The 302 and 402 Darl’mats have always left me a little torn.
Their shapes are impressively sleek, but their mechanicals have never quite seemed to live up to their aesthetic promise.
So when Christophe Pund called to say he had an example in his garage, I jumped at the opportunity to challenge my preconceptions.
The car’s form immediately strikes you.
Behind the large, domed grille, reminiscent of a knight’s helmet, the lines stretch out, fluid and elegant, as if marrying the streams of air flowing over the body and rear wheelarches in their own quest for the optimum profile.
Aerodynamic design was fashionable in the mid-’30s, and each brand embarked on its own analysis, often more empirical than scientific.
At Citroën, the Traction Avant revealed lowered lines made possible by a monocoque body as early as 1934, while the following year Peugeot adopted the ‘Sochaux spindle’ inspired by the Chrysler Airflow.
Georges Paulin, designer of the 302 Spécial Sport, presented a very personal style that could also be found on the famous Embiricos Bentley, created just after the Peugeot Darl’mat.
On these, we can detect similarities with Jean Andreau’s design for the 402, albeit in a lighter and less formal interpretation.
The example we have in front of us is a 1938 roadster, and while it has small doors, getting on board is almost easier without having to use them: sit at the top of the backrest and slide on to the seat, legs either side of the large, low steering wheel, knees apart, feet prudently groping to locate the pedals because it’s quite easy to miss the brake.
My 6ft frame could do with a little more room to feel comfortable, but for Pund, who is less leggy, the driving position is fine.
Ahead is a simple dashboard, in polished aluminium, with two large dials and several smaller instruments: in addition to a rev counter that, curiously, runs back-to-front, there is an oil-temperature gauge, which is also rather unusual and serves to convey the inherent sportiness of this machine.
A discreet electric pump has been added to allow the carburettors to be primed without pulling the starter.
After reducing the advance a little, a pull-tab to the right of the dash results in easy starting, and the 2-litre, four-cylinder Peugeot engine quickly settles to a smooth and almost silent idle.
This example is equipped with the Cotal electromagnetic gearbox (not to be confused with the Wilson preselector, as fitted to some English contemporaries), and it requires a very particular technique.
Under the dashboard is a reverse/neutral/forward lever that, after disengaging the clutch, is placed in forward gear.
First is then selected via a short lever on the dashboard – some examples feature the classic Cotal ‘mustard pot’ – and to pull away you simply engage the clutch quite normally.
Second is selected by declutching again and moving the dashboard lever, and so on up to fourth.
Clutchless shifts into third and fourth are possible, but we avoid them so as not to wear the transmission.
The system is incredibly easy and gives great control, whether shifting up or down through the gears.
At a time when passenger cars required all sorts of double-clutches and double pedals to avoid graunches and grinding, here shifts are quick, quiet and at your fingertips. It is one of the real surprises of the car.
There are others. The exhaust noise might be a little muffled, but acceleration is accompanied by the sound of the two Zenith-Stromberg carburettors swallowing large gulps of air as the car picks up speed with unexpected vigour.
This Peugeot is reputed to lack sportiness, but it’s an unfair characterisation that is contradicted by both the figures and the impression on the road.
In addition to a pleasant flexibility, it is light and alert on the winding roads of Mont Cassel, aided by a balanced chassis and the control afforded by a completely predictable rear end.
In a straight line the car propels itself to 60mph with ease, hampered only by vibrations from the front axle, likely due to poor wheel balancing. And the braking is good – at least once your foot has found the pedal…
We’re driving mainly with the windscreen up; if it is down (it can be lowered on the move, via a clever crank under the dashboard) goggles are essential, but the impression of speed is further accentuated.
Yet provided you adjust the driving position correctly, long distances shouldn’t pose a problem other than that from fatigue caused by the draughts, as in any old sports car.
In any case, at a time when ‘square-box’ designs still dominated traffic, the driver of a machine such as this must have felt like the king of the road.
Need I add that when I climbed, windswept, from the cockpit, my preconceptions of the car had been quashed? Now, its advertising slogan of the time – ‘the speed of a racing car, the comfort of a touring car, the budget of a production car’ – suddenly seems completely appropriate.
Back at Pund’s base, we lift the aluminium bonnet for a look at the overhead-valve four-cylinder 402 engine.
It’s a robust unit, but not one that can really be described as sporty, with its intake and exhaust on the same side.
