On track in the unique DB created to win at Le Mans

| 4 Feb 2020
Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris

Ask a sports car racer who has contested for outright victory at Le Mans what value there is in class honours, and you will often be met with ambivalence.

A race is a race, until faster cars scream past you as if you’re standing still and sap your enthusiasm.

Ask a wealthy amateur and they’ll go wide-eyed and wax lyrical: simply to race at the great and storied track is reward enough; returning home with a class trophy in the hand luggage is the icing on the cake.

Who knows what modern professional drivers would make of the Indices of Performance and of Thermal Efficiency.

The latter took priority over the former on its inception in 1960, and was a competition among the main competition. 

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Swept-back front wing line and rear spats were part of a second makeover ahead of the assault on Le Mans

It was important, as its prize showed: the winner landed £4000 in 1961 – around £90k in today’s money. Far more than mere pocket change.

Small-capacity and low-production sports cars would buzz around on their limiters as far as their frugal little engines could, sharing the track with thoroughbred monsters all day and night on a quest for that pot of gold that was almost as lucrative as the one given to the outright winners.

And so at Le Mans, a Ferrari or Aston Martin would thunder down the Mulsanne with its helmsman praying that a tiny sports car didn’t catch them unawares.

Among those hoping for Index wins ahead of anything else were the likes of Abarth, Osca and Deutsch et Bonnet, or DB.

The little French DB proved a dab hand at it.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Jaeger/Guilhaudin during Le Mans ’61, being chased by the TR4 ‘Sabrina’ of Les Leston and Rob Slotemaker

The company’s origins lay before the First World War and in a partnership born of fate between Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet.

When the former’s father died he left his teenage son the family coachbuilders, which within a few years was sold to the more experienced Bonnet.

A series of Citroën Traction Avant-based racers designed and built by the two engineers slowly filed out of the Champigny-sur-Marne garage, but rarely out of France, and the dial was turned up when the economy and the country began to rebuild after the occupation.

Le Mans naturally beckoned, and the marque won the Index of Performance four times between 1954 (when Bonnet shared with sometime Grand Prix racer Élie Bayol) and 1960, predominantly with the Panhard-engined HBR4/5.

That spawned various offshoots including mid-engined spiders known as ‘tanks’; a ‘breadvan’-esque streamliner with a Kamm-style tail, nicknamed ‘La Vitrine’ because of its big front glasshouse; and this, ‘Le Monstre’.

Less famous than that big flat Cadillac one, perhaps, but this ‘monster’ is far more slippery. And more attractive, too, though that’s a battle it would struggle to lose.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Skinny tyres and light weight result in sweet steering

The car’s original owner, Jacques Rey, entered Le Monstre into the 1961 Le Mans with an Index victory already under its belt.

Two years earlier, Rey and his engineer and in-demand hotshoe driver, André Guilhaudin, finished a fine eighth out of 111 starters on the gruelling Tour de France. Most importantly, the pair secured first in the Index of Performance for GT cars.

Remarkably, Rey had purchased the car only in June, a few months before the August start of the Nice to Spa-Francorchamps epic.

It was Guilhaudin who reworked the HBR4 – the number signifying the horsepower rating of its 747cc Panhard engine – into the slightly bizarre beast it remains today.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Index-winning Le Monstre tails HBR4 on ’59 Tour de France

His engineering apprenticeship had started at the age of around four, when his father took over a garage in Chambéry; he first tasted competition in 1948 and subsequently became something of a DB specialist – a ‘works’ driver, had they the money or inclination.

Guilhaudin realised it wasn’t necessarily more power that would give the HBR4 a better chance in the pursuit of Index wins, but drag efficiency. That is, after all, sort of the name of the game.

Funded by Rey, coachbuilder Chalmette of Grenoble was enlisted to help Guilhaudin realise his drawings, which proposed to lower the roof by 11cm compared to the standard ‘Coach’, as the HBR4 was known.

