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Final flings are always interesting.
Be it a case of ‘what if’ or simply ‘why bother?’, they generally make painful but very compelling reading – especially when events take a lurid turn.
Lipstick was smeared on to quite a few automotive pigs in the 1950s, in an effort (last-ditch or otherwise) to make them relevant in the face of cheaper, faster and more modern post-war competition.
But the great grand routier marques of France at least faded from the scene with their dignity largely intact.
With no money for new models, and little buyer appetite for their existing products, Delage, Delahaye and Hotchkiss had all gone by the mid-’50s, and even Bugatti’s post-war revival amounted to just seven cars, so hardly counts.
Talbot-Lago was left as the last producer of large-engined, luxury machines for a domestic car trade that the French government appeared determined to legislate out of business.
First, in 1946, came the Plan Pons, a means by which the government decreed what type of cars – and how many – each of the nation’s 22 manufacturers could produce.
As a maker of rarefied classe exceptionelle machinery, Talbot-Lago was only allocated enough raw materials to make 125 of its new T26 Record models in 1946, all supposedly for export.
In fact, about 45 cars stayed in France, where petrol was still rationed, even tyres were hard to come by and buyers had to apply for a Purchase Tax permit.
The fatal blow to the marque’s long-term fortunes – and those of its contempories – was delivered by a swingeing fiscal horsepower tax formula based on bore/stroke and rotation speed.
It meant that the buyer of an already hugely expensive 4½-litre Talbot-Lago paid three and a half times more tax than the owner of a big Citroën.
By the time the 1956 legislation was brought in – ostensibly to help fund pension increases – the marque was in its final death throes, producing barely one car per week at the Suresnes factory, in the suburbs of Paris.
That had already been shut down at least once after the government – Talbot’s biggest creditor – foreclosed on tax arrears in the early ’50s.
A deal had quickly been done to allow the firm to start trading again a few days later, but most of the Suresnes plant was either unused or let out to other firms by the time Simca acquired the Talbot name in 1959.
You could see all this as the pure vindictiveness of a rabidly socialist government, or take the generous view that it was a protectionist piece of legislation not aimed specifically at the likes of Talbot-Lago but conceived, as much as anything, to discourage American manufacturers from selling their chrome-encrusted wares in France.
In response, the likes of GM merely set up French assembly plants to get around the measures, which at least meant local jobs.
Whatever the true politics behind this offensive on the wealthy, it had a dramatic effect on their automobile-buying habits.
From a post-war high of 433 in 1950, Talbot sales dropped to 80 in 1951, 34 in 1952 and just 17 in 1953.
Starting at Ffr1.2million (four times Citroën’s flagship 15-Six), post-war Talbot-Lago buyers could choose from two-door ‘coach’ or cabriolet styles, or a four-door berline, on the Record chassis with fully hydraulic brakes.
These were all in-house designs and good for more than 100mph, thanks to their 170bhp straight-sixes.
With two high-set cams, Riley-style, working short pushrods, this 4½-litre engine was the most powerful produced in France.
Half a litre up on the biggest 1935-’40 Talbot-Lago models, it was taxable at a full 26 fiscal horsepower.
Part English, part French, the lineage of the Talbot name is so convoluted it makes the brain hurt, with its roots deep in the earliest days of motoring and a complex web of interrelated concerns.
There were Paris Talbots and London Talbots, Sunbeam-Talbots and ‘Roesch’ Talbots, plus a final, tragic outing on the Solara and Sunbeam before the name swirled ignominiously down the toilet bowl of automotive history.
When it comes to the cars produced under the guidance of Antonio ‘Tony’ Lago between 1935 and 1959, solid facts are often difficult to come by.
What I do know is that the 1953-’55 GSL – for Grand Sport Lago, not ‘Luxe’ or ‘Longue’ as often reported – was the last of these Lago-badged thoroughbreds from Paris.
All 19 (or is it 21?) were powered by the ultimate development of his low-revving, high-camshaft straight-six.
