It’s been a while since our last European Deadly Sins series. And it so happens I’ve recently regained access to a few documents pertaining to the darker secrets of the automotive history of my birth country. So let’s grab a shovel, go to the French section of the Graveyard of Marques and examine today’s first corpse: Berliet.
Born and raised in Lyon, Marius Berliet started working in his father’s satin loom in the 1880s, but soon displayed a consuming passion for all types of mechanical achievements, building his first petrol engine in 1894 and his first car in 1895. The Berliet automobile company was founded in 1899 and quickly became one of France’s most important suppliers of all sizes of cars and trucks, the latter being especially renowned.
The cars were also widely recognized as well-designed and durable, leading to Berliet’s 1905 licensing deal with the American Locomotive Company (ALCO). In memory of this transaction, which provided him with the means to build a completely new factory, Marius Berliet decided his creations would bear a locomotive as a logo.
After the First World War, the skies darkened. From 1919, the sale of Army surplus pretty much killed the truck market for three years and forced Berliet into administration in 1923. Marius Berliet stayed on as technical director and managed to regain full control in 1929. Berliet’s new post-war car, the 1919 Type VB, was rushed to production before it was ready. It was the first Berliet to fail in the marketplace. The company nonetheless launched a large number of successful models during the ‘20s, most of them with 4-cyl. engines (all flatheads, but some going up to 4 litres), but also some 6-cyl. chassis.
The cars were back to being conservative and solid, but Berliet just couldn’t fight on even terms with the likes of Renault or Citroën when it came to sales volume. The Depression killed off the 6-cyl. Berliets in 1930 and the large 2.6 and 3.3 litre 4-cyl. cars by 1934, when the range was rationalized to two sister OHV 4-cyl. cars: the 1.6 litre 9CV and the 2-litre 11CV. In 1935, these were renamed “Dauphine.”
By this point in time, Berliet’s automobile branch had become a small outgrowth of the main business, which was trucks, buses and motorized trains. Berliet had invested in Diesel technology and developed a gazogene set-up (i.e. a wood- or coal-burning gas engine) for their vehicles, all of which was to be essential to the company’s future. The cars, though, were not really getting the company’s full attention.
The few concessions to modernity were the independent front suspension, which was apparently quite good for the time, an engine with overhead valves and a well-made 4-speed gearbox. But otherwise, it was all quite middle-of-the-road: mechanical brakes, dated styling, heavy chassis, wood body with steel panels, no phone, no pool, no pets. The Dauphines sold in decent numbers, for they were not very expensive and Berliet’s reputation for durability endowed even their dowdiest products with an aura of value for money.
The going was still pretty rough. The Depression triggered both nationalistic and left-wing unrest, culminating in the 1936 Popular Front government. Industry was badly affected by a slew of strikes, even as the government imposed a number of new laws favourable to labour. There were lockouts, pickets, confrontations and many old-style automakers were experiencing these events with anguish and anger. Ettore Bugatti retreated to Paris, leaving Molsheim to his son Jean. Louis Renault, a notoriously tough boss, rarely ventured outside of the lab and the design office after that date. Marius Berliet also felt betrayed by his staff and by the state. Though usually soft-spoken and cool-headed, he did not shirk from confrontation and kept seeing to any and all aspects of his flourishing business.
The truck and bus side of Berliet got a shot in the arm as, from 1937, France actively began rearming and Berliet’s products were high on the shopping list. Car production continued, but the manufacturer’s energies were obviously used elsewhere. The Dauphine was ageing noticeably. Marius Berliet wasn’t about to let his marque abandon the passenger car, though. He just needed time to focus on the issue.
And the main issue was body production. A perennial problem for small and mid-sized automakers was always the sourcing of car bodies. Either one got the car body made by a third party, by the automaker itself, or one just sold chassis. By the late ‘30s, fewer chassis-only options existed – especially at the 2-litre 4-cyl. end of the saloon market, but some still clang on. The Parisian carrossiers would often do a cheaper “demi-série” saloon with simplified trim in batches of several dozen bodies, sometimes shared across several marques. Berliet had clad their cars themselves up to that point, but the notion of an all-steel body was one that appealed to Marius Berliet. The durability of the body might now equal the engine and transmission. The only snag was the cost. And the lack of production space. And time – the old Dauphines were really starting to smell. So the obvious solution was to buy a body from someone else.
