1931 Delage D8N Mouette

Coachwork by Chapron

It was with justifiable pride that Automobiles Delage boasted that it produced “France’s Finest Car”. And in the eyes of many Delagistes, that epithet is most aptly applied to the D8, launched at the 1929 Paris Salon to rapturous praise from the motoring press. “Beautiful as a cathedral… everything necessary for a magnificent roadburner… Lovers of beautiful, luxurious, extremely comfortable cars will choose the D8 because of its very attractive lines and its combination of qualities – power, flexibility, silence – that they will absolutely have marvelled over…” were typical comments.

The company’s advertising declared: “Delage have to their credit many world’s records, including a world championship, and more awards at the principal Concours d’Elegance than any other car in the world,” adding: “To these achievements Delage have added a third and greater. They have made the highest known degree of luxury and performance available at the price the average motorist can afford.”

Indeed, in its day, the Delage D8 was the only French car which could be mentioned in the same breath as the 32CV Hispano-Suiza in terms of elegance and engineering excellence, while the Delage factory at Courbevoie was the most modern in the French industry, equipped with the finest tools that money could buy.

Designed by Louis Delâge’s long-term associate Maurice Gaultier, the D8 was powered by a smooth and silent 4.0-litre straight-eight overhead-valve engine breathing, in its normal 105bhp version, through a single Delage-built Smith-Barriquand five-jet carburettor. The chassis was a strong X-braced structure with servo-assisted braking. It was available in three chassis types: Normal (“that can accommodate very comfortable five/six-seater bodywork”); Long and Sport.

Uniquely, each new model that Delage produced had the personal stamp of approval of Le Patron, Louis Delâge. Noted that most distinguished motoring journalist W.F. Bradley, “Delâge was more than a manufacturer; he was really a very enthusiastic motorist. He supervised the design of his cars, he followed their construction very closely and tested them very thoroughly… He drove himself and if there were any defects he wanted to be the first to know about them.” And so in the 1920s Louis Delâge subjected a prototype of each new model to a searching test of its dynamics in a high-speed “tour de France” following the frontier lines of “Le Hexagone”. Recalled Bradley: “It was a pretty tough proposition because the distance – 1000 km a day – was about as much as a human being could stand under the road conditions of that time.” And only when “M’sieu Louis” – who had canvassed the opinion of his dealers en route – was satisfied was the new model declared fit for production.

And to underline the outstanding road-going abilities of the D8, in February 1930 racing driver Robert Sénéchal undertook a sealed-bonnet tour of winter-bound Europe at the wheel of a D8 named “Mademoiselle France”, covering over 7000 km/4350 miles in eight days, following the itinerary Paris-Madrid-Barcelona-Monte Carlo-Rome-Venice-Vienna-Berlin-Paris. And when Sénéchal finally brought the D8 to a halt in front of the Delage showroom on the Champs-Elysées, he declared: “What I have just done, any keen driver could succeed in doing with this car.”

It was, claimed the Delage company, “The world’s finest road performance… on any car, at any price!”

Such plaudits naturally attracted a most distinguished clientele, described by the factory as “experienced and justifiably demanding folk, men of industry and of the world, businessmen and elegant women.” This august company of D8 owners included members of royal families – King Gustav V of Sweden, King Alexander of Yugoslavia, Prince George of Greece and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia among them – as well as leading businessmen and politicians. Among the D8’s celebrity owners were aviation’s most celebrated partnership, Jim and Amy Mollison. The most glamorous film, stage and cabaret stars of the day, like Josephine Baker and Betty Spell, added sex appeal to the glorious coachwork that adorned the D8 chassis at the major concours d’elegance of the day (events which a Delage usually won).

That great actor Sir Peter Ustinov neatly summed up the unique character of the Delage marque when he wrote: “Mademoiselle Delage is a lady who knows no English counterpart. She is the grande dame who looks forever younger than her years, flirts outrageously with everyone, and is reputed to be living with several cabinet ministers at once. When she is in the mood, she will perform miracles, but if she doesn't like you, she gives no reason for cutting you dead. Without doubt, she is the most elegant lady who ever lived, and her caprices must only be judged as a degree of her intelligence and her mundanity.

France’s top carrossiers vied with one another to create beautiful bodywork on the D8 chassis, and among the most distinguished of these was Henri Chapron of Levallois-Perret, Paris, who had founded his company in 1919 when he was just 33, rebodying war-surplus Model T Fords. Unlike so many fashionable French carrossiers, Chapron carried none of the mental baggage that came from having graduated to cars from building horse-drawn carriages; consequently, his work had a freshness and innate sense of proportion that was well suited to the long-bonneted Delage D8 chassis.

