Obituary: J. A. Gregoire

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The Independent Online
Jean Albert Gregoire, racing driver, car manufacturer, novelist, born Paris 1899, died Paris 20 August 1992.

WITHOUT THE EFFORTS of one sharp, intense, opinionated little Frenchman, it is quite probable that the majority of the world's cars today would nevertheless incorporate the front-wheel-drive layout that most of them do feature, but it is quite possible that the change from the former convention of front engine and rear- wheel drive (established by another Frenchman, Rene Panhard, in 1901) might have come about more slowly. It is also possible that Britain might have encountered even more practical difficulties in winning the Second World War.

Jean Albert Gregoire was born in Paris in 1899. Orphaned at nine, he was thereafter raised by an uncle who happened in the first place to be rich and in the second to be a motoring enthusiast; and to this extent at least the lad evidently acquired an ambition to emulate him. Bright enough to enter the awesome Ecole Polytechnique, and assertive enough to become in 1919 the French champion 100-metre sprinter, Gregoire chose to read law rather than continue his technical studies; but his passion for cars led him to establish a workshop in Versailles, partnered and financed by his friend Pierre Fenaille, the son of a remarkably wealthy pioneer of the French petroleum industry. The two young men dabbled in racing, until Fenaille offered futher finance if they were to produce their own car, which he insisted should have front-wheel drive. Thus was born the Tracta marque, the first car appearing off Gregoire's drawing-board in 1926.

Front drive was not a new idea even 20 years earlier, but was still damned by difficulties of driving and steering the front wheels when universal joints were inadequate for the task. Hundreds of varieties had been patented, but the essential constant-velocity feature eluded almost all of them. The first Tracta gave the usual troubles, and then Fenaille revealed a constant-velocity joint that he had himself invented and patented. They called it the Tracta joint, and with it Tracta cars finished - invariably last, but how many others failed to finish] - in the 24-hour race at Le Mans in four successive years from 1927. Gregoire drove; Fenaille, severely hurt in a road accident (not in a Tracta) before the 1927 race, disappeared from the scene.

Thereafter Gregoire devoted himself to exploiting the Tracta joint, becoming through necessity an expert in international patent law, but failing to acquire equal expertise in business practice or engineering judgement. He sold the joint to DKW and to Adler in Germany; enormous difficulties in getting any royalties were compounded by Germany's refusal to let him take the money out of the country of spend it on durables, so he lived as lavishly as possible until the money was consumed and then came home.

In France, in the US and elsewhere, Gregoire promoted the virtues of front drive hoping for royalties on the joints. He made his greatest effort with Andree Citroen, who was planning his eternally famous front-drive car for mass production; Gregoire confected a new variant of Fenaille's design which proved disastrous and was rejected. Only in England did he succeed, with the help of Bendix, who induced him to accept slighter royalties for use in military vehicles for which all- wheel-drive was imperative. After the war he learned that a million Tracta joints had been made in Britain, and that his fees would be reduced - first on the principle that nobody should profit grossly from war, second by abstraction of 50-per-cent income tax.

A better speaker than listener (he was later to be effective on radio and television), Gregoire persuaded the British authorities to double their offer, so that both he and the taxman got what they wanted.

During the war, at the behest of France's biggest producer of aluminium, Gregoire designed an ultra-light low-powered car for the post-war market. He had already created an all-aluminium car, the Amilcar Compound, which Hotchkiss produced in 1937, but it had been a failure: superficially very attractive, it had a pathetically short fatigue life. His wartime design was spirited to Fiat in 1944, where the great engineer Dante Giacosa judged the arguments for aluminium fallacious, though he otherwise approved of Gregoire's design.

After the war the same prototype was touted around England (as the Kendall), America (as a Kaiser), Australia (as a Hartnett) and France, where Citroen, Renault, Peugeot and Simca likewise rejected it. Politics were involved: the Communists sought to nationalise the industry and make Simca produce the car, but the firm's founder Enrico Pigozzi skilfully eluded them. In the end the design served as the basis for the little Dyna Panhard, which was better and more influential than its modest commercial career might suggest.

Gregoire went on to create further and very fetching prototypes - an all-aluminium sports car, an electric car, even one powered by a gas turbine - but found it much easier to sell the books he had begun to write in 1949. The best- known was translated into English as Best Wheel Forward (1954), and like his other autobiographical works it was violently acrimonious about the people in industry who had, he claimed, sabotaged so much of his good work. Novels came next and sold better, and then a succession of murder mysteries using the nom-de-plume Albert Gregory. Whatever he wrote, and however self-interested, he never suggested that he was an inventor; he considered himself a researcher. Posterity may persist in seeing him as a catalyst, promoting important principles that were incidental to his own.