In "Hudson Commodore", a haunting song by Jason Isbell, the protagonist, an independent-minded lady who has raised two kids in the Bible Belt without much help, dreams of escape. We're not told that her story unfolds in the late 1940s, but the cars she admires are a clue. Isbell tells us that she'd like to be driven around in a Hudson Commodore, perhaps like the characters in Jack Kerouac's On the Road. He sings that "she just wanted to ride in a Delahaye 135...no need to worry anymore."
From the middle of the 1930s to the dawn of the 1950s, a Delahaye 135, especially a convertible, was a smooth and speedy way to travel from Paris to the French Riviera, and it was also a guarantee that you'd be noticed as you hummed along life's highways. A Type 135, dressed in the best custom bodywork French coach builders could offer, would insure that you'd arrive in style and comfort. But the cars weren't always associated with high style. Emile Delahaye founded the company in 1894, and by the mid-1920s Delahaye was associated with a line of sturdy trucks and stolid, unexciting family sedans. The onset of the Great Depression prompted the company's conservative managers to seek out clients where the money still was, and they were encouraged in that effort by loyal customer and racing team funder Lucy O'Reilly Schell*, who purchased one of the firm's first sporting efforts, a Coupe des Alpes model, named after an Alpine road rally. Initially offered as a 3.2 liter grand touring car, it soon grew to 3.5 liters and the model number 135 reflected this engine size.
This 1948 Type 135 cabriolet was bodied by Henri Chapron with harmonious curves set off by Chapron's typical zest in employing two-tone paint schemes and bright chrome accents...
The car features a reliable inline overhead-valve six cylinder engine of 3.5 liters, with power sent to a live rear axle by way of a Cotal electromagnetic pre-selector transmission. This transmission was part of a trend toward pre-selectors in luxury cars during the period preceding automatics, and had a parallel in the pre-selector transmission for the Cord 810 which appeared across the Atlantic in 1936.
The interior was generally cushier than that in Delahaye's sister car from this period, the Delage D6. While both cars featured an independent front suspension, Delahaye retained mechanical brakes until after WWII, while Louis Delage was an early advocate of hydraulic brakes, and insisted on retaining them after the Delahaye takeover of his firm.*
In 1937 Delahaye launched the Type 145 racing car as a response to a French government prize of a million francs* for a car that could beat a speed record for 200 kilometers held by Alfa Romeo. The construction of four cars was financed by the O'Reilly-Schell racing effort, which ran a factory-supported team for Delahaye. The engines were 60-degree V12s of 4.5 liters (thus 145) and featured light blocks of magnesium alloy as well as overhead valves operated by pushrods actuated by 3 camshafts. Unlike the 135, rear suspension was a De Dion type. The effort paid off when Delahaye took 1st and 3rd places at the 1938 Grand Prix at Pau, France, beating the more powerful and better-financed Mercedes team. The winning driver, Rene Dreyfus, later won the Grand Prix at Cork, Ireland. That same year, a Delahaye 145 finished Italy's thousand mile race, the Mille Miglia, in 4th place. One of the racers, likely the actual million-franc record setter, was re-bodied by Franay with sweeping elegance and economy of line, as shown below. Note the central fin on the rear deck lid.
Today this car has been reunited with a rare V12 engine and restored; it won an award at the Pebble Beach Concours...
Two of the 145 racers were re-bodied by Henri Chapron as closed coupes in somewhat more sober style, with (for Chapron anyway) restrained paint jobs belying the wild machinery underneath the curves...
In addition to the 145 racers, Delahaye decided to offer the V12 engine design in a luxury road car, the Type 165. Mechanical differences on this larger and heavier car included an engine block of mere aluminum instead of magnesium alloy, 12 spark plugs instead of 24, and a live rear axle from the 135 in place of the De Dion rear suspension. Four and possibly five Type 165s were built, including show cars for Paris and the New York World's Fair which were bodied as spectacular streamlined roadsters with retractable windshields by Figoni and Falaschi. The World's Fair car was shipped with an incomplete engine (no pistons, crankshaft or connecting rods) as war clouds loomed over France and forced a halt to this extravagant project. The New York car received a complete engine years after the war; today the two surviving 165s seem to float above the lawns at car shows, their spatted wheels hiding behind wave-themed chrome accents...
In the car-hungry postwar market, Delahaye decided the epic V12 had no place, instead devising a brand new 4.5 liter inline six for the new Type 175, which featured a De Dion rear suspension, hydraulic brakes (finally) and a Dubonnet front suspension which had first appeared on that inventor's 1938 Xenia.* The new engine had seven main bearings to the 135's four, and a twelve-port head. Chassis side rails were parallel, making for a wider passenger compartment.
Another sign of modern thinking at Delahaye was the left-hand steering, a first for the company. Like many upper-crust makes in France (Talbot, Bugatti) and Italy (Lancia), Delahaye had held onto right-hand drive as a sign of status. The left-hand drive may have also reflected an interest in exporting cars to the States and Canada. Delahaye and its coach builders were pioneers in adopting colored bakelite (in this case, gold) as well as clear lucite for steering wheels...