A classic even then, it was as at home in a giant limousine as it was powering his light-blue works monopostos to wartime Grand Prix success, and later the sports cars to outright victory at Le Mans in 1950.
A former major in the Italian Air Force in WW1, Lago was a hands-on engineer and automotive entrepreneur who had acquired the French Automobiles Talbot-Darracq SA outpost in 1936 after the assets of the London and Wolverhampton elements of the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq empire fell under the control of the Rootes brothers.
Tasked with revamping the fortunes of the Talbot operation in France in 1933, Lago was well positioned to make a cheeky bid for the moribund company three years later, paying £63,000 with the help of investors.
He put together a complicated range of high-quality four- and six-cylinder cars from 2.3 to 4 litres, offering sober saloons, seven-seater limousines, plus high-performance T150, Lago SS and Lago Specials clothed in exotic teardrop-shaped, closed-wheel designs representing the height of the French coachbuilding art.
During WW2, Lago’s Italian citizenship had kept him in the good books of occupying forces – which kept his factory busy making aircraft engines.
Often described as charming but ruthless in business, Lago was already 53 when his new Type 26 Record models were shown at Paris in 1946.
He had conceived them during the war, assisted by engineer Carlo Marchetti who, like his predecessor Walter Becchia (designer of the 2CV’s flat-twin), had come from Italy, via Fiat.
Lago, born near Venice, was not the first Italian to make a living building fast cars in France.
But in another life he had been a founding member of the Italian fascist party, before a falling out with Mussolini made an escape to France seem prudent.
After a period working in California for Pratt & Whitney, he settled briefly in the UK, first producing overhead-valve conversions for popular models, then working for Isotta Fraschini in London.
As a director of Self-Changing Gears Ltd, Lago acquired the rights to sell the Wilson preselector gearbox in Europe.
He was a lifelong convert to the charms of these transmissions, which became an intrinsic part of the character of his French-built cars.
The racers, surprisingly like their roadgoing relations, would often take podium places in the face of more exotic – but less durable – opposition.
But the days of motorsport victories were well and truly over by the time the Grand Sport Lago was introduced at the Paris Salon in October 1953.
The GS had only been supplied in chassis form, under many famous high-performance headline-grabbers with some of the most exotic body styles ever produced – most notably by Saoutchik, and Figoni et Falaschi.
The GSL, with its shorter wheelbase and new coil-sprung front suspension, was conceived in-house as a way of building a more modern-looking, semi-series-production vehicle.
By way of new camshafts, more aggressive timing and an 8:1 compression ratio – to make the most of the improved fuels then available – 210bhp had been extracted from the straight-six, with its three downdraught Solex carburettors.
At 1.8 tonnes the GSL was not especially light, but its handsome body was largely gas-welded in heavy gauge steel, hand-beaten and butt-welded in 18x2in sections.
Aluminium was used for the doors, bonnet and bootlid, with extensive use of ash framing in its structure.
Visually, it was an attempt to walk a middle line between the flourishes of the coachbuilt specials and the rather introverted looks of the in-house steel-bodied saloons, with a pontoon-winged coupé in the modern ’50s idiom.
Like all Talbot-Lagos before – and most upper-crust European GT cars of the time with competition aspirations – the GSL was exclusively right-hand drive (the firm didn’t build a left-hooker until the 1956 BMW V8-engined America).
It also came as standard with Tony Lago’s beloved preselector gearbox.
Running a 29mph/1000rpm top gear, an impressive 122mph maximum was claimed, but never independently verified.
This car, chassis 1110008, is the eighth produced according to the chassis card, delivered new in June 1954 to a Mr Bonal, who may have had a connection to the famous French aperitif.
As supplied it was painted black, with chrome wire wheels, beige leather and the wing vents attributed to fewer than half the cars built.
The Car Barn in Beamish imported it from Japan as a project.
Little is known of its history, but the restoration pictures show an apparently complete, sound car that had acquired a coat of blue paint.
It is now fully restored, with a colour change to a deep shade of Dubonnet Rosso, new leather throughout and lots of skilled carpentry hours expended on those ash-framed doors.
