This French Deadly Sins installment’s final case study will take us back to the late ‘40s and into the rarefied air of bespoke coachwork and high displacement 6-cyl. engines. In other words, bona fide classic car porn. But in between ogling some of the most luxuriously appointed post-war French cars ever made, we will also look into whatever happened to Delahaye (and Delage) and how the company dug itself into a hole in less than ten years, amid the post-war economic boom.
Émile Delahaye (1843-1905) founded his automobile firm in 1894 in his birth town of Tours. By 1898, the factory had moved from the banks of the Loire to those of the Seine. Mr Delahaye soon relinquished control of the company to a couple of his associates, who were brothers-in-law and kept the directorship of Delahaye within the family until the end. Throughout the first three decades of the 1900s, Delahaye produced relatively peaceful and conservative 4- and 6-cyl. chassis, clad with a variety of demi-série or bespoke coachwork. A successful truck branch was also developed. In 1928, an alliance was forged with Rosengart and Chenard-Walcker – the marques shared their sales networks, some technology and teamed up to get better prices for their bodies. There were talks of widening the Consortium to include Donnet, Laffly and Unic, but the whole thing fizzled out by about 1932.
Sales were in decline. Delahaye’s rather staid image, which had served them well for so long, was starting to become an issue rather than an asset. In 1933, Delahaye launched the 138 chassis, which used one of the company’s truck engines, a rather modern 3.2 litre OHV straight-6. The car’s short-wheelbase chassis was provided with a more potent 3.5 litre version, becoming the Type 135 in 1935 – a legend was born, propelling the hitherto discreet Delahaye marque into the A-list crowd. A long wheelbase Type 148 was soon created to accompany the 135. And some new blood found its way into the company: Delahaye bought out Delage in 1935.
When he started his automobile firm in 1905, Louis Delage was one of the most brilliant automotive engineers of the day. His cars were sophisticated, with a touch of luxury and racing pedigree. Export markets craved Delages and the business flourished, as did the marque’s racing successes. But the Depression killed exports dead and Delage found themselves with a plethoric range of 4-, 6- and 8-cyl. chassis that many still admired but few could now afford. Not unlike Bentley and Rolls-Royce, Delage came under Delahaye’s wing and, for a while, things remained as they were.
There were several cost-saving measures implemented. The smaller Delages adopted Delahaye engines and even tried on a Traction Avant body for size. The larger cars, which had been recently introduced, kept their sixes and eights and sold pretty well, though Delahaye chassis parts were increasingly being used. Delage had the larger, more expensive models of the Delahaye-Delage partnership – the opposite of the Rolls-Bentley situation. Not to be outdone, Delahaye introduced their first production V12, the Type 165. The war killed off this (imperfect) 4.5 litre supercar, but the notion of “bigger is better” was firmly engrained within the company’s top brass.
During the German occupation, plans were being drawn about a post-war automobile production programme, in relative collaboration with other members of the Groupement francais de l’automobile (GFA). In 1941, the Vichy government enacted a mid-‘30s plan to rationalize car and truck production, which was fragmented between around 50 different manufacturing entities. The answer was to group car and truck makers in groups of four or five, including one or two relatively large carmakers and two or three truck-makers. GFA was composed of Simca, Laffly, Delahaye, Bernard and Unic; UFA included Panhard, Somua, and Willème; Peugeot were grouped together with Hotchkiss, Latil and Saurer; Berliet were partnered with Isolbloc and Rochet-Schneider. In theory, each separate entity within each group would focus on one or two key auto and truck segments. The policy depended on the goodwill of the company boards and executives – no-one was forced to join up. Citroën and Renault were deemed large enough to be left alone.
Few manufacturers really took to the Groupement idea – except Delahaye, who proudly added “GFA” to their logo from 1945 onward. The system was continued into the early post-war era, dovetailed into the Pons Plan, which regimented the entire industry, imposed export quotas and controlled the allocation of raw materials. The truck sector was divvied up amongst the various Groupements and automakers were assigned one segment each: Simca and Panhard would do small cars (4-5 CV), Peugeot and Renault would have the mid-level 1500cc market, Citroën would continue their Traction (11-16 CV) and Delahaye, Talbot and Hotchkiss would do prestige cars for export. It was a bureaucratic disaster, as these things go: some firms, such as Licorne or Delaunay-Belleville, were simply left out and faced intractable difficulties in going back to production. The five-year plan, heavily criticized and ultimately ignored by some of the industry (especially Simca, Renault and Citroën), was rendered obsolete by the Marshall Plan in 1948. It did reduce the number of truck and automakers quite a bit, which was the purpose of the exercise, but it did so in a relatively brutal and arbitrary way.
