‘Tween two joints, he really did something: Jean Albert Grégoire and his magnificent automobiles, Part 2

An Aluminium français-Grégoire automobile, Cité de l’automobile – Musée national – Collection Schlumpf, Mulhouse, France, May 2010, Wikimedia.

Good day, my reading friend. Your presence suggests that the first part of our article on the life and work of French engineer Jean Albert Grégoire pleased you a little bit. So let us start without further delay the second part of said article.

You will be delighted to learn that a project launched by Grégoire around 1943, while the Second World War raged on, had a relatively happy ending. In 1941, in parallel with his work on the CGE-Tudor electric city automobile mentioned in the first part of this article, Grégoire and a small team worked in secret on a project sponsored by the cartel L’Aluminium français. His goal was to design a light and economical automobile, the Aluminium français-Grégoire, to be produced once the conflict was over.

The few (4?) prototypes of this automobile, completed in 1942, were entrusted to 4 major French automobile manufacturers. Three of them showed virtually no interest. They were in fact (secretly?) working on light and economical automobile projects, later known under the designations Renault 4CV, Peugeot 203 and Citroën 2CV, also to be produced once the conflict was over. The fourth automobile manufacturer, the Société industrielle de mécanique et carrosserie automobile (SIMCA), a firm controlled by the Italian automobile giant Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino Società Anomima (FIAT) which enjoyed certain privileges, Fascist Italy being the ally of the National Socialist Germany, showed real interest.

And yes, SIMCA was mentioned in a March 2019 issue of our you know what, while FIAT was mentioned several / many times, and this since that same month. Please do not derail my train of thought, my reading friend, and… Shoot. Where was I? Ah yes, SIMCA.

The general manager of the firm, the Italian Enrico Teodoro Pigozzi, later Henri Théodore Pigozzi, being in the doghouse after the liberation of Paris, in 1944, he may, I repeat may, have fled France, Grégoire found himself de facto technical general manager of the firm. Pigozzi’s return to the saddle a few months later, perhaps at the request of Major General Henry Benton Saylor, was a game changer. Saylor, then chief ordnance officer of the European Theater of Operations, United States Army, needed factories to repair American vehicles damaged in combat. Not caring about Grégoire’s project, Pigozzi willingly accepted to carry out the maintenance and repair of a good number of all-terrain vehicles such as the U.S. Army Truck, ¼-ton, 4 × 4, Command Reconnaissance, in other words the “Jeep. “

Grégoire had to change his digs to another automobile manufacturer, a manufacturer of high end / luxury automobiles before the Second World War, the Société anonyme des Anciens Établissements Panhard & Levassor, which fundamentally changed the initial concept of his small economy automobile. The Panhard Dyna X, the world’s first series-produced aluminium-bodied automobile, was produced in more than 47 000 examples between 1947 and 1954.

Grégoire, SIMCA and the Anciens Établissements Panhard & Levassor were all three mired up to their necks in a 5-year plan launched in early 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.

While it is true that the total number of Dyna X produced was nothing spectacular, it should not be forgotten that the years which followed the end of the Second World War constituted a difficult period for France as well as for the French. Automobile sales were not particularly strong. Worse still, the Dyna X faced 2 of the most popular French automobiles of the era, if not of the 20th century: the aforementioned Renault 4CV and Citroën 2CV.

And no, the engines of the Renault 4CV and Citroën 2CV did not produce 4 and 2 metric horsepowers (3. 94 and 1.97 Imperial horsepowers), and… You have a question, my reading friend? What about kilowatts, you ask? Are we not supposed to leave behind ancient and irrational units of measurements in favour of rational and scientific, read metric, units of measurements, you ask? Yours truly was / is very much in favour of the metric system, but I respectfully draw a line in the sand when it comes to using kilowatts and kilonewtons instead of horsepowers and kilogrammes of thrust. End of rant.

The CV in the designation of the Renault 4CV and Citroën 2CV referred to something called a cheval fiscal, or tax horsepower, in other words a “horse” used to calculate the amount of tax due when an automobile was registered. The engines of the first 4CV and 2CV actually produced 17 and 9 metric horsepowers (16.8 and 8.9 Imperial horsepowers). One can probably find electric toothbrushes with more oomph in many residences nowadays.

