Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

| 27 Oct 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

How should one judge the Hotchkiss-Grégoire?

As a monumental folly that finished off Hotchkiss as a maker of passenger vehicles?

Or as the most advanced and exciting French car of its time, one that anticipated and bettered the DS and was viciously and needlessly killed before it could establish itself in the market?

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

The crossed-cannons badge on the Hotchkiss-Grégoire

The H-G came about as a logical follow-up to the pre-war Amilcar Compound and the Aluminium Français Grégoire small car.

As with those two, it was a front-wheel-drive design built around an innovative cast-aluminium hull.

It also had Grégoire’s variable-rate all-independent suspension, using horizontal coil springs under tension.

But the Type R, as the prototype was called, moved the game on even further, with a water-cooled all-aluminium flat-four and an aerodynamically smooth body that in model form recorded a 0.20 drag coefficient.

Grégoire hawked the prototype around the French motor industry, but found no takers.

Nobody wanted to risk building a design unrelated to their existing cars and using a form of construction that had proved problematic in the Hotchkiss-built Compound.

Plus, it didn’t take a genius to realise that the bolted-together punt would cost substantially more than a pressed-steel structure, and would leave any maker dependent on France’s monopoly aluminium supplier.

There was also a dislike of Grégoire.

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

Under the bonnet, the Hotchkiss-Grégoire’s flat-four has a 32mm Solex carburettor; note the high-set Houdaille dampers

He loved latterly to present himself as a brave free-thinking individualist-designer, but at the time he was regarded as a smooth-talking insider, a puppet of his paymaster Aluminium Français, and as someone adept at manipulating the sycophantic press.

Having been supported by the collaborationist Vichy administration during WW2, in late ’44 Grégoire had contrived to be parachuted into management of Simca by the provisional government of liberated France.

This brief episode was part of his bid to have the Franco-Italian firm build the AFG, but it was swiftly ended by the return of Simca boss Henri Théodore Pigozzi.

Yet despite all this, Hotchkiss accepted in 1948 to build the Type R, and Grégoire joined the board of the company, later becoming a minority shareholder.

Having suffered difficulties making the Amilcar Compound, it seems astonishing that the Saint Denis firm should take up another Grégoire design in the same vein.

Without a substantial investment in tooling, the only way such a sophisticated new car would be viable was to assemble bought-in components.

So the company would be at the mercy of subcontractors when it came to quality, delivery and price.

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

‘It is difficult not to like it for its lope-along abilities and sheer technology’

Having been courted by Grégoire, one of Hotchkiss’ major shareholders, Electrobel in Belgium, urged it to take on the Type R.

Peugeot, another key backer, saw the benefits of having Aluminium Français on side – as well as keeping Grégoire’s friends in government happy – by having Hotchkiss make the car in small numbers.

Senior engineers and management, however, were livid.

Chief engineer Vincenzo Bertarione delivered a blistering assessment of the Type R’s design, saying that none of its features made economic or technical sense.

Not only that, but by the time the deal was inked-in during June ’49, Hotchkiss was putting the finishing touches to a new range of cars of its own design.

Henry Mann Ainsworth, the MD, resigned in disgust.

Meanwhile, the ‘New Look’ Hotchkisses were canned in favour of the Anjou series, a less radical rebodying of the existing cars, intended as a stopgap until the Grégoire became the sole product.

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

The expensive ‘spider’ alloy wheels are difficult to balance

Against this backdrop of ill-will, production of a ‘pre-series’ of 200 Hotchkiss-Grégoires was planned to start in December 1950; this was a ludicrously tight schedule for an all-new model.

By autumn of that year, the car had twice been restyled and now carried four-light coachwork.

Proposed to sell at 1,200,000FF (c£1250), when a Ford Vedette cost 850,000FF, the price was already being judged too high by the press.

There was talk of making 1200 cars in the first year, but in the end the first customer H-G only emerged in June 1951 – by which time the price had risen to 1,490,000FF.

By the ’51 Paris Salon, this had been bumped up to 1,800,000FF: triple the cost of an 11BL Traction Avant Citroën and twice that of the new Renault Frégate.

At that money, people didn’t want the car, whatever its virtues.

In a way the question was academic: Hotchkiss was barely able to make the thing. Just 50 had been built by the end of 1951.

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

The front bench seats three people

The alloy castings, in particular the massive and complex one-piece scuttle, were not being made to tolerances, and had to be extensively fettled; large numbers of castings were rejected.

It took eight men just to make the doors fit.

There were major teething problems, too.

The flywheels came adrift, among sundry engine maladies; the gearboxes broke; the bodies leaked; the doors sprang open; the front suspension wore out within 6000 miles; the finish was poor.

Three-quarters of the cars came back for costly under-guarantee rectification.

On top of this, Hotchkiss was running out of money – because it hadn’t costed the job.

Had it done so, it might have found out that aluminium wings were more than twice as expensive as steel ones.

When it finally did the sums, in October ’51, it calculated that each car cost 2,510,000FF, prompting the panic price hike during the show.

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

There’s lots of legroom in the back of the Hotchkiss-Grégoire

Farming-out construction was not a viable option, either.

Facel did quote, but the sum was beyond the means of Hotchkiss and would only be amortised over a run of at least 3000 cars.

Hotchkiss had boxed itself into a Catch-22 bind.

Having not been able to invest in the new facilities to make the car cost-effectively, it had mortgaged itself to hand-build an over-priced and under-developed design that was dying a death in the market.

As a result, there was no solid commercial basis on which to justify re-tooling for the large-scale manufacture that would bring costs down and quality up – even presupposing that such funds were available.

