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Peter Giddings Racing


When Ettore Bugatti once deigned to even acknowledge the existence of Bentley, he was heard to remark, "Ah, yes; the constructor of high speed trucks". In fact, Ettore had a much closer neighbor manufacturing speedy camions - one Major Antoine Lago of Automobiles Talbot-Darracq S.A. in Suresnes!

The history of the Talbot, Talbot-Darracq, Darracq and Lago Talbot (or Talbot Lago) is a complicated one indeed, and something that we need not get into here. However, as a quick example of the side stepping that took place from time to time nomenclature-wise, is the fact that the 1937 TT winning French Talbot sported a Darracq badge on its nose. This was presumably at the behest of the Rootes Group who had taken over the old Sunbeam Talbot Darracq company, the Suresnes branch of which Antoine Lago had been managing for some years. The Rootes Group, of course, manufactured the English Talbot!

It was in fact this very TT winning Darracq that gave me my first taste for these wonderful vintage cars.

Back in the late '50s my friend Ron Smith raced his Darracq in historic events. This particular car had an amazing history as in addition to winning the TT, Louis Chiron had won the 1937 French Grand Prix with it as well.

In England where Ron and I lived at the time, the old blue charger had also previously covered itself in glory by winning its very first race at Brooklands in 1939 lapping at 117.74 mph. Many subsequent top places culminated in the famous "Invitation Road Race", intended to settle the fastest road car controversy. The Darracq in fact finished third in the Campbell Circuit race and second in the mountain race, affording a final second place overall. Eventually, the Darracq lapped the Brooklands outer circuit at 129.36 mph, and, unbelievably, for such a heavy, cumbersome car, broke the Shelsley Walsh hill climb sports car record at 43.76 seconds, a record that stood until the early '50s!) Subsequently, Leslie Johnson driving the Darracq went up Shelsley Walsh in 42.21 seconds, but as no sports car classes were recognized at this particular meet, the previous best time still had to stand.

As late as 1949, the Darracq took the unblown, unlimited sports car record for the Brighton standing start kilometer in 30.48 seconds, beating Sidney Allard's Allard in the process. Ron Smith shared his mews garage with another friend of mine, Basil Bowman, who owned a pre-war 4 ½ liter (as opposed to Ron's 4 liter) two seater Le Mans Talbot. Thus I was able to "wrench" on two of these wonderful cars and, in return, I experienced from time to time the never to be forgotten thrill of driving these long legged monsters

As if the Darracq's exploits from 1937 through 1950 were not sufficient example of the durability of the marque, when Ron moved to Australia (and I to the U.S.A.), he took the Darracq with him and proceeded to contest various historic circuit and hill climb records, held for many years by Doug Whiteford in his Tipo B Alfa Romeo.

Thus, the die was cast and I determined that one day I would own a Talbot Lago, finally achieving that goal in the early '70s through my purchase of Louis Chiron's 1949 French Grand Prix winning car.

In fact, finesse, sophistication, high technology, light weight and high revolutions are words totally unconnected with Talbot Lago.

Instead, Antoine Lago was forced by a constant shortage of francs to make do with what: he had. Faced with the stodgy, although solid and reliable, 23 CV six cylinder, the origins of which went back to the ‘20s, he and his chief designer, Walter Becchia, took out a patent in July 1934 for an inclined valve conversion for the 23 CV. This involved a single camshaft operating cross push rods and rockers. The result of this exercise in "making do" was a rugged 130 bhp plus, 4 liter engine.

Becchia and Lago dreamed of replacing this engine in due course with a supercharged 1 ½ liter V16. However, monetary problems were such that this pipedream was never realized. Instead, the engine was, in 1938, enlarged to 4 ½ liters, and coupled once again to the Wilson pre-selector gear box. While Lago had always shied away from fully automatic transmissions, he was keen to fully exploit the horsepower robbing Wilson self-changing gear box, as he was one of those who had developed the weighty, complex gear box in the first place.

There is a quaint story to the effect that the designer of this box ended up in the mad-house and my good friend, David McCarthy, who has now rebuilt two of these gear boxes for me, has only narrowly escaped this fate himself! Mark you, the road holding of these cars (far worse, in my opinion, than, for example, my 1924 GP Bugatti!) is so horrendous, that having both hands on the steering wheel prior to, through and immediately after a bend, thanks to being able to pre-select the gear next needed, is of major import.

Even in 1939 the Talbot was considered to be pedestrian and old fashioned, the frame being just about the only non-production item. Even this was directly derived from the Talbot street car, it consisting of a pressed steel channel section, boxed and cross braced by large diameter tubes and under-slung at the back. At the rear were attached truly vintage elliptic leaf springs, on which a rigid rear axle was suspended.

At the front, independent (very !) wishbone suspension was utilized, incorporating a standard Talbot system, first used in the early '30s, and still fitted on the GP and Le Mans cars of the '40s and '50s. The top wishbones were "A" arm fabrications made of pressed, welded, steel plate, pivoting on the top of the chassis rail via two back Houdaille shock absorbers additionally aided by a pair of friction shock absorbers of Repusseau manufacture. At the bottom a traverse leaf spring, which also served as the lower wishbone, was directly attached to the king pin/hub carriers.

