Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept

| 26 Feb 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept

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The story goes something like this.

One day in 1929 the wealthy French industrialist Lucien Rosengart, who was then making the Austin Seven under licence, steps out of the famous Paris restaurant Maxim’s.

He sees a female acquaintance getting out of an imposing Packard roadster.

“What on earth are you doing driving such a lorry?” he exclaims. To which the lady replies, “Well, at your age, shouldn’t you have given up playing with toy cars?” Or words to that effect.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
The gravity-fed 1097cc six-pot delivers all of 27bhp

Six months later they meet again at Maxim’s. “Let’s have lunch tomorrow,”says Rosengart. “I’ve got something to show you.”

The following day he meets the woman with the prototype of a smart little six-cylinder motor car.

Won over by its elegance, and the charms of its creator, she will eventually become the second Mme Rosengart.

Her future husband goes on to make a wide range of cars, survive the Second World War, and retire to the Riviera to become an amateur painter.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
The nicely weathered badge underlines this car’s originality

How much of the Maxim’s story is true is of course another matter.

What is certainly the case is that at the 1931 Paris motor show Lucien Rosengart did indeed unveil a six-cylinder model, powered by a tiny 1100cc sidevalve engine.

Production of this original version stopped in 1934, but it would reappear in time for the 1938 season in restyled form, though largely unchanged mechanically, and continued to be a listed model into the following year.

What you see here is one of those second-generation cars.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
Elegant script, even if it’s a misnomer

Known in typically exaggerated Rosengart style as a ‘SuperSept’, despite only being rated as a 6CV, it is one of only 10 known to have survived, and is perhaps the only extant coupé out of perhaps half a dozen that are thought by marque experts to have been made.

Those figures give a hint of the turbulent story behind the Rosengart motor car.

It is a tale of thrusting entrepreneurship, financial machinations… and ultimate commercial failure.

It involves one of the most underreported frontline players in the pre-war French automotive industry, and ‘our’ smart little black ‘LR70’ SuperSept neatly encapsulates the saga behind the man and the marque.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
It is certainly a pretty classic

Lucien Rosengart made his first fortune manufacturing nuts, bolts and washers, and his second during the First World War when he mass-produced artillery shells.

After the war his products included bicycle dynamos and pocket torches.

When his friend André Citroën ran into difficulties, Rosengart stitched together a financial package whereby the loans Citroën needed were underwritten by the value of his stock of unsold cars – a clever wheeze that only worked providing ever more of these cars found customers, thereby putting money back into the coffers to service the loans.

Rosengart helped manage the Quai de Javel factory, Citroën pulled through his first crisis, then Rosengart moved on, this time bailing out Peugeot with a similar system before again stepping aside.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
This example carries a delightful aluminium ‘France’ badge

At the 1928 Paris Salon he became a manufacturer in his own right, with his licence-built version of the Austin Seven, the 5CV Rosengart.

Aggressively advertised, and promoted with endurance-run stunts, the cars struck a certain chord as low-priced economical transport.

After the introduction of the six-cylinder cars Rosengart further added to his range in ’32 when he announced licence-production of the Adler Trumpf – having tried to interest André Citroën in the German front-wheel-drive design.

Had he concentrated solely on the technically advanced Adler, which he renamed the Supertraction, Rosengart might conceivably have made a fist of being a serious motor manufacturer.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
“A more committed driving style can circumvent the SuperSept’s lack of guts; once it’s wound up, gentle gradients hold no fear”

But in the years to come the business went off the rails.

The ageing 5CV continued, the Supertraction was – possibly needlessly – given a new body, the six-cylinder chassis was re-engined with a 1649cc Adler four-cylinder sidevalve, and an all-new mid-sized car with the same power unit was introduced.

The Rosengart range came to resemble an unruly tessellated pavement of related and unrelated models, all with more daft names than you’d find in an Ikea catalogue.

By the close of 1936 the deal with Adler had collapsed, Rosengart was in the financial mire, the company had been restructured, and the product line had shrunk back to just the 5CV.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
Not only is this a rare car, it is a very low-mile specimen, too

With its crash gearbox, cable brakes and beam front axle, this warmed-over 1920s relic was no longer a very saleable commodity, despite a 1935 restyling.

The dapper Mr Rosengart struggled on, reviving the aforementioned ‘six’ and even trying to enter the prestige market with a slinky revival of the Supertraction, this time on a hybrid chassis comprising a Traction Avant Citroën front end and an Adler rear.

That Rosengart had reached the point when he ought quietly to have left the keys of his Paris factory under the mat and whistled off down to Maxim’s is underlined by studying this SuperSept, owned by Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs chairman David Whale.

With its so-called ‘aerodynamic’ bodywork picked out by red wheels and coachlining, it lives up to its description as ‘la voiture de la femme élégante’ in Rosengart’s predictably hyperbolic sales catalogue.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
It has a super-simple dashboard, even for its time, but it does feature an opening front windscreen

“If you wanted Parisian style it probably delivered,” comments Whale. “It’s an incredibly pretty car. You could picture it out and about town in 1938 – it has a lot of Parisian chic.”

The interior – all-original but for new carpets – is as pleasing as the exterior.

The painted steel dashboard houses a large combination dial, the big Bakelite wheel is on a chromed steering column, there’s a hat net overhead and the upholstery is in a discreetly stylish herringbone fabric.

With no rear seat there’s a sizeable luggage platform, behind which there’s a decently-sized boot, accessible only from the interior.

Peek under that pretty frock, though, and automotive ardour is soon cooled.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
The engine is a six-cylinder version of the Austin Seven’s ‘four’

When Rosengart decided to make a six-cylinder model, all he did was have two extra cylinders added to an Austin Seven engine, and then plonk it in what was pretty much an Austin Seven chassis.

