(first posted 12/18/2016, revised, augmented and re-illustrated 12/19/2022) Last month’s GM Deadly Sins™ recap has occasioned some lively debates, but the General’s fall from grace has had many parallels throughout history and in other corners of the globe. Perhaps it’s time to look into a few of these. So let’s start with three French Deadly Sins over the next three days: today’s dramatic Hotchkiss’n’tell tear-jerker, followed by the Panhard Dyna Z / PL 17 catastrophe and the gargantuan industrial disaster known as the Citroën GS Birotor. First up, the oldest and perhaps most obscure, the 1951-54 Hotchkiss-Grégoire.
Hotchkiss was originally a weapons manufacturer, founded by American businessman Benjamin B. Hotchkiss, who set up a factory in the old Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis in 1875. By the mid-1900s, Hotchkiss had diversified its industrial output to include cars and trucks, which earned a reputation for their excellent finish and endurance.
Since the early ‘30s, the car chassis came with either a placid 60-70hp 2.3 litre 4-cyl. or a sportier 90-130hp straight six (3 and 3.5 litre). Although some were given fancy custom bodies, the great majority were bodied by the factory in conservatively-styled coupé, cabriolet, saloon or limousine variants. Think French BMW (or French Jaguar), but sans ostentation. Hotchkiss’ conservative styling was popular with a certain clientele, both within France and in surrounding countries. There was even a British factory set up in the ’20s to provide for that market specifically.
After the Second World War, Hotchkiss continued making high quality cars for the upper-middle-class with a sporty touch, though in the initial few years, truck production was prioritized.Hotchkiss trucks used the same petrol engines as their cars, not unlike contemporary Delahayes. This did not harm the image of either product, interestingly enough. The trucks and military vehicles bearing the crossed canons emblem were highly rated, Hotchkiss rigs being especially popular with fire services, like the PL20 above.
The same engines powered Hotchkiss cars, including those that won several Monte-Carlo Rally trophies over the years. Compared to the outrageously expensive Talbot-Lagos, Salmsons or Delahayes, Hotchkiss cars sold pretty well in post-war France, keeping the firm’s treasury in the black. Perhaps the time had come to grow the car side of the business into a bigger concern, just as Alfa Romeo were starting to do in Italy.
As early as 1947, Hotchkiss had been involved in an attempt at a smaller, more modern car. At least, that’s what it looked like, but the underpinnings were actually of Willys origin, complete with side-valve engine. Willys French distributor and longtime Hotchkiss partner SOFIA were behind this scheme, which produced two prototypes bodied by Hotchkiss. Nothing came of it in the end, but the Willys connection remained, and Hotchkiss ended up producing spares for the considerable Jeep contingent then present in France.
The “big” cars were fine, but getting quite outdated. By late 1948, they had made some progress on that front by adopting hydraulic brakes and trading their truck-like front beam axle for a brand new IFS (about time!). Styling-wise, these all-new S49 models (MY 1949-50) were classy, but still looked completely prewar.
Enter the somewhat egomaniacal genius that was Jean Albert “The Engineer” Grégoire (1899-1992). J.A. Grégoire had already worked with Hotchkiss on a small alloy-bodied FWD car in the late ‘30s, the Amilcar Compound, though the war had cut the car’s career short. Notwithstanding the Compound’s extremely difficult industrialization process, J.A. Grégoire, a member of the Hotchkiss board, persuaded his colleagues to repeat the experiment, but with a more ambitious 2-litre car that he had been working on since 1943, the Grégoire R.
Aimed squarely at the Citroën Traction Avant, the Grégoire R was a technological tour de force. It was FWD of course, as were virtually all of The Engineer’s cars since the ‘20s, though the engine would be mounted ahead of the gearbox to improve interior space. Said engine was a completely new water-cooled 2-litre flat-4 with alloy heads, driving a sleek, scientifically-designed aerodynamic body for five passengers. Interestingly, Antonio Fessia was advocating a similar set of parameters for a new Italian car at the same time, the stillborn Caproni F11.
