The particular theme for the Prescott Hill Climb event on Sun 24th May 2015 was “La vie en bleu” – a celebration of all things French.
This provided a welcome focus on French car marques with representatives from Alpine Renault, Amilcar, Berliet, Citroen, Darracq, De Dion Bouton, Delage, Delahaye, Hotchkiss, Lorraine Dietrich, Matra, Renault and a whole range of other famous and some less famous French marques. The turn out of vintage French cars was particularly spectacular with some that I’d never heard of before.
Mixing the French contingent of cars amongst other cars competing on the day – made for a great spectacle.
La Vie En Bleu
La Vie En Bleu harks back to earliest days of motor racing in France when it was primarily an inter-nation rather than inter-marque competition in which the cars selected to represent their respective nations were colour coded – Blue for France, Green for Great Britain, Red for Italy and White for Germany.
Myth has it that during the ’30s one particular Mercedes failed race scrutineering for being a couple of pounds overweight. Team manager Alfred Neubauer ordered the white paint to be stripped off to shed the necessary pounds and the resulting bare alloy bodywork started Germany’s colour code shift from White to Silver. This also marked the inception of Die Silber Pfeil – the legendary Silver Arrows.
Coming back to French cars however the variety at Prescott was phenomenal and included cars which went right back to the early days of the automobile. These cars demonstrated the phenomenal development that took place in France during the early part of the 20th century with representatives of some long lost marques, a number of evolutionary cul-de-sacs, and the marques that continue through to the present day.
Founded in 1921 by Joseph Lamy and Emile Akar in Paris – Amilcar initially produced cyclecars and voiturettes before moving on to the more powerful and sporty CC, C4, CGS (Grand Sport) and CGSS (Grand Sport Surbaisse) models and light touring M-type cars.
A number of beautifully preserved Amilcars turned up at Prescott with a number of them competing very effectively on the hill. My favourite was a Special fitted with a 12 Litre Hispano Suiza engine from a WW1 Spad fighter plane.
This lovely little cyclecar was manufactured by Bourbeau et Devaux Co. of Paris between 1910 and 1925. Unlike other cyclecars of the period – the Bedelia had the passenger and driver sitting in-line with the passenger ahead of the driver presumably to act as a human crumple zone to protect the driver in the (un)likely event of an accident!
Powered by a V-twin motorcycle engine up front and with power transmission to the rear axle by means of a long belt drive system – the car offered 2 speeds which were selected by simply by swapping the belt to different pulleys.
The rest of the engineering was equally weird and included single coil spring front suspension, “cable & bobbin” steering and a hand operated lever to allow the driver to slacken the drive belt enough for the passenger to move it onto alternative pulleys using a different lever. Not sure what happened if the driver didn’t have a willing passenger.
Berliet was founded in 1899 by Marius Berliet from which time the company manufactured cars, buses and trucks up until its takeover by Citroen in 1967 before being onward sold onto Renault in1974.
Prior to WWI – Berliet produced a range of cars powered by 4 and 6 cylinder engines delivering between 8 and 60 HP. Immediately following the war – the number of car models was rationalised down to just one – the VB before it again expanded throughout the ’20s culminating in the CV range of 4 and 6 cylinder cars of 1.5 Litre to 4 Litre capacity. Car production ceased in 1939 when the company opted to focus purely on building trucks and buses.
The car featured here is an incredibly well constructed Special created by mating a 1907 Berliet chassis with a 1916 Curtis OX-5 100 bhp aero engine from a WW1 aircraft.
See Bugatti’s Galore in the earlier Prescott Hill Climb Post.
Founded in 1919 by Andre-Gustave Citroen this company pioneered mass produced car manufacture in France and within just 8 years it established itself as Europe’s biggest car manufacturer.
Citroen has always been renowned for its innovative engineering and occasionally weird styling and has produced some ground breaking cars.
Andre Citroen’s Traction Avant introduced the world to unitary construction and front wheel drive. Unfortunately the rapid and costly development led to Citroen filing for bankruptcy in 1934 and Andre Citroen sadly died the following year. With Michelin as the principal shareholders – the company survived and went from strength to strength.
The humble 2CV was no less innovative in bringing simple, light, adaptable and easy to maintain cars to the French masses. It’s legendary ability to drive over fields without completely wrecking its suspension, concussing occupants or destroying its payload made it a firm favourite with French farmers!!! It’s nice to see racers also stretching the 2CV’s capabilities – although in one instance with an 1100cc BMW motorcycle engine up-front instead of the the more staid Citroen original.
