Delahaye 175 S: Diana’s deco delight

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Built for an extravagant English knight and once owned by ‘50s movie siren Diana Dors, this stunning Saoutchik-bodied Delahaye 175 S has been restored to its former glory. Mick Walsh examines the Gallic beauty.

America is naturally associated with the most excessive styling trends, but France developed some seriously flamboyant machines during the swansong of the coachbuilder’s art following WW2. These streamlined wonders – mainly from the Paris workshops of Saoutchik and Figoni et Falaschi – were the automotive equivalent of Baroque architecture, with sweeping wing profiles and protrusions way beyond the wheelbase, all accentuated by dazzling chrome details. Underneath these extravagant forms lay largely warmed-over pre-war engineering, but these unique designs were conceived more as motor show or concours sensations than drivers. Not surprisingly, they required a larger-than-life personality to take the wheel and would become the perfect promotion vehicles for celebrities.

Just such a character was Diana Mary Fluck, the blonde bombshell actress better known as Diana Dors. In 1951, aged 20, she became the youngest registered British owner of a Rolls-Royce, but by ’54 Dors was looking for something more flashy, in keeping with her success. With first husband Dennis Hamilton, she discovered an amazing Delahaye in Paris that just happened to be painted her favourite shade of baby blue and, despite the whopping £6000 price, they had to buy it. Finances were stretched for the young movie sex-symbol because they had just purchased a new Thames-side residence in Bray, though Hamilton could see the decadent Delahaye’s publicity potential. Press reports claimed that the dashboard fittings were ‘gold plated’ and the transparent steering wheel was ‘crystal’, which all added to the hype. It didn’t matter that Dors couldn’t drive (she didn’t pass her test until December ’55) because her stunning, 36D-24-35 hourglass figure perfectly complemented the voluptuous motor. Dors didn’t keep the Saoutchik-bodied wonder long because Hamilton didn’t enjoy driving it – maybe the Cotal gearbox was troublesome – and it was traded in for a new Cadillac Eldorado convertible, also finished in light blue, in 1955.

Under its steel skin, however, the five-year-old Delahaye was far more modern than the Cadillac. The Type 175 S was one of just 51 built up to 1951, during the final years of the once-great French marque before the Hotchkiss takeover. Its long bonnet concealed a 4456cc straight-six, with a seven-main-bearing crankshaft. Fed by triple Solex carburettors, it produced a smooth 160bhp. The chassis had Dubonnet front suspension with a de Dion tube and parallel semi-elliptics at the back, while the hydraulic brakes worked handsome finned alloy drums.

Coachwork for the new T175 S was generally tailored to a client’s tastes and wallet. Saoutchik at Neuilly-sur-Seine and rival Figoni vied for business, even stealing ideas from each other. Bizarrely, the inspiration for one series of spectacular bespoke bodies was the narval (narwhal), a strange-looking whale better known as the ‘unicorn of the seas’ because of the male’s helical tusk. This school of Delahayes and Cadillacs all sported an extended nose above the conventional grille. Adorned with flowing chrome embellishments, they looked as if they could have been dreamed up by surrealist Salvador Dalí.

The Delahaye Type 175 S featured here – chassis 815025 – was ordered new by Sir John Gaul, an extrovert English millionaire who lived in Paris. Throughout 1949, the car collected top honours at premier concours d’élégance events including Paris, Monte-Carlo and San Remo. As was the tradition, the breathtaking blue Delahaye was presented with a beautiful lady dressed in the latest couture fashions.

From Gaul, the Saoutchik sensation came to the UK to Diana Dors and eventually found its way to Denver-based collector Arthur Rippey in the USA. It ended up with William G Parfet in Colorado at some point in the 1970s. Frustrated by the car’s unreliable French mechanicals, Parfet sent it to Bud Cohn’s shop in Los Angeles, where the Delahaye’s ‘six’ and Dubonnet suspension were removed and an Oldsmobile Toronado 7-litre V8 and front-wheel-drive transmission were grafted on. The Delahaye looked unchanged and was entered for Pebble Beach in 1982, but only for exhibition due to its modifications. Cohn sold on the redundant Delahaye parts and the daunting restoration of the 175 S discouraged various owners, including Tom Barrett and Sam Orenstein. Its saviour was Ron Benach, a wealthy Chicago industrialist with a passion for coachbuilt French cars, who acquired the by-then dismantled project in 2003.