Initially, J.A. Grégoire had planned to do an upscale version of the small Aluminium Français Grégoire (AFG) car he had developed during the war, but wind tunnel testing had shown the model’s poor aerodynamics, even when compared with the Traction.
After many hesitations, Grégoire teamed up with aerodynamics professor Marcel Sédille to devise a far more streamlined body, made entirely of aluminium. The position of the engine gave the car its characteristic front overhang — then a very novel feature, given that most FWD cars of the time were usually mid-front-engined, like the Traction Avant.
The platform, which included the firewall and windshield frame, was cast as a unit in Alpax, an aluminum-silicon alloy that had been previously used on the prewar Compound. The all-round independent suspension, one of Grégoire’s specialties, ensured supreme comfort, as well as great handling and constant height. Rack and pinion steering, powerful and well-ventilated drum brakes and a four-speed gearbox were also part of the package.
The Grégoire R prototypes were well-known by now – they had been undergoing testing for over five years, and their publicity-hungry creator made sure that he was photographed next to every iteration, even exhibiting the Grégoire R prototype on his own stand at the 1947 and 1948 Paris Motor Shows. Hotchkiss took the bait in 1949, enabling “The Engineer” to move to full-scale prototype testing.
Hotchkiss invested all they could in the Grégoire. No money was left for the ageing RWD range: a long planned complete redesign was now out of the question. This “new-look” all-steel Hotchkiss would have permitted the firm to really step into the ’50s, à la Alfa Romeo 1900, but the FWD car was deemed more promising.
So the Anjou, a very mildly modernized car, came out instead, available with either the 2.3 litre 4-cyl. or the 3.5 litre 6-cyl., like always. Hotchkiss and most observers at the time figured that the 1951 Anjou would be a stopgap model until a truly new RWD car could be designed, once the Grégoire’s success replenished the firm’s bank accounts.
There was quite a lot of resentment within Hotchkiss about the way the Grégoire was given priority over ensuring the company’s more traditional cars, which The Engineer openly disdained (though he did adapt his patented suspension to the RWD range). The Hotchkiss Anjou sold pretty well initially: over 2500 units in 1951, a very respectable score for that kind of car in France at the time.
Finally, the Hotchkiss-Grégoire officially debuted at the October 1951 Paris Motor Show. The motoring press loved the car’s many advanced features, from its low drag coefficient to its great suspension and superb road holding, as well as its 11 litres / 100 km (27 mpg) fuel economy. A “Sport” version added a double-barrel carb and higher compression to the flat-4, enabling the car to reach 160 kph (100 mph).
Hotchkiss built it to their usual high quality standards, both inside and out. The car’s tapered shape dictated a narrower rear seat, but a usable three-passenger front bench seat. However, three detrimental characteristics were also evident: the Hotchkiss-Grégoire was rather ugly, it had virtually no luggage space and it was far too expensive.
Leaving J.A. Grégoire in charge of everything had turned the project into a financial sinkhole. The structure was extremely complex to make: a high proportion of Alpax parts were not coming out right and had to be melted again and recast. The aluminum panels also drove costs up. The engine, while very successful and durable, shared no common parts with other Hotchkiss engines. Even at a retail price of about FF 2 million (over twice the amount of a Ford Vedette or a Citroën 15-Six), the car was sold at a loss.
Hotchkiss had been outflanked by The Engineer: J.A. Grégoire’s name and logo were on the car, earning him royalties from numerous patents while the company was being bled dry. A two-door coupé and convertible were added to the line-up in 1952, but they were hand-made by Chapron, making them utterly unaffordable.
The Hotchkiss-Grégoire never took off. Hotchkiss did attempt to drive production costs down by using steel instead of aluminum for some of the car’s panels, but with few tangible results aside from a heavier car. Only 247 units were made until the company resolved to ditch The Engineer and his costly contraption in late 1953.
