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: the Hotchkiss-Grégoire, the Panhard Dyna Z / PL 17 and the Citroën GS Birotor. First up, the oldest and perhaps most obscure, the 1951-53 Hotchkiss-Grégoire.
Hotchkiss of Death: The Grégoire
Hotchkiss was originally a weapons manufacturer founded by an American businessman, Benjamin B. Hotchkiss, who set up a factory in the old Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis in 1875. By the 1900s, Hotchkiss had diversified its industrial output to include cars and trucks, which earned a reputation for their excellent finish and endurance.
After the Second World War, Hotchkiss continued making conservative, high quality cars for the upper-middle-class with a sporty touch. Hotchkiss cars won several Monte-Carlo Rally trophies over the years. Since the ‘30s, the cars came with either a placid 2.3 litre 4-cyl. or a sportier 3.5 litre straight six, usually bodied by the factory in coupé, saloon or limousine variants. Think French BMW (or French Jaguar).
Compared to the outrageously expensive Talbot-Lagos or Delahayes, Hotchkiss cars sold pretty well in post-war France. The trucks and weapons sides of the business were also doing the firm’s bottom line a lot of good. 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.
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 (soon augmented to 2180cc) 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. So J.A. Grégoire teamed up with aerodynamics professor Marcel Sédille to devise a far more streamlined body.
The unibody frame was made of Alpax, an aluminum-silicon alloy that had been previously used on the Compound, clad with aluminum panels. The all-round independent suspension 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. So the Anjou, a very mildly modernized car, came out instead of the new big car. 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.
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. 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.
By that time, the Anjou sales had slipped and the company started license-building Jeeps to keep afloat. Hotchkiss then merged with another troubled company, Delahaye, and halfheartedly tried to launch a more modern RWD 6-cyl. car, the Hotchkiss Monceau, at the 1954 Paris Motor Show. But the combined debts of Hotchkiss-Delahaye were just too heavy to bear, and the new car was cancelled as soon as it was introduced. Hotchkiss quit the car business by the end of 1954, focusing on weapons, trucks and Jeeps. The company went through other mergers and stopped producing Hotchkiss-branded vehicles by 1970.
J.A. Grégoire kept the rights to the car, but nobody would touch it. He approached Renault, whose troubled Frégate saloon wasn’t selling too well, to try and have the top French automaker build his car on the cheap. But Renault passed, as they had competent bean-counters. J.A. Grégoire 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 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).
Five chassis, including a LWB five-seater, were put together at J.A. Grégoire’s tiny Tracta works. The car was exhibited at the 1956 New York Auto Show but nothing came of the project due to the astronomical price-tag (over FF 3.5 million – Facel-Vega territory, which was still FF 800,000 less than the cost of making the car). The last Grégoire Sport was sold in 1958.
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.
See you tomorrow for another fantastic French fiasco in Part 2: the Panhard Dyna Z / PL 17.
Related CC post:
Classic Snapshot From 1961: Gregoire Sport Cabriolet – Front Overhang Pioneer, by Paul Niedermeyer