Louis Delage's name may not ring a bell, but the company he founded in 1905 and ran until 1935 became famous for superb grand tourers. His customers included King Gustav of Sweden and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
Delage built the first V12 engine to power a grand prix car. The supercharged 2-litre was powerful and reliable enough to win the European championship in 1925. Its successor was an almost invincible straight-eight.
After dominating the 1927 season, Delage withdrew from racing and concentrated on building one of the inter-war years' finest road cars. The new Delage D8 was the star of the Paris Motor Show in 1929. Unlike today's cars, it had a massive, built-to-last chassis frame that could have been inspired by the Forth Bridge.
There was nothing very clever about the multi-leaf suspension, and the 4-litre straight-eight engine was lazy by today's standards (it produced 120bhp, against the 223bhp of Jaguar's 4-litre). But the D8 had a top speed of more than 80mph when most cars were struggling to reach 60.
Performance depended on what sort of body was bolted to the chassis. Those were the days when manufacturers provided their clientele with bare mechanical and structural bones. Delage's decision to offer three chassis lengths gave plenty of scope for anything from a stately limousine to a rakish roadster. Famous coachbuilders included Park Ward, Hooper, Figoni et Falaschi ('Phoney and Flashy'), Vanden Plas, Gurney Nutting and Henri Chapron.
Although the D8 was not intended to be a sports car, Delage decided to prove its mettle by breaking records on the banked track at Monthlery. A car with a very light, two-seater body averaged almost 110mph for 24 hours. Records set during a later attempt included 12 hours at 112mph. These were mind-boggling figures at a time when the outright land speed record had only just topped 200mph.
Delage soon offered an uprated D8S with a 145bhp engine and a top speed of 100mph. The D8S and the rare D8SS (or Super Sport) accounted for 99 of the 2,001 cars built during the big Delage's six-year production life. Only 17 of those 99 are known to have survived. Opening the Super Sport's bonnet reveals four carburettors, each about the size of a boxer's fist. The D8S had only one.
Diligent research has failed to reveal a power figure for this engine, probably because the go-even-faster equipment was unique to Britain.
The two-door D8SS convertible that attracted so much attention on the M3 is believed to have been on the coachbuilder Henri Chapron's stand at the London Motor Show in 1932. The strong but graceful lines make it easy to underestimate its size, but when you sit at the steering wheel, the nose is about 9ft away; it's a bit like driving a Mini while sitting on the back bumper. The radiator is framed by huge headlights that look powerful enough to ignite haystacks in Hampshire while driving through Surrey.
Modern cars pamper drivers with all manner of wimpish features, such as power-assisted steering. The D8SS has what one of my pun-loving friends calls the Armstrong system. It feels fine on the open road, but demands a tremendous amount of muscle at very low speeds. The gear-change, however, turned out to be smooth, precise and forgiving, as long as the lever was not hurried from slot to slot.
If my rate of progress was more sedate than swashbuckling, that was mainly because the brakes were feeble. Modern systems are so good that you take them for granted, but forward planning was essential while driving the D8SS. Delage's reputation for good brakes suggests that this was a matter for adjustment rather than a flaw.
Cars such as this were built long before Europe became webbed with motorways. Their natural habitat is the sort of old-style main road that unfurled for a few miles after we left the M3. Here the Delage was in its element, wafting down gently undulating straights, sweeping confidently through long, lazy curves. The ride was remarkably smooth, mainly because this car's dreadnought structure is not pitched and tossed by poor road surfaces. It was easy to see why these cars were, and are, held in such high esteem.
Roberts Brooks (Auctioneers) Ltd is located at 81 Westside, London SW4 9AY (071-228 8000).
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