The somewhat peculiar looking car in the main picture above is equipped with a 2-litre mid-mounted Citroën engine producing 56 hp. Amazingly, the body has a drag coefficient of only 0.23. The topspeed is 150 km/h. Quite an accomplishment in 1946!
The car was presented at the opening of the Grand Prix de l’Autoroute de l’Ouest in the summer of 1946. It was officially named the Wimille Prototype No.1 after one of the periods most illustrious French racing drivers, Jean-Pierre Wimille.
Wimille lived his life right on the ragged edge, leading to enough daring tales to easily fill a novel. He was a shining star at Le Mans, winning the 24-hour endurance race twice behind the wheel of a Bugatti. First in 1937 with Robert Benoist and again in 1939 this time driving with another French legend, Pierre Veyron. Once the war put a stop to motorsport, he instead joined the French Resistance and later became a pilot for the famous Direction des Opérations Spéciales – an anti-German network in the occupied parts of France. Once the war finally ended, Wimille immediately restarted his motorsport career, winning in spectacular form one of the very first races held at Bois de Boulogne in 1945. He subsequently became the number one driver for Alfa Romeo from 1946 to 1948, and began racing the petite Simca-Gordinis as well, utilising his talent to put the small French marque on the map.
During the early 1940’s Wimille had begun fantasising about a car of his own. Before the war, he had almost only raced Bugattis, but despite their German origins, he had developed a profound interest in the great Auto Unions. It was their German technology with independent suspension and a high rigid chassis which had impressed Wimille. Together with a small group of ex-Bugatti engineers, he began designing a new vehicle which would incorporate all of that and more. Approximately six years later, the first prototype was ready.
The aerodynamic prototype was packed with ingenuity and was frankly nothing short of revolutionary. For instance, the three-seat configuration had centrally-placed steering with the driver sitting slightly forward with a passenger either side of him – something we all praised the McLaren F1 for when it was introduced all of 47 years later. Also, while initially advertised as being rear-engined, it was in fact a slightly different concept first attempted by another Frenchman, Emilie Claveau during the 1920s, which Wimille and his team of engineers tried to perfect – namely the mid-mounted engine. But despite very convincing results during testing, Jean-Pierre Wimille wasn’t content. He had initially wanted to equip his prototype with a small 70 hp V6-engine, but time constraints had led to the smaller Citroën engine. Wimille wanted more. In an attempt to improve on the original, a second prototype was built which is easily identifiable by its cyclops headlight.
Still, further improvements were sought, and surprisingly Wimille eventually opted for a mid-mounted Ford V8 in his third prototype in a quest for more performance. This prototype was launched at the 1948 Salon de l’Automobile in Paris with the befitting slogan “The car for the future, today”.
The oblong design was penned by Philippe Charbonneaux while it was manufactured at the French coachbuilder, Faget-Varnet. Wimille’s vision had grown into an all-together larger car, but it still retained independent suspension, mid-mounted engine and not least a rather special transmission. It was produced by Cotal and was effectively an early variation of the later automatic gearbox.
Wimille was hopeful that they could initiate a small production run of his car, and was in serious discussions with Ford of France. Sadly, the dream was not to be. On the 28th of January 1949, Wimille took part in the Grand Prix General Peron in Buenos Aires, Argentina. During practice in his small but agile Simca-Gordini, it suddenly all went awfully wrong. The accident has always remained a mystery. Some claim he was forced to swerve violently in order to avoid spectators who were stood on the track as they wanted to be as close to their hero as possible. Others believe he was blinded by the sun as he came around a bend and subsequently lost control of his car. There are even some who suggest that a fault on one of the car’s axles resulted in an uncontrollable slide. Wimille was declared dead before they even got him to the hospital.
A fourth and final prototype, almost identical with the third designed by Charbonneaux, was built by Faget-Varnet and displayed at Salon de l’Automobile in 1950. However, in the meantime Ford in Detroit had ordered Ford France to end their corporation with the Wimille family, thereby effectively killing off the ambitious and intriguing concept.