The front pillars were cut and the roof was slid downwards, creating a smoother line but a 4cm shortfall of plastic at the bootlid.

That was filled, and new shorter doors were required – aluminium was used for the replacements instead of glassfibre. The rear window of the Panhard Z was swapped in to be the windscreen and its aluminium hull was carried over to bond with the plastic body.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
The indicator switch mounted between the seats is from an early 2CV

For the assault on the Tour de France Automobile that remained enough tweaks, resulting in a car that looks – if you squint hard enough – reminiscent of a homemade Aston DB4GT Zagato in the way it rounds down to  a point at the back and its nose rakes up with big, oval bug eyes.

The side-window line at the rear follows the original coachwork, leaving a hump that encroaches into a now-slender Plexiglas panel, and accentuates the pivot that was required of its nose to flatten the bonnet line and improve visibility. It worked, because looking out over the bubble bonnet the view of the track ahead is unobscured.

It’s only when disembarking that you really notice just how close you and the lowered chassis have been to the floor; entering is otherwise easy, though to save weight there are no handles but just a mechanical button to free the latch.

Only head on, when there is an original HBR4 standing alongside, does the cut-and-shut present itself in photos.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Le Monstre’s sleek profile

The chrome bumpers remained for the Continental enduro, but, during the winter following that instant success (backed up by a class win on the Critérium des Cévennes rally), more changes were made to further improve on Guilhaudin’s vision.

Off came those bumpers, bar the overhangs protecting the Peugeot 403 rear lights; the cooling channels on the front wings were closed with a rudimentary steel delete panel screwed over the top; and the front wheelarches were sculpted and swept back for better aerodynamics.

Removable wheel spats made from marine plywood further improved its slipperiness, while a short, straight aluminium exhaust ran along a now-flat floor.

Its 1960 season was limited to the Rallye Monte-Carlo, failing to reach its destination from Athens, before returning to the Tour de France to claim 12th overall and fourth in class. But in 1961 it would join five other Equipe DB Panhard teammates at Le Mans.  

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Le Monstre pits behind sister DB ‘La Vitrine’

More than six decades later the car remains as it was that June, bodywork aside.

That was damaged in the early 1990s in a Paris garage filled with classic cars, when a Ferrari Daytona nerfed its nose, breaking the glassfibre and crunching it backwards into a wall.

Found beneath its French Blue paintwork was the large black number 48 worn at Le Mans. Today it’s running a single 38PBIC Solex carb, rather than the usual two, and the Le Mans gearing has been swapped – both changes done to create something rather more road-friendly.

The barely padded and well-worn seat is the same as used by Guilhaudin and teammate Jean-François Jaeger, another DB specialist who had won the Pau 3 Hours in 1958.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Originally twin-carb, the twin sports a single Solex for road use

Le Mans didn’t go without drama, with clutch problems besetting many of the DB equipes – including a smoky pitlane scene when Rey’s team attempted to liberate the plates.

But his drivers persevered and were among the five of six DBs to reach the line, crossing it in formation as soon as the chequer flew.

Once the formula for weight, fuel economy and speed had been calculated, Guilhaudin and Jaeger had tied for second in the Index of Thermal Efficiency with a French-entered Lotus Elite on 1.03 points, behind Peters Harper and Proctor in a Sunbeam Alpine (1.07).

A ‘tank’ HBR4 claimed the relegated Index of Performance, but Guilhaudin’s vision had been vindicated.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
It will cross the block with Artcurial in Paris on 7 February

The race would have been a feat of endurance for the drivers and their sanity just as much as the hard-working drilled-steel 848cc motor – increased for the race and technically therefore an HBR5, with lightened flywheel.

The noise is relentless inside the cockpit, the exhaust’s machine-gun fire rattling and reverberating around the polyester walls and plywood door trims.

Without fail, Guilhaudin would drive with the window wide open – even on the Monte – and perhaps did so for some blessed relief from the sound.

