Having just returned from Le Mans Classic, and not least having driven down there and back in my Alpine A310, I’ve been on a huge overdose of French classic cars. It’s lead to many thoughts and considerations during our extended weekend trip, not least: What has been France’s finest, most exclusive and exquisite contribution to the automotive world?
This is actually no easy question to answer, even if it is often overlooked (at least outside of France!) that France was instrumental during the early years of the automobile. For starters, just consider the fact that the very first automotive race was held from Paris to Rouen in 1894. And not least that what is arguably the very biggest race of them all, i.e. Le Mans 24 Heures, is still alive and stronger than ever. There should be no doubt that the French have deep-rooted and proud automotive traditions – even if their current car manufacturers only manage somewhat lackluster products in this day and age. Even so, the big three – Citroën, Renault and Peugeot – have all contributed massively to the evolution of the automobile, and in doing so they have also given us enthusiasts, cars which will always stand as milestones.
But they have all had a strong focus on everyday cars. Cars for transport – for life on the road with family, eggs, hay and dogs and other practicalities. But what lies above this class of automobile? What is, so to speak, the French Ferrari?
I inevitably keep returning to Talbot-Lago, though that is naturally a personal preference, where others might be thinking Delage, Delahaye, Avions Voisin or the very obvious answer, Bugatti. I just feel that Bugatti’s heritage has become somewhat watered down in modern times, with their desperate attempt at resurrecting the already dead and buried marque (officially since 1963, but practically speaking, well before that), without any true bloodline back to the original company. As of yet, luckily no one has tried to bring back the Talbot-Lago brand, which is perhaps a bit surprising considering they gave us some of the most stunningly beautiful cars the world has ever seen.
Or should that read the most beautiful? There are several enthusiasts and historians who would argue so. Granted, that was back in the thirties, so many could have since forgotten. Perhaps even forgotten that whole era as the interest for pre-war machinery seems to continue to shrink. So, let’s refresh our collective memory: Automobiles Talbot – itself a descendant of the illustrious Darracq – had run into financial problems after the great depression of 1932, and was subsequently bought out by the recently appointed managing director, Antonio Lago, in 1936 – thereby creating Talbot-Lago. Under Lago’s ownership they initially continued production of their previous products compromising four different chassis lengths, a 2.3-litre 4-cylinder engine, and a straight-6 available as either 2.7-litre, 3-litre or 4-litre. But Lago was both an ambitious man and a talented engineer. The engines and the suspension underwent continuous development. Bigger and better, they were fitted to expensive and well-built luxury passenger cars and high performance race cars. Soon enough, Lago had made a name for himself. And not least, introduced a car bearing his name, which was a strong contender for the title as “the world’s most beautiful automobile” – the famous Teardrop:
No two “teardrops” are identical, and one could no doubt spend quite some time which is the most striking. Regardless, there are several of them which could have a good shot at being crowned the most beautiful automobile in the world. I have been lucky enough to see a couple of them in the flesh. It is virtually surreal just how breathtakingly beautiful they are – even more so when you consider that they were designed during the late thirties. Those shapely curves came from that eras short obsession with aerodynamics – from before we truly understood the science of it. But instead they understood a whole lot about aesthetics, style and appearance.
To me, it is equally impressive that the mechanical components beneath those spectacular bodies left as little to be desired as did the design. The Talbot-Lago’s of this period were mechanically on par with the image they portrayed. They were race breed and tested in cars like this:
Which just means that those phenomenal bodies hid just as phenomenal drivetrains. Mechanically, the road cars were surprisingly identical with Talbot-Lago’s very successful Grand Prix racers, running anything up to 4-litre straight-6 engines with triple carburettors and a 4-speed transmission. In fact, a perfectly standard road car with a conventional closed body participated in Le Mans in 1938 and managed to give Talbot-Lago an impressive third overall. Talbot-Lago was a force to be reckoned with! Even their short chassis 4-cylinder cars were still technically advanced and suitably expensive. Talbot-Lago seemed unstoppable in their rapid rise to the top – but they weren’t. The Second World War practically brought car production to a halt worldwide. Suddenly, no one was thinking about expensive race cars.
As such, Talbot-Lago’s history almost came to a grinding halt before the aforementioned Ferrari’s even got started. But Antonio Lago fought back after the war. The state of the world had not even normalised, before enthusiasts were buying and racing performance cars again. So Talbot-Lago got stuck back into producing highly effective race cars, and as this was the only components they had on the shelf, by default their road cars continued the tradition of being largely based on race car technology.
A new engine was developed for 1946, which was loosely based on the original 4-litre block. However, it was now increased to 4.5-litres and a technically advanced twincam head was developed for the big straight-6. This engine produced as much as 200hp in road trim, and for Le Mans in 1950 it powered the Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport to a convincing overall win. You would be forgiven for presuming this would have sealed their fate.
But financially they were still struggling. They managed to push through and introduce a new model in 1954: The Talbot-Lago Sport with yet another new engine – this time a 2.5-litre 4-cylinder once again sporting a twincam head. But the new engine was criticised for being too uncultivated for such an expensive car. Furthermore, the chassis was starting to show its age too, as it was still based on the chassis they had used up through the thirties.
By now, Talbot-Lago had exhausted their financial resources to the point where it was impossible for them to develop another engine of their own. Instead they bought one from BMW: The compact V8 which is also found in BMW saloons of that era and not least the stunning BMW 507. However, due to the tax system imposed on cars in France, the engine capacity was reduced to 2.5-liters for it to sneak into a lower tax bracket.
In a last desperate attempt to increase sales and income, Talbot-Lago tried to appeal to the American market. Their new car had a V8 which was of course a good start, and they even opted to dub the new model “America”. Only, it didn’t happen. At US $ 7,000 the Talbot-Lago was significantly cheaper than the BMW 507 which required all of US $ 12,000, but it made no difference. Granted, every single “America” was exported, but they only built a mere 12 examples. I suppose you could argue that with the German engine, it wasn’t really a proper French luxury car any longer.
From here the demise of Talbot-Lago was probably inevitable, but at least Antonio Lago had managed to keep the company afloat longer than all of those other French luxury marques mentioned earlier. Finally, in 1959, Lago accepted an offer from Simca who really only purchased the grand old company for their production facilities.
But for a short moment on either side of the Second World War, Talbot-Lago were at their most glorious prime at the very top of the automobile hierarchy. Their illustrious “Goutte d’Eau”-coupé and not least their Le Mans victory are both engraved in automotive history, thus justifying the Ferrari comparison. Both marques have strong connections to motorsport, and both have gifted us with some of the most stunning machinery the world has seen. As a further little oddity, the most beautiful designs from either marque were actually outsourced to external coachbuilders.
Today, Talbot-Lago is of course much rarer and exclusive than Ferrari. So where do you go if you want to experience these beautiful French creations in the flesh? Well, France of course. There are usually always one or two present at the epic Rétromobile held in Paris every February.
Or should you have a significant amount of spare cash lingering somewhere on a Swiss account, you could of course just buy your own. The market is hardly flooded with Talbot-Lago’s, but they do come up every so often. Currently the German classic car dealer Thiesen has a thoroughly stunning 1954 Talbot-Lago T26 GSL in their inventory. Go ahead, treat yourself to something très magnifique…