This left a few options. There was Chausson, the only independent industrial body-maker. They were mainly working with Matford at the time, and owned the Chenard-Walcker marque – direct competitors to Berliet… There was Citroën, who supplied bodies to Licorne and Delage (as well as 4-cyl. engines to over six different marques). Renault made all-steel bodies for their bigger cars now, even providing a few dozen bodies to Delahaye. Panhard also had a unibody, but it looked like a Panhard Dynamic and nothing else. For whatever reason, Marius Berliet eschewed all of the above and knocked on Peugeot’s door.
Peugeot duly obliged. From late 1937, the new Dauphine was getting created out of the Peugeot 402 6-light Berline body, the middle child of the Peugeot’s successful 402 family since 1935. Other models included the new-for-1938 short-wheelbase 402 B Légère (top left, basically a 302 body with a 402 hood and engine). There were also a two-door hardtop coupé, coupé découvrable and a roadster (middle left). There was also a LWB (330 cm) Familliale 9-seater limo (bottom left), Commerciale wagon and the legendary Éclipse coupé-cabriolet (bottom right). On top of that, the Pourtout-bodied Darl’Mat specials (middle right), freshly crowned at Le Mans, didn’t hurt the Peugeot’s image.
The 402 was a great choice. Berliet set his styling department on the Peugeot and they hesitated. It’s not an uncommon thing, especially in those days. A lot of cars were premiered one year ahead of their intended production date, and sometimes this meant important changes. As we can see from the above summer ’38 advert, the exact styling of the new Berliet was not set in stone until quite late.
But then neither was the rest of the ’39 range. This other summer 1938 advert shows a prototype “Super-Dauphine” (i.e. an old-style 1938 model, which were still available for 1939) with a grille that production cars never got. PR misfires aside, the aim was now to get a couple of the new Peugeot-bodied prototypes ready for the October 1938 Salon de l’Auto in Paris. New publicity material was also created with the (sort-of, but not quite) finalized look of the Dauphine 39.
Aside from its length, the chassis was barely changed from the previous generation 11CV Dauphines. There was no point in tampering with the Berliet reputation. Alas, that reputation also included expensive parts and a torquey but unenthusiastic engine struggling under too much bodywork. The Peugeot body was a great improvement in terms of look though.
The Dauphine 39’s successful rhinoplasty aside, were a lot of big 4-cyl. French saloons on offer at the 1939 Paris Motor Show. Berliet had to contend with dangerous rivals in the lower-price field, but if money was no object, one could get some pretty snazzy 2-litre cars in 1939, as we can see in the table below. Mechanical brakes? Well, that was still a thing, it seems. The all-steel body was a big plus, helping bring the price down to the Peugeot / Renault level. While Berliet were allied to the latter, the former (see 1939 range above) were a formidable juggernaut, making everything from railcars and airplanes to buses and a myriad of automobiles, from the small 1-litre Juvaquatre to gigantic straight-8 monsters and everything in between. The other mortal enemy was the Citroën Traction Avant – modern, extremely spacious and competitively priced, it just received an extra 8hp with the new “Perfo” engine.
But it wasn’t just the Big Trois. There were the Delahayes, Salmsons and Talbots of the world, too. Expensive, but an attractive second-hand proposition. A touch of style, more power – at a steep price. And Hotchkiss and Licorne, the in-betweeners, fielding a dozen variants of essentially the same car, perhaps in an effort to overwhelm the client’s discernment so he’ll buy the more expensive combination possible. And let’s not forget that the 1930s were cruel and cut-throat times. Two or three major French car marques died every year of that decade, and 1939 was no different. The pantheon of defunct automotive legends invited in a new member as the sun set on Voisin’s automobile branch. And although less of a legend and more of a footnote, Unic only had its mid-’38-made stock of U4 and U6 chassis to sell for the 1939 model year, opting to focus solely on trucks from then on.
It took a while for Dauphine 39 production to really kick off in earnest. Over the winter of 1938-39, the Berliet changed yet again, losing its interesting V-shaped bumpers in the process. Cost-cutting was a necessary evil prior to large-scale production, which didn’t start until February 1939. By April, the first production cars hit the dealerships. A bit late, it turned out…
About 200 Dauphine 39s had been sold by late June, when all private car sales were put on hold by Government edict. Soon after, the French Army called dibs on any and all new cars in stock, buying the lot. A few dozen Dauphine 39s became Army staff cars, along with the old generation Super-Dauphines that were left over. Production ground to a virtual halt after the Declaration of War in early September. There were still dozens of Peugeot bodies, 11CV engines and parts stocked around the factory. When the Germans arrived in Lyon mid-June 1940, they immediately requisition the twenty-odd Dauphine 39s that had been fully assembled in the previous ten months.