The Anciens Établissements Panhard & Levassor having refused to fully recognise his contribution to the development of the Dyna X, Grégoire apparently sued the firm. He seemingly lost his case.

Ironically, the small SIMCA 6 economy automobile which had to compete with the Renault 4CV and Citroën 2CV was even less successful than the Dyna X, with barely 16 500 produced, but I digress.

With your permission, yours truly would like to take a quick look back at the Aluminium français-Grégoire automobile.

Said vehicle apparently aroused some interest in the Netherlands and the United States, interests which did not lead to the manufacture of prototypes, however. The same was not true in Australia. That story, however, began in the United Kingdom around 1944, with William Denis Kendall, the larger-than-life founding managing director of British Manufacture and Research Company Limited (BMARC), a firm founded in 1937 to manufacture under license an excellent French 20 millimetre (0.79 inch) automatic cannon, the Hispano-Suiza HS 404, which the Royal Air Force wanted to use on upcoming fighter airplanes.

And yes, my reading friend, British fighter airplanes such as the Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane and Sea Fury, and de Havilland Vampire were equipped with Hispano, yes, yes, Hispano, automatic cannons of various types. Aircraft of these types are part of the wunderfull collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

Kendall, an independent Member of Parliament (1942-50) who had had close ties with far-right parties, movements and individual during the 1930s, had worked in the automobile industry, both in the United States and France, during the interwar period. In fact, he had worked for several years for the Société anonyme André Citroën.

At the end of 1944, Kendall got the idea of ​​launching a “People’s Car,” a British equivalent of the German Volkswagen so to speak. Kendall founded Grantham Productions Limited in his neck of the woods in 1945. He planned to use at least part of the BMARC factory after the end of the Second World War.

The first automobile made by Grantham Productions was so riddled with flaws that Kendall quickly abandoned it. A second vehicle was hardly more successful.

That was when Kendall heard about the Aluminium français-Grégoire. He bought the production rights of the French automobile no later than early 1946. Kendall’s project involved the assembly of vehicles by Grantham Productions from parts and subassemblies made elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Grantham Productions ultimately only produced 5 or 6 examples of the French automobile, renamed Kendall, the firm having closed its doors in November 1946. Perhaps fearing not to be paid, some suppliers had refused to deliver parts. Worse yet, the main funder, an automobile enthusiast, the reigning prince of the princely Indian state of Nawanagar, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja, had withdrawn his support for the project.

Was this the end of the Aluminium français-Grégoire / Kendall saga? And yes, this question was indeed rhetorical.

In 1948, the Australian Prime Minister and leader of the Australian Labour Party contacted Laurence John Hartnett, ex-founding managing director of General Motors-Holden’s Limited. Joseph Benedict “Ben” Chifley wished to encourage the formation of an Australian automobile manufacturer in order to challenge the dominance on the local market of that subsidiary of an American industrial giant mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, since March 2018, General Motors Company. His government stated it was ready to financially support such a project to produce an automobile which would be economical to buy, use and maintain for the average Australian worker.

Hartnett Motor Company Limited came into being on paper in August 1949. As you may imagine, the governments of most Australian states wanted the firm’s factory to be built on their soil. In the end, there was obviously only one chosen. This being said (typed?), the final choice of a site seemed to take quite a bit of time.

Hartnett Motor, however, expected production of the engines, gearboxes and instruments of its automobile to begin in the United Kingdom. Over time, the Australian factory would produce more and more parts, the end goal being to produce the entire vehicle. Hartnett Motor seemingly also wanted to produce convertible and station wagon versions of the Hartnett.

And yes, Hartnett Motor got its hands on the Grantham Productions tooling and the production rights for the Aluminium français-Grégoire / Kendall for a fraction of its original value. Hartnett may in fact have looked at a few small European automobiles before choosing, mainly for cost reasons, the French vehicle.

