Car Show Classic: 1954 Salmson 2300 S – Fat Lady Clears Her Throat

Apologies for stretching this “French Oddball Coupé Week” into more of a fortnight, but sometimes writing these posts takes a little longer than planned. Anyway, here’s two-door oddball numéro trois – a true old-fashioned, front-engined / RWD, body-on-frame GT and, just like the Panhard we saw last week, the final model of its maker.

When Salmson launched the 2300 Sport in late 1953, things were already looking pretty bleak for the old-style French sports/luxury car sector in general. Basically, the cars were stuck in their ‘30s heyday, at a time when they were competitive and relatively affordable. But a lot had changed after the war. Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza and Voisin were out of the game; Delahaye, Talbot-Lago and Hotchkiss had made bad decisions – going upmarket for the first two, and attempting an overly-complex FWD platform for the other – and were teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

Salmson were somewhat better equipped to stay alive post-1945. Their niche was smaller (2 to 2.3 litre) but very sophisticated DOHC 4-cyl. cars with a sporty edge, smartly dressed by Salmson’s own body shop. This kept costs lower, and for a while the firm kept its head above water. But in 1951 came the G72 Randonnée saloon – a more modern design, but also heavier and more expensive. Sales cratered (817 cars in 1951 down to 89 for 1952) and Salmson panicked.

The only viable solution was to continue recycling the prewar chassis, but dress it with something more alluring. This work was entrusted to Eugène Martin, and his main job was to squeeze as much power out of the engine as possible, thereby addressing the criticism levelled at the Randonnée. This was done by a multitude of ways, including a slight increase in displacement, revised cam profiles, higher compression ratio and a bigger Solex carb. The chassis was shortened by over 30cm as well.

Launched at the Paris Motor Show in October 1953, the new Salmson 2300 Sport was clearly its maker’s last chance at survival. An even shorter “Grand Sport” two-seater was also on the stand, but it remained a one-off. But the standard coupé would also evolve very soon after its birth.

The first 30 cars were made by Salmson using body panels produced by Esclassan, a coachbuilder who had a close relationship with the firm. However, these initial cars were criticised for being way too cramped. And soon Esclassan went under anyway, so Salmson worked with Chapron, a more established (and expensive) carrossier, to revise the 2300 S from January 1954.

Our feature car is one of these early Chapron cars, though these were still assembled at Salmson’s works. The roof was raised pretty substantially, the large indicators were relocated below the headlamps and the grille got three bars. The wheel openings were also squared off, the side trim was deleted and the door handles were repositioned.

All in all, it made the 2300 S a lot more substantial, but the rear seats remained pretty symbolic, even if the headroom definitely improved. The design is peculiar, to be sure, but not unattractive. It was a lot more modern than anything Salmson had attempted up to that point, but not nearly as good-looking as the new Talbot-Lago coupé, the only other new domestic competitor for 1954. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at what the luxury/sports landscape was like.

Delahaye, Delage and Hotchkiss were literally in their death throes by this point in time – none of them would make it to 1955. Remember that this was their home market, at a time when import duties were still high, yet they were completely outclassed by foreign rivals, even with the home field advantage. German rivals were still pretty scarce, but that would soon change. Larger American luxury cars were expensive, but a Studebaker or a Chevy would make for a very real threat, as did the sexy Facel-built French Fords. Italian exotics like Alfa or Lancia were also quite dear, but far more capable, modern and beautiful. The real killers among all these were, of course, the Jag and the Austin.

The 2300 S did relatively well in its introductory year, thanks in no small part to being entered into a large number of rallies and touring car events. These were very well-built cars, with surprisingly reliable engines, so they won trophies on a regular basis.

Positive though this free publicity was, it could not sustain interest in the Salmson marque for very long. Besides, the financial situation remained critical. In late 1954, the firm changed hands, being bought off by Belgian automaker Minerva-Impéria.

The new owners ordered a batch of three 2300 GT saloons made to gauge interest in widening the range, but nobody seemed all that keen, even with LHD. The saloons were not even shown at the Paris Motor Show, unlike the Chapron cabriolet, which was now in the range but attracted few buyers.

The standard 2300 S Coupé’s final evolution, from 1955 to 1957, involved a revised grille and “speed streaks” embossed above the wheel openings.

Some specials and one-offs were made, as was still the custom in those days. Pichon-Parat (top left) did more than one race-oriented coupé, with some GRP panels. The 1955 Charbonneaux-designed roadster by Antem (top right) was fully made of plastic. Italian coachbuilder Motto authored a very pleasant roadster (bottom right) and dressed the very last LWB 2300 chassis ever produced for the 1956 Paris Motor Show (bottom left) – quite literally Salmson’s final stand.

All Salmson 2300s came with a 4-speed Cotal-Maag electromagnetic gearbox – the best of ‘30s technology, just like the rest of the car. It is technically pretty close to a Wilson gearbox, except gears are not “pre-selected” in this system. The lever seen atop the steering column selects neutral, forward or reverse. Gear shifting is done by the chrome button (actually an H-pattern mini-shifter) attached to the left of the steering column. The point of the Cotal was that using the clutch was almost optional, a big plus at a time when most gearboxes only had synchros on a couple of gears at best.

The Belgian takeover had not been a great success, to say the least. The bulk of the 2300 S’s sales took place in 1953-54, when 129 cars were produced. About 70 chassis left the Salmson works the following year, followed by a dozen in 1956. The last two were bodied by Chapron (one drop-top and one coupé) and delivered to their respective owners by March 1957, by which time the Salmson works were already being cleared for demolition. All told, about 210 units were made, plus a handful of prototypes, racers and saloons.

Just as the inevitable end neared, in 1955, Salmson did preview a 1.5 litre DOHC engine that might have been promising had it been premiered five years earlier and adapted to a smaller and lighter chassis with LHD and a modern-looking body. In the end, the new engine was stillborn, as the company lacked the capital to develop it – or even build a few more for prototype testing. In a parallel universe with better executives and a trusting bank, Salmson could have potentially played the part of a gallic Alfa Romeo.

The other way to go was to dramatically lighten/modernize the chassis and get the 2300 S a fancy Italian body – a sort of French Aston Martin, if you will. That would have been a far more perilous strategy and required some sort of angel investor, as well as a lot of luck. France was short on both of those at the time. And soon enough, the world was short of Salmson altogether.


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Automotive History: French Deadly Sins (Third Helping, part 2) – Salmson Randonnée, The French Alfa That Never Was, by T87