In ’52 – the year in which Chapron-bodied coupé and drophead models joined the range – Peugeot pushed through a change in senior management.

New boss Paul Richard decided to pull the plug on the Hotchkiss-Grégoire the moment he was clear of contractual obligations towards Jean-Albert.

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

This classic car was the 50th Hotchkiss-Grégoire produced

With sales of the Anjou having evaporated, car production would cease, and henceforth Hotchkiss would concentrate on defence contracts, its lorries, and on licensed-­assembly of the Ferguson tractor plus the Jeep.

For a while Grégoire explored the possibility of fitting the entire H-G front end into a Frégate unitary shell, but this was never a realistic notion.

The last saloon was delivered in March ’54, and the final Chapron cabriolet in November.

Just 247 Hotchkiss-Grégoires had been made.

That same year Hotchkiss merged with Delahaye, and in ’56 it would join forces with defence and electronics firm Brandt, before ultimately being folded into the giant conglomerate Thomson.

Thanks to their aluminium construction and their intriguing engineering, a sizeable 70 or so Hotchkiss-Grégoires have survived.

Jacques Paquereau’s example has an unusual history: it was a government car used in 1954 and ’55 by future French president François Mitterand, when he was Minister of the Interior.

“Sixty years on, it’s extraordinary,” enthuses Paquereau.

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

The cream-on-brown Jaeger dials match the Hotchkiss-Grégoire’s upmarket cabin

“It goes like a modern car – it’s comfortable, silent, doesn’t use much petrol, is agreeable to drive, and has good roadholding,” he continues.

“Sure, there are areas where it needed to be improved, but it was basically a prototype. In its day, it must have been quite something.”

How does it compare to the 15-Six Traction Avant he once owned?

“The Citroën is not easy to drive. It’s unwieldy.

“On the open road it’s fine, but in town oh là là! The Hotchkiss is much better – it’s a bicycle in comparison.

“On winding roads, the 15-Six is a pain. Do 100km and you’re exhausted. Do 500km in this and you’re fine.”

Paquereau is not blind to the car’s failings, though: “Its biggest faults are its suicide doors – still wood-framed in ’52! – and the complex front end.

“There are brass bushes, threaded trunnions and grease nipples everywhere. It’s a horror if maintenance is neglected.

“Nothing is simple – not even the heater. Every aspect was carefully thought-out, but it was just too complicated.”

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

The bizarre crash fourth gear has a ‘sugar tong’ detent

As you step over the deep sill into the flat-floored interior, you discover a cabin of surprising simplicity.

With seating for three up front and two in the back, thanks to the car’s tapering form, the rear passengers have a vista of what looks like acres of front cabin.

The driver, meanwhile, sits quite high, with thighs close to the wheel, on a bench seat that surprisingly has no fore-and-aft adjustment.

There is unpatterned brown fabric trim with contrasting piping, headlining to match, plain-grain door cappings, and a brown-painted dash that looks anything but upmarket – despite the attractive radio grille with its Hotchkiss-Grégoire gazelle motif.

It’s pleasant to drive.

Pulling away, the 70bhp 2188cc pushrod flat-four sounds like an enlarged Jowett Javelin unit, with a burbly uneven tone at low speed.

On a small throttle opening in top, you hear little more than a discreet ‘ron-ron’ from the engine.

At higher speeds it remains impressively smooth, but is drowned out by wind noise whistling around the doors.

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

The rear spats help with aerodynamics

There’s a certain gruffness under load, so overall it feels coarser and less refined than a DS. But where might the design have been after five years’ development?

Top gear is definitely an overdrive, and third is quite high, so all the acceleration is in second. The Grégoire motors along at 50-60mph, totally at ease, and with an impressive feeling of security.

The column change is good, but demands full depression of the clutch. A separate lever operates a detent for the unsynchronised fourth, set in the same plane as second.

You can muff shifts, but get it right and the action through the ’box is sweet. With a firm but not brutal hand, you let the lever find its own place. Indeed, once you have the knack, it only needs your fingers.

The positive rack steering is not heavy and, with its front-biased weight, the car has exemplary straight-line stability without excessive understeer – even if it keels over and squeals its tyres when thrown into a bend.

The turning circle is also good, a benefit of the Tracta outer CV joints the Grégoire uses.

Classic & Sports Car – Hotchkiss-Grégoire: fooled again

Thanks in part to the front-biased weight, the Hotchkiss-Grégoire feels very stable

There’s a gentle bobbing from the suspension, even on good roads, and this is amplified by the seat springs. It’s relaxing and rather endearing.

As for the hydraulic brakes, they need a lean but work well. With its soft ride, wide cockpit and vee ’screen, the Grégoire is a friendly old cruiser.

The trouble is that, away from the mechanicals, the rest of the car comes across as old-fashioned, and not up to such a high price.

The cabin barely has more ambience than that of a Traction Avant or a 203, but it is difficult not to like the car for its easy lope-along abilities and its sheer technology.

In isolation, then, the Hotchkiss-Grégoire is an agreeable and accomplished vehicle. But the car cannot be considered in isolation. It was madness for under-capitalised Hotchkiss, with its creaky facilities, to make an all-new model that had nothing in common with its existing range.

If you look beyond the hype, it was not sound engineering to construct a car in such a way that it could not technically be made by the means then available. Nor at a price that no one would pay.

The Hotchkiss-Grégoire is a fascinating and in many ways advanced vehicle. But it is a monument to the vanity of Jean-Albert Grégoire. If you are to pose as an avant-garde innovator, your designs need to work, to be manufacturable, and to be financially viable.

Images: Tony Baker

This was first in our July 2015 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication

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