Curbside Classic: 1949 Talbot-Lago T26 Record coupé surprofilé — the French “crème de la crème”

T26_Record_1949

 

When it debuted in 1946, the 170 hp Talbot-Lago T26 Record was alleged to be the most powerful car on offer. A couple years later, a short-wheelbase 190 hp Grand Sport was added, and its top speed of 200 kph (125 mph) made it the quickest production car in the world in the late ‘40s.

This T26 Record coupé surprofilé (streamlined coupé) came out of the Suresnes factory near Paris in 1949 with this Talbot-made body, one of four factory styles available.

A 1950 saloon found on e-Bay, for comparison

A 1950 factory saloon found on e-Bay, for comparison…

 

This was probably the best French GT of the times, with a pretty hard suspension, as befits a 65-year old sports car. The 4.5 litre six was the largest post-war French production engine, tied with the trouble-prone Delahaye 175/178.

Talbot’s clientele were pretty conservative folks who usually preferred the standard usine (factory) bodies, such as this coupé. These are very rare cars–around 500 were built from 1946 to 1955, fewer still with this specific body. The “streamlined” epithet indicates that the trunk is lowered, rounded out and integrated (sort of) in the overall design.

1949_T26_rear

The coupé surprofilé’s tail is mostly occupied by a large fuel tank and a massive spare tire, leaving barely enough space for a couple magnums of Bourgogne, a camembert and a wafer-thin mint.

T26_interior

Like many a Continental sports car of this era (Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Lancia, etc.), Talbots were always right-hand drive. This was allegedly to help the driver keep the car away from the curb.

Talbot-Lagos were equipped with the peculiar Wilson pre-selector gearbox. These sequential four-speed transmissions work by pressing the pedal after the gear is selected using the slim, spoon-like column-mounted lever on the right of the steering wheel.

A better photo of the T26 dash found on a Talbot forum

A better photo of the T26 dash found on a Talbot forum.

 

Wilson “self-changing” gearboxes were more commonly used in big cars, trucks and buses, especially BSA-Daimler products, as well as Armstrong-Siddeleys, pre-war Rileys and Maybachs. Talbot CEO Tony Lago was a former Wilson executive and collected royalties on each gearbox sold, so he naturally favored these, even for F1 cars. Though heavy and hot, the Wilson box was popular with drivers, who claimed it was useful in turns, as they could change gear by foot while keeping both hands on the steering wheel.

t26_motor

The T26 engine had two lateral camshafts (and OHV) and was available in various rates of tuning depending on the customer, but was essentially the same in all cars, from a limousine to a Le Mans racer. In this car, the power output was 170 hp (two carbs) @ 4200 rpm. The later T26 GSL (1953-55) had triple carbs, an alloy head and 210 hp. A thoroughbred engine if there ever was one, especially compared to Delahaye’s truck-derived 135 block.

The car’s conservative styling was mirrored by other European contemporaries (Lagonda, Mercedes-Benz, Alvis…) and suits it rather well. Indeed, when it was dropped in favor of a heavier, slab-sided design in 1951, factory-bodied saloon sales virtually stopped. Domestic prices for the T26 skyrocketed to over 3 million francs by 1955—very close, hefty import tax included, to a much better equipped and dependable Cadillac. And why even look at a Talbot when a Jaguar XK 140 can bring so much more oomph for half the money?

1949_T26_front

All factory T26 bodies were hand-made in the traditional sense, with an ash frame and steel and aluminium panels. This made the car unnecessarily heavy (over 1.5 tonnes) and thirsty. Around the top speed, these cars will need 40 litres of premium gas per 100 km (around 6 mpg).

A number of T26s were clad by various European coachbuilders, such as Figoni, Graber, Ghia, Pennock or Franay. In those days, it was still common to order a bare chassis from the factory (costing over 1 million francs in 1949) and then spend two to three times that amount again for a bespoke body. Some of the wildest, prettiest and weirdest custom-made designs of the ‘40s and ‘50s found their way on the T26 chassis.

1948_T26Saoutchik

Monsieur does not fancy a factory body? How about something a bit more flamboyant, such as zis T26 GS by Saoutchik?…

1950_T26 Record Chapron

…or perhaps zis more restrained T26 Record four-seater coupé by Henri Chapron, ze most successful of ze French coachbuilders…

1951_T26GS_Farina

…or maybe zis Grand Sport convertible bodied in 1951 by Stabilimenti Farina, if Monsieur prefers ze more modern Italian style?

In the end, Talbots were too old-fashioned, pricey, thirsty and heavy. In the ‘50s, Bugatti, Delahaye, Hotchkiss and Salmson all bit the dust one after the other, with Talbot-Lago barely holding out until 1960.

concurrentes1950-51

The Talbot T26’s domestic competition circa 1949-51, clockwise from top left: the 3 litre Delage D6, the 3.5 litre Hotchkiss 20/50, the 3.3 litre (straight 8) Bugatti 101 and the 4.5 litre Delahaye 175. Only the Hotchkiss was produced in more numbers than the T26 (about 600); fewer than ten Bugatti 101s were made. None of these were built after 1954.

French luxury car-makers were stuck in the ‘30s and never really made it past the artisan stage (unlike, say, Panhard). They were not competitive even in their home market and never managed to export the way Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz or Aston-Martin did.

24_IMAG1165

The Talbot-Lago T26 was a great car, one of the last heirs to a long tradition of French GTs. A long bygone era, as the very notion of a “French GT” is completely alien nowadays.