In a bit of a panic, Hotchkiss tried out several potential solution to make the Grégoire cheaper to produce and improve its tiny rear space. A body-sharing plan with Renault was mooted, and several notckback prototypes were made by Chapron — but it was all far too little and too late. Still, given that the firm was bleeding money, the prototypes were sold as new cars in 1954. A couple even reappeared this year (2022), after having slept in a barn for 50-odd years.
By that time, the Anjou sales had slipped to insignificance. Fortunately, starting in 1953, the company started license-building Willys Jeeps to keep afloat. It turned out that the French Army were really keen on getting new Jeeps, instead of the costly and fragile Delahaye VLR. Hotchkiss developed a civilian variant as well, continuing production until 1969.
In the summer of 1954, Hotchkiss merged with fellow moribund carmaker Delahaye, changing the business’ official name as Hotchkiss-Delahaye. The latter marque was a non-starter, as it was in even worse shape as Hotchkiss and the name was owned by a third party, so Delahaye had no future. Hotchkiss halfheartedly tried to launch a modernized RWD 6-cyl. model dubbed Monceau at the 1954 Paris Motor Show, but only two or three were made before reality set in: Hotchkiss literally had no more cars to sell by early 1955.
They did have Jeeps and a completely new line of trucks though, along with a bunch of military hardware. The company went through several other mergers and stopped producing Hotchkiss-branded civilian vehicles by 1970. The name disappeared into what is now known as Thales, a French-based multinational company specialized in defence, aerospace and public transport.
But the end of Hotchkiss did not mean the end of the car that killed it. J.A. Grégoire kept the rights to his baby; he refused to admit defeat and decided to produce a sports car based on the Hotchkiss-Grégoire on his own, with a completely new body penned by Chapron’s chief draughtsman Carlo Delaisse and built by the Parisian carrossier. The 2.2 litre flat-4 was given a compressor, upping the output to 125hp and allowing the car to reach about 180 kph (110 mph). Disc brakes were also added to the front wheels.
Five chassis were put together at J.A. Grégoire’s tiny Tracta works. Grégoire wisely ditched the costly whole-casting method in favour of an Alpax skeleton made of smaller castings bolted together. The car was exhibited at the 1956 New York Auto Show but nothing came of the project due to the astronomical price-tag of over FF 3.5 million – Facel-Vega territory, yet still FF 800,000 less than the cost of making the car. The last Grégoire Sport, the five-seater seen above, was sold in 1958, bringing the platform’s story to a definitive close.
Hotchkiss let the Grégoire project run unchecked – a Deadly Sin diametrically opposed to the GM bean-counters’ many DSs in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Engineers make fine prototypes, but without rigorous cost analysis, economies of scale, a touch of styling and market research, very good engineering concepts can turn into very large industrial disasters. Sometimes large enough to sink a whole carmaker.
See you tomorrow for another fantastic French fiasco in Part 2: the Panhard Dyna Z / PL 17.
Classic Snapshot From 1961: Gregoire Sport Cabriolet – Front Overhang Pioneer, by Paul Niedermeyer
I’ve seen the Gregoire vert in old annuals, but the H-G was an unknown unknown to me. Until now. Great read.
I knew of it, but had never read anything about it. Thank you, Tatra87!
Wasn’t a version of this car the basis for the failed Hartnett car that former Holden managing director Laurence Hartnett tried to build here ?
A Gregoire yes, but I don’t think it was the H-G. From the pics a much smaller car.
From Hartnett’s bio, it was an air cooled boxer twin cyl engine
That anyone could have thought such a car would be right for Australian road conditions is itself mind-boggling.
+1. Interesting as an engineering concept, which is what probably piqued Hartnett’s interest. I would love to have known his thought processes.