The DS which celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year was another ground breaking design with its revolutionary hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension and from-another-planet styling. The DS also provided some wonderfully exotic variants in the form of the Henri Chapron Decapotable and the beautiful Maserati engined SM.
Using funds form the profitable sale of his Gladiator Bicycle company – Alexandre Darracq founded Automobiles Darracq S.A. in 1896 to manufacture motorcycles, voiturettes, cars and later buses, aircraft engines and munitions. Based in the Parisian suburb of Seresnes – the company established branches and partnerships in the UK, Spain, Italy and Germany. Some of these branches were eventually taken over by the respective in-country partners – most notably Sunbeam Talbot (later the Rootes Group) in the UK and Nicolo Romeo (who later founded Alfa Romeo) in Italy.
As I understand it – the wonderful 1905 Darracq 25.5 Litre 200hp Land Speed Record car competing at Prescott was restored from the incomplete remains of the original vehicle (i.e. the surviving bits of the chassis and the original engine) that ended up in the UK. Old photographs and some original technical drawings that were fortuitously unearthed enabled a number of missing or incomplete parts parts to be faithfully recreated in order to get this important piece of motor racing history up and running again.
The car set an initial Land Speed record of 108.699mph at Arles in 1905 driven by Victor Hemery. In 1906 the car was shipped to Florida where at Daytona Beach it was taken up to 115.3mph by Louis Chevrolet and then to 122.45mph by Victor Demogeot (Hemery’s mechanic) to take the “1906 King of Speed” title. As a side note – Hemery couldn’t compete as he’d been disqualified due to his bad tempered behaviour towards the officials!
It’s just incredible that this piece of motoring history has been restored to it’s former glory and even better that it is actively campaigned rather than being cosseted away as a dust gathering, static museum piece.
De Dion Bouton
De Dion Bouton was founded in Paris way back in 1881 by Count Albert De Dion, Georges Bouton and Charles Trepardoux. Initially producing steam powered vehicles including tricycles – the company later shifted its focus towards more conventional 4 wheeled cars.
Count De Dion actually won the 1894 Paris to Rouen race covering a distance of 80 miles in a steam powered vehicle but was disqualified on the grounds of “requiring a stoker as well as a driver to keep the car moving”. Victory was handed to the second place Peugot!
After their steam vehicle experiences the company took the important decision to exploit the petrol engines invented by Gottlieb Daimler in Germany but built under license in France by Emil Levassor (of Panhard et Levassor). De Dion Bouton gradually built up their own in-house development capability and by 1900 it was the biggest manufacturer of cars and engines in the world.
This lovely lovely De Dion Bouton survivor from 1905 was never going to set the track alight with its diminutive 950cc engine but it got to the top of the hill which is what it’s all about. Hats off to the owner for actively using and competing in a 110 year old car!
Founded by Lois Delage in 1905 in Levallois-Perret the company eventually became synonymous with a range of luxury and successful racing vehicles before their eventual take-over by Delahaye in 1935.
Their earliest cars were powered by single cylinder De Dion Bouton engines before moving onto 2 cylinders in 1907, 4 cylinders in 1909 and 6 cylinders by 1910. Early involvement in motor racing resulted in rapid development of the Delage models and they also built their own engines to replace previously used De Dion and Ballot units. Delage enjoyed race success in various European Grand Prix events and even won the Indianapolis 500 race in 1914.
After WWI – Delage up-sized their cars as they also moved up-market with their Michelat designed D-series cars. As the ’30s economic depression kicked-in however – Delage eventually succumbed to take-over by Delahaye in 1935.
No Delage cars were on the Precott hill the day I was there but a number of superb examples were to be found around the paddock in amongst their French bretheren.
The green car is a Delage D8 Drophead Coupe which competed in the 1997 Peking to Paris Rally finishing 45th overall and 8th in class with a time of 43 days, 20 hours and 36 minutes!
Established in 1894 by Emile Delahaye in Tours before eventually relocating to Paris – the company initially produced single and twin cylinder rear engined belt driven cars before accelerating development through active involvement in early car races. Due to declining health – Emile left the company in 1901 leaving his partners to continue at the helm but this led to a cessation of racing activities to focus on commercial vehicles after Emile’s death in 1906 before a welcome return to racing in the early 1930’s.
