Although one of the most prestigious carmakers of its time, Delahaye is today one of the lesser known French marques. While this is not a surprise, it is certainly a shame. Delahaye lasted a mere 60 years compared to its contemporaries like Peugeot, Bugatti and Citroen, which continue manufacturing vehicles today, and over the six decades since closing its doors, Delahaye has simply faded into obscurity.
That is with the exception of those in the classic car world. For collectors, Delahaye automobiles remain one of the most sought after vehicles, with buyers paying huge sums for the privilege of owning one. This is due in part to the rarity of many surviving models: Delahaye collaborated with a variety of legendary coachbuilders, which resulted in the unique styling of many individual cars.
Delahaye automobiles routinely sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the extremely rare ones sell in the millions. One example of this is the 1937 Delahaye 135 Competition Court Torpedo Roadster by Figoni et Falasch that sold for a whopping $6.6 million in the RM Auction at the 2014 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. The car was one of only two surviving short chassis variants known to survive from the original 30 built by Delahaye.
Although short-lived, the Delahaye marque has a fascinating history. This article provides a brief overview of that history and the man who started it all, plus a quick peek at the two Delahayes in David Disiere’s collection.
Emile Delahaye & The Early Years
Delahaye was founded in the 1890’s by Emile Delahaye in his hometown of Tours, France. Born in 1843, Emile went on to study engineering in Angers, becoming an engineer in applied arts and crafts in 1869. He would return to Tours and marry in 1873, before taking over a factory that specialized in equipment and kilns for making ceramics six years later.
Emile quickly made changes, moving into the production of pumps and engines. With a keen interest in gas engines, he designed an internal combustion engine for the shipping industry in 1888. He began experimenting with belt-driven cars, and his first automobile debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 1894.
To promote his fledgling automobile company, Delahaye entered famous motor races like the 1896 Paris-Marseilles in which he was also the driver. Proving his vehicles had the mettle to finish incredibly grueling rallies, Delahaye’s cars were indeed quickly noticed. Struggling to keep up with demand, it became clear that a larger facility was needed, which was realized in a deal with Emile’s customer and fellow racer, Georges Morane who had inherited an engineering factory in Paris.
Morane and his brother-in-law Leon Desmarais partnered with Emile in the new automotive company Société des Automobiles Delahaye, and production was moved to Paris where the company rapidly grew to become one of France’s premier automobile manufacturers.
However, Emile was not to see the landmark brand that his company was to become. With failing health, he was forced to resign in 1901, selling his shares to his partners. He died just four years later.
The Delahaye Cars Company
For almost three decades, the Delahaye Cars Company produced solid, dependable vehicles renowned for their stamina. They also produced trucks, powerboats, industrial engines and firefighting equipment. From 1927 to 1931 the company collaborated with Chenard & Walcker to manufacture medium-class cars, and two years later, Delahaye acquired Chaigneau-Braiser.
1933 marked the beginning of a new era for Delahaye, as the company began directing its efforts towards producing prestige cars and again becoming a star of the racing circuit. While Delahaye continued manufacturing commercial vehicles and other industrial equipment, the luxury vehicle became the company’s hallmark. This transition was aided by their acquisition of the prominent marque and racecar company Delage, and more importantly, with the hiring of a young engineer called Jean Francois.
Francois was commissioned to build a sports car series, which resulted in the release of the type 135, the car that would become the car manufacturer’s legacy. Developed in 1934, the type 135 went on to take victories at numerous racing events including the Monte-Carlo Rally, the le Man and the Paris-Saint Raphaël motor races. The type 135 experienced similar triumphs in car shows like the prestigious Concours d’Elegance, becoming the new darling of rich and famous.
As Delahaye did not have in-house coachworks, the bodies were built by a variety of independent coachbuilders, making each car unique. Delahaye attracted many elite French coachbuilders including the likes of Henri Chapron, Saoutchik, Franay, Letourneur et Marchand, Antem, and others. Although the company went on to produce a number of vehicles, it was the famous type 135 that was the star of the Delahaye stable.
Other types released by Delahaye included the Type 145, which was designed as a two-seater racing car and the type 165, which was the road version of the aforementioned. However, with the beginning of WWII shortly after the launch of the 165, production was limited.
The poor economic conditions created by WWII made an exceptionally trying time for carmakers, especially those manufacturing luxury vehicles. Delahaye survived predominately on the sales of its commercial and military vehicles, and reintroduced the 135 after the war. The marque went on to produce the type 235 in 1951, which would be the end of the line for Delahaye. The company was taken over by Hotchkiss in 1954 and Delahaye cars were put out of production, however, not before the 235 claimed its place in the history books with a record crossing of Africa in the renowned Algiers-Cape Town rally, with a top speed of 182 kilometers per hour.
David Disiere’s Delahayes
David Disiere owns three Delahayes: a 1937 Delahaye 135M Convertible, a 1948 Delahaye 135M Faget-Varnet Cabriolet, and a 1952 Delahaye 235 Chapron Coupe.
The 1937 Delahaye 135M Convertible is a beautiful example of coachwork by Henri Chapron, built on the Competition chassis and restored to perfection. First built in 1934, the Type 135 is one of the most renowned and sought after automobiles by Delahaye. Designed by Jean Francois and manufactured from 1935 – 1954 in many types of body styles, the glamourous sporting tourer was sought after luxury vehicle that remains very popular with classic car collectors today.
David’s 1948 Delahaye is another 135M, but this one is a Cabriolet with coachwork by Faget-Varnet that was purchased at the Artcurial Retromobile auction in Paris in February, 2015. It was one of a hundred cars in the extraordinary Baillon Collection, a historic barn-find that included some of the rarest collector vehicles from Ferrari, Bugatti, Maserati, Delahaye and Saoutchik marques. Only 60 of the cars were deemed restorable, with the others being auctioned as spare parts. The collection brought in an incredible $28.5 million and achieved 10 world record prices. 85% of the cars were sold to buyers outside of France.
This 135 is one of only a handful of M Cabriolets that were bodied by Faget-Varnet. Only six of this special model were built, and only three are known to have survived. It is also the only surviving example with “à rostre” – a special radiator grille that features a vertical chrome bar across the grille. This particular cabriolet was shown in the 1948 Paris Motor Show and was later featured in advertisements by Faget-Varnet and on the cover of Élites Françaises.
Much of the body was corroded by the time the car resurfaced, but the main areas of coachwork remained intact due to the fact that it was made with a metal frame instead of wood. The process to restore the car to mint condition was a labor of love and a race against the clock to make the 2016 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
The vehicle underwent complete restoration before taking First In Class in the K-2 Delahaye Postwar category at the exclusive Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2016.
Watch the restoration and footage of the Concours Winners Lap in the videos linked below:
David’s final Delahaye, a type 235, was first presented at the 1951 Paris Auto Salon, and only around 85 were built during the four-year production run. This particular 1952 Delahaye 235 Coupe is one of only three that were built by Henri Chapron. It differs from the others, with curved rear wings instead of the more angular shape of the other two, and it was also the first, marked by the number 7008 on the coupe’s 2/4 seater body.
It has a 150 bhp six-cylinder engine, Cotal electromagnetic gearbox, and a unique haute couture bodywork and luxury finish, which makes this very rare Delahaye 235 coupe one of the last examples of the luxury automobile built by the French marque.
This particular Delahaye 235 was first exhibited at the 1952 Paris Motor Show at a price of 3.8 million Francs. This unique vehicle has since had a limited number of owners, which has ensured it’s extremely well-preserved condition.