After a period of unrest that followed the end of the war, Delahaye restarted production of the 6-cyl. 135 / 148 (and, albeit only for a short period, the 4-cyl. 134), unchanged from the 1939-40 models. The Delage range, however, was down to a single 6-cyl. model – Delage would now be one rung below Delahaye. The new D6 had a “Delahaye-Delage” engine, i.e. Delahaye’s 3.5 litre downsized to 3 litres, which had been in service since 1939, but the chassis was only finalized after the war. It was still somewhat different from a Delahaye chassis and featured hydraulic brakes, unlike the 135 / 148.
As to the prospect of a completely new chassis and engine, Delahaye chief engineer Jean François was determined to make a car that might appeal to the wider market (especially America), which called for a bold and novel approach, starting with the engine. The V12 solution had proven overly complex, so François reverted to a single or triple-carburated 4.5 litre straight six, capable of 140-160 hp mated to a 4-speed Cotal-Maag electromagnetic gearbox. It was a new engine block, created and produced at a time when raw materials were of appalling quality – something François had not foreseen…
The chassis was a heavy affair, especially since it would spawn two long-wheelbase variants. Type 175 used the finest components available, such as Houdaille shock absorbers and a Dubonnet front suspension. The most daring feature was the De Dion rear suspension, which was quite uncommon at the time. The untimely passing of François in late 1944 – having worked on the project since 1940 – meant that many of these features were finalized, assembled and tested by people who may have lacked his talent and/or experience. The head of production, Charles Wiffenbach (who had been there since 1906) was overwhelmed the lack of material and human resources as he tried launching a new Delahaye car, the new trucks and the Delage simultaneously. The trouble started at conception…
The car nevertheless debuted at the first post-war Paris Motor Show, held in October 1946. The public had been starved of cars for the last seven years and it was nearly impossible to buy anything new at the time anyway. The new Delahaye monster must have seemed like it came from another planet. Same for the Talbot-Lago T26 Record, also a 4.5 litre straight-6, launched at the same event. Most people would have been more interested in the new Renault 4 CV or the Panhard Dyna. Who could afford a Delahaye these days?
America, it was hoped. And a few crowned heads, popular artists and assorted plutocrats. That was pretty much it. Delahaye played to this clientele by switching the steering wheel to the left side – a major break with Grand Tourisme tradition: in the ‘40s and well into the ‘50s, Delage, Hotchkiss, Salmson and Talbot all kept to RHD. Another thing that changed for the better was Delahaye’s belated conversion to hydraulic brakes. But cables were still good enough for the 3.5 litre cars, for some reason.
So Delahaye-Delage’s range for five model years (1947 to 1951) looked like this: the 3-litre Delage D6 was the smallest displacement, but still provided 90 hp (all numbers are SAE gross, as per previous episodes). The D6 was available on normal or long wheelbase chassis; Autobineau demi-série saloons were the cheapest complete car Delahaye-Delage could provide. The triple-carb “Olympic” option added an extra 10 hp.
Next, the 3.5 litre Delahayes, carried over unchanged from the ‘30s. The short-wheelbase 135 was still a hot car to drive in the ‘40s. It remains Delahaye’s top seller. The long wheelbase 148 was no longer available and the medium-sized 148 L (Légère) remained. Chapron and Autobineau demi-série coachwork available for both chassis, though you’d never guess it from the artwork.
The 4.5 litre cars used the same tailors as their pre-war siblings, so they had identical wheelbases as well. The Type 175 shared the 135’s 295 cm span. This was potentially good enough for a 2+2 coupé or a 2/3-seater convertible.
The Type 178 had a 315 cm wheelbase, like the 148 L. This was the one to pick for a saloon or a four-seater convertible.
And then, there was the Type 180, which resuscitated the 333 cm pre-war extended-wheelbase 148 chassis. A Delage “D-180” limo version was mooted, but only one was made in 1946. These cars all look rather vague on Delahaye’s prospectuses. It’s hard to sell your product when you don’t fully control its finished appearance.