It was during this period that some great race cars and some wonderfully exotic road cars were created. The road cars benefitted from the attentions of the very best coach builders of the day including Figoni & Falaschi, Henri Chapron and Joseph Saoutchik.
Racing and rallying successes were achieved by 135 and 145 models during the 1930s with wins at the Monte Carlo Rally, the Paris-Nice Rally, Montlhery, Cork, Pau and Le Mans often against much more powerful German and Italian opposition.
Delahaye’s successful return to racing and their high profile luxury models helped improve business to the extent that they were able to buy their competitor Delage in 1935.
Increasing economic pressures after WWII however eventually led to the company being bought by Hotchkiss in 1954 and by 1956 all 3 brands in this conglomerate – Delahaye, Delage and Hotchkiss were gone.
The 135’s pictured below represent one of the prettiest and most effective models produced and successfully raced by Delahaye during the 1930’s. The superior fuel economy of these cars was a key factor in beating more powerful (but more thirsty) opposition.
Starting off as an arms manufacturer – this Paris based company manufactured cars between 1903 and 1955. Staring out building engine components used by other car makers such as Panhard et Levassor and De Dion Bouton they moved on to build their own engines and cars.
Some of the higher performance models were very successfully raced and Hotchkiss won the Monte Carlo Rally no less than 6 times between 1932 and 1950.
The 1932 Hotchkiss AM80 Sport pictured below was a handsome and imposing beast especially when being powered up the hill. It bears more than a passing resemblance to mighty Bentleys of the same period.
Lorraine Dietrich automobiles sprang out of the well established railway train manufacturer Societe Lorraine des Anciens Etablissments de Dietrich et Cie in 1896 initially using an Amedee Bollee car design.
The company quickly entered their cars into motorsport competition and they called upon then up-and-coming designers such as Ettore Bugatti to design and develop new engines and transmissions which enabled Lorraine Dietrich to move “up market” with a range of luxury cars. Along the way – the company subsumed other marques including Isotta Fraschini and Ariel Mors. Race success culminated in 2 back to back wins at Le Mans in 1925/26 but by 1928 the de Dietrich family decided to withdraw from the business leaving it to run-on under the Lorraine name until car production ceased in 1935.
This 1909 16.4 Litre monster was a real beauty both on and off the track having recently emerged from a meticulous 10 year restoration by its dedicated owner. His perseverance has resulted in an absolutely magnificent machine that’s a joy to behold.
Short for Mecanique-Aviation-Traction this company was as the full name suggests involved in the manufacture of a diverse range of products including of cars, bicycles, aeronautical components and armaments.
Owned by the Floirat family – it moved into car manufacture through the acquisition in 1960 of Automobiles Rene Bonnet (a manufacturer of fibre glass sports cars). The aeronautically named Missile and and mid-engined Djet models followed.
In terms of subsequent road cars – the Matra-Simca Bagheera and Murena models offered 3 seats i.e. the drivers seat and then 2 passenger seats across the width of the car as opposed to the McLaren F1 style with central drivers seat and 2 passenger either side and behind. The Matra Rancho was an early form of the now ubiquitously popular SUV.
In full-on motorsport mode – Matra Sports developed successful F1, F2 and F3 cars driven by such legends as Jacky Ickyx and Jackie Stewart.
The fabulous Matra V12 engine was also used by Shadow and Ligier F1 teams and in Matra’s very own MS670 Endurance Race cars which won Le Mans for 3 consecutive years in 1971, ’72 and ’73.
“Pic-Pic” as it was colloquially known was actually a Swiss manufacturer between 1906 and 1920 and then operating as Gnome et Rhone until 1924. For the purposes of this post I’m giving it honorary membership of “La vie en bleu” as the company was based in Geneva (i.e. the French speaking bit of Switzerland)!
Pic-Pic were drawn into car production by the request of brothers Charles & Frederic Defaux to build a 12 Litre straight-8 car they had designed. Monsieur Piccard was not impressed but Monsieur Pictet saw the potential of moving the company into full-blown automobile manufacture and this eventually led to them producing Hispano Suiza cars under license in Switzerland .
This particular Pic-Pic is a 9.062 Litre Sturtevant Aero Engined Special. It was beautifully prepared and had lovely features such as the the lovely Pic-Pic logo on the grill and on the cockpit floor, open engine valve gear and the most enormous rear chain drive.