Once it was open, such is the weight-saving that using the fabric pulley to raise it again would be all but impossible.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Original seat has wonderful patina, but cabin is otherwise very Spartan

It is as buzzy as you would expect; on some exploratory laps of a small track a short drive from its Orléans home the owner taps the rev counter with some incredulity and a Gallic shrug as the needle sails past 6000rpm.

It does so without straining, or showing any hint of it. These laps are important, apparently, because the DB gearbox requires time to acclimatise.

To engage first gear, depress the light clutch and steer the short lever towards your right leg. Second is straight across the naked transmission tunnel rather than up, with third up in front of first.

But instead of being mind-scrambling it’s almost intuitive, soon becoming natural to slip between the ratios.

Still, there’s a diagram from the factory on the bare aluminium dash beside the Jaeger dials, should you get in a muddle.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
The gearlever – and the handy reminder

The wooden wheel is large and the skinny tyres dutifully do as it directs, the car leaning through bends with the rear gripping gamely.

It’s a consuming and engaging experience, one that would quickly be about rhythm and maintaining momentum.

The long stints at the 24 Hours must have been a riot – though the Mulsanne would have felt longer and louder than ever.

The DB’s current owner, Roland Roy, is more used to his cars gobbling Les Hunaudières with a bit more ease and lots more sonic delight.

He was a key figure in local marque Matra during its rise to racing prominence in the 1960s, working in its competitions department running the team of people creating the fabulous bodywork.

He and ‘Le Monstre’ were seemingly meant to be.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Unique in an already rarefied world of DBs

“It’s a small world,” he says via Antoine Mahe from Artcurial, which will auction Le Monstre at Rétromobile in Paris this week.

“The Matra-Djet Club president received a call from a mechanic in France telling him to come and look at this special DB because he didn’t know what it was. I went, too, and recognised it straight away.

“The last time I had seen it was in 1973 at Le Mans for the 50th anniversary of the 24 Hours; Guilhaudin and Rey were with it.

“I was there working for Matra, the year of the battle with Ferrari. I was in charge of the pit signals, and at the end of the race we prepared a sign with a horse flagging on it, and a cockerel showing the middle finger!”

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Front-drive gives good traction

Because of that unfortunate Daytona-inflicted damage, a good deal was struck with the previous owner, who had bought Le Monstre from Rey but left it unused and untouched ever since. 

Roy towed the car home on a flatbed trailer behind a modest Fiat Tipo, and a year or so of long nights and no holidays later his work was complete.

His experience from the Matra bodyshop was no doubt invaluable, his drawings detailed like few could manage.

A fellow club member’s car was used to form the moulds to replace the broken front and rear sections, but the rest of Le Monstre was largely in working order and it was soon back racing. Including at Le Mans, in the Journée Bleues event on the Bugatti Circuit.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Race-ready details

Roy discovered that the ever-inventive Guilhaudin had rigged the brake lights to illuminate only when the rear pads closed rather than the fronts, which engaged first – the all-important little gains in the mind games.

The engine bay also houses two electrical regulators, so if one failed the second could be plugged straight in and the car would be back on its way.

It’s a car of curiosities that encapsulates – and still carries – the spirit of France’s greatest race, a preserved window into the world of economy motorsport.

This isn’t about outright pace but ingenuity, about a love and desire to go racing and a will for the little guy to win. Usually a preserve of the British, not the French.

Classic & Sports Car – DB HBR4: Le Monstre of Paris
Body modifications are most obvious from the rear – finned alloy drums protrude through the centre of the steel wheels

It is also a player in the final chapter of DB, because Deutsch and Bonnet acrimoniously went their separate ways the same year as Le Monstre’s Le Mans.

CD was born in a similar vein to DB, carrying creator Charles’ initials, while Bonnet teamed with Renault to unleash the Djet and later sold out to Matra, where Roy would soon be learning his craft. Truly, a small world.

Images: Olgun Kordal/Motorsport Images/Archives Maurice Louche

Thanks to Sologne Karting and Artcurial

Le Monstre will be sold at Rétromobile on 7 February


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