In those days it would have been a marginal proposition as a city car. Even in my fifties/sixties childhood, many poorer city folk didn’t own cars. Yes, people were buying the small Renaults and Morrises, but they were established brands. Where did Hartnett think his market would be?
Suburban sprawl had yet to hit Australia in those days, many folk making a living from the land or in country towns. I shudder to remember my aunt’s Austin A30 ‘cruising’ at about 40mph between one little town and the next one five miles away. No, you needed something more powerful and better-geared here. And a roadster as your main bodystyle was so pre-war.
Well put Mr. Wilding ;
Of course those narrow and twisty rural farm to market roads back then meant one could indeed safely drive a BMW Isetta as a daily commuter .
It’s been many a year since I drove those roads, I bet they’d be great fun at 4o on a Motocycle , not so much in a Sports Car .
As always, Don’s quite right. The Hartnett was based off another Gregoire car, the AFG, which was supposed to be made by Simca. The license was bought by Kendall in the UK at first, who then sold it to Hartnett. He alleged the Australian gov’t and Holden conspired against him. Would Preston Tucker have agreed?
See tomorrow’s post for a bit more detail on the AFG, which was also used by Panhard.
Hartnett’s an interesting one; the main instigator behind ‘Australia’s Own’ GM-Holden before being pushed out prior to launch, and our first volume importer of Japanese cars (Nissan) from 1960 before being pushed out by Nissan themselves. The Tucker analogy is halfway there; it is said that Hartnett brought his troubles upon himself by dint of some aspects of his personality.
Looking forward to Parts 2 and 3, T87.
Another fantastic piece rich in content and with great photos about a make that I was only vaguely aware of. I had no idea that the Italian aircraft company Caproni had briefly gotten into the automobile business, either. Thanx!
Knew a little about the car, a bit more about Gregoire’s history (invariably brilliant but disastrous), but this added a lot of details I didn’t know. Thank you.
Looking forward to the next two installments.
At least the French, unlike GM, could fail in one hell of a burst of glory. Unfortunately, most French companies could only afford one disastrous move, unlike GM who could fail and fail again, not particularly noticing, until it was too late.
Cool article! I took a picture of a Gregoire at the Concours at St. John’s a few years ago, although I didn’t know much about it. It’s pretty obvious by the front overhang that it’s front drive, and by the overall iconoclasm that it’s French. 🙂
Congrats Aaron, that’s precisely the same fastback coupe as in the piece. So not just “any” Gregoire (if that makes any sense) — a really rare and stylish one.
Looks nice to me……
there’s a Graham in the slightly neglected when I saw it but otherwise marvelous car museum in the centre of Brussels; don’t recall the model (’61 Conti and Citroen SM, Panhard Dynamique too)
Nice to read about the Hotchkiss car, which is surprisingly unfamiliar when its considered that Hotchkiss drive was so extensively used.
Looking forward to reading more about the Panhard, another marque that is more often brought up in reference to an auto part (the Panhard rod), versus a complete automobile. Paul did a nice history of Panhard on this site a few years back, which is where I first learned about the history of the car (as well as how to properly pronounce the name!).
Yes, the Systeme Panhard was the patented component layout that most carmakers adopted for many years. Like Hotchkiss drive, its a fundamental popular engineering principle pioneered by the French.
There’s another I’d never heard about, thanks!! And full marks for the use of the term “Hotchkiss of Death”
As soon as I saw the photo with the Alpax chassis I knew exactly where this was going. engineer goes all out in pursuit of technical excellence and sinks the company. I don’t feel sorry for Gregoire at all, on a smaller scale that happened at one company I worked for and about 40 people lost their jobs.
I wonder how these things handled, with so much weight ahead of the front wheels? That 1950 prototype looks like it would tip forward if Gregoire took his hand off the door.
Like a Subaru? Well, at least according to Thoroughbred & Classic Cars magazine it handled, steered and braked very well and felt modern.