Renault & Alpine Renault
Societe Renault Freres was founded in 1899 by Louis, Marcel and Fernand Renault. Initially producing voiturettes – they eventually started making their own cars powered by Renault’s own engines. This led to development of the AG1 model with it’s unmistakeable “coal scuttle” nose “and this car became the vehicle of choice for taxi drivers, the military etc.
Renault’s involvement in motorsport dates back to the earliest days of the automobile to the present day and this has aided rapid development of the breed. Their own race and rally teams plus their partnerships with specialised tuners (Amedee Gordini) and other car builders (Alpine and most recently Red Bull F1) have kept them at the forefront of of motorsport and this has enabled faster assimilation of new technologies into their road cars.
Alpine was originally an independent sportscar manufacturer founded in 1955 just across the English Channel in Dieppe by Jean Redele . His lightweight Alpines powered by rear mounted Renault engines enjoyed great racing and rallying success including a 1,2,3 finish at the Monte Carlo Rally in ’71 and in ’73 with their 1.6 Litre engined A110 model. This success persuaded Renault to buy Alpine in 1973.
Alpine was onward developed under Renault ownership to create the bigger and more powerful A310 GT and GTA models some of which enjoyed increased performance through the use of Turbochargers.
Founded by Emile Salmson in Paris in 1890 – this company manufactured compressors, pumps and aircraft engines. The company moved into car manufacture after the end of WWI by building British 2 cylinder GN cars under license from 1919 at their Billancourt factory.
They started building their own cars including miniature race cars powered by an Emil Petit designed twin cam 4 cylinder 1100cc engine and raced in the voiturette category. Salmson won the Voiturette race at Le Mans(which preceded the main race) in 1921. Development continued and by 1923 they managed to achieve a class win at the very 1st Le Mans 24 Hour Race.
Supercharging boosted the power of the diminutive Salmson engine further and Petit eventually replaced it with a Straight-8 1100cc engine in 1927. Sadly – Salmson were eclipsed in competition by other up and coming French manufactures such as Amilcar. Car production came to a halt in 1957 when they were taken over by Renault.
No Salmson cars were competing at Prescott on the day I was there but I managed to spot a couple of lovely examples parked in the paddock.
This company was founded by the racing driver Robert Senechal in 1921 in Courbevoie initialy building cyclecars and later moving on to light cars and voiturettes before being taken over by Chenard & Walcker who had anyway been providing manufacturing resource and engines.
The cars produced were open 2 seaters powerd by a variety of engines including Ruby, Train, Chapuis Dornier and Chenard & Walcker. Senechal production ceased in 1929.
Derby dates back to 1921 when Bertrand Montet founded the company to build cyclecars and voiturettes utilising V-twin motorcycle engines sourced from the USA before moving to Chapuis Dornier motors.
The Vernon Derby (named after Vernon Balls – head of sales) came out in 1927 with 1.1 or 1.5 Litre 4 cylinder and even a 12HP 6 cylinder engine. Other models followed including an 18.5 Litre 6 cylinder and a 2 Litre V8. Derby’s were successfully raced by their owners during the late ’20s and early ’30s but the company finally ceased production in 1936.
Gabriel Voisin was originally famous for his aeronautical designs during the pioneering days of powered flight. He attracted the attention of a number of aircraft builders and was eventually commissioned by no less than Louis Bleriot to build the Bleriot II, III and IV aircraft.
Gabriel formed Voisin Freres with his brother Charles to build commercial aircraft. The death of Charles in a car crash and the outbreak of WWI saw the company change its name to Societe Anonyme des Aeroplanes G. Voisin and it also marked a change to the manufacture of military planes.
Disillusioned by the military use of his planes – Gabriel switched to manufacturing luxury cars. Avoins Voisin became regarded as the peak of automotive technical sophistication and luxury but the European economic downturn which led eventually to the outbreak of WWII brought about demise of Avions Voisin and many other luxury car builders.
French Racing Blue by David Venables. Published by Ian Allan Publishing . ISBN: 978-1-7110-3369-6
- Published in 2009 and with Project Editors: Robert Forsyth and Karl Ludvigsen – this book provides great historical insight into France as the birthplace of motor racing and the French cars involved throughout.
- It is well researched, well written and has some great accompanying photographs.
- It forms part of an excellent series covering the key European motorsport nations through accoBritish Racing Green, Italian Racing Red and German Racing Silver.