Hartnett Motor unveiled the first 2 production examples of its automobile, the convertible Hartnett Pacific, in March 1951. The firm then claimed to complete about 10 vehicles per week, a total well below the 100 vehicles completed per week expected in 1949. Hartnett Motor began to deliver vehicles to buyers in April 1952, about 2 years after the date scheduled in 1949. Said vehicles also had a selling price 60 % higher than the price announced in 1949.

If the youth of Hartnett Motor largely explained its problems in 1952, it may be however that the center-right government of the Liberal Party of Australia, which succeeded the centre-left one of Chifley in December 1949, was not the small firm’s biggest fan. It may indeed have refused to approve a bank overdraft to Hartnett Motor, after agreeing to grant one to General Motors-Holden’s. In addition, the government-owned Commonwealth Engineering Company Limited chose for an undetermined reason not to deliver body panels, very important parts if any, whose delivery was to begin in May 1951, which forced Hartnett Motor to make body panels more or less by hand.

In September 1952, at a meeting of creditors, Hartnett Motor’s management had to admit that the firm was in the red and that assembly of its automobiles had ended. It also had to admit that it had only received about 315 orders. Many creditors were both stunned and furious.

This being said (typed?), a station wagon version of the Hartnett, the Hartnett Vanette, was released no later than August 1953.

Hartnett Motor seemed to survive until 1956. The firm was then dissolved at a meeting of creditors.

And no, Commonwealth Engineering delivered no body panel – even though a 1952 lawsuit was settled in favour of Hartnett Motor in December 1955. The sum Commonwealth Engineering was forced to remit to the small firm barely covered its court fees.

Hartnett Motor ultimately assembled around 135 automobiles between 1951 and 1956. But now let us go back to the main thread of our story.

Grégoire designed the first French turbine automobile, the SOCEMA-Grégoire. Developed by the Société de construction et d’équipements mécaniques pour l’aviation (SOCEMA), a subsidiary of the Compagnie électro-mécanique, the gas turbine of this vehicle was to enable it to take away the more or less official world speed record for turbine automobiles (about 142 kilometres/hour – 88 miles/hour) established in 1950 by the British Rover Jet 1 “Whizzer” automobile. The magnificent and futuristic SOCEMA-Grégoire was indeed supposed to reach a speed of around 200 kilometres/hour (around 125 miles/hour) – in theory.

In June 1952, however, the Jet 1 set an utterly official world speed record for turbine automobile of 245.73 kilometres/hour (152.69 miles/hour). Grégoire and the rest of the team were flabbergasted. The SOCEMA-Grégoire was outdated, not to say obsolete, even before proving its worth, also even before various more or less serious problems got resolved. Its manufacturer called it quits well before the end of the year.

It should be noted that an automobile enthusiast before the Lord, the famous Belgian graphic novel author André Franquin, offered himself the pleasure of immortalising the SOCEMA-Grégoire by imagining a magnificent turbine automobile, the Turbot Rhino 1, or Turbot Turbotraction, which was at the heart of the plot of the 6th adventure of Spirou and his faithful friend Fantasio, published in 1952-53 in the Belgian illustrated weekly Spirou (La Turbotraction + La Corne de rhinocéros), then in 1955, in album form (La Corne de rhinocéros). Mentioned in several of our blog / bulletin / thingee, and this since June 2018, Spirou was / is one of the great French-language graphic novel heroes of the 20th century.

Would you believe that the Turbotraction would be found in 6 other adventures of Spirou and Fantasio published in Spirou between 1952 and 1957? Destroyed by an Arab, clumsy and colour-blind oil magnate, it was replaced by the latter, very contrite, by a brand new Turbot Turbo 2 – an automobile apparently inspired by the futuristic Ford FX-Atmos concept car of 1954.

This being said (typed?), yours truly wonders if Franquin actually drew his inspiration for the 1952 Turbotraction, if only in part, from another automobile, the Italian Lancia Aurelia PF200, produced in less than 10 examples between 1952 and 1956. It should be noted that this magnificent sports automobile had a thoroughly conventional gasoline engine under its hood.

