinder engine, although Smith had one in hand when war stopped play. The range included the celebrated 5-litre 26/50, a 40hp and the big 60/80, all with four-speed gearboxes. The traditional sharply-pointed radiator was used first for the racing cars, but from 1908 for production models.

An endearing development was to offer lightly-tuned sporting versions of chassis Which were also available with less powerful engines, longer wheelbases and the heavier springs better suited to closed bodywork. Thus the 20/40 of 1913 had the same size engine (90mm x 140mm) as the 20/30, but a shorter wheelbase (10ft 43 3/4 in instead of 11 ft), lighter pistons and better breathing — a contemporary road test report described it as "full of life but still a comfortable engine to drive". This car climbed Edge Hill in second and first speed, but this did not stop Cüpper writing one of his letters, saying that second should have sufficed and that "it was entirely due to a slight mistake on the part of the gentleman who was then driving the car" (The Autocar's tester) that bottom gear was needed. He said the car had since got up Edge and Sunrising hills, four-up, in second, and Dashwood in third. He also firmly dispatched the owner who claimed his 20/40 Lancia "roared up Edge Hill in second or third gear with one passenger".

Under its directors Moore-Brabazon, Upper, Gaspard Berry, du Roy de Blicquy, Maurice Hermans, Oscar Loosens and chairman Ferdinand Germanes, and the ownership of many notables from the Maharaja of Couch Behar downwards, the Metallurgique gained a great reputation in those golden Edwardian days. Then came the war, with the Germans stripping the Belgian factory. But the plant had been re-equipped by 1919, and the Met was back at the London Motor Show by 1920. Two disc-wheeled revised pre-war models (a 2.6-litre and the 90mm x 140mm 3 1/2-litre) were shown by the new company of Metallurgique Cars (England) Ltd, of 19-21 Mortimer Street, London WI, whose directors were C Vanzandt and WA F Huff. For a time Brnasco looked after sales, with showrooms in Long Acre and the Beverley-Barnes works as a service depot. Front brakes, at first under Adéx patents, arrived from 1922, and the competitively-priced 2-litre 12/15 was current.

Then came a significant breakthrough, with the long-stroke four-cylinder 70mm x 128mm ohc 2-litre 12/40, designed by Paul Bastien for the Somea company and then taken over by Metallurgique when its rehashed pre-war cars were dropped. In later times the overhead camshaft was chain- instead of shaft-driven, the sharp prow (even more pronounced than Armstrong Siddeley's) was retained, and a reversion was made to Vanden Plas bodywork.

In 1927 Jack Olding Ltd of Pall Mall took over, selling the tourer for £550 and a saloon for £625. The latter was good for 54 mph; steering and springing were excellent, but the gear-change was awkward because the central lever went "round the corner" from second to third.

In 1928 the factory was taken over by Minerva, the machine tools going to Imperia, and Met production ceased. Olding turned to American agencies, the Cricklewood depot was acquired by S Smith & Sons, and Bernie Brown went to work for the Dudden Hill garage in northwest London.

A Warwick Wright Ltd thread runs through all this, for Brabazon had raced a Minerva at the first Brooklands meeting, the company was an agent for Darracq in the vintage years and later for Stutz, whose famous Vertical Eight was designed by Bastien after he left for the USA following financial disagreements with Somea, and in 1927 I saw a Stutz being raced at Brooklands by R Watney for Colonel Warwick Wright. The Metallurgique itself had been a very fine pre-war car which retained its quality and sturdiness into the vintage years. WB