It has always surprised me that the French Delahaye automobile company is relatively little known in the UK and the USA. I remember coming across one in an auction in Pennsylvania sometime in the 1960s and was most impressed by the fact that this Delahaye had 4 forward gears and 4 reverse gears! But at $900 I gave it a miss. We all make mistakes. Many years later fate allowed me to test many of the 20(!) of these marvellous French cars in the collection of one man. And the one you see here was my favourite.
Delahaye conjures up a mixed vision of large and long French Grand Prix and sports cars of the late 1930s and a variety of extraordinary coach-built luxury machines constructed in that post-war decade of the late 1940s through the middle of the 1950s. The name remains little known to most people, and even the enthusiasts are unlikely to be aware of the diversity of machinery that came from the French company. The victories of the Type 135 at Le Mans and in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1938 are very well recorded, as is the 4th place taken by a V-12-engine car at the Mille Miglia in that year. But there was a great deal that came before and after that significant year before the start of WWII.
Emile Delahaye was an ambitious man, and in 1890 he took over a machine shop in Tours in France which had been in existence since 1845. Delahaye had been the chief engineer for a Belgian-French company which was building railroad stock and equipment. The firm he took over had been making steam, gas and paraffin engines, mostly for industrial use. By 1894, when Benz was in the early years of automotive production, Delahaye was building a car similar to the first Benz, with a four-cylinder engine and a tubular chassis, with tubular radiators. Progress on this machine was promising enough to gain an entry for two cars in the 1896 Paris-Marseilles-Paris road race. So Delahaye history goes back longer than most people realise. This race lasted ten days, much of it over roads that were turned into great muddy quagmires by one of the worst storms in France for many years. Delahaye drove one of the cars himself, and his second car was handled by ‘veteran’ automotive adventurer Ernest Archdeacon. Archdeacon finished 6th at an average speed of 14 mph, while Delahaye himself was 8th at 14 mph. The winner was Mayade in a Panhard at 15.7 mph. The new Delahaye auto was widely praised for its rugged endurance, and its reputation as a racing machine was already assured.