• Wheelbase: 114"
• The deVillars show car for 1938 Salon
• Gorgeous light deVillars coachwork with 160 hp chassis and outstanding performance
• Multiple awards including Best in Class at Pebble Beach
Delahayes have always been remarkable automobiles, but Delahaye’s history began well before the dawn of the automobile with the establishment of M. Brethon’s machine shop in Tours in 1845. In the late 19th century, Emile Delahaye acquired Brethon’s operation and began experimenting with gasoline engines. He built his first automobile in 1895, and in 1896, he drove one of his automobiles to sixth place in the Paris-Marseilles-Paris race. The Delahaye cars were interesting, quick, responsive and often astonishing to look at.
Adventuresome in their engineering, these early Delahayes drew many comparisons to the better-known Benz automobiles. Emile had great reserves of ingenuity, however, not finances. This resulted in his selling of the company to the Desmarais family, who recognized Emile’s vision and continued to expand on it throughout the rest of the company’s history. In 1898, Delahaye took in two partners, Leon Desmarais and Georges Morane, and moved to a factory in Paris.
To organize and manage the new operation, they hired Charles Weiffenbach. “Monsieur Charles” would remain at the helm of Delahaye through two World Wars and the next fifty-five years, guiding Delahaye after Emile Delahaye sold his interest in 1901.
The post-World War I recession hit Delahaye hard, exacerbated by a glut of war surplus US trucks which decimated Delahaye’s truck market. It survived, aided by a marriage of convenience with Chenard et Walcker and F.A.R. Tractor, but as the Depression took hold a few years later, a change in its business plan was needed. Monsieur Charles – some say at the urging of Ettore Bugatti – initiated a drastic change in Delahaye’s product strategy to create a performance image.
Launched at the 1935 Paris Salon, the Type 135 would prove to be Delahaye’s mainstay for the rest of its lifetime. Historian David Burgess-Wise describes it as “the keystone of the survival plan which Delahaye, one of France’s oldest car manufacturers, had drawn up to cope with the crisis-hit Thirties.” In fact, it survived into the Forties and Fifties.
The 135 featured a new chassis, designed by engineer Jean-François, with welded box-section side members and pressed cross members welded to a ribbed floor. The engine was a 3,557 cc OHV six, as used in the earlier Type 138, from which the transverse leaf spring independent front suspension was also carried over.
In 1938, a new, top-of-the-line model of the Type 135 was introduced at the 1938 Paris Salon, the MS (Modifiee Speciale). Its power plant was a thoroughly updated version of the existing 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine. A larger cylinder head and bigger valves improved breathing, and horsepower was increased to 130 hp. With proper gearing and slippery coachwork, it could reach an incredible top speed of 110 mph. Fitted with triple carburetion, output rose again to an astonishing 160 bhp.
Competent as the 135 may be, it is the coachwork that defines a Delahaye. The greatest artists of the time created some of their best work on Delahaye chassis; Figoni et Falaschi, Henri Chapron, Letourner et Marchand, Saoutchik, Guillore, Franay, and Graber were just a few whose art graced Delahayes. However, if one coachbuilding firm deserved special distinction, it would have to be deVillars – not by volume but rather by beauty.
Frank Jay Gould, an American expatriate and scion of the legendary Wall Street financier Jay Gould, had taken up residence in Nice, where he owned and operated the Palais de la Méditerranée, a grand hotel conceived and executed to cater to the financial and social elite of the time.
At the same time, Gould recognized a need among his wealthy friends for repair and service of their automobiles, and a business that would evolve into deVillars as a coachbuilder was added to the firm’s repertoire. The company was named after a good friend Dorothy, ex-wife of Roland de Graffenreid deVillars and established in 1932 at 53-55 Boulevard de la Mission-Marchand in Courbevoie. Built to have a capacity of 25 bodies per year, deVillars’ output never came close to that figure.
Nonetheless, the firm’s clientele reflected Gould’s social connections, including Mme. Louis Arpels, Louis Breguet, Ali Khan, and Prince Gourielli, husband of Helena Rubenstein. The caliber of the firm’s work was also reflected in the chassis chosen to receive deVillars’ coachwork, including Rolls-Royce, Cadillac V16, Mercedes 500K, Bentley, Hispano-Suiza, and Delage, along with, of course, Delahaye. The firm’s work was highly regarded, with elegant lines, flowing curves and subtle shapes.
Waiting at deVillars was a design originally penned for Duesenberg and later adapted for the Mercedes 500K. It was not until it was redrafted for the Delahaye that the beauty of this coachwork became apparent. Without the bulk of the Duesenberg or the Mercedes-Benz, the car, which had seemed imposing, was now svelte, the grace of its curves perfectly suited to the lower lines of the Delahaye.
A singularly beautiful design, S/N 60123 incorporated a flowing body envelope that was enhanced by a delightful body-side sweep. Its lack of running boards, accompanied by bright trim on the rocker panels and fender edges, gives the car its modern look. The raked “vee” windscreen and close-coupled two-passenger cabin results in a stunning and highly sporting appearance. It is important to note that while it is not difficult for a convertible to be made to look good with its top up, the reverse is much more difficult to accomplish. In the case of s/n 60123, this was accomplished with the disappearing top that neatly avoids the bulky top stack so often seen at the time.
The inspiration for the design is said to have been the Alfa Romeo Flying Star, a landmark design executed by the house of Touring in Milano. The result exceeded expectations, and S/N 60123 took pride of place on the deVillars stand at the 1938 Salon, where it received international attention.
Another important advantage to the slim and elegant lines of S/N 60123 is that the result is one of the lightest bodies of its kind. Combined with the new 160 bhp chassis, the end product is a level of performance seldom, if ever, found outside the race track.
Long thought lost, S/N 60123 was discovered by a French enthusiast in the 1970s, who elected to undertake a thorough restoration to the French standards of the day. The work was carried out by Andre LeCoq, one of France’s leading shops, and the restoration was recognized by a Best in Show award at Bagatelle.
The vendor who offered this lovely Delahaye at the 2010 Monterey auction acquired it in 2000 and immediately commissioned a comprehensive restoration by highly respected Chicago area restorer Fran Roxas. The body was completely stripped and removed from the chassis which was then fully disassembled to the last nut and bolt.
Although the body proved remarkably solid, several minor repairs were made to both the structural woodwork and the sheet metal. Door fits were exceptional for the period, a further testimonial to the quality of deVillars’ workmanship. The chassis was blasted and painted, and each component – springs, axles, shocks and steering mechanism – was repaired as needed and refinished. The drivetrain was fully rebuilt, including the engine and accessories. A specialist was engaged to rebuild the Cotal gearbox, with the result that it shifts beautifully. Few realize how strong these transmissions were – they were the choice of most French racing drivers at the time.
The restoration was completed in 2003, and the results were magnificent, with invitations received from virtually every major concours d’elegance, including both Pebble Beach, where it won its class, and Amelia Island.
Provenance, performance and appeal. Above all else, one thing about this 1938 Delahaye 135MS to which both the learned collector and the neophyte will agree – it is absolutely gorgeous.