And yes, the Aurelia PF200 owed its elegance to Carrozzeria Pininfarina Società per Azioni, undoubtedly the Leonardo da Vinci of automobile bodywork and a world-famous Italian automobile firm mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, and this since October 2018, but back to our story – after a final brief digression, or two.

The FX-Atmos may have inspired a fictitious vehicle which was a turning point in the career of a relatively important figure in the history of British television, a figure mentioned in September 2018, March 2019 and October 2019 issues of our you know what. It was in 1961 that a very innovative series for children and teenagers made its appearance. The characters of Supercar were puppets born from the mind of Gerry Anderson, born Gerald Alexander Abrahams. The 39 episodes aired between January 1961 and April 1962 told the adventures of Mike Mercury, the pilot of Supercar, a supersonic vertical takeoff and landing aircraft based in the United States. Yours truly remembers seeing most episodes of Supercar, as the French version of the British series was called, during the 1960s.

In 2004, a small Swiss firm, ACA Sbarro Société anonyme, completed a functional replica, albeit equipped with a gasoline engine, of the 1952 Turbotraction for the magnificent temporary exhibition (October 2004-August 2005) Le Monde de Franquin at the Cité des science et de l’industrie in Paris. Yes, the one in France.

Refusing to admit defeat after the cancellation of the SOCEMA-Grégoire, Grégoire designed another automobile in the early 1950s. Derived from the Hotchkiss-Grégoire, an automobile mentioned in the first part of this article, the Grégoire-Sport hit the road in 1955. This magnificent and unkillable machine unfortunately proved too expensive for the affluent consumer for whom it was intended. Less than 10 examples of this automobile left the factory in 1955.

A slightly indelicate comment if I may. An automobile manufacturer which wants to be successful really has to control the designer of its vehicles. A great project can fail if it is too complex, expensive or different / exotic, or if it does not meet the needs of the potential customer. Dare I suggest that these factors explain to a large extent the lack of commercial success of the automobiles designed by Grégoire over the decades? Anyway, let us move on.

Grégoire then decided to reorient his work towards the development of automobile suspensions, an area in which he obtained great success, said suspensions being widely used by a French state firm mentioned in a January 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, the Régie nationale des usines Renault.

Grégoire also seemed to be developing a suspension device for stretchers intended for transporting people with spinal injuries, an achievement for which he received, it was stated, the sincere thanks of President Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle – a gentleman mentioned several in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018.

Towards the end of 1968, an important French firm mentioned in the first part of this article, the Compagnie Générale d’Électricité (CGE), or, more exactly, one of its subsidiaries, the Société de l’accumulateur Fulmen, yes, yes, Fulmen, a company name mentioned in the first part of this article, called on the services of Grégoire to participate in the design of an electric utility van. Designed in part for mail delivery, the ultra-robust CGE-Grégoire, or VE 70 U, first drove around April 1971. This vehicle was produced in a few (3? 11?) examples until around 1971-74.

Although disappointed by the commercial failure of the CGE-Grégoire, Grégoire remained convinced of the importance of developing non-polluting and silent electric vehicles for city traffic. The oil crisis of 1973-74 only confirmed this view, defended in books published in 1975 and 1979, L’automobile de la pénurie and Vivre sans pétrole. Few in the French automobile industry paid the slightest attention to his, dare I say (type?), prophetic words.

Grégoire was also very interested in road safety, and this since the 1920s, Pierre Fenaille, a friend mentioned in the first part of this article, having been seriously injured in 1927. During the 1960s, he denounced the excessive power and speeds that could needlessly reach a good number of automobiles. There were, stated Grégoire, in translation, “too many deaths on our roads,” the title of a series of articles he wrote around 1962. Few people in the French automobile industry paid the slightest attention to his, dare I say (type?) again, prophetic words.

Grégoire left this world in August 1992, at the age of 93. This competent pianist, amateur novelist, wine and mushroom expert and collector of contemporary art was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant, innovative and original French, if not European, automotive engineers of the 20th century.

As of 2021, the collection of automobiles designed by Grégoire that he had put together belonged to the Institut pour l’histoire de l’aluminium at Clichy, a suburb of Paris.

Profile picture for user rfortier
Rénald Fortier