Great cars: The 20/80 hp Lorraine Dietrich

In those long ago pioneering days of motor racing, before the First World War, the De Dietrich cars from Luneville on the Seine-et-Oise had a long if rather undistinguished record of appearances, with a variety of racing cars. After peace had broken out, the French constructor specialised in good, sound but to our eyes somewhat stodgy cars. The company’s assets were considerable, for it had made railway locomotives, and after turning to automobiles had appointed the talented Marius Barbaroux as their designer and chief engineer. Nevertheless, it was something of a surprise when the old concern, which had been established as De Dietrich et Cie of Lorraine in 1897, returned to racing, under very different conditions from those which had prevailed in the grand old days of building 15-litre chain-drive giants for the 1912 French Grand Prix at Dieppe.

This was prompted by the introduction in 1923 of an ingenious race of 24 hours duration, the idea of the great French motoring journalist Charles Faroux, and George Durand, the scheme being to include racing through the night to sort out the cars’ lighting systems at this time of post-war automobile development. Finance was provided by Emile Coquille of Rudge Whitworth detachable wheel fame, who may have seen such a race as good publicity for such wheels as well as a trial of lighting systems. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest agreed to the project and got it off the ground, or on the road, that May, over the course of the 1921 French Grand Prix at Le Mans.

This race, the first of its kind on this scale in Europe, was bound to attract the French manufacturers, particularly as it had the incentive of a three-year contest, the races of 1923, 1924 and 1925 counting towards the Rudge Whitworth Triennial Cup. It was a marathon of distance rather than sheer speed, and developed into the most prestigious sports-racing event, right up to the very recent 1997 race. Among the 25 cars, fully road-equipped even to hoods, entered for the first Le Mans 24-hour race, of which the only ‘foreigners’ were one from Britain and one from Belgium, were three 3.4-litre La Lorraines, as the former De Dietrich and later Lorraine-Dietrich cars were then called; the ‘Dietrich’ part being too Germanic after the war.

To qualify for the Triennial trophy these and six others were required to average 34.35mph for the two rounds of the clock, pit-stops included. There was no set finishing order, and two of the Lorraines did all that was necessary, finishing at their set speed, but the third retired. In 1924 the Lorraines distinguished themselves by coming in second and third behind Duff’s winning Bentley, again with one retirement. The faster of the two covered 1280.89 miles, to the Bentley’s 1290.79.

In 1925 Lorraine won Le Mans outright, from a 3-litre twin-cam Sunbeam. For these achievements the drivers had been de Courcelles, Rossignol, Stalter, Brisson, Bloch, Saint Paul, Stolid l and Labouchere, the first pair the ’25 victors.

Inspired, a team of three was again entered for Le Mans in 1926. They came home 1,2,3, (shades of the Bentleys in 1929), Bloch/ Rossignol covering 1585.99 miles at 66.082mph and Mongin, sharing the second car with de Courcellcs. That seems to have satisfied the makers, except for the 1927 Paris-Nice trial in which Brisson won his class.

Barbaroux had produced a sporting version of the Type B5 20.9hp 75x130mm (3445cc) six-cylinder Lorraine, using exposed lightweight push-rods which permitted the engine to rev without the complication of the fixed-head and overhead camshaft of the Bentley the forerunner of the ‘knitting-needle’ push-rods which Georges Roesch used on the 14/45 and subsequent Talbot engines. Lorraine capitalised on this, introducing a Sports 3.5-litre by 1925, known here as the 20/70. It was handled by Eustace Watkins of New Bond Street, and sold for £775 when a 3-litre Bentley Speed Model cost £1125.

The sports Lorraine had a wheelbase 15in shorter than that of the touring models, had a 3.5 instead of a 3.9 axle-ratio, and wire wheels. It followed the Le Mans cars with Perrot front brakes, and in 1926 a twincarburettor high-compression engine with a 12-plug head, oil radiators on each side of the water radiator, four instead of five piston rings and larger valves gave the so-called `World’s Record’ 20/80 a top speed of nearly 90mph. It cost £870 with open body in 1927, the shortcoming of a threespeed gearbox was eventually eased, with a four-speed box and by then the slender push-rods had at last been enclosed. One reputable reporter said that of all the cars at Olympia the Lorraine had the lightest brakes and clutch, the latter able to be hilly withdrawn by pressing the pedal with one finger… I wonder?

So the Cross of Lorraine of former racing activities was again carried on the radiator of the post-war ‘Silken Six’ Lorraines. Although works cars were not run after 1926, these fine sports cars continued to appear from time to time at Le Mans, in the hands of private owners, Trebot/Balart being fourth in 1931, but Labric/Daniel retiring in 1933, Bemet/Porthault in 1934 and 1935. However, the famous Jean-Pierre Wimille had commenced his competitions career in 1931 with second-place in the Monte Carlo Rally in a used Lorraine-Dietrich sports saloon.

After the 1926 Le Mans triumph it was announced that the improved cars had been developed as a result of racing. The sports Lorraine Dietrich was guaranteed to do the kph equivalent of 89mph without using special fuel; it had a 22-gallon rear tank, an enlarged Autovac to suck from it, a chassis with very stiff side-members, and 30x5in tyres. At Olympia that year Eustice Watkins were showing current sports saloons on the fast 20/80hp chassis, which embodied many improvements additional to the more powerful engine, including 12-volt electrics.

It was all set-fair for this longstanding company, until new management decreed a change and called fir more staid side-valve cars. By 1935 it was over, so far as car production was concerned, either due to lack of demand for the changed models or because the growing call for aero-engines sent the Argenteuil Factory back to the line of business which it had pursued during the 1914/18 war years, with the 275hp V8 Type 8B, for instance. Aeroengines had been made during the profitable period of car output, notably the 1050hp 45-litre V12 ‘Eider’ of 1928, and Lorraine-Dietrich aero-engines were used on several successful long-distance records flights.1 prefer to remember the two Le Mans victories and the 20/80 sports car.