Delahaye 235 Cabriolet by Saoutchik, 1951 Tail, Delahaye 235 Cabriolet by Saoutchik, 1951

Online Auto Museum
One man's passionate quest to survey finest motorcars in the world

#0077 - Delahaye 235 Cabriolet by Saoutchik, #818005, 1951

Photographed: Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, 2009
Owner: Peter & Merle Mullin

First of the Last: Among Delahaye 235 production stand a few remarkable examples, most of which are rather garish coupes built by Ghia, Chapron, or indeed by Saoutchik. This cabriolet, however, was among the first high-profile 235 cars completed, serving as the firm's representative at the Paris Motor Show 1951. Other cabriolets do exist, although none have the same sense of fluidity demonstrated by this example.

Total production of the 235 was somewhere in the range of 80 to 90 units—paltry, considering the run lasted until 1954. So, what the 235 demonstrated was that Delahaye had no concept of how to proceed with automotive manufacture in the post-War era. While many auto-makers in Europe fell back on pre-War technology during the first few years of peace, by the 1950s it was clear that a new industrialist spirit was necessary in order to fire economic growth and strengthen the middle class. This prescription was simply anathema to a storied producer of luxury automobiles, and further rendered Delahaye obsolete by the company's lack of interest in motor racing.

If we look to the 1948 Mylord Cabriolet, we see a car built for royalty on the traditions of the classic era. As the door closed on such outlandish expenditure, Delahaye atrophied, and then went into receivership. Hotchkiss took the company apart, persisting with the manufacture of trucks for a few years before terminating the marque altogether. In this sense, Delahaye can be said to have followed a sort of biblical evolution; they came from trucks, and to trucks they did return. By this I refer to Delahaye's early fortunes, which were made on the strength of their heavy chassis, and the fact that even their racing motors were developed from commercial-duty blocks.

It certainly didn't help that a Delahaye 235 was insanely expensive. If you've heard anything about this issue, you've heard that a 235 cost twice as much as a Jaguar XK-120, which is a far superior performance car, or perhaps that it cost five times more than a comparable Citroen tourer. Moreover, the 235 was also one-third more expensive than a Talbot-Lago T-26 Record, which, at the very least, was still putting up a commendable effort on the performance front. In other words, inferior and expensive—it was a damning combination.

The Brighter Points: Now that we've lambasted the poor old 235, we should have a look at what substance is there. First, regard the fact that the same robust 3.5 litre inline 6-cylinder, often with triple solex carburetors, and the familiar Cotal pre-selector gearbox combine to form a very nice drivetrain. (If the Cotal box was ahead of its time in the 1930s, one might not think its marketability could have diminished much by the post-War era, but it did.) On this rather familiar platform, well-heeled purchasers had the chance to apply some of the last efforts of the greatest French coachbuilders. The 235 was sold chassis-only in the good old fashion—although by its final year Delahaye was offering an in-house version for far less total cost—and this provided one of the last outlets for adherents of the grand style of motoring. Perhaps only the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500, also known as the Tipo 256, carried on the tradition in the same regard.

General changes in form were handled by industrial designer Philippe Charbonneaux, he who took on all manner of social design before and after the War, but was also closely tied to Delahaye throughout his career. Since we're looking at the first major change from full fenders to a complete body, Delahaye and Charbonneaux were clearly behind the curve, with the Italians leading the way with their ala spessa approach, which was popular with Touring and Pininfarina, and the Germans fast making advancements in aerodynamic body work, as on the 328-based Veritas, which appeared immediately after the War. Both the Italians and the Germans had plenty of closed-in design exercises in the mid to late 1930s, while the French were simply indulging their own sense of flamboyant aesthetics. This was the difference between those who wanted to look fast, as opposed to those who actually wanted to go fast.

And then if we take the British into consideration, we see that they were keen on synthesizing the best of both attributes, particularly with the likes of the first Allards and Jaguars. To this end, I suppose we must close this section by admitting that even the brighter points to the 235 are somewhat dim, and that this shouldn't exactly come as a surprise.

Morphology: Looking at the Saoutchik design, this car is quite remarkable. Notice that, from the side, Saoutchik extends the bonnet line along to the door, and then farther back over the rear fender. This creates one long, lean streak, winding all the way toward the end of the car; it even serves to underscore a rather artfully placed fuel filler door on the passenger side. Where in the 1930s, some effect of this kind would have been executed in chrome, perhaps with grand French curve motifs, here, the simple suggestion of linear motion in a panel crease gives the car's profile a gentle fluidity.

In turn, the shape of the front fenders is exemplary, with just the right arch and just the right slope down to the base of the door, which itself maintains an interesting curvature along the bottom edge, and a particularly nice, rotund form around the girth. The oval grille is a bit odd, but not out of place. Maybe it's a tad too big, but it's at least a simple item, adding some drama as it anchors the fascia with a full sense of purpose. Tail treatments continue with broad planes of sheetmetal parted by a subtle dorsal crease along the middle, something developed by Figoni et Falaschi back in 1937, but still elegant and surprisingly at home on this newer design. All of this makes one think that if the car weren't so obscure—which surely occured due to its unrealistic cost—and if this design could have been fabricated on a larger scale, then Delahaye would have extended its life for another few years.

Alas, this is the only example so rendered. As best as I can locate at a glance, the car surfaced and was sold by Swiss broker Christoph Grohe sometime in the early 2000s. Then wearing a very tired and thin looking layer of French-blue paint, patchy in some areas where the body was repaired, the car appeared at Pebble Beach in 2007. At the time, the interior was an equally tired looking tan affair. Clearly, a full restoration between 2007 and 2009 transformed the cabriolet with a lovely silver metallic and blue finish, which is what we have depicted here. I could have hoped for better light at the time of shooting, but of course Monterey is not known for swaths of warm sunshine. Hopefully, these shots do justice to the lines, and approximate the color to a suitable degree.

Sources: Providing a nice gallery of 235 examples, maybe the best on the interwebs.

Tools & Garages: Here's a rather random page with a few nice shots of the car as it appeared prior to restoration, which is worth a look.

Wikipedia: Their entry features this same example.

Est ce que vous lisez le français? Try this nice tribute to Phillipe Charbonneaux, which is also linked to an English language blog entry entitled, Diesel Punks.


Back to Index