What a great article on vehicle I never knew existed. Yet another cracker crumb on the automotive landscape. Thanks! See you tomorrow.
A fascinating car. I love these stories of the smaller French companies. British and German carmakers get so much attention, but the small French concerns all seemed to fail in a unique way.
A great piece on a car that I was only vaguely aware of.
What really hurt these small companies was France’s fiscal policy after World War II, where high and smothering taxes were imposed on French luxury cars.
Flat 4 seems to be the only alternative left to the I 4 lay-out. They have been around in many car applications: VW / Porsche, Hotchkiss-Gregoire, Alfasud, Citroen GS, Subaru. Did I miss any?
Lancia, Tatra, Goliath/Hansa, probably others I can’t think of…
Jowett was another Issigonis wanted a flat four for his Minor, didnt happen.
Wolfgang- You missed the Lancia Flavia- flat-four water cooled 2 litre- from 1959; an exellent design, which Subaru is said to have copied. The subsequent model was the lancia Fulvia, with a jewel of engine design, 1.3 litres, a narrow-angle V-4, single overhead cam head, winner of many Monte-Carlo rallys & World Championships. We had an elegant flavia 4-door, and a Zagato-bodies Fulvia. Wonderful machines.
Ugly little car. And selling it at a loss is not the way to make a car company successful. This Gregoire person didn’t seem to understand that and the managers at Hotchkiss seemed to be incompetent as well.
Thanks for the interesting article.
Thank you for a very interesting account about a carmaker of which I knew nothing. But it’s not a GM style deadly sin, because there seems to be nothing wrong with the car itself at all.
It is a fine example of poor management of which there are plenty of examples in the business world. The first parallel that comes to mind is the early 50’s Hudson Jet, a fine compact car that proved to be too expensive for Hudson to build profitably. Hudson’s full size bread-and-butter cars were neglected due to limited development resources.
Like Hotchkiss, the firm’s finances were damaged, resulting in a merger (with Nash) that delayed the inevitable failure.
I had never thought of the Hudson Jet parallel — very true! That car put Hudson in the ditch for good. Another DS series needs to be written up about the independent US makers (Hudson Jet, Packard Clipper and AMC Pacer, for instance).
What really hurt the French car making business was politics and the World War II and it’s aftermath. There really wasn’t a market for cars like that, as it took about ten years for the French economy to recover from the war, and not even then. They didn’t have the same Wirtschaftswunder as the Germans had, the time of exponential growth was the time period of 1955-65. Which made cars like this just a few years ahead of its market, there really wasn’t enough money to go around for the intended market to buy cars like that.
The second thing was politics, and the French politics of concentrating on low output mass market cars, in the tax bracket below 2-litres. Cars above that line was punitively taxed, cars above 2.7 litres was just about taxed out of existance. Besides the Facel-Vega, the French really didn’t have anything above that point, and wouldn’t have up until the 80’s.
The second part of politics was the fact the French government didn’t want any kind of overlap between brands, so the makers had to adjust to make cars in a Sloan like scale where none of the brands overlapped. Which may be great to find a window of opportunity but as time has told, the lack of competition makes for bad products. The mass of the money for upscale products lay in the Citroen B11/DS/Reanult Fregate/Peugeot 404 sector, anything above that was a moot point, as there was really no money at hand at that point.
All very good points. And in very stark contrast to the German VW. The French and to a somewhat lesser extent the Brits really did not fathom the market-changing power of a factory that was designed to produce up to one million cars per year. They learned soon enough, but their complicated dithering cost them in the long run.
The French were so cerebral too; cars like this should never have been made, with their intrinsically expensive aluminum castings for the body frame and aluminum body panels. They really tended to get caught up in their ideas rather than the market/production realities. Of course, that made for some interesting cars…just not viable ones.
