The Talbot T26 that Fangio raced at Le Mans — saved from a dusty Paris shed

Fangio drove this Talbot T26 at Le Mans in 1951. One of Anthony Lago's rugged racers, it was only slightly removed from his single-seaters and has battled with GP cars as well as sports cars since its resurrection 44 years ago.

Talbot T26

Remove those cycle-wings and you have yourself a grand prix racer. Long-time owner Richard Pilkington has made full use of this car's versatility

Charles Best

Like every car enthusiast, you have probably had the odd daydream about finding a valuable car covered in dust in a shed. A Le Mans car, say, perhaps with some famous driver history — maybe even someone as important as Juan Manuel Fangio.

Richard Pilkington doesn’t need to dream about that; it’s already happened to him.

When he spotted a battered wreck on a truck in a Paris workshop he didn’t know that Louis Rosier and Fangio had once hurled it down the Ligne Droit des Hunaudières. He only knew that it was the remains of a Talbot sportscar, a make he had become interested in through his father’s keenness for his Talbot-Lago Record.

Forty-four years later, its early history is well known, and has been expanded by the hundreds of races Richard has done in it. VSCC long-timers will know car and driver well — and the Totnes Motor Museum Richard and his ebullient wife Trisha set up. More recently, they have been organising their own events via TOPS, the exclusive club they run to give owners of thoroughbred cars a chance to exercise them.

That chance Paris encounter was the result of a spares hunt. In 1958, knowing he was driving to Le Mans, Richard’s father asked him to divert to Talbot’s works in Suresnes, Paris, to buy some gearbox spares for the Record. His arrival there caused some interest, as Richard was driving his recently acquired Alfa Romeo 1750GS. Before long Anthony Lago himself, the colourful temporary saviour of the troubled French make, came out to see why people were standing on the pavement, and Richard took the opportunity to ask what had happened to the Talbot grand prix cars. “Actually, there’s one nearby,” said Lago, and directed him to the nearby suburb of Puteaux and the garage of Georges Grignard.

From the archive

Here the eager car-lover found a single-seater Talbot grand prix car — which was for sale. But at an outrageous £1200, it was out of the young Pilkington’s reach. Disappointed, he was preparing to leave the back-street workshop when he saw some blue bodywork through a grubby window. On asking, “What’s that, Monsieur?” he was taken through to inspect the distressed remains of a Talbot sportscar. Grignard explained why it was sitting there gathering dust.

He had bought it from Louis Rosier, the privateer Talbot campaigner, in 1953 and entered it in the 12 Hours of Casablanca. Thanks to an inexperienced co-driver they ran out of fuel. Grignard then decided to enter it for the 1954 Le Mans, with Guy Mairesse as co-driver and, as a shakedown, the pair planned to contest the Coupe de Paris race at Montlhéry. Which is where it all went wrong. During a practice session, Mairesse found a little Renault stopped right on the racing line in a fast corner, and had to swerve. He went off at high speed through a line of concrete posts, killing a six-year-old boy and fatally injuring himself.

In this damaged state, the car had sat for the last four years as the legal aspects were sorted out. Now Grignard was ready to sell, but Pilkington had already stretched himself with his pre-war Alfa, and even this wreck was more than the £16 he had put aside to get himself and Alfa to Le Mans and back. It was lucky that Pilkington Snr was a Talbot enthusiast and could be persuaded that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…

Talbot T26 cockpit and exhaust

One famous owner — Louis Rosier bought car from works; dash was unaltered when body widened; front suspension as robust as six-cylinder motor

Charles Best

Back in Britain after Le Mans, with a deal done, Richard suddenly had a new problem. In the 1950s, importing a car to the UK was far from easy; a cash-strapped and war-ravaged economy wanted to sell its own cars, not buy someone else’s, however old and damaged. Trying to clear the way in advance was bound to get bogged down in paperwork, so Richard decided on the full-frontal approach: he would drive it back to England and bluff it out with Customs. Easy. Except that the body was torn and flapping, and the engine had been taken out and disassembled.

Grignard agreed to allow Pilkington to use his workshop, and to loan Claude, his racing mechanic. So the following Easter, Richard set off for Paris in his MGA “with a few tools and useful-looking hammers”. Claude had already begun the engine work, so Richard began on the battered body, cutting away the loose bits and folding the sharp edges back, adding some running lights at the front, replacing the punctured rad from Grignard’s spares, and “generally hammering things a bit straighter”.

This was not repair work by any stretch of the imagination; when the Talbot, its drivetrain now running remarkably well given its hibernation, finally bellowed out of the little garage, everything ahead of the cockpit was bent, the offside panels were missing, a wheel spun nakedly in the wind, and everything flapped. You’d think even the French police might have something to say, but no. With the MGA behind to collect anything that fell off, they plunged into the Paris traffic.

