On to our second French Deadly Sin of the Third Kind and over to the glorious ‘50s we go! As we saw yesterday, Berliet was chiefly a truck-maker and their cars did have a rather solid and workmanlike quality to them. Today, we’ll see what happens when an aero engine company starts dabbling in sports cars.
The foundation of the Société des Moteurs Salmson takes us back to the late 19th Century. Émile Salmson, a gifted engineer, began manufacturing mechanical pumps in Billancourt, just west of Paris, in 1890. By 1910, Salmson had diversified their output to include a variety of motors, including radials for the fledgling aircraft industry. This lead to the creation of Salmson’s aircraft branch in 1913, whose size grew exponentially during the First World War, as the firm became a full-fledged aircraft maker. By 1919, like others in the aircraft game (BMW, Farman, Voisin, Armstrong Witworth, etc.), post-war turbulence led to a re-focus on four-wheeled land transport. This was the path chosen by Jean Heinrich, who had taken over the helm of the aircraft branch when Émile Salmson passed away in 1917, buying out the Salmson family’s shares and leaving them in control of the engine / pump side. The company’s 50,000 square meters of factory space were ideal for building car bodies and chassis on a relatively large scale. Salmson chiefly produced magnetos and machine-tools in 1919, but they needed a four-wheeled product.
The European car scene circa 1920 was still riddled with tiny and spindly light cars, variously called “cyclecar” or “voiturette,” which had been in vogue since the pre-war days. These were extremely simple in design, using chain or belt-drive and powered by 1-, 2- or 4-cyl. engines, usually below 1 litre in displacement. Dozens of makers proliferated throughout Europe, joined by a few established names such as Peugeot or Mathis (pictured). Cyclecars were easy and cheap to build and in high demand. It was partially due to the way cars were taxed back then: the normal French (and to an extent British and Italian) car tax did not apply to vehicles below a certain weight. In Britain, this was augmented by the three-wheel tax dodge, making for even more interesting and surprisingly long-lasting results, such as Morgan.
In 1919, the S.M.S execs, who had just established a British subsidiary for aero-engine manufacturing, took a look at the best cyclecars Britain could provide. They found the GN (Godfrey & Nash) 2-cyl. Cyclecar and bought the rights to the design, which hit the French market in late 1920 and was a hit, becoming Salmson’s bread-and-butter for five years.
In 1921, Salmson went for the top of the cyclecar heap by revealing an OHV 1-litre design in a better chassis, but Salmson’s engines supremo, Émile Petit, soon devised an even larger engine. It was a 1.3L 4-cyl. with dual overhead cams and hemi heads, suitable for a larger / proper car chassis. Racing was always encouraged by Salmson, as it provided excellent publicity. The 7HP (1 litre OHV) and 10HP (1.3 litre DOHC) carried Salmson through to the end of the cyclecar craze and beyond, as the French government closed the legal loophole in 1925. By then two or three important players had emerged and would adapt to these changes.
One was Amilcar, Salmson’s only real rival in terms of racing prestige and production numbers. Amilcar tried everything from 8-cyl. luxury to tiny 850cc city cars from 1928 to 1934 before settling on the Pégase, a pretty-looking 2-litre that unfortunately did not prevent its maker from being taken over by Hotchkiss in 1936. Under new management, Amilcar tried making a 1.2 litre FWD car designed by J. A. Grégoire called the Compound, which debuted in 1938 and never recovered from the war. Neither did the Amilcar marque, come to that. But Salmson were a bit more successful.
In 1929, Salmson launched a 6-cyl. 1.6 litre DOHC car that, unfortunately, did not set sales alight. They also premiered the S4, which had a reworked version of the 10HP’s 1.3 litre engine, more modern coachwork and a new grille. The car’s advanced engine and build quality were enough to make it a viable product, economic headwinds notwithstanding. Other mitigating factors included Salmson’s state-of-the-art in-house body shop, which helped keep quality to a set standard and prices lower than they otherwise might have been. Still, by the mid-‘30s, production was markedly lower than it had been in the ‘20s. The S4 C (8 CV) became the S4 D (9 CV) and finally S4 61, the engine growing to 1.7 litres (10 CV) by late 1938.
