An act of defiance against Dearborn created an exceptionally pretty Ford.
Established during the Great War by the head of Ford of Britain, Percival Perry, Société Française des Automobiles Ford was Dearborn’s Gallic outpost, producing Ford models T, A, Y and B as the twentieth century progressed. It would, however, prove to be a rather wilful and independently-minded offspring, resistant to the dictates of its parent company. In 1934, Maurice Dollfus, who had been appointed head of the company four years earlier, sought a means to expand its operations. An introduction to an Alsatian chap by the name of Emile Mathis led to the creation of Matford SA, based in Strasbourg, a joint-venture company in which ownership was split 60:40 in Dearborn’s favour.
Relations across the pond soured in the late 1930s, with Dearborn seeking to ditch the ageing Mathis models and replace them with Ford designs, to be built at a new factory at Poissy, west of Paris. By the time this factory came on-stream, however, it had fallen under the control of the Wehrmacht in occupied France. It then built both military and passenger vehicles under the direction of Ford’s Cologne operation, also under Nazi control, so not exactly with Henry Ford II’s blessing, given that he was serving in the US Navy at the time.
After hostilities ceased, Matford V8 engines were still being fitted to Ford badged cars. Meanwhile, back in the US, Ford had designed a ‘Light Car’ proposal intended for launch in the 1949 model year. Believing the design was never going to fly as a Ford (if possibly as a Mercury) Dolfus, while in America, campaigned for the Light Car to be built in Poissy. This would become the 1948 French Ford Vedette (F492E) and, while handsome enough, the tax-busting V8 engine made it expensive to buy and run. Quality issues and a poor reputation for reliability did nothing to enhance its appeal.
Dolfus retired in 1950(1). Incoming from Ford’s Billancourt rival, the new president of the renamed Ford SAF(2) was the fiercely ambitious François Lehideux. Although Lehideux was married to Louis Renault’s niece, it is believed that relations between the two men were far from being amicale. Renault did, however, recognise that Lehideux got the job done and would have been sorry to lose him.
Installed at Ford SAF, Lehideux had no intention of following Dearborn’s instructions. Instead, he was intent on producing a flagship coupé that had no connection with its Blue Oval parent, much to Hank the Deuce’s chagrin, allegedly. Lehideux’s inspiration was the 1948 Simca Huit Sport, a diminutively attractive coupé based on the Simca 8 chassis.
The new coupé was designed by Stablimenti Farina, where older brother Giovanni guided future star, Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina. The contract to fabricate the car’s bodywork was awarded to Parisian born Jean Daninos and his FACEL(3) company. Having made a fortune in refrigeration, Daninos had returned from American war service in 1945 to combine auto bodywork and engineering companies SKAR and Metallon to form FACEL-Metallon. The commission from Lehideux would become the Vedette-based Ford Comete for 1951.
With rivals such as the Citroën 15-six, Renault Fregate, Salmsson Randonnée and Hotchkiss Anjou, the Comete was a French Ford with Italian style, accompanied by a blue-collar American soundtrack. Wearing no Ford badges anywhere, the car sported a somewhat heavy-handed single-bar front grille, but the rest of the coupé’s two-door bodywork was a delightful sculpture in pastel coloured aluminium, with the option of having the roof in a contrasting colour.
With a casual glance (perhaps while strolling along an elegant Mediterranean harbourside, a typical Comete location, according to the advertising) one might detect a frisson of Aston Martin DB2 mixed with a dash of Lancia Aurelia B20, before returning to England at the rear, with hints of the Riley Pathfinder, all combined in the most elegant of packages. The large chromed bumpers fore and aft lend more than a hint of Americana, however, as do the whitewall tyres and domed chrome hubcaps. The neat chrome-bezelled rear lights are more subtle, as is the modestly discreet V8 logo on the boot lid (if fitted). The windscreen is elegantly curved, but the three-part rear screen reveals the limits of 1950s glazing technology, albeit without detriment to the overall look of the Comete.
To access the interior, the neat stowaway handles offer a hint of the standards we find inside. The leather armchairs certainly appear as comfortable and cosseting as the car’s ride: the Comete was no sports car, really more of an elegant Grand Tourer. The large and spindly three-spoke wood-rimmed steering wheel reinforces this impression.
The ribbed aluminium dashboard is neatly functional, if perhaps lacking somewhat in luxury. Your eyes focus on but four dials. The first merely hosts the Comete name alongside FACEL’s coat of arms(4). The second dial comprises gauges for Eau, Huile, Amperes and Essence under a single glass and resembles a sports chronograph watch, albeit done subtly, even if it has the word ‘Danger’ at its centre. The speedometer’s ambitious 200km/h scale is surely an in-joke, while the final dial contains a clock.
Dimensions are as follows: the Comete sits on a 2,690mm wheelbase with an overall length of 4,620mm, width of 1,735mm and a height of 1,420mm. Weight averages around 1,300kg(5), sadly heavier than the Vedette, which blunted the top speed to approximately 135km/h. Independent front suspension and worm and roller steering made for a safe and secure rather than exhilarating driving experience, which was perfectly in character for the Comete .
Much of the Comete’s (and indeed the Vedette’s) rather mundane mechanical character stems from the Ford ‘Flathead’ engine ensconced beneath the elongated v-shaped bonnet. Dating from 1932 and taken from contemporary Ford commercial vehicles, the eloquently named Aquilon (2,158cc) and Mistral (3,923cc) engines delivered just 60 and 80 bhp respectively, albeit accompanied by healthy amounts of torque, but both were emphatically luggers rather than sprinters.
Drive to the rear wheels was via the Pont a Mousson(6) four-speed manual gearbox, with synchromesh on first gear only, or optional Cotal pre-selector transmission. Drum brakes were fitted all round.
1953 saw the Monte Carlo special edition launched in Brussels. This version featured the Comete’s new front end treatment, introduced in late 1952, with a more elegant looking aluminium ‘egg crate’ grille(7). The bonnet now sported a fake air scoop to provide clearance for the alternator sitting atop the larger Mistral engine. Just 699 were built, from a total of 3,064 Cometes. There were also just two convertibles, which retained the original front end treatment.
The always loss-making Comete was perceived as no more than a vanity project and had become a source of extreme irritation back in Dearborn. Exasperated with Lehideux’s imperious behaviour, Henry Ford sent American muscle over to curtail his insubordination. This intervention ultimately led to a deal whereby Ford SAF was offloaded to Simca in 1954. As for the Comete, it was sold under the Simca badge for one further year before production ended in 1955. Corrosion has been the major cause of attrition over the years and scarcity now means that values for surviving examples remain strong, regardless of condition.
Is the Comete the best looking Ford ever? Some would argue that case but, unsurprisingly, their numbers do not include the denizens of Dearborn.
(1) Dolfus had been investigated and briefly jailed for alleged collaboration, something that would be extremely difficult to avoid when your country is occupied by enemy forces and you are working in a prized and vital industry.
(2) Société Anonyme Française.
(3) Forges et Ateliers des Constructions d’Eure-et Loir.
(4) Which is also represented on the seat base frame and externally near the door. Wouldn’t it be nice to have more coats of arms on cars instead of anodyne marque logos?
(5) Different sources suggesting wildly differing values, from 1,200kgs to 1,700kgs.
(6) Manufactured by a company named after the small town between Metz and Nancy in North Eastern France. It was founded in 1856 and specialised in cast iron tubing before diversifying.
(7) The egg crate grille previewed the style used on the soon to be launched Facel Vega luxury cars.
Data Sources: newsdanciennes.com, journal.classiccars.com, several auction websites, jalopyjournal.com