Marius Berliet and his sons Paul and Jean – like the majority of French businessmen – had to make do with the occupation, though Berliet’s factories were in the so-called “Zone libre” until late 1942. The main carrot Berliet could dangle were their trucks. This allowed the factories to be kept busy, the bank accounts full and options opened. Berliet were also an experienced player in the alternative fuel conversion market, which was the only growing automotive sector (along with EVs) in France in 1940-45.
Marius Berliet kept his eye on the inventory, though. In November 1943, he had a thousand of the above leaflet printed – the only period publicity material that features the production Dauphine’s actual looks. In mid-1944, Dauphine production slowly resumed. The cars were only available in blue or black; about fifty were made until early 1945 when, presumably, the body supply dried up.
Berliet sold many trucks to the Germans, though far fewer than the Big Trois and Ford had; from 1940 to 1944, 85% of French vehicles were bought by Germany. However, a lot of Citroën, Peugeot and Renault trucks were sabotaged (by the automakers themselves) before the Germans took delivery; Berliets always worked great. When Lyon was liberated in September 1944, the general pandemonium, coupled with long-standing political vendettas, enabled a group of so-called Resistance militias to take over control by force and turn the Lyon works into a “self-managed cooperative.” Marius Berliet, now 79 years old, put in jail — initially for his own safety. This was soon commuted to house arrest, as he and his sons awaited trial for economic collaboration with Germany.
The Berliets narrowly escaped Renault’s fate: in October 1944, at the Prison de la Santé in Paris, Louis Renault died after a series of beatings; his company had been confiscated, in January 1945 it was nationalized. This justifiably terrified other French automobile CEOs — more heads were going to roll. Ettore Bugatti and Simca’s Henri Pigozzi, being enemy (Italian) nationals, were deposed by court order. They both soon managed to regain control of their factories, though Bugatti died in 1946, as did his marque. Gabriel Voisin was expelled from his aircraft works, which were soon amalgamated into SNECMA; Voisin moved to Spain. Even at Delahaye, there were attempts to force the executives out. On the other hand, Ford SAF’s Maurice Dollfus, an enthusiastic collaborationist by some accounts and a gifted opportunist by others (Ford had built three times as many trucks for the Wehrmacht as Berliet), had Dearborn’s full backing and escaped unscathed. François Lehideux, Renault’s (mistrusted) son-in-law and head of the Vichy régime’s automotive regulating body – an unrepentant collaborationist – managed to slither his way into Dollfus’ job in 1950.
In June 1946, Marius Berliet and his sons Paul and Jean were sentenced to two years for economic collaboration and their possessions were confiscated. While the Berliets went through various appeal procedures, the State tried to buy back their shares in their company, which Marius Berliet categorically refused. The factories were back in operation and new truck lines were being designed, but the legal limbo surrounding Berliet in the late ’40s hampered things quite a bit. The State blinked first: the Berliets were handed back control of their factories in December 1949 – eight months after Marius Berliet’s demise. The last Berliet passenger car was assembled in 1945, but Berliet’s core truck business thrived throughout the ‘50s. Berliet trucks were crisscrossing Europe, the Middle-East, the Sahara and regions beyond on a daily basis.
Alas, being the number one independent truck maker only makes you that much more of a target for a voracious predator from the auto sector. In France in the ‘60s, that hungry hungry automaker was Citroën. So having almost fully digested Panhard, Citroën helped themselves to some Lyonnaise cuisine in 1967. Citroën’s truck branch was taken over by Renault in 1975 and amalgamated with Saviem in 1978 to create Renault Véhicules Industriels. In 1980, the Berliet name finally disappeared, though Paul Berliet (1918-2012) stayed on as one of Renault’s vice-presidents.
Was the Dauphine 39 a Deadly Sin? It has a shady wartime history. Don’t they all? The Traction, the 402, the Vivaquatre and all that lot. Yes, but the Berliet’s faux-American schnoz makes it look like an Anythingmobile, an unfinished prototype, a Tintin car. Of course, the focus on trucks, the war and Marius Berliet’s problems thereafter were the real “Deadly Sin.” The doomed Dauphine can be seen as a victim of circumstance – collateral damage, if you will. But somehow, having seen one of the few survivors in the metal, this car has something of a mysterious vibe to it, anonymous though it is. The decidedly odd fact that production resumed briefly in 1944 – at a time virtually no cars were being made – makes it even more suspicious. But not Deadly.
That’s it for our little tour of wartime France in the cursed Berliet Dauphine. Tomorrow, we will go up a notch in terms of luxury and fast forward to the ‘50s, as we consider the fate of Salmson.
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European Deadly Sins series