We look at Glamour from a turbulent time.
Though a fool for Romance, I am rather impervious to Glamour. I certainly don’t suggest that I’m spiritually above the vulgar charms of diamonds and mink, and this isn’t a case of me eschewing something that I really want but can’t afford. It’s just that I could never take myself seriously in that world. Today’s high-end supercars leave me cold, since their ultimate abilities would be beyond my skills, and climbing into them with dignity is so difficult. And, although I might quite find the idea of the Rolls Royce Starlight Headliner, in a constellation of my own choice, quite intriguing on technical grounds, for me the simple moulded rippling wave inside the roof of my Nissan Cube does the job better.
But, I make an exception for French carrosserie of the 1930s and 1940s, and high on the list of “Car Museums I Will Probably Never Visit But Really Wish I Had” is the Mullin Automotive Museum in California. I’m ambivalent to the monied collectors who take their cosmetically over-restored beauties to Pebble Beach every year but, in the face of Peter Mullin’s collection, which he ensures drive as well as they look, he gets my full respect.
At the Mullin Museum you’ll see the works of most of the crucial names in French coachbuilding – Giuseppe Figoni, Jacques Saoutchik and Henri Chapron, who all had their own companies, as well as Jean Bugatti who, working for his father’s company, had as good an eye as any of them and Gabriel Voisin, who didn’t generally have much time for outside coachbuilders and built his cars in his own impressive, if not always conventionally elegant, style. There are also other builders such as Franay and Gangloff. The only builder who seems disappointingly under-represented in the collection is Pourtout, with a single Peugeot 402 Cabriolet.
Of course, even if you discount the social implications of a privileged few flaunting hugely expensive cars in a world that was teetering between a depression and a huge war, the carrossier’s products weren’t, and aren’t, to everyone’s taste. We British, with our inbred fear of the pretentious, were quick to dub Figoni et Falaschi as ‘Phony and Flashy’ and, like Art Deco generally, some designs work a lot better than others. The lily is frequently gilded, then silver plated before platinum highlights are added, but they certainly fulfilled their brief of providing suitably glamorous fantasy fulfillment for the wealthy and, at their best, they are some of the finest styled cars ever.
After the War, many carrossiers carried on for a while, but times were very different and some of their attempts to recapture past glories on ageing pre-war chassis were beginning to verge on the silly – though personally I’m glad they made the effort. Of the above names, Chapron lasted the longest as a carrossier, building special bodies for Citroen well into the 70s, before finally closing in 1985. Other companies, like Pourtout, still exist in name, but do other things. The style has had an influence; would the lavish excesses of US car design have been less had not the French set a precedent and, more directly, don’t the forms of Loewy (himself French-born) Studio’s Studebakers and William Lyons’ Jaguars show a distinct influence?
But the sweeping proportions don’t really transfer to modern car architecture. The Embiricos Bentley, built in 1938 by Pourtout, inspired the 1952 R-Type Mulliner Continental Coupe. For the latter car, a traditional upright radiator grille was deemed a commercial necessity, but the production car is still a hugely elegant thing. The Continental name then went through many iterations, but after the takeover by VAG it was revived for a car that would be in the spirit of the original. However, although hugely successful, the Continental GT is a stunted thing by comparison, designed to fit into parking spaces, the sort of thing that truly glamorous people never have to do.
A better updating of the carrossier style, but applied to a relatively affordable car intended for a large production run, was the Citroen SM of 1970. In its designer’s eyes, it was compromised slightly by the need to make contingency provision for fitting a version of the archaic straight 4 from the DS, something that fortunately never happened but which brought the bonnet line above the base of the windscreen. However, except when viewed from behind, the SM successfully captures the spirit of a style which gives lines and curves plenty of space to flow over sheet metal and puts practicality in a distant third place.
Of the carrossier’s work I find the ones built onto the Talbot Lago T150SS chassis some of the most elegant. There are versions by others, but I have a fondness for Georges Paulin’s designs for Pourtout though I must admit that my opinion is reinforced by his own interesting story. Coming from a modest background, he became a dental technician, a profession that provided the income for him to pursue his true desire to design.
His Système Eclipse was an early steel folding roof, as used on the Mullin Museum Peugeot mentioned above, but his lasting legacy is the designs he carried out for Pourtout, including the Delage at the top of this piece and the Embiricos Bentley. His story doesn’t have a happy ending. At the start of the Second World War, Paulin had become a part of the French Resistance, passing intelligence to the Allies, and was betrayed, interrogated and executed in 1941. A note that he had hidden in the clothes that were returned to his wife said “Ne me vengez pas, je vous aime”. Here, Romance certainly triumphs over Glamour.
The Mullin Museum has a nice interactive website