An Anglo-French automotive curiosity remembered.
Over the past fifty years, the global automotive industry has witnessed an ongoing consolidation to the extent that it is now largely under the control of a handful of major players(1). The reasons for this are all economic: the costs associated with the design and manufacture of a new motor vehicle are now simply enormous, given the raft of fitness for purpose, safety and environmental regulations and legislation with which any new model must comply. Moreover, the product liability implications of putting into the hands of the public a machine that could be potentially deadly to themselves and others are truly terrifying. Only a lunatic and/or a genius(2) would now contemplate entering the industry to compete head-on with the automotive giants.
Half a century ago, it was all very different. There were still many small-scale ‘cottage industry’ manufacturers operating on the fringes, and just as many hoping to join their ranks. One such individual was Frenchman Jean Tastevin, whose firm, Compagnie Française des Produits Metallurgiques (CFPM), was established in Balbigny near Lyons and maintained a thriving business as a breaker of redundant railway rolling stock. Tastevin discovered that he could usefully undercut builders of new rolling stock by rebuilding and refurbishing the perfectly serviceable units sent to him for scrapping. A change in French railway legislation banned this practice, so he responded by specialising in building new bulk-carrying wagons instead.
Fearing that the rolling stock market was becoming saturated, Tastevin looked around for diversification opportunities. He noticed that, since the demise of Facel Vega in 1964, there was no longer a French-branded exclusive luxury sporting car, so that was the opportunity he would pursue. Whether this really made business sense or was driven simply by his love of motor cars, former ownership of a Facel Vega and French pride is a moot point.
On the other side of La Manche, Chris Lawrence, a former motor racing driver, was involved in a project to build a mini-based sports car, the Deep Sanderson. This was raced at Le Mans and exhibited at the 1967 British Racing Car Show at Olympia in London, alongside a heavily modified version of Standard-Triumph’s 2.1-litre inline-four engine from the TR4 sports car, with a new crossflow cylinder head of Lawrence’s design and a capacity increase to 2.6 litres. It was claimed that the modified engine produced 182bhp (136kW). French specialist automotive coverage of the show brought Lawrence to Tastevin’s attention. The modified Triumph engine was particularly interesting as it fitted beneath the French 2.8-litre limit above which road-tax rises steeply.
The two met and Lawrence realised that Tastevin’s proposal to build a two-seater sports car had at that stage progressed no further than an idea. Lawrence saw his opportunity and cheekily offered to design the car for Tastevin. Following a second meeting in Paris a few months later, Lawrence returned to England with a contract to design and develop the car.
Work on the chassis progressed well, but Lawrence had doubts about the suitability of the modified Triumph engine, which was old and already pushed to the limits of its power output. Lawrence approached Tim Martin, builder of a 3-litre V8 engine for motor racing. He persuaded Tastevin instead to buy the rights to this engine, retaining Martin as a consultant on the project
Because the V8 was above the French road tax increment, the focus of the project changed from a sports car into a luxury four-door GT saloon. None of the individuals involved knew it at the time, but what they were now planning would be realised a year later by Jaguar with the launch of the XJ6 in September 1968.
By the spring of 1968, a second prototype had been built and sent to France for testing. It carried Deep Sanderson badging, but it was already widely known that it would not carry that marque name if it reached production. The bodywork was still a work in progress but served to conceal Martin’s engine and Lawrence’s chassis design, a space-frame construction from 18-gauge steel square-section tubing, with aluminium front and rear bulkheads. One interesting feature was the two 12½ gallon (56.8 litre) fuel tanks bolted longitudinally to the sills to add structural rigidity.
Front suspension used coil-over-spring units mounted inboard and connected via rocker arms and lower wishbones. Rear suspension was a De Dion system with parallel leading links, coil springs and a Panhard Rod. Brakes were disc all round, 12” ventilated at the front and 10” solid at the rear. The brakes were mounted inboard, the front on stub-axles and the rear either side of the differential(3). Steering was by unassisted rack and pinion. The prototype was fitted with a Triumph four-speed plus overdrive manual gearbox.
The car performed reliably despite a harsh testing regime, allegedly imposed by French test drivers who railed at the idea of the car being designed in Britain. A top speed of 156mph (252km/h) was recorded, mainly thanks to the light and powerful engine, which weighed just 230lbs (105kg) with all ancillaries fitted, but produced 270bhp (201kW). Buoyed by this success, Tastevin and Lawrence hoped to put the car into production by early 1969. That was, however, hopelessly optimistic.