In late 1937, Salmson aimed high again with a larger 2.3 litre (13 CV) sister model, the S4 E – one of the hot cars of the late ‘30s. Though still adhering to the DOHC architecture, the engine was new, as was the chassis, with its sophisticated independent front suspension with torsion bars, hydraulic brakes and rack-and-pinion steering. This was about as advanced a French RWD chassis as one could get before the Second World War. The wheelbase was now up to 300 cm – 15 cm more than the 10 CV chassis, yet the S4 E kept the smaller car’s looks and body styles pretty much intact.
Let’s add an intriguing wrinkle to the story with a small piece about the British branch. Since the Great War, Salmson also had a British subsidiary, not illogically named “British Salmson,” that produced cars in the UK – some derived from the French branch’s S4, others with a home-grown 6-cyl. engine. The semi-independent British branch had a fair bit of success with their fuller range of cars, further augmented by importing a few French-made models. British Salmson were active until 1939, when car production stopped to focus entirely on aeronautics.
Salmson’s involvement with aircraft was terminated soon after 1945, both in Britain and France, and only the two French pre-war chassis returned to production. Their reputation was intact, though they had aged a bit. A modest facelift (especially an eye tuck) was performed on the S4 E in 1948, but this was nothing more than a temporary. The market was obviously eager for an exciting 4-cyl. sports saloon. It was going to be Salmson’s day soon – all signs were pointing to it: sales were going up, reaching over 1100 cars in 1950 – not a bad score for a specialist automaker in those days. This enabled and encouraged Salmson to accelerate their new car programme. Unlike its predecessors, the new generation saloon was given a name: Randonnée – French for “hike” or “trek.” A bizarrely pacific and pedestrian appellation…
One issue with this “4-cyl. sports saloon” thing was that it was so obvious that all the French automakers made a play for it. Although Salmson had a head start, what with having 25 years experience in DOHC hemi-headed engines and all that, others were keen to propose interesting alternatives. Talbot-Lago launched their 2.5 litre 4-cyl. Baby in 1949; Salmson produced the Randonnée in late 1950 and Hotchkiss launched the FWD Grégoire a year later. All three ended in tears, for all were fatally flawed cars. The Talbot’s unreliable engine was its curse. The Grégoire was financial suicide. So what went wrong over at Salmson?
The new Salmson was an attempt at modernization gone slightly askew. The 1942-48 Buick C-body fenders were an obvious source of inspiration. The basic centre section was barely changed from its separate-fendered predecessor: the 300 cm (118 inches) wheelbase and the overall dimensions of the car were identical to the S4 E, except the Randonnée’s extra 5 cm in height. At least, the rear trunk was now worthy of the name. Unfortunately, the body’s more contemporary flowing styling added quite a few kilos to an already heavy structure.
The new engine Salmson designed for the Randonnée was slightly smaller than the S4 E’s. Measuring in at 2218cc, it remained in the 13 CV tax band. Salmson managed to squeeze 70 hp out of the engine, which was still related to its distant S4 predecessor and retained its trademark DOHC, but now featured a completely new aluminium alloy block. Despite the 50 kg lighter engine, the Randonnée was over 100 kg heavier than its predecessor…
The Randonnée was supposed to be launched at the 1951 Paris Motor Show, held in October 1950, but the pre-production cars were not yet ready. The new alloy engine was, though – it was premiered on the last series of the old saloon, under the name S4 E72. The Randonnée’s launch therefore took place a few weeks later in the Bois de Boulogne, not far from the Salmson works. The two cars presented differed from one another in terms of trim – things were still getting settled, style-wise. By early 1951, the first production cars were hitting the Parisian pavement.
Salmson were continuously tinkering with the Randonnée’s engine, transmission and rear axle throughout 1951. Three distinct series were made (G72, G72 bis, G72 ter), but the gains were quite marginal – at most, the engine could provide 71 hp and the car’s top speed could exceed 140 kph, but not by much. Salmson’s cumulative sales for the three cars (S4 61, S4 E and Randonnée) they fielded in 1951 was only 811, including about 250 units of the new car. This was not nearly enough.