This 1949 Type 175 Coupe de Ville was bodied by Jacques Saoutchik with typical two-toned, chrome-accented verve. The car was a part of casino owner William Harrah's collection, and he gifted it to singer Bobbie Gentry ("Ode to Bille Joe") when he married her. It's a true coupe de ville (sorry, Cadillac) in that the roof over the driver's compartment is removable, leaving the rear seats covered by a sweeping expanse of metal.
By the time the 175 arrived, it was pretty heavy metal. The bodywork that coach builders like Saoutchik fashioned for the new chassis was often a bit too heavy for the new suspension Delahaye had designed. This led to problems with handling as well as frequency of repair on the new model. The massive three-place cabriolet bodied by Saoutchik during this period was an example. Shown below, floating above four hidden and possibly overloaded tires, it was presented as a gift to actress Diana Dors...
Sadly, the expense of the new model in the heavily-taxed French market, and the failure to attract sufficient interest in North America, where Hans Hoffman had taken on selling Delahaye after the war, resulted in discontinuation of the 175 and related 178 sedan and 180 limousine by the end of 1951. Ironically, it was the same year that two special 175S models with aluminum-head engines and alloy bodywork by Motto* finished 1st and 5th in the Monte Carly Rally. It wasn't enough. Total production of the three related models amounted to only 105 cars. In search of a more practical formula, Delahaye fell back on refurbishing the old reliable 135, and that same year introduced the Type 235. This somewhat lighter, less extravagant car was based on the 135 chassis with its simpler independent front suspension, smaller engine and live rear axle. Customers got hydraulic brakes, engines uprated to 140 hp with 3 carburetors, and a choice of still-lavish bodywork by the dwindling number of specialists still working in Paris.
These included Henri Chapron, who built a couple of these graceful coupes. Note the way the front fenders swoop above the surface of the low, louvered hood. At least two nearly identical cars were bodied in this style, and two additional stylistic variants appeared in1953 with more squared-off fender lines, anticipating the Mercedes 220S coupes. Despite its rarity, this coupe provided reliable transport for decades to its loyal French owner...
Sauotchik offered a two-seater roadster as an alternative to the Chapron coupes, but it appears only one was built. This car appears below; note the central deck fin which seems a faint echo of the Franay 145 cabriolet.
Saoutchik built a single fastback coupe on the 235 chassis in 1953, and the design shows a masterful integration of the designer's traditional sweeping fenders with the more restrained chrome and trimmer proportions of the 235. Note how much closer the wheels are to the car's flanks and corners than on the enclosed-wheel Saoutchik 175 roadster. Note also that the steering wheel is back on the right side, perhaps a sign that Delahaye had abandoned the idea of exports to North America.
Though simpler than the 175, the 235 cost more than twice the price of a better-performing Jaguar XK120, and this hurt sales. Delahaye lowered costs by about 30% by getting Chapron to offer a "standard" body design which resembled a two-door sedan more than a coupe. Designer Phillipe Charbonneux came up with a kind of design template for the modernized 235 in 1951, and copies of this full-width envelope body which foreshadowed later Facel Vegas were built by Motto in Italy (a single prototype) and Letourneur et Marchand and Antem in France...
But nobody tooled up for enough bodies to get the costs down enough, and Delahaye's most promising venture during this period was building its own clever alternative to the Jeep for the French Army. In 1954 the old firm was absorbed by Hotchkiss, which was also having trouble selling luxury cars, and had designs on the French "alternative Jeep" market. The last Delahaye road car appeared at the Paris Salon in 1954.
*Footnote: For the story on Delahaye's adventure in GP racing, visit the archives for the essay entitled "Dreyfus and the Million-Franc Delahaye vs. the Third Reich", posted on Nov. 22, 2015. A brief history of Delahaye's eventual sister marque, Delage, appeared on May 20, 2018 under the title "Delage: A Car for the Ages." Andre Dubonnet's dream car, the Xenia, has been featured three times in these posts, first in "One of One: A Brief History of Singular Cars" on Sept. 7, 2015 and again in "Roadside Attraction: Rolling Sculpture" on Dec. 31, 2016, and finally in "Hispano Suiza" on Sept. 25, 2017. Cars bodied by Rocco Motto were showcased in "Unsung Genius: Rocco Motto" on March 25, 2018.
1st thru 4th from top: the author
5th: Tom Burnside
6th thru 8th from top: wikimedia
9th thru 12th from top (Type 175 Saoutchik Coupe de Ville): the author
14th (Type 175 Saoutchik cabriolet): customcarchronicle.org
15th & 16th (Chapron 235 coupe): lesdelahaye235.blogspot.com
17th thru 19th from top (silver 235 roadster and black coupe): wikimedia
20th & 21st (red Type 235): the author