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.
25 thoughts on “Folie Française”
Good morning, Daniel. Ah, the Monica. I have never seen one, but it has a special place in my automotive heart. A friend used it as an example to test my knowledge about cars. Needless to say he is into cars as well. Luckily I knew what is, but only because I read an article about it a year or so earlier 😉
Sadly the tale about the Monica ended in tears. But then again, selling a car with this price tag as an unknown manufacturer is really hard, no matter how good your car is. Speaking of money, a Monica 560 sold at auction for € 107,280 in 2018.
Thank you for this article, Daniel and all the others you have written. The same goes for all other members and commentators who make DTW such a pleasurable place on the web. I hope there are many more to come.
Good morning, Freerk, and thank you for your very kind words about DTW. It’s always nice to read that our efforts are appreciated! In (almost) the words of Forrest Gump, “DTW is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”
The C-post/ventilation outlet/rear screen/bootlid section strongly reminds me of the Monteverdi 375
Good morning, Dave. Your photo of the Monteverdi illustrates perfectly what we have lost with the virtual disappearance of the ‘cottage industry’ manufacturers.
What a great article on another great what if.
I had followed the progress of this car when being developed through the press at the time, but coverage was sporadic. I got a fuller picture when my physiotherapist, the car and motorcyclist nutter, loaned me his copy of Chris Lawrence’s quite excellent autobiography, Morgan Maverick. This book, detailing his early navy career, his own ‘A’series powered 152 mph Le Mans car, and his work with Morgan, both the early Le Mans class winning years, and the later post Monica ones with the development of Morgan’s cross-eyed aluminium masterpiece, the Aero, I can’t recommend highly enough. (Specially to those of us who frequent this superb website.)
It details the full story of the Monica from Lawrence’s viewpoint including the initial engine designs and the later work with Chrysler’s Canadian made V8s discovering they really, really needed the ‘marine grade’ parts over the standard, quite cheap engine specifications.
He did get one Monica to keep at the end of all that which he put to daily use, he sadly died, aged 78, on 13 August 2011 of cancer
“cross-eyed aluminium masterpiece”.
Thank you David Walker for making me laugh out loud.
And thank you also, David, for your very kind words about DTW! 😊
Gooddog, I thought if it was obvious to me…
You are welcome Daniel, though it is self evident.
The Chrysler LA really was an excellent engine, especially 340 cid multi-carb variants. It is surprising to hear they encountered trouble with it in this application. Perhaps it was installed with a cooling system that wasn’t quite up to the task. This seems to have been a common problem with several Euro/American hybrids (at least in early versions). A careful development process solves such issues with certainty. The trouble is this all costs time and money. Unfortunately many of the small specialist manufacturers did not have one or both!
BTW 285 bhp is not a lot for the Chrysler 340. They were sold new in the USA with more than that and were known to be reliable. Some dealers installed options which dramatically increased outputs and offered warranties on them. I recall one example locally with more than 40bhp at the flywheel. It was a daily driver. The 340 was a sound engine (superior in several ways to the Chevrolet 350 small block).
Hi J T. I imagine you’re right about the cooling issues, as small-scale manufacturers would never have the resources to check the aerodynamic performance of the body design, including the airflow through the radiator.
American engines had a tendency for thermal troubles under European driving conditions. This was not limited to the few hybrids but also affected US made cars.
The problems were not so much with the water cooling or air flow but with a too small amount of oil in the engine for sustained high speed driving. Typical oil content of a small block V8 is a bit over a gallon, a Mercedes M116 (or Porsche 928 or BMW M60 V8) has roughly twice as much and a large oil cooler.
I recall that GM had the same sort of trouble when they installed their 5.4l V8 and Hydramatic in the Opel Diplomat, with serious overheating and other reliability problems. It seems these engines were not – in standard spec – made for longer high speed travels as was expected on the Autobahn and also, I guess, autoroutes (speed limit on french highways was introduced december 1973). Even the first Toyota Crowns with a 2.6l (if I remember correctly) where plagued with similar problems. Of course many small manufacturers using american V8 showed that it was far from impossible to make them reliable when run at high speeds for longer periods, but certainly not in standard spec. Let’s not forget that power requirements increase cubically with speed and that more than twice the produced crank power has to be evacuated as heat. Drag strip driving is obviously not the same as Berlin to Munich at over 200km/h (~124 mph).
I never realised the Monica story was so complex.
Lawrences’ own Deep Sanderson marque had a longer and more successful life than the Monica. Such a wonderful name for a sports car ! ( Not that Monica isn’t a wonderful name for a luxury coupe ).
I wonder why it wasn’t called ‘Monique’, which sounds rather more alluring, to Anglo-Saxon ears at least?
The Two Monicas:
Monica Tastevin and her car.
Rather a nice car- sort of in the 4-door Aston Martin mould. I think a lot of manufacturers expected the ‘60s to continue and in the UK various financial restrictions were being lifted in the early ‘70s. Then the oil crisis happened.
Here it is being built, and in action.
What was Panther Westminds plans for restarting production of the Monica? Did they plan on using the Chrysler LA V8 or did they have consider alternatives from either Jaguar/BL, Ford or Vauxhall/GM?
Here’s a contemporary news item from Motor Sport magazine, Bob. Other sources say they may have had the V12 Jaguar unit in mind.
Journalist Paul Frére was hired by Jean Tastevin as a test driver. He said one of the most characteristic features of the Monica were the electric switches to open the doors, from the outside and inside, instead of conventional handles. Jean was rather found of them.
Frére and a mechanic did a long journey in the car crossing France and due to an alternator failure the Monica ended with a flat battery…and the mechanic trapped inside the car. The doors needed power to open, as the windows. He had to wait until another mechanic walked by the car and brought a charged battery.
The door opening design was changed to conventional handles, of course!
“……electric switches to open the doors, from the outside and inside, instead of conventional handles.”
Just like a Tesla.
You’re right. Thermal management of the oil can be trouble. The oil cooler is key. It needs to be mounted such that it is really effective i.e. plenty unhindered of airflow. The overall quantity of oil is not quite as important, although more is nice to have (so long as it is returning to the sump promptly and not hanging around the crank or lurking up in the heads).
The Monteverdi discussed above also used Chrysler V8s. But unlike the Monica, Facel-Vegas, and Jensen Interceptor/FF, Monteverdi modified its engines to increase the oil pan capacity and added oil coolers for both the engine and the transmission.
When you look at US car forums the most common problem is overheating, particularly when the car in question is a Corvette and owners discover that it can’t be used like a (European) sports car because it overheats at anything above sustained 75 mph.
The most common retrofit items are larger oil sumps with a capacity of two or three times the original volume, larger capacity oil pumps, oil coolers and aluminium radiators for the water cooling. But even with all this a big block Corvette seems to be unable to be driven at speeds above 100 mph for any signicant length of time.
Monteverdi was known to rework everything he bought in. Salisbury differentials were dismantled and rebuilt to tighter tolerances…