Along the flanks, above the front wings, a series of discs contribute to engine-compartment ventilation, although the first two are purely decorative.
The car also has a canvas top, stowed behind the backrest in a luggage compartment from which the hood sticks unfold.
The operation requires concentration and needs to be carried out before a downpour arrives, and once the hood is in place, the doors must be used to climb inside.
Our tour of the car ends at the rear, where a round cover hides the spare wheel; beneath it sits the heart-shaped numberplate, which further attests to the care taken in the finish of the car.
This Spécial Sport left the factory on 2 June 1938 and was one of the very last produced.
Delivered to the Peugeot dealer in Nîmes for the sum of Ffr32,033 (including Ffr16,884 for the chassis), it remained there until 28 August 1940, suggesting that it was used as a company demonstrator, after which it was sold for Ffr27,550.
It was once used by an amateur pilot from Bordeaux, Charly Hugues, before enjoying a peaceful life in the hands of various collectors.
As a result it is particularly well preserved, with its original mechanicals and bodywork, even if it has changed colour: there are traces of light green on certain edges of the bodywork.
Behind this sporting version of the Peugeot touring car hides a character: Émile Darl’mat, whose somewhat unusual surname comes from the Breton expression Dalc’h Mad, meaning ‘hold on’.
Darl’mat was a passionate mechanic who embarked on a career in the motor trade in 1920s Paris.
He soon devoted himself exclusively to Peugeot, and brought his inventiveness to the rather traditional Sochaux marque.
Darl’mat distinguished himself in 1933 by creating the 301 Éclipse, equipped with a retractable roof made by coachbuilder Marcel Pourtout from a patent by Georges Paulin.
He also fitted touring models with bespoke extras at the request of customers, who sometimes expressed more sporting desires than the lion-badged brand tended to offer off the shelf.
Those same wishes were shared by Darl’mat’s friend Charles de Cortanze, a keen motorsport enthusiast who, as teammate of Georges de Lavalette, won his class in the 1932 Rallye Monte-Carlo in a 201C.
Together, Darl’mat and de Cortanze dreamed of building a Peugeot sports car capable of holding out against more prestigious models – so why not take it to the Le Mans 24 Hours?
Employing an experienced team, Darl’mat set to work, initially deciding to equip the light 302 chassis with the engine and running gear from the 402.
Power from its 2-litre engine was increased from 55bhp to 70bhp, and to dress it all he called on designer Paulin, who styled the elegant aluminium bodywork.
In November 1936, the prototype of the 302 DS (Darl’mat Sport) made its debut at Montlhéry.
In the hands of Charles de Cortanze, Jean Pujol and Marcel Contet, it achieved excellent results: 24 hours at an average of 139.292kph (86.552mph), plus a 25th hour at 144.728kph (89.930mph).
This success confirmed the soundness of the project and led to a commercial launch, in January 1937, across the Peugeot network.
The production model differed from the Montlhéry prototype in only a few details, such as its doors and steel bodywork (except for certain elements, such as the aluminium bonnet, which varied depending on the car’s date of manufacture).
After the roadster, an elegant coupé version was offered from April 1937 then, in the autumn of that year, a more comfortable cabriolet with high doors, a fixed windscreen incorporating proper wipers and a soft-top.
The model evolved from 302 to 402 with the appearance of the 402 Légère, which used the sports version’s combination of 302 chassis and 402 mechanicals.
The 302 and 402 DS were almost identical, but the Cotal transmission was more common on the latter, offered as an alternative to the basic model’s three-speed manual gearbox to create the DSE, for ‘Darl’mat Sport Electromagnetic’.
These performance models enabled Darl’mat to get into racing and realise his dream of competing at Le Mans.
After the war, in private hands, the cars took part in other events, such as the Liège-Rome-Liège rally and the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.
On the strength of their looks alone the 302 and 402 DS also stood out in the many concours d’élégance that were so fashionable in the late ’30s.
But the story of these cars came to an end more quickly than expected: in ’38, the Peugeot range was updated and the 402 Légère gave way to the 402B Légère, which sounded the death knell for the 402 DS, the last of which left the workshop in June of that year.
The outbreak of war then suffocated any ongoing projects.
The whole Darl’mat adventure didn’t end there, however, because the enterprising dealer pursued his dreams of modifying, improving and record-setting after the war, albeit without a return to Le Mans.
Émile Darl’mat died in 1970, but his name survives to this day in several Peugeot dealerships.
