A vision of the future for a firm running out of steam: The French Mathis VL333 light and economical automobile

A Mathis VL 333 light and economical automobile. Fernand de Laborderie, “Le 33e Salon de l’automobile.” La Nature, 15 October 1946, 331.

I have a confession to make, my reading friend. I am not a big fan of automobiles. While I readily recognise the cultural, emotional, financial, industrial, mythical, political, practical, religious (?), social, technological, etc., importance of that mode of transport, the fact is that, around 2019, road transport despatched in the atmosphere of our good old Earth about 18% of the world’s anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. That is no small thing.

This being said (typed?), yours truly must admit having a penchant for somewhat unusual automobiles. You will understand of course that this convoluted introduction, combined with the photograph which can be found above, kicks off a text on an automobile you have never heard of, a French automobile, the Mathis VL333 / Mathis VEL333 / Mathis Type 333 - the letters VL and VEL standing for Voiture légère et Voiture économique légère.

Émile Ernest Charles Mathis, born, perhaps, Emil Ernst Karl Mathis, was born in Straßburg, German Empire, today’s Strasbourg, France, in March 1880. He went into business in 1898 with the opening of the Auto-Mathis-Palast, a well-known firm in his hometown which maintained, repaired and sold automobiles.

Mathis joined the staff of the German automobile manufacturer De Dietrich et Compagnie in 1902 and befriended the very young (20 years old!) person who managed the technical aspects of the production of the firm’s automobiles, the Italian Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti – a giant in automotive history.

Indeed, Mathis and Bugatti went into business in 1904. Not having a factory to produce the automobiles they had designed, machines known as Hermes-Simplex, the 2 young men entrusted that work to a respected firm, Elsässische Maschinenbau-Gesellschaft. The latter manufactures between 15 and 60 examples of these vehicles.

For one reason or other, Mathis and Bugatti ended their collaboration around 1906-07. The latter embarked on the design of fast, powerful and expensive sports and prestige automobiles. Mathis, on the other hand, wanted to produce economical vehicles.

Mathis founded a firm whose name escapes me. His Mathis Babylette from 1912 was one of the first successful “vélomoteurs” / “vélomobiles” / “vélocars” / cyclecars / “automouches.”

When the First World War began in 1914, Mathis, an avowed if careful Francophile, was conscripted against his will into the Deutsches Heer. Even though he stayed away from the front lines, the fact was that he did not like the life of a soldier.

During a business trip to Switzerland, perhaps in 1916, on behalf of the German government, Mathis decided to go to France – possibly with the moolah that said government have given him to buy trucks and other items.

Once peace returned, Mathis founded Mathis Société anonyme in his adopted homeland. That firm grew over the years and became one of the 4 most important French automobile manufacturers of the interwar period.

In 1930, Mathis tried to forge an alliance with an American automobile manufacturer – an original idea to say the least. Joint ventures involving automobile manufacturers were indeed not like fish in the sea at that time. Mathis’ partner was none other than a co-founder of the American automotive giant General Motors Corporation – a firm mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018. The French businessman (seriously?) hoped to be able to sell in Europe 100 000 Mathis automobiles manufactured in the United States by Durant Motors Incorporated. William Crapo Durant having failed to finance the project, or to finance his factory in fact, Durant Motors closed its doors in the summer of 1931.

Heavily affected by the economic crisis of the 1930s, Mathis joined forces, around October 1934, with Ford Société anonyme française, a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company under the control of the British subsidiary of the American automobile giant, Ford Motor Company Limited. Matford Société anonyme was created. The automobiles which bore that name as months went by actually came out of Mathis’ workshops.

From 1935, relations between Mathis and Ford Motor, the latter having taken control of its French subsidiary that year, deteriorated rapidly. Sales did not seem to be reaching the expected levels. Worse still, the American giant, which owned the majority (52%? 60%?) of Matford’s shares and, therefore, the good end of the stick, required Mathis to hand over his shares and put an end to the production of his automobiles, a tad antiquated ones one had to admit. The French businessman sued Ford Motor and won damages and compensations, but only in 1939.

As Ford’s lease for the Mathis plant did not expire until April 1940, the firm continued to produce Matford automobiles and trucks until that date. Mathis then hoped to relaunch the activities of his firm.

Ford Motor, meanwhile, was not standing idly by. Indeed, the firm undertook the construction of an ultra modern factory, in Paris, which produced no vehicles before the defeat of France in June 1940. Between that date and the liberation of Paris, in 1944, Ford Société anonyme française was controlled by Ford-Werke Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung, the very cooperative German subsidiary of Ford Motor, and produced vehicles used by the German armed forces.

Informally and unilaterally dissolved in June 1940, by Ford Motor, Matford officially ceased to exist in June 1941.

And yes, Ford Motor, the American firm of course, was mentioned several / many times in our you know what, and this since December 2018. Its British subsidiary, on the other hand, appeared in the pages of that publication several times since December 2018.