The October 1951 Paris Motor Show saw the introduction of the Randonnée two-door cabriolet for the 1952 model year. It was also the saloon’s first Salon appearance, having missed out the previous year’s edition. The S4 61, slightly modernized, was still on the stand, but the smaller Salmson’s days were numbered. The main problem, aside from its heaviness (in both the figurative and literal sense), was that the Randonnée was quite expensive. Salmson’s production methods, which essentially never changed since the ‘20s, were to blame.
By the early ’50s, rationing, poor quality fuel and metal, and the Pons Plan (which we will look into tomorrow) were a thing of the past, but the smaller French automakers, who often made big cars for export, were plagued by low profitability and increasingly high manufacturing costs, more so than in the other big car-making European countries. These structural issues partially explain how behind the times these highly specialized carmakers were, aesthetically and/or technically, compared to the series-made large cars and foreign competition. Let’s examine the Randonnée within the French context first. The table below paints a rather dreadful picture of the end of the Big French Car era; the avowedly agrarian 2.4 litre (14 CV) Renault Prairie has been purposefully omitted. Inflation was high in France at the time, so prices typically went up at least twice a year – at the beginning of the model year in October (Salon prices) and around March or April (Spring prices). The new Salmson’s launch price was FF 1,280,000 (spring 1951), but in a few months, it had increased dramatically. This was seen across the industry — 20-30% price jumps year-on-year were not abnormal, but it does mean we have to be precise about comparisons that factor in prices.
Bugatti? A sad joke. Hotchkiss and Talbot still made good cars – the two Artois and the T26 still sold well in 1950. But they had two big bombs to carry, too. Talbot’s Baby, interestingly now available with a 4-cyl. or a new 6-cyl. engine identical in displacement and output, was known to be somewhat unreliable. Plus Tony Lago imposed a new pontoon body (heavy in both senses, again) on his cars. This all took place after the company had gone into administration in April 1951, which spooked off most customers. Hotchkiss were losing money on every Grégoire made, despite having priced it way above where it should have been. Ford SAF were not doing too well either, despite having the only “domestic” V8 on offer. Exports markets didn’t embrace the Vedette, which was perhaps bigger than what many Europeans thought a Ford should be. Production targets were not being met; Henry Ford II and his whiz kids were now looking to get rid of this troublesome French branch, which had the temerity of presenting a luxury coupé without asking Dearborn for permission. Delahaye and Delage were literally zombified, regardless of Delahaye’s new 235, which was nothing more than a souped up 135 with a horizontal grille. Citroën remained with their evergreen 15-Six – unbeatable, uncomfortable and stuck, style-wise, in 1934.
The Randonnée fared no better than the others, unfortunately. Too expensive, too bloated and too déjà-vu, like most of the cars present, it failed to stick out in any significant way. In spite of its advanced engineering and quality workmanship, it was only too easy to lose the Salmon amongst a crowd of its peers. It didn’t take more than an extra fistful or two of French Francs to acquire, say, a Jaguar Mk VII or a mid-level 8-cyl. American car, even with the sizable import tax, than cost a Randonnée. But let’s compare apples to apples (regardless of price) and examine a selection of 2 to 2.5 litre European sports saloons made in 1952.
The well-heeled European customer would probably have found it hard to look twice at the Salmson, assuming he’d have seen one. Salmsons were well-known in the UK, but local competition was fierce, from the aristocratic Lagonda to the superb Riley RM. The Italians were proving to be quite adept at this type of car as well – Alfa’s old 6C was being superseded by the 1900 and Lancia’s Aurelia was a technological marvel. Though series-made, the Lancia’s quality and finish were well within Salmson’s level, but the price, in standard saloon form, was much lower. And Mercedes-Benz reared their W187 into the whole deal, stealing clients from everyone in neutral markets around the world.
Days after the October 1951 Paris Motor Show, several banks indicated they would refuse to extend Salmson’s credit line for another fiscal year. Salmson shareholders called for an emergency meeting and decided that the company was in need of new blood as well as fresh cash. Jean Heinrich, who had been at the helm since the early ‘20s, was pensioned off and one investor, Jacques Bernard, provided the collateral for new loans to be provided to the company. For now, the Randonnée carried on alone – a facelifted 10 CV saloon was prepared, but never shown, in late 1952.