The chassis could be built by CFPM in Balbigny, but the bodywork would have to be outsourced, as would production of the engine(4). A contract for 250 engines was awarded to a British company called Coventry Victor, but that company went into liquidation after just fourteen engines had been built, none of which was up to acceptable standards. Unfortunately, Lawrence had already paid for the tooling, which was now the property of the company’s receiver.
Deteriorating industrial relations in France prompted Tastevin to instruct Lawrence to seek a UK manufacturer to which the whole project might be outsourced. Lawrence approached Jensen, who evaluated the prototype and provided a quotation. Regarding the bodywork, design drawings and a wooden styling buck built by Henri Chapron in Paris were shipped to Vignale in Italy, but the carrozzeria could not resist the temptation to modify what had been received. The completed prototype was heavily overweight, so the decision was taken to switch the bodywork from steel to aluminium.
Lawrence contracted with Airflow Streamline in Northampton, England, initially to produce twenty complete bodies, then panels for export to Balbigny for assembly. The poor quality of the drawings supplied to Airflow caused many problems with fabrication, leading Airflow ultimately to repudiate the contract after just five prototypes had been built. Meanwhile, a production line had been built at CFPM in Balbigny and further cars, using the Airflow panels, were laboriously assembled by workers who, although willing, were completely untrained in automobile manufacture. Subsequent cars would revert to steel bodywork.
There were problems with the engine too, which was proving unreliable in production form, with an alarming tendency to blow head gaskets and leak oil. Martin insisted that the problems were caused by faulty manufacturing, not design issues, but relations between him and Tastevin deteriorated, causing him to resign from the project. Further work on the engine by Lawrence improved its reliability, albeit at the cost of a reduction in maximum power to 210bhp (157kW). As the engine tooling manufactured by Coventry Victor, which Lawrence had managed to acquire, was of poor quality and needed to be replaced, he took the opportunity to increase the engine’s capacity to 3.5 litres to restore some of the lost power.
By late 1971, the car, called Monica 350 in honour of Tastevin’s wife, Monique, was finally ready to go into production. The V8 engine, apart from its increase in capacity to 3,460cc, was largely as Martin designed it. It was an all-aluminium unit with steel cylinder liners, a five-bearing crankshaft, dry-sump lubrication and a single overhead camshaft per bank. It was fed by four Weber down-draught carburettors. In this form the engine produced 240bhp (179kW). It was mated to a ZF five-speed gearbox.
The car was formally unveiled at the Paris Salon in October 1972 and was greeted warmly. A price of 100,000 Francs was indicated, roughly double that of the new Citroën SM, France’s next most expensive production car. Tastevin was still unsure about the car’s production-readiness or viability, so contracted with French engineering firm Matra to evaluate it. Matra’s conclusion was that the engine was still the car’s Achilles’ heel, and recommended that a different, more robust power unit should be sourced. Discussions with US automakers led to an agreement with Chrysler for the supply of its 5,563cc LA-Series V8. This cast-iron pushrod unit was certainly less sophisticated than Martin’s design, but it was proven and reliable.
Or at least it was under typical US conditions. Installed in Monica test cars, the engine exhibited a surprisingly high failure rate. It was concluded that the engine was unsuitable for sustained high-speed running. Lawrence turned to a US tuning specialist, Racer Brown(5), to improve the engines destined for the Monica. The enhancements increased the maximum power output to 285 bhp (213 kW).
The re-engined car, now named Monica 560, was launched at the Geneva motor show in March 1973. In addition to the new engine, the car now also featured power steering (to cope with the additional front-end weight) and air-conditioning. Tastevin still struggled to bring the car into series production as numerous further changes were made to the design. Its final outing was at the Paris Salon in October 1974, by which time its quoted price had risen to 160,000 Francs.
Just five months later, Tastevin announced the end of the venture and closure of the company. There were around twenty running prototypes and as many as thirty production examples in various stages of completion when the liquidator was called in. Just seventeen production cars had been sold by that point. Plans to restart production, including one involving Bob Jankel’s Panther Westwinds company, came to nothing. Just a handful of Monica pre-production and production cars remain on the road today as an automotive curiosity.
(1) China, with its centrally managed economy, is a special case excluded from this generalisation.
(2) I will leave it for others to decide into which category Elon Musk fits.
(3) This was sourced from the Rover P6B 3500 but was fitted with an additional high/low ratio gear mechanism, swichable via a lever inside the cabin.
(4) Martin had built the prototype engines himself by hand, but this was not viable for series production.
(5) Founded by and named after a well-regarded US motor sport journalist.