Around 1936, Mathis founded Mathis Aviation Société anonyme (?). That firm undertook the design of an advanced, complex and powerful engine, the Mathis Véga, which, following the defeat of France in 1940, did not go beyond the prototype stage. Production of low power engines for light / private aircraft began after the end of the Second World War, however.

Shocked by the defeat of France at the hands of National Socialist Germany in June 1940, and perhaps fearing that his escape during the First World War had not been forgotten, Mathis soon made his way to the United States. He founded Matam Corporation around October and began producing anti-aircraft shells, very successfully it must be said (typed?).

Would you believe that Mathis apparently provided blueprints of his French factory to the United States Army Air Forces in order to facilitate its bombing? Yours truly must confess to having some doubts concerning the veracity of that information.

One of the last decisions taken by Mathis before his departure may, I repeat may, have been the launch of a light and economical automobile project under the direction of Jean Édouard Andreau, an engineer specialising in aerodynamics. That vehicle was, you guessed it, the aforementioned Mathis VL333 / Mathis VEL333 / Mathis Type 333.

The very name of that advanced and highly original, if not futuristic, vehicle provided some information about it. It was a three-seat (2 in the front and 1 in the rear) 3-wheel automobile, the elimination of the 4th wheel resulting in the elimination of the 4th shock absorber, axle, brake, tire, wheel and suspension. The third 3 in the VL333’s designation corresponded to its fuel consumption, well almost. That automobile actually consumed 3.7 litres/100 kilometres (over 76 miles/Imperial gallon / nearly 64 miles/American gallon).

The VL333 was perhaps somewhat inspired by the 3-wheeled automobile designed by Andreau in 1935 as part of a competition organized by the Société des ingénieurs de l’automobile.

According to Andreau himself, the very first examples of the VL333, completed no later than July 1942 and road tested in September, had a molded plywood skin. That strong and readily available, if a tad heavy, material, required a fairly large labour force, however. Worse still, the glue employed disintegrating quite quickly, all in all relatively harmless shocks caused completely disproportionate damage. Andreau decided at an unspecified date to use aluminum supplied by the cartel L’Aluminium français, a group mentioned in September 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Anyway, back in France around July 1946, or earlier, Mathis attempted to revive his factory and launch the VL333.

The kicker, and it was a big kicker, was that Mathis, the man and the company, just like the whole of the French automotive industry, were then mired up to their necks in a five-year plan launched at the beginning of 1946 by the interventionist and left-wing dominated Gouvernement provisoire de la République française which then directed the destinies of France. Said plan, better (and jokingly?) known as the Plan Plon, named after its spiritual father, engineer Paul Marie Plon, was among the elements of a modernisation and equipment plan aimed at rationalising the French automobile industry and launching the production of light and economical automobiles.

And yes, Plon was mentioned in a September 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. And yes again, the previous paragraph is very, very similar to another one which appeared in that issue of our galactically famous publication.

Wishing to maximise production, and exports, the French government has no use for second tier automobile manufacturers like Mathis.

Certain aspects of the VL33 also complicated its marketing. Its monocoque aluminum structure required no less than 2 000 welding points, for example. In addition, the very looks of that automobile may have put off a prudent and conservative consumer. Worse still perhaps, as the Second World War ended, in 1945, L’Aluminium français seemed more interested in promoting the lightweight and economical L’Aluminium français-Grégoire automobile, designed by Jean Albert Grégoire, a gentleman mentioned in September 2021 issues of our you know what, but back to Mathis.

Would you believe that his factory only seemed to produce a dozen VL333s between 1942 and 1946?

An economical and spacious 6-seat automobile unveiled in 1948, the Mathis 666, was no more successful. Only 2 examples of that angular automobile, which would go almost unnoticed in 2021 as its looks was / is so modern, left the workshops of Mathis.

Mind you, giving his new automobile the biblical number of the beast may not have been a great idea. Incidentally, did you know that said number might in fact be 616? I kid you not.

Mathis also manufactured 2 or 3 examples of a light all terrain utility vehicle, a French “Jeep” in a sense, the Mathis VLR86, in 1950-51. The Armée de terre nonetheless chose another vehicle to replace its U.S. Army Trucks, ¼-ton, 4 × 4, Command Reconnaissance, in other words its “Jeeps,” which dated from the Second World War. Said vehicle was itself replaced fairly quickly by the ¼-Ton, 4 x 4, American M38 Utility Truck, manufactured under license in France. And yes, you read that right, the American M38, a vehicle mentioned in a September 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Ours is a small world, is it not?

In fact, my reading friend, you probably wonder if, like the famous Captain Jack Sparrow, a gentleman (?) mentioned in the September 2018, October 2019 and May 2020 issues of our you know what, yours truly plans it all, or just makes it up as I go along. You decide.

Disappointed by the failure of the VL333 and 666, Mathis gradually retired. He sold his factory to the Société anonyme André Citroën in 1954.

And yes, that firm was mentioned in March 2019, January 2020 and September 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Mathis died in August 1956, at the age of 76.

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Rénald Fortier