That instinctive elegance is well-illustrated by the handsome “Mouette” saloon bodywork on this car, with its fashionable forward sweep at the foot of the A-pillar, accentuated by the tasteful dark blue and mid-grey colour scheme, attested in a 1964 letter from no less than Henri Chapron himself to be the identical colour scheme applied to this car – chassis 34410 – when it left his coachworks on 9 March 1931, bound for Delage’s London agency J. (Jack) Smith & Co of 28 Albemarle Street, London W1.

While its early history is unknown, a surviving registration document indicates that during the war years it served as a hackney carriage in the service of the Gordon Omnibus Company of 219 Lea Bridge Road, Leyton, in the East End of London. This not only enabled it to keep running during a period of extreme petrol rationing, but also entitled its owner to a reduced annual road tax. Around this period its colour scheme was changed to the typical taxicab colours of black and yellow, and between 1945 and 1948 it fluctuated between periods as a hire car and a private vehicle (with the accompanying increase in road duty). At some stage in this period it belonged to a Mr Arthur Aaron Caplan of Flempton Road, just off the Lea Bridge Road; his address is so close to that of the Gordon Omnibus Company that it suggests there might have been some connection.

In May 1954 the Delage changed hands and was briefly in the ownership of Albert Walter Childs of nearby Cann Hall Road, London E11. The following month, the Delage’s days as a humble taxicab in the East End of London were definitely over, and it had found a new owner – a Mr Michael Thomas Bizony – in a more salubrious quarter of London, Walpole Street, just off the Kings Road in Chelsea. The car stayed with him until 1963, when it was acquired by John Graham Ireland of Aldwick Bay in Sussex.

His tenure of the car was only some nine months, and in February 1964 it was advertised by vintage car dealers Langton & King of Walnut Tree Stables, Runcton, Chichester, Sussex as “mechanically and bodily excellent, interior tatty”; the price was just £145. The following month it was bought by John Richard Warth of Belmont Grove, London SE13.

Later that year it was acquired – for £150 – by restaurateur André Surmain, the well-known collector of Delages (at one stage he owned 37 antique cars, a Paris omnibus and a 13.12 metre yawl named Honey). Born in Cairo of French parents, Surmain grew up in Paris, but moved to the United States after the fall of France in 1940. He served in the Office of Strategic Services (the major US intelligence agency during the war and the forerunner of the CIA). He was one of six OSS officers parachuted into St-Lô before D-Day.

André Surmain was the proprietor of the Lutèce restaurant at 249 E 50th Street in New York (“famous for its Alsatian onion tart”), which after only two years in existence had been declared “one of the great restaurants in the world” by James Bond in Ian Fleming’s 1963 short story “Agent 007 in New York”. That endorsement was echoed when Lutèce was voted the best restaurant in the United States for six consecutive years in the 1980s.

Curiously, when Surmain wrote to the London County Council to enquire about previous owners of the car, the reply was “as the car had not been licensed since 1957, the original file of registration documents for Delage car GO 399 was destroyed. The registration was renewed in 1963”.

The Delage was shipped to New York – and, noted Surmain wryly, “the cost of shipping was more than I paid for the car!” The D8N was in such good order that he drove it from the boat to his garage. Surmain had 34410 restored to original condition in the United States, using as his guide the information (“dark blue and mid grey, grey cloth trim”) provided by Henri Chapron; he had the car shipped back to its native France by the French Line in May 1969. André Surmain sold Lutèce in 1973 to his partner André Soltner and retired to France, aged just 52; there he opened another fine restaurant, Le Relais de Mougins, a few miles inland from Cannes on the French Riviera, which soon gained two Michelin stars. Ironically for Surmain, cars were not allowed in the village of Mougins. Surmain also owned a farm and another restaurant “Foc e Fume” (Smoke and Fire) in Majorca, and the Delage was also housed there.

In 1980 the D8N was acquired by the “collectionneur avisé” José Lesur of Hardelot, former president of the marque club Les Amis de Delage. It was auctioned in 1989 and purchased by the dealer Bruno Vendiesse, who sold it to the present Italian owner in 1990, who had the engine restored by Gianni Torelli Il Restauro of Campagnola Emilia (Reggio Emilia). Still in fine condition, the body needed only a little cosmetic detailing, the car being described by its owner as “a great classic with nice patina”. Its classic radiator – a distinctively elegant design whose parameters were determined at the very beginning of Delage history in 1905 by Louis Delâge’s talented assistant Augustin Legros – is crowned by a Lalique “Coq Nain” mascot.

In recent years Chassis 34410 has participated in many competitions and Concours d’Elegance, always arriving at each venue under its own power with the owner at the wheel. Most notably, it was voted second overall and first in class at the prestigious Villa d'Este concours in 1995. The charming patina of its 50-year-old restoration must surely make it a prime candidate for the increasingly popular preservation class at concours, though the fortunate purchaser will surely appreciate the fine driving characteristics of this lovely car.