Automotive History: French Deadly Sins (First Batch) – 1951-54 Hotchkiss-Grégoire: Hotchkiss Of Death

(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.

Above: 4-cyl. S49 woodie (coachbuilt by Mignot & Billebault); below: 6-cyl. S49 factory saloon

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.

Convergent evolution? The CEMSA Caproni F11, later reborn as the Lancia Flavia


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.

J.A. Grégoire posing with a 1950 prototype, now sporting a Hotchkiss grille and badge


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.

Above: foreign markets usually received 6-cyl. cars; below: Chapron-built cabriolet

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 two-door Hotchkiss-Grégoire cabriolet and fastback: only seven units made of each variant in two years.

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.

Source (above and below): — Le Mans Classic 2022

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.

The only Grégoire Sport with a coupé body was made in 1957. All other cars were drop-tops.


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.


Related post:

Classic Snapshot From 1961: Gregoire Sport Cabriolet – Front Overhang Pioneer, by Paul Niedermeyer