Sales plummeted further in 1953, despite stringent measures to stabilize prices. But Salmson were not dead yet. Jacques Bernard decided to launch a new sports coupé, the 2300 S, which was now almost ready for prime time. The Randonnée’s alloy block was bored out to 2328cc and given a thorough high-performance makeover, which resulted in a 110 hp output – not something to be shy about. The chassis was chopped down to 268.5 cm, resulting in a much lighter car that could give Alfa and others a run for their money. An even shorter “Grand Sport” prototype was even made, but not followed through.
The Randonnée’s poor sales had atrophied the body-shop’s work to unsustainable levels and the new car had to be all-steel, which would have meant a complete reorganization. Salmson preferred to generate a bit of cash-flow selling some of their real estate instead. This meant the imminent death of the Salmson saloon. A few cars were sold into 1954, bringing total sales to around 500 chassis. This includes fourteen two-door cabriolets, about half-a-dozen coachbuilt specials and four G-80 experimental saloons.
Sourcing bodies now became Salmson’s main problem. At first, the 2300 S coupé was initially bodied by Esclassan, a second-tier coachbuilder that had made a few Salmson specials, but quality control issues and concerns about Esclassan’s viability led Salmson to switch body production to Henri Chapron by late 1954. Chapron modified the car’s roofline and introduced a convertible option, which shared the limelight with a freshly-repainted Motto-bodied spider that had just raced at Le Mans. At the January 1955 Brussels Motor Show, Salmson even showed a substantial-looking and rather handsome 2300 GT Chapron saloon, one of three prototypes made on Randonnée chassis mated with the coupé’s 110 hp engine.
The saloons had been ordered by Salmson’s new proprietor, Mathieu van Roggen, who also owned the last Belgian automaker, Impéria-Minerva. Unable to meet his creditors’ demands, Jacques Bernard had been forced to sign away his control of the company to a representative of van Roggen, who replaced him as head of Salmson in late 1954. In 1955-56, Minerva used Salmson’s Parisian factory to manufacture engines and parts for the license-built Land-Rovers that were then assembled in Antwerp.
The Salmson 2300 S had only one true domestic rival, the Talbot-Lago T14 LS 2.5 litre coupé (1955-57), but neither car made much of an impact. Talbot made fewer than 60 units in two years. For their part, Salmson made 142 cars in 1954 (including a few Randonnées); 82 in 1955 and only 11 in 1956. The Chapron body pushed prices north of the FF 2 million mark – substantial amounts of money for what was, after all, a 4-cyl. car.
Surprisingly, a brightly-coloured saloon was seen on Salmson’s Salon de l’Auto stand in October 1956. It was another lightweight Motto design, but built on a 300cm chassis – at last, the Randonnée’s successor? Nope, just the last in a series of false starts that had plagued Salmson since the beginning of the decade. These also included a completely new 1.5 litre DOHC engine in 1955 and some sort of deal or buyout from Renault, which never materialized. The saloon was sold to Salmson’s Parisian distributor; the last two cars, a 2300 S coupé and a convertible, came out of Chapron’s shop in February and March 1957. Minerva were coming apart at the seams by that point as well. Van Roggen was more or less swindled by local property developers, who demolished the factory and built housing illegally, which erupted into a massive scandal years later. Salmson’s original pump business, which was spun off from the S.M.S. after the First World War, is still active today.
The Randonnée was probably doomed from the start, but compared to Hotchkiss, Delahaye and others, it had a few features that could have turned it into Salmson’s savior. One was the engine – a brilliant and advanced design that could have used a bit more work, performance-wise. Another was Salmson’s reputation and workmanship. But the heavy and inelegant body was not up to the task, and Salmson’s continued reliance on outdated working methods ensured that profitability was virtually unattainable. The 2300 S coupé addressed some of these issues, but by then, it was too little, too late.
Hope you brought your appetite, because there’s a big dessert – Delahaye (and Delage) will be examined in the next and final piece of this trilogy. A demain !
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European Deadly Sins series