And that’s why I Love the French. A guy like Gregoire would never have gotten the power and the resources had he worked in Germany at the time. He could’ve been a contender if the situation had been just a little bit better, he could’ve been an Issigonis. What really makes one a pioneer of automotive revolution and the other an abject failure? At least the French had the gusto and the will to take a leap of faith, even against unclimbable mountains.
It’s a bit more complicated than that, IMHO. You have to remember that, pre-war, French auto & truck makers were among the most numerous in Europe. There were too many very small players making mid/high-end cars and trucks. The industry was seen as inefficient because of that. The field was too crowded for economies of scale. The Vichy government started grouping auto and truck makers in relatively balanced “concerns” to try and foster component-sharing and coordination.
After WW2, the government tried to rationalize production somewhat. Trucks especially were key to reconstruction after the war. The government’s attempts were ham-fisted (government intervention is always seen as ham-fisted), starting with the outright nationalization of the top auto/truck maker, Renault. Then came the “Plan Pons”, which tried to split the car and truck market among the larger firms. The plan was largely ignored by the industry. Citroen and Panhard just refused it outright and made very successful competitive small cars to answer the Renault 4CV. By 1950, the “Plan” was irrelevant.
Tax policy was a different matter. Engine displacement was the basis for tax even before the war and in many countries. The tax system was punitive indeed for larger engines, as it was in Italy for example. That did not stop Citroen from selling over 50,000 of their 2.9 litre Traction Avant 15-Six, nor did it prevent Simca’s V8 models and Facel-Vegas from being a success throughout the 50s. If the product is good, tax will not affect it quite so much. If it’s an outdated dinosaur (e.g. Delahaye), then tax may play a role. But let’s not pretend like the tax system killed the big French cars: it was assisted suicide, not assassination.
Hotchkiss could have survived longer had they eschewed the Gregoire and focused on their RWD cars — maybe until the mid-60s, like Alvis. It’s probable that Hotchkiss would have been gobbled up by Peugeot (their main investor since the war) at some point anyway.
Of course things are always more complicated, and thanks for making the discussion more nuanced. But I beg to differ on the tax policy. I’d say France post war was actually one of the cases where an entire market segment was actually and literally taxed out of existence. I’ve been trying to find some article that can explain the consequences of the tax brackets, but the end result is just the same, France didn’t have anything above 2.7 litres for a very long time.
The Citroen B15 engine was of a pre war design, launched in 1938, and sold only a small but steady trickle after the war, production ended in 1957.
The Ford flathead V8 was also of a pre war design, launched in 1936. Production of the V8-powered Simca Vedette ended in 1961.
The Facel-Vega had an imported Chrysler V8, but that marque didn’t really rely on domestic sales either, 77% of production was exported. Production of V8 models ended in 1964.
The Monica prototype had an engine developed by Englishman Ted Martin, a 3-litre V8, later enlarged to 3.4 litre. The engine was scrapped and replaced by a Chrysler 340 for the production model, but only six cars were produced in total, which tells what numbers we are really talking about when it comes to French cars of that engine size.
The Citroen SM V6 was developed in Italy by Maserati, at first 2.7 litres, later a 3-litre version emerged. I don’t know if the larger engine replaced the smaller outright, or if they kept the smaller for the domestic market and the larger for exports.
The PRV-V6 was produced in different sizes between 2.5 and 3 litres, but it sold mostly in the 2.7-litre bracket. And that’s the largest engine France has produced, they haven’t made a larger engine since. The replacement PSA ES-engine is more modern and fuel efficient but exactly the same size.
I’d say there’s a strong case for saying that cars above that bracket was taxed out of existence, as they haven’t put an engine larger than that in mass market production since that time. The Facel-Vega was the last time they had anything above 3-litres, they haven’t had anything since. The PRV engine was the last time they developed anything at all in that size, and that engine was also shared between the car makers, Peugeot (Citroen) and Renault. It even went to all the specialist car makers like Alpine and Venturi.
I think you’re putting a direct causal link where there may not be one. It’s an indirect link.