Larger in the metal than it appears in photos, something about its proportions tells you that this is really a pre-war car in post-war costume.
A glance underneath at the box-section chassis – drilled for lightness on some GSLs – shows that strength rather than weight-saving was the order of the day, but with pleasing details such as the air scoops on the brake drums and a finned aluminium sump.
The gearbox is huge, but doesn’t intrude much into the legroom.
Your eye is drawn to the angular cut of the overriders on the assertive bumpers, a slightly bulbous roofline and then the gentle, blunted fins producing a ready-to-pounce profile.
The curved, three-section Plexiglas rear window flows into the domed roof at an angle that allows you to sit in the rear seats – which fold down to make a luggage platform – with headroom to spare and adequate space for your legs.
Were it not almost filled by the spare wheel, the boot – which has to be opened to access the giant, 90-litre fuel tank – would also be usefully big.
In the front you perch on wide, flat seats that make no pretence at offering side support, knees splayed around a truly enormous steering wheel with four sprung spokes.
The casual spread of six clear, white-on-black Jaeger instruments on the flat, leather-covered dashboard has a no-nonsense feel that suits the GSL’s character – veneer wouldn’t be in keeping, somehow.
You operate lights, wipers and other functions by way of unidentified, toffee-coloured, lollipop-shaped plastic knobs.
The horns and headlamp flashers are worked off spindly stalks on the left of the steering column, while to the right is the quadrant for gear selection, with reverse at the top, fourth at the bottom; ‘pont mort’ is neutral.
Magnificent to the ear, satisfying to the touch, the GSL is a seat-of-the-pants ride with a raw, physical element that suggests you drive it briskly and, if possible, well.
Its lusty engine, slow to warm up, has a throaty, ‘vintage’ sound and a torquey character.
It is not silky or even especially smooth, but it supplies a romping gait though the gears.
The speed of your shifts is controlled only by how quickly you can push and release the ‘clutch’ – really a gear-selection pedal controlling the various brake bands, cone clutches and the train of epicyclic gears that hum and moan beneath the floorboards.
Heavy with muscle rather than flab, this big, slightly brutish car corners tidily.
If it rolls you don’t notice it from inside and, with little to blur the messages between the skinny patch of tyre on the road and the palms of your hands, steering feel is in abundance, even if the sheer diameter of the helm makes the movements seem coarse.
Exhilaratingly noisy in all the right ways, the Talbot is eager to get into top and stretch its legs, bowling along with torque to burn and revs to spare in the grand style that was its birthright.
The imposing views down its shapely bonnet summon every cliché there is about romantic high-speed trips along the straight, tree-lined, sun-dappled French roads of your imagination.
Perhaps even more fascinating than the car is its creator, Tony Lago, whose weakness for the glamour of competition meant the money to build road cars was always in even shorter supply than the customers to buy them.
While his staff struggled with 40-year-old tools, he remained a great believer in racing as a way of proving and promoting the product.
This slippery character was also an undeniably talented engineer who would earn the Légion d’Honneur for the motorsport victories his rugged, reliable T26C cars brought to his adopted home.
But that didn’t cut much ice when Lago’s creditors caught up with him for the third and final time in the late 1950s.
With his glory days long behind him, and too old to start again, he passed away in December 1960, aged just 66.
Images: Will Williams
Thanks to: Car Barn
Talbot-Lago T26 GSL
- Sold/number built 1953-’55/19
- Construction steel chassis, steel and aluminium body over ash frame
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 4482cc ‘six’, triple Solex carburettors
- Max power 210bhp @ 4500rpm
- Max torque n/a
- Transmission four-speed preselector, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, leaf springs; friction and telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes drums
- Length 15ft 8in (4775mm)
- Width 6ft (1850mm)
- Height 5ft 2in (1590mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 5in (2900mm)
- Weight 3549Ib (1610kg)
- 0-60mph 12 secs
- Top speed 122mph
- Mpg n/a
- Price new n/a
- Price now £350,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication
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