The 4.5 litre cars were all completely bespoke, unlike the 3.5 litre cars and the Delage. Two or three units of relatively similar appearance were made, if that. So most Delahaye brochures were purposely vague on the cars’ looks, preferring to highlight the impressive chassis specs. The above 1951 brochure, the last mentioning the 4.5 litre cars, made them look rather ridiculous. The person who drew this one was no Charbonneaux. But the designer’ involvement was deeper than mere catalogues and drawings.
Delahaye had hired Philippe Charbonneaux to design the 175 front clip that was seen as a guide for the finished product’s bespoke body styling. This was far more comprehensive than the 135 / 148 guidelines, which only (sort of) imposed the shape and looks of the radiator grille, but little else. This was further reinforced by Charbonneaux himself, who drew most of Delahaye’s ‘40s sales and publicity brochures, as well as magazine covers. Of course, as Delahaye only produced the chassis, the end result would depend of the client’s and the coachbuilder’s decisions, but the “Charbonneaux face” was usually adhered to on most 4.5 litre cars.
There were a few notable exceptions, such as this rather stunning 1949 Delahaye 175 cabriolet by Letourneur & Marchand, who later also used this design on the 135 chassis. Long thin grilles were gradually going out of style, as American (and to a lesser extent Italian) grilles went horizontal, filling in the large space that wider and lower pontoon bodies were offering out front and moving the headlamps, now fully integrated, to the top of the fender line. This shape works rather well, unlike some other period creations.
Not a few post-war French luxury cars were unsuccessful stabs, on the part of the Parisian coachbuilders, at the modern slab-sided style; the above are two egregious examples on Delahaye’s 4.5 litre chassis. The baroque and bulbous ‘30s and ‘40s were turning into the Italo-American ‘50s jet age, and most traditional carrossiers were not up to the task. They faltered and disappeared, with rare exceptions, in tandem with the French luxury car sector.
The final embers of the once-incandescent Parisian creations were still visible, on occasion. One issue the coachbuilders could not address was the size and weight of most prestige French chassis at the time. It was more of a challenge to make good-looking slab-sided cars with a high, long hood ‘30s-style chassis. And that chassis soon engendered a number of problems for everyone, especially its manufacturer.
The few 175 / 178 / 180 chassis made in 1947 were always coming back to the factory for major reparations and alterations. In early 1948, the car was finally homologated by the French authorities – yet few cars were running for very long, even in 1948-49. The rear suspension was a major culprit in these issues, as was the Dubonnet, which had never been tried on such a heavy car before. The Dubonnet shocks would leak, the rear half-shafts would seize and the engine drank huge amounts of oil. The first few 4.5 litre Delahayes were deemed unsafe, too thirsty and too fragile. This reputation was never properly addressed.
Delahaye sank an inordinate amount of time and treasure to address the 175’s many issues, but despite some improvements, the 4.5 litre chassis were poor sellers. Talbot were selling 200-300 of their 4.5 litre T26 per year in the late ‘40s. Delahaye, for their part, produced just over 100 chassis (Types 175, 178 and 180 combined) from 1947 to 1950.
Exports were made to the few places where Delahaye had a bit of a (good) reputation, including the French colonies in Africa and a few European clients. It did not help Delahaye’s reputation, nor did it generate many sales. The global consensus about Delahayes and most French Grand Tourisme efforts, by 1950, was: “Too expensive, too complicated, too foreign. I’ll get a Buick instead, thank you very much.”
Within France, few had the money and inclination to go for Delahaye’s bigger model. Those that did included the French Communist Party, then at the height of its popularity. The Secretary-General and his chums splurged on a pair of Chapron-bodied 180 armoured saloons (one pictured above) in 1949. These cost well over 3 million French Francs each, at a time when most politicians were content sitting in a FF 500,000 Citroën 15-Six, causing much derision in the non-Communist press. Who bought Delahayes? The Reds, not the Americans.
Those who dared taking their precious and fragile 175 to events like the Carrera Panamericana or the Monte-Carlo Rally were, understandably, few and far between. Strangely, even as the car was going out of production, rally driver Jean Trevoux bought three 175 S chassis in 1950 and sent them to Carrozzeria Motto in Turin. Motto could make his good-looking aluminium bodies quicker and cheaper than anyone in Paris, it seems. The Delahaye 175 achieved a brief moment of glory – alas, posthumously.
Some people did purchase the leftovers. The King of Siam bought a Chapron-bodied 178 saloon and 180 State limousine in 1951 – along with a 135 convertible and a couple of VLRs, for good measure. The precipitous and pretty much simultaneous downfall started in that year. Talbot-Lago went into administration in the spring, soon followed by Salmson. Bugatti stirred awake, laid an egg and went back to sleep. Hotchkiss had just shot themselves in the foot with the doomed Grégoire and the gangrene was setting in. At the October 1951 Paris Motor Show, Delahaye introduced their final new model, the Type 235.
The new Delahaye still had mechanical brakes. It was a barely updated version of the 135 MS, squeezing every HP out of a truck engine designed in the late ‘20s. The 135 / 148 were now over fifteen years old and looking quite stale. Production for these chassis ended around the time the above photo was taken. Delage carried on, but for how long?
They still had a few cards to play. When I say “they”, I don’t mean Delage, though. And I don’t mean racing was one of the cards, either. The D6 was a very slow seller after 1950 – coincidentally, also the last year Delage took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Post-war Delahaye and Delage racing cars were not very competitive anyways, being outclassed by Talbot-Lago and the Italians. D6 chassis production probably stopped by 1953. It is reckoned that about 330 chassis were made in eight years. (Delahaye incorporated Delage in their post-war chassis numbers, so it’s impossible to be more precise.)
It’s also fair to say late-model Delages were not the best-looking of the breed by far. The artistic license taken by this D6 saloon advert depicting the “standard” saloon (a cheap demi-série by Autobineau, a branch of Letourneur & Marchand) makes the car appear bouncy, almost cartoonish. In reality, these looked pretty awful, with their tall, thin grilles and adipose curves.
Let’s bear in mind that Delahaye still had a truck branch, which was doing relatively well until about 1951; the recently-launched 1-tonne “colonial” light truck / pick-up / station wagon (Type 171) was having moderate success, as was their post-war mainstay 5-tonne Type 163 truck chassis; Delahaye also managed to convince the French Army to purchase about 9000 units their home-grown 4×4, the VLR, in 1951-52. But additional orders were cancelled in 1953, even as Hotchkiss’s far superior (and affordable) license-built Jeeps started coming off the line. This left Delahaye with virtually no options.
After having reached the dizzying heights of 573 automobile chassis made in 1948, output sank below the three-digit mark for Delahaye-Delage after 1950. Hotchkiss had a relative upper hand in their 1954 shotgun wedding with Delahaye. There were still a few cars to sell, so a Hotchkiss-Delahaye stand was rented for the autumn’s Salon de l’Auto, ushering in the 1955 model year. A couple of “new” Hotchkiss cars were there, along with a 235, but no new chassis were being made (some only got purchased in 1956). Hotchkiss focused on trucks and Jeeps, Delahaye and Delage were dead in the water. So then, whodunnit?
First and foremost: Delahaye themselves. The strategy behind the 4.5 litre cars was rather puzzling, as the overwhelming majority of European carmakers (big and small) proposed smaller new cars. A few bucked the trend, such as Jowett – a completely different but equally Deadly Sin – or Talbot-Lago, but their T26 chassis was perhaps the best in Europe in that class at the time, so Tony Lago pulled it off. The 175, even it if had not been a technical tour-de-farce, would have sold maybe 300 or so chassis.
Launching a super-luxury car in the midst of post-conflict France was challenging enough, but to roll the dice on a heavy and underdeveloped chassis with few good features to recommend it was downright “What were they thinking?” territory. Delahaye’s ageing management consisted in a caste of unadventurous gentlemen who bickered with one another regularly, squandering the only chance they had to grow the company out of the artisan trucks / chassis for toffs corner of the market. Plus Delahaye had Delage, a marque that might have been used to attempt a new smaller car. At least, Hotchkiss had tried (and failed) with the Grégoire. Talbot-Lago did too with the 2.5 litre 4-/6-cyl. Baby (1949-54). It was a mirror image of the 175 debacle, in that the smaller Talbot was a heavy and mechanically flawed car that bombed in the marketplace. But at least it was a smaller car, which made more sense than Delahaye’s overconfident, trend-bucking strategy of foregoing smaller cars entirely.
Delahaye’s only marketing strategy, it seems, was “If you build it, they will come.” Nobody came, but that was not a surprise, given how dreadful the car was. America took little notice of the 175, or of any big French car in general. European customers were not enthralled either, as French cars lacked the cachet of English tourers, the vigor of Italian sports cars and the solidity of American 8-cyl. sedans. But is it the whole story? Let’s examine three suspects, found at the scene of the crime.
First suspect: Delahaye strangled by the taxman. The French tax system is often blamed for every evil that happened since it was revamped in 1946. Establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between the French car tax and the “death of French classics” is a bit simplistic, though higher taxes certainly affected prices substantially. Big cars were taxed heavily compared to 1939, but maily because taxation in general (and VAT in particular) had gone way up. In the short term though, Delahaye and the rest were not harmed: sales went up year on year in 1946-51 until the. Citroën sold thousands of their 2.9 litre 15-Six every year – hitting five figures in 1951. The taxes were higher, but some cars still got bought and others did not. What most people refer to when they say France had a “punitive tax system” is the 1956 creation of the vignette, a yearly car tax that was, indeed, very high for engines above 16 CV (about 3 litres). The long-term effect of the French car tax was that few French cars ventured beyond that threshold and no large engine was developed by the remaining French automakers. But this took place after Delahaye and the others had gone out of business. They were very small firms run on a fairly limited budget; there was little room for error – and these firms all made major errors, product-wise.
Suspect number two: the competition. After the Second World War, French classic carmakers’ foreign exposure was minimal (except for Bugatti) and their production methods completely out of date, but their ‘30s status as sports cars was still intact. By 1950 though, most foreign competitors were leagues ahead technically and their coffers were filling up – unlike the French. American and European imports (Jaguar especially) killed the French Grandes Routières from without, but domestic grande-série cars by Citroën and Ford/Simca killed Delahaye from within. Quietly luxurious and spacious, the 15-Six and the Vedette were far more tempting for the Frenchman of means: cheaper, safer, easier to repair and, eventually, sell on. And above all, far more discreet.
Not unlike Salmson, Delahaye could have become the French Alfa Romeo. They could have made the transition to an all-steel, in-house-bodied smaller car for a wider audience. Italian carmakers labored under a similar tax regime as their French competitors, but adapted to the circumstances with perhaps more agility. Alfa and Lancia made bold decisions and continued to grow; the sports / GT car crowd went over to Maserati, Ferrari and others. These lighter and more modern cars were bodied with taste and style, too. They conquered markets and showed the way ahead. But Delahaye weren’t pitting their 175 against Italian sports cars, really. The real enemies were much more formidable: the British and the Americans. Firms like Aston-Lagonda, Alvis, Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Daimler had several advantages over Delahaye, including newer machine-tools, better financing and a larger domestic and foreign clientele — not to mention levels of quality and refinement that were usually superior. For their part, Cadillac, Packard, Chrysler and a myriad of other American mid-level and luxury cars of the period were vastly better than Delahayes in pretty much all respects. Then, Mercedes-Benz stirred awake and introduced two new 6-cyl. models in 1951. Anyone who bought a Delahaye from that point on was a very wealthy marque fanatic, which it turns out was a very small crowd indeed.
Suspect number three: Delahaye died due to a surfeit of bulging chrome-slathered ash-framed coachwork, which cost a fortune, took months to prepare and should only be repaired at the point of origin. The fact that Delahaye never had body-making on its post-war plans shows that the Board of Directors were pretty much asleep at the wheel. It might have not been such a terrible non-decision had the Parisian carrossiers been better skilled at incorporating new transatlantic influences into their creations and transition to all-metal construction. This happened in Italy, but not really in France and Britain, where most traditional coachbuilders rivalled one another in their awkward attempts at pontoon fenders and faux Buick ventiports.
In the end, all of these “suspects” were more like enablers in Delahaye’s suicide. The 175 was the best they thought they could do. It turned out to be their worst decision and they executed it very poorly. Wrong time, wrong car. A classic case of Deadly Sin.
Hope you enjoyed this latest triptych of triumphant trips to the graveyard of European motoring history. I may continue the series further by re-examining the English patient, hopefully in the not-too-distant future…
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European Deadly Sins series