Remember, Italy has a very similar tax system to France (since 1945) and large cars have flourished there — because the Italians knew how to make them competitive on the global marketplace, where it matters. The French specialty carmakers were always too timid and/or conservative to become Maserati or Ferrari. Delahaye, Hotchkiss, Talbot etc. never exported much — especially to the US. Ferrari without export markets would have lasted maybe five years. Facel understood that and sold most of its cars outside France.
So imagine Italy without the supercars — Fiat, Alfa, Lancia. Anything over 3 litres after the war? Nope. The problem in France is that there are no supercars — not just because they were taxed, but because they weren’t that super.
And on the Citroen 15-Six: only 3000 were made before the war and about 48,000 after the war — right when the tax regime went punitive. It was a really good car though, another reason why Delahaye et al went bust.
Tax are still a very important on ‘luxury’ cars in Europe. Most high end ones are sold to business men, and are only really deductible if they are deseil. Why else would anyone get an oil burning Porsche, Maserati, Jag or et al?
What a great story! I can’t wait to read the remaining installments. Thanks for a fascinating read. BTW, I’m still trying to figure out the topmost print ad, which practically begs for a caption. Also wondering if The Engineer was related to the talented E.T.Gregorie of Ford Motor Company.
“The only thing more fun than driving the new H-G is falling off a cliff!” 😉
Nope. E.T. GregORIE….
…and J.A. GregOIRE
I always used to make that same mistake. 🙂
Damn, I hate being old. Thanks for the clarification, Gene.
No worries. Speaking as one old fart to another, being old certainly beats the alternative, doesn’t it? 😉
An extremely fascinating car, and a very good example of why a DS is not necessarily a bad car, just one that harmed the company. Sometimes letting the engineers run the show can be just as bad for the bottom line as letting the bean-counters have free reign. It certainly results in more interesting cars, but also just as certainly far fewer numbers of them as “money no object” doesn’t really fly with mainstream manufacturers.
I was unfamiliar with the Hotchkiss and Gregoire but I think I did guess right about what the deadly sin would be. Creativity allowed to run wild in hope of recreating the brilliance of the CV2. IMHO, the original CV2 was both the best thing and the worst thing to happen to French cars. It was such an amazing design – so brilliant- that it set the tone for the French to expect advanced engineering in every new car, and its ability to carry a basket of eggs across a farm field without breaking any set expectations for the famous French comfortable ride. Perhaps in America a car company could pass off a model as ‘new and improved’ by adding tail fins, but not so in France.
The curse, of course, comes into play when you try to export complex and original-thinking-engineering cars to a country where mechanics have been trained on simple-as-a-brick cars. The French maker’s refusal/neglect to set up strong dealers and supply them with parts is only the sauce in the recipe for disaster.
Some years ago I bought a (British, IIRC) magazine that had a spotlight on a Hotchkiss-Gregoire that its French owner still drove fairly regularly. He said, among other things, that “It wasn’t designed to save the owner money” and “There was no need for all that cleverness.” He also said the front suspension bushings wore quickly, and it would need a front-end rebuild every 20K miles. (Where you get front end bushings for such a rare car wasn’t discussed.)
I understand there was a similar dynamic at British Leyland, with management being unwilling or unable to say no to Alec Issigonis. But his designs weren’t so far out there.
I’d say Issigonis designs was that far out there, but his saving grace was that he had a cadre of engineers that could make his propositions viable on a large scale production level. It’s the difference between having a one man team and a hundred engineers to iron out all the faults in between…
Excellent article! I love to know more about the French auto industry. I wonder if the aproval for the intensive use of aluminium was due to the steel rationing that took place during the implementation of the Pons Paln to modernise the French auto industry.
According to this Plan, Hotchkiss was supposed to be oriented to foreign markets. Was it succesful at doing so?