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After 80 rattling miles of cobbled pavé, the rear of the body began to detach itself, letting the doors flap open. A helpful carpenter produced some wood and wire with which the escaping panel was recaptured. “Now we had to jump over the wire across the door opening,” recalls Richard, “but it was only a little problem and soon forgotten.”

The next “little problem” to be overcome was the proprietor of the hotel at Abbeville, where a projecting gate-stop knocked the drain plug out of the gearbox. “He wasn’t pleased to have a gallon-and-a-half of hot oil dumped in his yard,” says Richard airily, “but we sorted it out. We had dinner, and next morning shaved a champagne cork to fit.”

That improvisation was sufficient to get them to Le Touquet, where they rumbled into the foldaway nose of a Silver City Bristol Freighter and flew home. Looking at the mobile wreck, the Customs officials charged only token duty.

Juan Manuel Fangio and Louis Rosier with Talbot T26 at Le Mans in 1951

Fangio and Rosier with the Talbot at Le Mans in 1951

AFP via Getty Images

At the time, Richard didn’t realise that his new sportscar had once worn a narrow cycle-winged body, so he repaired the existing body and began to use the spartan machine on the road between events. Not the easiest course; with a Wilson pre-selector gearbox and no clutch, it was a two-man deal to get rolling on a cold day, and a he-man deal to survive a long winter drive.

Gradually the car’s history became clear. Talbot earmarked it for Rosier to drive in the 1950 Le Mans, but didn’t finish it in time. Instead, Rosier won in another team car. By ’51, it was part of the team, slated for Rosier to drive at Le Mans with someone called Fangio. In the event the car failed them: the oil tank above the driver’s legs split, dumping its contents over Fangio’s lap. Much later, Richard spoke to the maestro about it.

“I could see by his pained expression that he remembered it very well.”

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Rosier, a wealthy privateer, bought 110057 after the race as a back-up to his grand prix Talbot. But international sportscar rules now changed to ban cycle-wings so, like the team, Rosier converted it to a full-width body. A Renault dealer by trade, he sometimes had special bodies made by Carrozzeria Motto in Turin, so it was to Italy he sent the car for new, smooth, all-enveloping coachwork.

Its next outing was another ‘grand prix’, however, as the 1952 Monaco GP ran to sportscar rules. Maurice Trintignant, a future two-time winner of the race, drove it — and retired. Eugène Chaboud gave it another outing, in the GP de Reims, its last under the Rosier equipe. Then in ’53, Louis sold it to Grignard, which is where we came in.

Pinning down the history made Richard realise something: by reverting to a cycle-winged body, he could do a Rosier and enter the car, stripped of wings and lights, in the grand prix class at VSCC events. (Which, in the early ’60s, was the only forum for such cars.) He recalled that underneath the Motto ‘barquette’ the layout was identical to the cycle-wingers, complete with pointed fuel tank in the tail, and when work began it turned out that Motto had not cut anything, merely welded outriggers onto the chassis for the full-width body. Undertray, flooring, dash, even the screw-holes on scuttle and chassis were still there, ready to accept a fresh set of panels. Talk about straight-forward; no wonder it was cheap. “Peels of Kingston did it for £54,” Richard remembers.

Talbot T26 engine

‘Cam covers’ disguise ERA-style high-camshaft pushrod design; 50mm Zeniths gulp fuel from huge LM tank; dainty shift for 4-speed pre-selector ‘box

Charles Best

It may seem bizarre that a post-war car could double for both sportscar and GP events, but the Talbot’s layout goes back to 1938, when Lago inserted a new, tough 4.5-litre straight-six into an offset chassis. Instead of the pilot having to straddle a propshaft, the engine, ‘box and final drive are all pushed to the left so the driver’s behind can drop down alongside, with rear semi-elliptics close up to the chassis rails to cut drag with a narrow body. The front rode on chunky top wishbones and a lower transverse leaf. A dedicated single-seater version put the engine central, with drop gears to move the propshaft well to the right, but had identical running-gear to the sports-racers, which could and did run both stripped in grands prix and cycle-winged with token second seat and side-mounted spare to give Talbot a robust long-distance challenger. From 1948 (when the cars became Talbot-Lagos) the T26 gained a new head with high camshafts producing 240bhp; a twin-plug head, as on this car, eventually pushed methanol GP versions to 280bhp.

So Richard’s ‘right-hand-drive single-seater’ has a true dual-purpose history, which is how he uses it. In the 40-plus years it’s been his, it has served him well. “I’ve done well over 200 races in it,” he says, “and it’s wonderful on the road, too. For the driver, anyway — the second seat is only a sop to the regulations.”

However, if anyone wants a lift, he has built up the Motto body with a new chassis and period running-gear, and then there’s always the Record saloon, which uses essentially the same mechanicals.

“It’s amazing that they built a competitive grand prix car on basically road-going parts,” he reflects. It’s equally unusual to find a motor-racing gem in a shed — but just occasionally dreams actually come true.