That was a fairly dumb exercise back in 1931, and it wouldn’t have looked any brighter in 1937.

Admittedly, there are semi-elliptic rear springs in place of the Austin’s quarter-elliptics, along with a conventional propshaft rather than a torque tube.

But the channel-section chassis still has friction dampers all round and a dropped beam front axle with a transverse leaf spring, while the brakes remain operated by cable.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
Owner Whale is improving his Rosengart

As for that gravity-fed 1097cc six-pot with its familiar-looking alloy crankcase, it boasts just three main bearings and deploys a bodice-ripping 27bhp – up from the 23bhp of the original unit thanks to the addition of a second Solex carb.

At least the unsynchronised ’box has four speeds, and was claimed to have specially low ratios to allow hill-climbing in high gear.

But Whale didn’t buy the Rosengart for its mechanical finesse.

The reason he fell for the SuperSept is to be found on the dashboard: at the time of writing, the odometer reads a mere 8899km.

That’s little more than 5000 miles, and is certified genuine. In 1997, when the car first surfaced, the figure was a paltry 6514km.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
A hat net was part of the standard equipment on the Rosengart SuperSept

 Little is known of the Rosengart’s early history, but by 1984 it was sitting unused in a French collection.

“I like French cars, and working with FIVA has given me an interest in vehicles from outside the UK,” says Whale

“But more than that, I’ve had a growing interest in the preservation of vehicles. I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in the United States, where you see the American perspective on preservation. I don’t think that here we view preservation in the same way.

“That was probably the trigger to say, ‘What the hell, let’s buy it!’ Something that’s only done 8900km since 1938 has a certain uniqueness.

“The car’s low mileage and the opportunity to preserve something were thus my main motivations – and I like things that are a little bit different.”

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
Red detailing helps bring the design alive

Given its rarity, the Rosengart certainly scores on that point. But what counts – to a greater or lesser degree – is how it acquits itself on the road.

The first issue is to find a comfortable driving position. If you’re on the small side, you end up sitting so low that you’re looking through that big wheel rather than over it.

A little sparrow of a Parisian girl-about-town would have been deterred straight away from reaching for her chequebook, unless Mr Rosengart provided tailor-made seating as part of the attention he paid his female customers.

The engine certainly feels like a six-cylinder, being much smoother than a small sidevalve ‘four’ of the period, but you don’t get silky six-pot refinement.

There’s an obtrusive roller-bearing noise from the unit once you’ve hit the 34 to 40mph mark, so any notions of a sweet-spinning little jewel of a powerplant are best discarded.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
There’s no rear seat and boot access is via a hatch

Nor should one expect much performance, despite those twin Solex carburettors.

The torque is there, but the power isn’t. On the level, the engine hauls well from very low speeds in top, and you can take it through roundabouts without a downchange or pull away from low speeds in a high gear.

But the Rosengart just slows right off on inclines, with forward motion being shaved away to nothing.

While climbing up one hill we went from third gear to second to first, and the car eventually just died.

A more committed driving style can circumvent this lack of guts; once it’s wound up, gentle gradients need hold no fear, while on the level a coffee-grinder 45-50mph is feasible.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
“Rosengart’s claim of the maximum speed being a whisker shy of 70mph is best not contemplated”

To achieve this, though, you need to master the unsynchronised gearbox. Clean changes are possible, but take practice.

“You almost have to triple-declutch, and then it goes in,” comments Whale. At least the clutch is smooth and well-weighted, and a further plus point is that the brakes are surprisingly progressive and adequately effective.

There is little incentive to explore the outer edges of the Rosengart’s performance envelope.

The steering is fluid and genuinely agreeable, with no lost motion to speak of, but that’s where the virtues of the chassis stop.

The ride is choppy at the best of times, with an under-damped front end. On poor roads there’s vicious pitching and directional stability that is foggily approximate.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
Typical French combination dial includes a clock within (left); emblem at the centre of the steering wheel

Along with the shakes that are transmitted through the evidently less than rigid body, this teaches you that sporting motoring is not part of the portfolio.

Even on decent surfaces the car can end up dancing all over the road if you’re imprudent enough to push beyond 40mph – it just doesn’t feel safe.

Rosengart’s claim of the maximum speed being a whisker shy of 70mph is best not contemplated.

Recently, a new tank has been fitted, the ignition has been finely adjusted, and the carbs re-jetted.

“It’s transformed,” reports Whale. “Last time I took it out I was rolling along at over 40mph!” So let’s cut the car a bit of slack for being somewhat off-colour when we tried it.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
Owner Whale has an interest in French cars

Even if one accepts this, the fact remains that by the standards of the time in France – and these are the only standards that count – the Rosengart SuperSept falls well short of the bar, demanding too much effort for little return.

It was ill-conceived to begin with, and smart looks and canny marketing weren’t enough to conceal the unsaleability at the end of the 1930s of an over-engined and under-engineered rejig of a 1922 Austin Seven.

By then nobody took the 5CV Rosengart seriously, let alone its six-cylinder sister.

Classic & Sports Car – Dressed to deceive: Rosengart SuperSept
This is a rare – and treasured – survivor

In Grand Luxe form the coupé cost 24,710 francs in late 1938, roughly the same as a 7C Traction Avant and nearly 4000 francs more than an eminently presentable Renault Juvaquatre.

Admittedly, Simca’s new coupé version of its Huit came in at 27,900 francs, but there was no need to spend that much on a nifty town car when the same manufacturer offered its licence-built Fiat Topolino, the Simca Cinq, at less than Ffr15,000 in tin-top Luxe format.

Any one of these cars, even the not hugely clever Juvaquatre, would tan the pants off the Rosengart for driveability.

Images: John Bradshaw


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