I would have been ten or eleven when the first Hotchkiss-Gregoire car showed up in one of my favorite magazines, likely either Popular Mechanics or Popular Science. The only FWD car I’d read about at that point was the Cord, so this thing got me all excited. Exotic design of any sort played merry hell with my imagination, and I bought into M.Gregoire’s self-mythologizing on the spot. Which makes me suspect that he himself had all the self-restraint of a prepubescent boy, which I think his behavior demonstrates.
I remember admiring the cast-aluminum chassis of the H-G back in the ’50s.
Now I just read that Tesla’s Model Y uses a cast chassis/body section to the rear, an improvement over the Model 3- and Musk is apparently going after much larger casting technology for his following models: to great advantage in cost, and much enhanced quality.
Interesting car and not one Ive ever heard much about, thanks great article. Its not the first or last time an unrestrained front drive engineering concept has led to bankruptcy or the last Andre Citroen went under thanks to his brilliant TA in the 30s though the company survives today, Hotchkiss with this poorly costed effort, BMC/BL with the Mini and everything else built on the same idea, same problem not costed properly, GM fell into the same grave.
Notice the Impala on the badge in photo #15? Its facing left but other than that its identical to the Chevrolet Impala logo. Another example of the borrowing of ideas, concepts and even logos in the auto industry 🙂
The length and shape of the horns look much more like an Oryx than an Impala.
Very interesting piece on a car and a company that we hear too little off. But there;s no doubting the ingenuity of some of the engineering solutions used here
I always find it fascinating to look more deeply into France and luxury cars – even now many French people will swoon over a Rolls, Bentley or Jaguar but sales there are very low due to the tax environment of such cars and I guess this hampered Hotchkiss as well.
Anything over 2 litres had and will have a struggle
It wasn’t smooth sailing with the Amilcar Compound either:
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
An interesting car that I’ve never heard of, nice! One wonders though… lightweight aluminum bodywork, and engine hanging out in front of the front wheels… bet that thing would do a hell of a Stoppie 😀 !
Tatra, excellent article! I’m very much looking forward to Parts 2 and 3!
You’re very right about car development needing a balance. It can’t be all accountants or all engineers, both need to keep each other in check. So when people pillory beancounters and say, “Put an engineer in charge!”, you can cite the Hotchkiss-Gregoire as evidence this doesn’t always work.
This Gregoire sounds like he was a bit of a sneaky fellow. He sweet-talked Hotchkiss into building his expensive car, drove their car operations into the ground, then walked away whistling nonchalantly. The alternative theory is he was oblivious and didn’t realise how much of a money pit the project would be. I think theory #1 is more plausible and that seems to be echoed in your article.
Tatra87, thanks for the in depth history of little known car on this side of the ‘pond’. Difficult to imagine Hotchkiss management would have gone so far and got in so deep into such a project, “The Engineer” must have been one persuasive fellow.
Since it’s French, I love it. No people on earth are more cool than the French. Every time I go there, I make lots of new friends and have a great time.
In the spirit of technical geekery I looked up Alpax and found out it would be a 4000 series alloy, unlike the more commonly used 6000 series aluminum magnesium silicon alloys. Interestingly Alpax is related to Alusil which is commonly used as an alternative to Nikasil in engine blocks and is also closely related to the the A-390 alloy used in another famous deadly sin, the Chevy Vega engine.
I’m curious to know why Gregoire chose this particular alloy but history may never know
Would Hotchkiss have been able to survive to the present without being swallowed up by larger carmakers (e.g. Peugeot, Renault, etc) had it never produced the Hotchkiss-Gregoire?
Perhaps in such a scenario Hotchkiss would have even been able save Facel Vega.
I wonder whether the cast aluminum structure would work today if it were done right.
The LWB five-seater Grégoire is very Subaresque in its mechanical design .
just finished the restoration of the Australian Hartnett car 1953, which was on the AFG of 1943 chassis
Great presentation! Thanks.