Enthusiasts had to wait until 1991 to see the lion marque’s return to Le Mans, this time with all the resources of the factory behind it.
The 302 and 402 DS therefore represent important milestones in French motorsport, testifying to a time when a privateeer could successfully represent the colours of a major manufacturer.
Words: Serge Cordey
Images: Serge Cordey/Christophe Pund Archive
Thanks to: Christophe Pund, La Galerie des Damiers
From streamlining pioneer to war hero
In 1918, designer Georges Paulin was severely affected by the war when his mother was killed in a bombing raid. He was only 16 years old.
Paulin started work as a dental technician but remained passionate about aerodynamics and design, to which he devoted more and more time.
He made a name for himself in 1932 with a patent for a retractable roof, which was adopted by Peugeot on its 301 Éclipse, bodied in the workshops of Marcel Pourtout.
Paulin designed several models, each of which was characterised by the quest for optimum aerodynamic streamlining (typically in order to compensate for a sometimes modest power output).
Sleator had been commissioned to produce aerodynamic bodywork for Andre Maris Embiricos, a Greek shipping magnate and banker, based on a 4¼-litre Bentley.
They decided to call on Paulin, who built what is now called the ‘Bentley Embiricos’ (above) after having carried out scale-model tests in the Meudon wind tunnel, and the elegant streamlined bodywork is reminiscent of the Peugeot Spécial Sport.
This achievement encouraged the Rolls-Royce group to secure the services of Paulin, who in 1939 produced the astonishing Corniche saloon for the brand.
When WW2 broke out, Paulin became heavily involved in the French Resistance alongside coachbuilder Georges Kellner and in liaison with Sleator.
He transmitted information to the RAF to direct its bombardments on various factories, using a hidden transmitting station.
But in November 1941 several members of the network were arrested, including Paulin, who was tortured and then shot in March 1942.
Émile Darl’mat’s Le Mans adventures
When he ran the 302 DS prototype at Montlhéry in 1936, Émile Darl’mat’s mind was on the most prestigious endurance race in the world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Thanks to the car’s good initial results he received the factory’s blessing and assistance, although Peugeot chose not to offer its support officially in order to avoid the consequences of a failure – but it would, of course, be happy to benefit from any success.
Darl’mat prepared three cars for 1937 (with a more powerful engine, aluminium body without doors, 120-litre tank, Alpax rims, bucket seats and aeroscreen), entered for Charles de Cortanze/Maurice Serre (car 25), Jean Pujol/Marcel Contet (26) and Daniel Porthault/Luis Rigal (27).
Fearing a breakdown, the factory recommended keeping a moderate average speed and giving priority to the result for the whole team rather than any individual performance.
Darl’mat acquiesced and the three cars crossed the line together (in seventh, eighth and 10th), leaving a streamlined Adler free to win the 1500-2000cc category.
This result remained a superb triumph of preparation and organisation, the credit for which went to Darl’mat. He received Peugeot’s praise, and the manufacturer went on to exploit the achievement in its advertising.
In 1938 Darl’mat decided to enter again, with more advanced engine preparation (and a light-alloy cylinder head) that came close to producing 90bhp at 4500rpm.
Three cars were entered: de Cortanze/Contet (24), Pujol/Rigal (25) and Serre/Porthault (26).
This time Darl’mat was determined to beat the Adlers, but both cars 25 and 26 retired early due to failed cylinder head gaskets, having been disturbed the day before the race.
Everything then rested on de Cortanze/Contet, who finished in a strong fifth place overall and took victory in the 1500-2000cc category, just ahead of the Adler.
Peugeot 402 Spécial Sport
- Sold/number built 1937-’38/105 (302 and 402 DS)
- Construction ‘Bloctube’ steel chassis, steel body with aluminium bonnet
- Engine all-iron, ohv 1991cc ‘four’, single or twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors
- Max power 70bhp @ 4500rpm
- Max torque n/a
- Transmission three-speed manual or four-speed Cotal electromagnetic, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by lower links, transverse leaf spring rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; lever-arm dampers f/r
- Steering worm and sector
- Brakes cable-operated Bendix drums
- Length 13ft 9½in (4200mm)
- Width 5ft 6in (1680mm)
- Height 3ft 7¼in (1100mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 5in (2880mm)
- Weight 1654lb (750kg)
- 0-60mph n/a
- Top speed 100mph (est)
- Mpg n/a
- Price new Ffr32,033
- Price now £300-350,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication