‘Tween two joints, he really did something: Jean Albert Grégoire and his magnificent automobiles, Part 1

An example of the French CGE-Tudor electric automobile. C. Faroux, “Un progrès considérable de la voitures électrique.” La Vie automobile, 25 September 1941, 284.

Hail, my reading friend, and welcome you to the wonderful world of science, technology and innovation. And no, there will be no mention of aeronautics this week. As a former colleague told me over 30 years ago (Hello, CF!), there is more to life than airplanes.

Considering the photograph that adorns this article of our blog / bulletin / thingee, you can probably imagine that our subject for this week of August 2021 is an automobile or, more precisely, the designer of that automobile. With your permission, I will turn a crank to launch the search engine that will propel us toward this new adventure.

Jean Albert Grégoire was born in Paris, France, and not Texas, in July 1899.

Would you believe that there appears to be 22 Paris in the United States – and 2 in Canada, but none in Québec? Most of these municipalities owe their name to the French capital, but not all. Paris, New York, for example, was named in honour of Isaac Paris, Junior, a young merchant who provided food to local residents following a very bad harvest in 1789, without worrying too much about being paid right away, but I digress.

Grégoire was one of the millions of Frenchmen who served during the First World War. He obtained an engineering degree from the Paris-based École polytechnique in 1921. Interestingly, he subsequently obtained a doctorate in law. Passionate about sport, Grégoire was a brilliant athlete. Hired by a loom maker, he soon got bored. Grégoire resigned. He then joined the staff of the Compagnie Minière des Pétroles de Madagascar. Indeed, Grégoire went to Madagascar, a French colony at the time, to do prospecting.

Back in France, Grégoire began to race automobiles in his spare time.

In 1925, this automobile enthusiast founded the Société des garages des Chantiers with a few friends, including Pierre Fenaille, an engineer friend whose father had wealth as a superpower. The following year, this dynamic duo designed a constant-velocity transmission joint, in other words a joint which transmitted the rotary motion of the engine of a front-wheel drive automobile to its driving wheels, and this regardless of the position and movements of the axle. Grégoire and Fenaille then began fabricating a front-wheel drive automobile, completed in 1926 and called Tracta GePhi (Ge for Grégoire and Phi for Fenaille). Its speed and handling were impressive.

In 1927, the 2 friends founded the Société des automobiles Tracta. Between 1927 and 1931, the latter produced around 200 examples of the world’s first series-produced front-wheel drive automobiles. The firm may well have sold these vehicles at a loss.

Grégoire took part in 4 editions of the Grand prix d’Endurance de 24 heures, at Le Mans, France, between 1927 and 1930. He did not win but completed the course each time – a clear demonstration of his driving skills and of the quality of his automobiles.

The performance of said vehicles led some European automobile manufacturers to purchase the production rights for the Tracta constant-velocity transmission joint. In 1934, one of them, an important French firm, the Société anonyme André Citroën, launched the Traction avant, one of the most famous and best-known French automobiles of the 20th century, more officially known under the designations Citroën 7, 11 and 15. Almost 700 000 examples of that little gem came out of André Citroën’s workshops between 1934 and 1957. Around 60 000 Traction avant were also assembled and / or manufactured in Belgium, Denmark, the United Kingdom and West Germany.

And yes, you negative person you, the high design and development cost of the Traction avant was one of the factors explaining the judicial liquidation of André Citroën, the firm of course, in December 1934 – and the replacement of André Citroën, the human, at the head of the firm by Pierre Michelin, the human at the head of its main creditor, Michelin et Compagnie – and an unsavoury character who was funding the Organisation secrète d’action révolutionnaire nationale, a far right terrorist group better known as the Cagoule (Hood in English).

And yes again, Michelin et Compagnie was mentioned in March 2020 and April 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

In 1932, the Société des automobiles Tracta sold the production rights for its constant-velocity transmission joint to a major American firm, Bendix Corporation. And yes, American all-terrain vehicles such as the U.S. Army Truck, ¼-ton, 4 × 4, Command Reconnaissance, otherwise known as the “Jeep,” manufactured during and, to a certain extent, after the Second World War were fitted with Tracta joints.

During the 1930s, Grégoire designed a few automobiles for 3 French firms. The outbreak of the Second World War, in September 1939, interrupted production of a particularly promising automobile, the Amilcar Compound. Only 680 examples left the factory.

By the way, the Société Nouvelle pour l’Automobile “Amilcar” was a subsidiary of a major French automobile and arms manufacturer, the Société Anonyme des Anciens Établissements Hotchkiss et Compagnie. Remember that name.

While the 1930s proved difficult to say the least, the Société des automobiles Tracta managed to survive. The collapse of France in June 1940 and the occupation of the northern part of the country by National Socialist Germany made said survival much more difficult. Gasoline supply was reduced to almost nothing. The sales of all French automobile makers collapsed.

During the second half of 1940, the management of the Compagnie Générale d’Électricité (CGE), a firm which had nothing to do with its American namesake, contacted Grégoire with an interesting proposal: the design of an ultralight electrically propelled city automobile. Undisputed French champion in the use of aluminium in the manufacture of automobiles that he was, the engineer accepted the challenge. Grégoire joined forces with an old friend and CGE employee, the engineer Pierre Quoirez.

Need I point out that aluminium is less affected than steel by the battery acid of an electric automobile in the event of a leak? That is what I thought. Your knowledge is a constant source of astonishment to me, my reading friend. Hats off!

Would you believe that it another important French firm was apparently at the origin of this most interesting project? The Société des Accumulateurs Tudor was a subsidiary of a major Luxembourger firm, the Société anonyme “Accumulateurs Tudor.”

A brief digression if I may. Said Quoirez was the father of Françoise Delphine Quoirez, a renowned French novelist, playwright and screenwriter better known as Françoise Sagan.

The result of the collaboration between Grégoire, Quoirez, CGE and L’Accumulateur Tudor was the CGE-Tudor or CGE-Grégoire, the manufacture of which was entrusted to the aforementioned Anciens Établissements Hotchkiss. The CGE-Tudor was in fact inspired by the equally aforementioned Compound.

This inspiration could explain why the engineer and journalist Charles Ernest Faroux, author of the article which appeared in the 25 September 1941 issue of the excellent French weekly magazine La Vie automobile which is at the origin of this equally excellent article, asserted that the CGE-Tudor was comprehensibly studied well before the outbreak of the Second World War.

And yes, Faroux was one of the main founders of the Grand prix d’Endurance de 24 heures. Ours is a small world, is it not?

My spider-like senses tingling as they do, I conclude that you have a question – or that the end of the world is approaching. A question, you say? What a relief. Was Hotchkiss a place or a person, you ask? He was a person, an American to be more exact. Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss was one of the best weapon designers of the second half of the 19th century, but back to the CGE-Tudor.

Contrary to what yours truly originally thought, CGE did not intend to market its new automobile. Nay. While it was true that the existence of an electric vehicle in times of gasoline shortage could prove to be advantageous, the shortage of materials and electricity made it all but impossible to mass-produce the CGE-Tudor. The firm simply wanted to demonstrate what was possible in 1941 in the field of electric automobiles.

And the fact was that the CGE-Tudor was a technically advanced 2-seat convertible. Just think of its aluminium alloy structure. In addition, when a driver descended a slope steep enough to require braking to control speed, applying the brakes, mounted on all 4 wheels, transformed the CGE-Tudor’s motor into a generator and charged the batteries. This was / is called regenerative braking.

In its original version, tested during the winter of 1940-41 and presented around April 1941, the CGE-Tudor had a range of about 50 kilometres (a little over 30 miles), which was all too insufficient, concluded Grégoire. He greatly increased the power of the batteries, which significantly increased the weight of the vehicle. This being said (typed?), the result was good.

In September 1942, Grégoire drove south-west, from Paris to Tours, driving a CGE-Tudor. Since information regarding distance traveled was / is contradictory, let me mention that the numbers found online varied between 225 and 255 kilometres (from about 140 miles to just under 160 miles). Indeed, he could have traveled a good 30 kilometres (nearly 20 miles) before running out of power. Before I forget it, Grégoire needed about 5 hours 20 minutes to 6 hours to complete the Paris-Tours trip.

And yes, the CGE-Tudor used during that journey was apparently given to the quasi-senile head of the État français, the puppet / collaborationist government of France, Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain – an altogether not too savoury character mentioned in October 2019, March 2021 and June 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Would you believe that most electric automobiles available in Canada in 2021 can travel 200 to 400 kilometres (125 to 250 miles) without recharging their batteries?

And no, contrary to what one can often read online, the distance traveled by Grégoire was not a road distance record without recharging the batteries. Indeed, in October 1901, an electric automobile fitted with Fulmen batteries traveled the 307 kilometres (191 miles) which separated Paris from the outskirts of Châtellerault, south of Tours. This being said (typed?), said automobile needed 16 hours 40 minutes to cover that distance.

And yes, it was Fulmen batteries which allowed the Jenatzy Jamais Contente electric automobile to become the first motor vehicle, all categories combined, to cross the 100 kilometres/hour mark, in April 1899. Camille Jenatzy actually reached 105.88 kilometres/hour (65.79 miles/hour), but I digress. Back to the CGE-Tudor.

Between 1941 and 1944, the Anciens Établissements Hotchkiss produced around 200 CGE-Tudors. These very expensive automobiles, 3 times the purchase price of the aforementioned Citroën Traction avant it was said, were (freely??) doled out to the privileged few, in most cases apparently high-ranking people involved in the project. This being said (typed?), the boss of a (Parisian?) cookie factory apparently received a CGE-Tudor in exchange for… his weight in cookies. I kid you not.

A curious detail if I may. Some suggested that the German government allowed production of the CGE-Tudor on condition that the majority of the vehicles get exported to National Socialist Germany. Subsequent attempts by the German authorities in France to requisition a number of these electric automobiles were greeted with a courtesy which hid a real ill will.

And yes, it is possible that the aforementioned Sagan, then a teenager, drove her father’s CGE-Tudor in the early 1950s, if only in the immediate vicinity of the family home.

In 1943, Grégoire began designing an automobile, the Grégoire R, for the Anciens Établissements Hotchkiss, an automobile whose aerodynamic shape was designed using a wind tunnel. Derived from this prototype, the very elegant and complex Hotchkiss-Grégoire unfortunately turned out to be too expensive for the affluent consumer for whom it was intended. Less than 250 examples of that automobile left the factory between 1950 and 1954. In fact, the Hotchkiss-Grégoire was the last automobile produced by the Anciens Établissements Hotchkiss, the firm then specialising in the production of other types of civilian and, even more, military vehicles.

And yes, the Anciens Établissements Hotchkiss began in 1955 the production under license of the American ¼-Ton, 4 x 4, Utility Truck M38. The firm produced around 33 000 examples of this “Jeep” between 1955 and 1966, including 4 630 civilian JHs.

If you do not mind, yours truly would like to end this first part of this week’s article without further delay. May I suggest you go have some fun?

See ya later.

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Rénald Fortier