Having rebuilt two Bugattis for Benach, and the equally swoopy ex-Shah of Iran Saoutchik-bodied Bugatti Type 57, Rod Jolley’s coachbuilding firm in the New Forest was the natural choice to return the French masterpiece to its former glory. “It was one of the most challenging jobs that we’ve ever done, with more than 2000 hours of work,” Jolley recalls. “I’d only seen photos of the car, so it was a shock when it arrived. Someone had started the restoration and amazingly had sectioned the front wings with a disc-cutter, which left us with a 1/8in gap. The only solution was to weld in inch-wide strips and then cut it back. Thankfully, most of the chromed brass body trim was complete, so this gave a good guide to the profile. We had to re-make the missing rear biplane bumper, but the front was a good reference. Saoutchik used traditional body-building techniques, with an ash frame from the scuttle back. All of the panels were hammered out of steel, which was typical of European work. Only the English used a wheel.”

Saoutchik’s craftsmanship impressed Jolley’s top wood-frame man Jason Rangecroft: “With the wind-up windows and all of those integral hinges, it was a complicated frame with a lot more mortise-and-tenon joints than you’d find in an English body. We had to dismantle the frame, replace some wood, then reassemble it.”

After Jolley’s talented team had completed the bodywork, the car was shipped back to the USA for Fran Roxas to finish the restoration. “I’ll never forget first seeing the car in the early ’80s,” says Roxas. “It was sitting at the back of the Candy Store. This was an old warehouse used by various San Francisco collectors to store cars, and the Delahaye looked forlorn with the front wings removed and an Olds engine. I recall it was painted maroon then.” Fortunately, few modifications had been made to fit the Toronado engine, so rebuilding the driveline with a spare Type 175 straight-six and Cotal gearbox was straightforward. “The chassis and suspension were rebuilt,” Roxas adds, “and it drove fine – with good ride and steering – but it’s a big, heavy car, which really handicaps the performance.”

The interior proved a challenge, but luckily a good selection of historic photos found in France provided the perfect reference for the Chicago-based specialist and the late Raymond Milo was a great help with contacts. “We had to re-make the steering wheel,” explains Roxas. “The steel rod had rusted inside the original’s clear casing, so we started again but with a stainless centre. The rim was cast in one piece from clear resin. Most of the gauges were complete, but the dash had been covered in leather, which was wrong. All of the upholstery was retrimmed in our shop and only when we started work did I realise that the main emblem was a seagull, which linked it with the marine theme to the design.”

Matching the paint proved a quandary, with no colour photographs available from the ’50s, but evidence of the original blue was found inside the boot. As Roxas points out: “The paint had never seen daylight, so it made a perfect sample. We call it aqua blue and for ’49 it was a wild colour. I’m sure that some of the GM designers were later inspired by the Delahaye, but it wasn’t until the Oldsmobile Fiesta in ’53 that US manufacturers started to produce such bold colour schemes. The Saoutchik-bodied Delahaye was way ahead of fashion.”

Having rebuilt some of the finest pre-war cars – including many Pebble Beach class-winning Duesenbergs and Packards – how does Roxas rate the French stunner? “For me it’s one of the all-time great automobiles, and I love the nautical influence in the styling. The chrome trim and the fender lines look just like breaking waves.”

After nearly three years’ work, the Delahaye finally made its post-restoration debut at the 2006 Pebble Beach Concours, where it wowed visitors just as it had done 57 years earlier in the Bois de Boulogne. Appropriately, the event had a Gallic coachbuilders theme, with special displays celebrating Delahaye and Voisin. The Type 175 S still stole the show, though, even when parked with some of the most outrageous French styling, including the Figoni et Falaschi 1939 New York Worlds Fair Type 165. Pebble Beach has a frustrating rule that only pre-war cars are eligible for Best of Show, but a proud Benach went home with several trophies. The following spring, the Saoutchik beauty made its East Coast debut at the Amelia Island Concours where it won the People’s Choice trophy.

Remarkably, the original engine was discovered four years after the rebuild was completed, but refitting it will be down to the next owner after it’s auctioned with the car at RM’s Monterey sale on 13 August. With luck, this glorious Type 175 S may finally return to Europe. For me, the Monroe lookalike at the Goodwood Revival has always seemed out of place. So come on Lord March, how about the Delahaye as a course car with a busty Diana Dors doppelgänger at the wheel? Now that would be a showstopper!

This article was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: Ron Kimball

 

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