Lost Marques: Delaunay-Belleville - The Car Magnificent

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 1904 - 1950
MOST NEW CARS ARE LAUNCHED with a certain amount of doubt as to whether or not they will succeed, but when Delaunay-Belleville of Saint-Denis announced their first motor car at the 1904 Paris Salon, the motoring press received it with an almost unprecedented enthusiasm.

Delaunay-Belleville had already achieved tremendous success as manufacturers of locomotive and marine boilers and steam engines (Louis Renault served an apprenticeship with them in the mid- 1890s), but this hardly seemed sufficient justification for such eulogies as L: Baudry de Saunier heaped on it in the January 1905 issue of La Vie Automobile: 'Announcing some cars which bear one of the greatest names of French industry. They are thus born with the weighty obligation of being equal to the renown of their family. I have real pleasure in confirming that the famous factory of Saint-Denis can, without demur, recognise them as its daughters'.

Designer of the new cars was Marius Barbarou, formerly with Clement and Benz who, at the age of 28, was now given the task of creating a range of vehicles suited to the exacting requirements of a select clientele who demanded absolute comfort combined with elegance and mechanical perfection.

A Three Model Line-up For 1905

Three models constituted the Delaunay-Belleville range for 1905, a live-axle 16 hp, with a top speed of 40 mph, a 24 hp with chain final drive and a 45 mph maximum and a 40 hp, again chain driven, which could attain 55 mph. All were four-cylinder models, and were probably the first cars to feature pressure lubrication of the crankshaft though, as Delaunay-Belleville themselves were quick to point out, the idea itself was not new as they had patented it in I897 and had already used it on steam engines of from 10 to 6800 bhp.

The design of the cars was full of many ingenious features; for example, the bodywork could be lifted from the chassis simply by undoing four bolts, while the chassis frame itself had 'hermetically sealed' undershields running the entire length to protect the mechanism from road grit and dust.

The makers were obviously worried that the cars might be driven too quickly, so they ensured that shortage of brakes would never be a problem; the brake cheeks of both brakes were hollow, and were water fed from a two gallon tank, and steam escape orifices were provided to the water spaces in the event of long hills! The hallmark of the Delaunay-Belleville was its circular radiator and bonnet, which, it was said, commemorated the company's long association with boilers.

1908 Delaunay-Belleville with coachwork by Mulliner
1908 Delaunay-Belleville with coachwork by Mulliner.

10/12 HP Delaunay-Belleville
10/12 HP Delaunay-Belleville.

By 1906 Delaunay-Belleville had secured the patronage of their most important customer - the Czar of Russia
By 1906 Delaunay-Belleville had secured the patronage of their most important customer - the Czar of Russia.

The 4 cylinder engine in this 1924 Delaunay-Belleville model would wind the car out to an impressive top speed of 85 mph
The 4 cylinder engine in this 1924 Delaunay-Belleville model would wind the car out to an impressive top speed of 85 mph.

1908 Delaunay-Belleville with coachwork by Mulliner
1936 Delahaye Type 135 competition version, which produced 160bhp from a 3.5 liter engine.

Showing the Triple Phaeton to President Loubet

Right from the start, the Delaunay-Belleville was established as one of the world's leading quality makes; at the Paris Salon in December 1905, M. Delaunay-Belleville showed his new triple phaeton to President Loubet who was reportedly highly impressed and, by 1906, the company had gained its most illustrious client, the Czar of Russia, who had bought one of the new 40 hp sixes. Delaunay-Belleville were the first French company to market a six-cylinder model seriously; alongside the 40 they introduced a massive 70 hp model which, though it was not listed for either the 1907 or 1908 seasons, once more became available in 1909 and continued in limited production until 1912.

Type SMT - Sa Majeste le Tsar

It was this model which subsequently gained the designation Type SMT (Sa Majeste le Tsar) because of the Russian Emperor's predilection for it; he bought one of the very last 70S to be built in I9I2, a vast limousine with a clerestory roof.

In 1909, the Czar ordered yet another Delaunay-Belleville, but the head of the Imperial garages (presumably M. Kegresse, who later designed the Citroen half-track), laid down that the car must be capable of being started from the driving seat in absolute silence.

The car weighed 4 tons in running order and the problem of silent starting was overcome by using an engine-driven compressor pump which supplied air at 100 Ib per sq in to a pressure reservoir. This device, known as the Barbey starter, was available on all models from the end of 1910.

Between 1906 and 1914, the company produced a bewildering variety of four and six-cylinder models; the make was handled in Great Britain by the Burlington Carriage Co of Oxford Street, London, who had previously been associated with De Dietrich.

The cars were sent over from France by sea and, unless the customer had specified a particular coachbuilder, the chassis were shipped to Aberdeen, where Shinnie Brothers, a subsidiary of Burlington, built the body and returned the completed vehicle to London by rail.

One of the more spectacular orders received by the London agency was for an open touring six-cylinder 40 hp for the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. Around 1909, the agency was acquired by three former Burlington employees, Delaney, Maysmith and Carroll; Burlington closed down soon after.

Delaunay-Bellevilles were also imported into England already fitted with Continental coachwork; the coachbuilders most associated with the marque were the Belgium company of D'Ieteren Freres, Their limousine laundaulette was said to be a popular type of body in conjunction with a noiseless chassis; on the 26 hp Delaunay-Belleville, this style cost £900 complete, a price roughly halfway between Napier and Rolls-Royce.

In 1919, Barbarou left Delaunay-Belleville to join Lorraine-Dietrich and, from that point, the marque's old quality began a gentle decline. Post-war models initially retained the round radiator and bonnet, though the lines of the radiator were softened and given a V front.

New models were beginning to make their appearance, there was even an uncharacteristic venture into the voiturette field with a 10 hp four, which was probably the most expensive light car on the market, but more typical was the P 4B 15.9 hp four of 1922, with its overhead-camshaft engine.

The Car Not So Magnificent

The pre-war 20 and 30 hp sixes remained in production until I927, gaining four-wheel brakes in 1923. New 16/60 and 14/40 hp four-cylinder models appeared in 1926, with pushrod-operated overhead-valves; an indication of the diminishing standards of Delaunay-Belleville was the use of a central gear lever on the new models instead of the traditional right-hand change.

Gone, too, was the circular radiator, replaced by a conventional cooler of no individuality. A 3180cc, 21 hp six was introduced in 1928, with servo-assisted braking on the front wheels, and transmission operated by the pedal and the handbrake acting on the rear wheels.

An unpleasing variant of this model appeared in 1929 under the designation 20/65 hp, with side instead of overhead valves. It lasted just a year in production, and was then replaced with the 25/75 hp, 3619 cc ohv six. The final insult came in 1931, when 4 and 4.5-liter Continental engines, imported from America, were offered in the six-cylinder chassis; they were, it was said, cheaper and quieter than the French product.

By the late 1930s the company was offering a 2.3-liter six, with styling reminiscent of the contemporary Mercedes-Benz 230; this model was revived briefly after World War 2, up-dated with a new radiator grille and a Cotal electrically operated gearbox.

However, France in the 1940s was hardly the right milieu for even a lack-lustre Delaunay-Belleville such as this one, and the marque which had once borne the slogan 'The Car Magnificent' ceased production in 1950; its factory was acquired by a cyclecar maker.

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