Large diameter 16" brakes were originally actuated by Bendix cable operation, which, when correctly adjusted, worked reasonably well, but only when the car was running in a forward direction. On Ron Smith's car, for example, when backing up, all be it somewhat briskly, to a gas pump, the brakes utterly failed to do their job in time. The pump was totally demolished! Subsequently, Talbot’s were converted to Lockheed hydraulic operation.

Such is the innate love of the French for motor racing that a bare three weeks after the end of hostilities with Japan, on September 9th, 1945, motor racing began once again on the Bois du Bologne, Paris's equivalent of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Once again, the updated pre-war Talbots were running strongly.

Three short years later, Lago and his chief engineer, Carlo Marchetti, plotted once again to update the old engine. This time the design team replaced the single camshaft and angled push rods system of operation with twin camshafts, high in the crankcase, operating overhead valves inclined at 95 degrees to each other, through short push rods and rockers each side of the hemispherical cylinder head. The design was in fact plagiarized from Riley, who had first used it in 1904!

This high cam system, with relatively large valves, provided fair breathing, but, while it did away with not having to use the complication and cost of twin overhead camshafts, the reciprocating parts weighed a ton (almost literally), and the safe revolution range was extremely low at 4500 rpm.

Nevertheless, Marchetti's skilful adaptation of the original 23 CV lower end had saved substantial cost. The rest of the car, to all intents and purposes, remained the same, as money was still short.

Lago turned all of this to his own advantage by using these facts in advertising, to fortify his argument that he based his racing cars on his production street models.

Certainly, the result was a strong, reliable (if not pushed too hard), and fairly low-maintenance machine.

Unfortunately the result was a high speed truck, weighing in at 22 cwt., compared with the Maserati 4 CLT at 14 cwt; the Alfa Romeo 158/159 at 15 ½ cwt. And, (towards the end of the formula) the Ferrari 4 ½ liter unsupercharged at 17 cwt. With engine power outputs of some 260, 350 and 380 bhp respectively. compared with a measly, at best, 190 bhp for the Talbot. These statistics, of course, make the Talbot's many successes all the more remarkable.

In Pomeroy's definitive work "The GP Car", The Talbot Lago comes in for some pretty odious comparison. For example, in a hypothetical 500 km handicap race on the 1934 4.85 mile Rheims circuit, the Talbot is given a 24 min. 30 second start against the 1939 Mercedes-Benz on scratch, as opposed to the 1949 1 ½ liter Maserati 4 CLT which was given a 16 minute start; the 1947 1 ½ liter Alfa Romeo 158 which was also given a 16 minute start; the 1949 1 ½ liter Alfa Romeo 159 which was given a 9 minute 50 second start. (The 4 ½ liter Ferrari did not in fact, figure in Pomeroy's calculations but would have been given approximately a 9 minute 50 second starting allowance).

None of these facts dim my love for the French Talbot - the last true vintage GP car to run, still featuring friction shock absorbers, elliptic springs; et al. Apart from Lago's successes at Le Mans, who can forget the irrepressible Johnny Claes, equaling the lap times of the 158 Alfas at Silverstone! Then there was that tiger, Sommer, staying ahead of the Alfa Romeo 159's in the Belgian GP of 1950, and passing Fangio, who was driving a San Remo Maserati, in the Dutch GP!

My first GP Lago Talbot won one French and two Australian GPs and, thanks to an unknowledgeable Aussie newspaper reporter, was written up as the "Large Tablet" - a not inappropriate Freudian slip perhaps? Nevertheless this car was still getting honorable mentions in the '60s, when running in the annual Australian GPs against such opposition as Maserati 250F and Cooper Climax.

My current GP Talbot Lago is representative of the factory’s final fling. Featuring side draft Webers, a stronger crank, a strengthened crankcase, and a ZF limited slip differential. Even so, when put on the scales at this year's Long Beach GP, the car weighed in at over 21 cwt, with probably no more than 185 bhp at the rear wheels. Still, the torque of this latest restoration is quite good, and I do have some long term plans for improving the power output, suspension and braking, without changing basic originality, of course.

When you consider that the Maserati 4 CLT weighs 15 cwt and puts out some 260 bhp, the Alfa Romeo 158/159 weighs 15 cwt and puts out some 350 hbp and the Ferrari 4 ½ liter GP weighs 17 cwt and puts out in the region of 380 bhp, you can see why the successes of the Talbot GP, both at Le Mans and in Gran Eprevee events, was so commendable.

I am still researching the history of 110054. What I have found so far is that this factory car ran in many races including: 1949 (driven by Girard Cabantous) - the Montlhery GP (2nd place); in 1950 the Albi, Dutch, French (8th place); Pescara, Europe (Silverstone) (4th place) and Swiss (Rosier) (third place) GPs. In 1951, Gonzalez drove the car in a 500 mile race in Argentina, which his compatriot, Fangio, won in an identical car at record pace. Girard -Cabantous also drove the car in the Spanish, French and Belgian (5th place) GPs plus the German GP (where it was the fastest Talbot Lago qualifier).

In the early '50s the car was sold by Levegh to the U.S.A. and it was run here In a few formula libre events before being converted by Jack Sutton and Robert Wood into a central seat two-seater for Terry Hall. Jack Sutton was an Englishman who loved the shape of the Astons and the Jaguar, and was, in fact, the first man to introduce the wheel method (as opposed to the hammer) of panel making to the U.S.A. in the late ‘50s.