Two early-20th-century Gallic trailblazers will grace Blenheim Palace’s lawn this month in the Veterans & Pioneers class at Salon Privé Concours presented by Aviva, with each car illustrating how French manufacturers were leading the way in both the race and road-car arenas.
By the early 1900s, the French motor industry was arguably better established than in any other country around the world, with a plethora of manufacturers bringing a dizzying array of new technology to well-heeled enthusiasts. Salon Privé’s rare pair perfectly encapsulate that groundbreaking period of early French automotive innovation.
1907 Renault ‘Vanderbilt Racer’
Having founded their eponymous company in 1898, the Renault brothers quickly saw the immense benefits of motorsport as a way of promoting their business – and the forward-thinking technology that underpinned many of their early cars. Renault had already developed a sprung live rear axle by the turn of the century (quickly copied by rivals), and by 1906 their models were equipped with patented hydraulic shock absorbers at a time when many cars still relied on springs alone to suspend and control a car’s body movements.
In the United States, Renault was marketed as a prestige brand, and had not escaped the attention of wealthy socialite and motor racing enthusiast, Willie K. Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt had already established the Newport Automobile Race in Rhode Island in 1900, at the age of just 22. It was one of the earliest-known multi-class races, and rapidly out-grew its venue, leading Vanderbilt to inaugurate the Vanderbilt Cup Race, a road race to be held on Long Island.
Inspired by the success of Renault’s 35/45hp racer, which had just won the 1906 French Grand Prix, Vanderbilt commissioned Renault to produce a toned-down, road-going version of the car, in which amateur racers could compete in his new-found event. Renault agreed, but only to a minimum 10-car batch, for which Vanderbilt paid an eye-watering $150,000 – equivalent to over $5m today, or $500,000 per car.
But they were worth every penny. The cars Renault produced for Vanderbilt were identical mechanically, with only bodywork variations according to the wishes of Vanderbilt’s customers. That meant they were powered by a 7.5-litre L-Head four-cylinder engine, mated to a clever four-speed tumbler ‘box transmission, which used a scroll wheel to convert a conventional H-pattern ‘shift into a faster-selecting in-row arrangement. With a final drive ration of 2:1, the Renault was capable of prodigious top speeds, and with its front/mid-engine configuration – almost unheard of at the time – it was also a fine-handling car, complemented by Renault’s aforementioned hydraulic dampers. Even the distinctive bodywork showed an early appreciation of aerodynamics, with Renault’s trademark sloping front-end and long bonnet driving air over the heads of its intrepid occupants at high speeds.
Salon Privé’s car is thought to have been driven by one Louis Ruffolovitch in period at the 1907 Brighton 24 Hours race. Many years later, it was discovered by opera singer James Melton in 1946, who had the car restored. The Renault was then acquired by William Spear Jr. – Briggs Cunningham’s top racing driver – who, in 1957, sold it to the Indianapolis Speedway Hall of Fame for the princely sum of $7,500. The car then remained in the collection for almost 60 years, before being purchased by its current owners. Since then, it has been driven and raced regularly, attending numerous Paso Robles Tours, the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance, and Wilbraham Hill Climb, where it set the fastest time for a pre-WW1 racer. In 2016 it appeared with the four other surviving Vanderbilt Racers at Pebble Beach and collected the ‘triple crown’: Pre-War Racing trophy, Phil Hill trophy and the REVS Institute award.
1900 Bardon Type A Tonneau
While the Bardon Type A Tonneau set for display in Salon Privé’s Veterans & Pioneers class would not have seen the Vanderbilt Renault for dust, it perfectly demonstrates the acute progress that was made in the seven years that separate the manufacture of each of these cars.
Louis Bardon had established SA Automobiles et Traction (systèm Bardon) in Puteaux, Seine in 1899. Bardon’s now-novel take on the combustion engine – inspired by Gobron-Brillié – was to use a single cylinder displacing 1216cc, in which travelled two opposing pistons. Each piston was connected to its own crankshaft and flywheel sending power to the rear axle via a three-speed sliding-gear transmission and double-chain final drive. The Type A’s chassis was suspended by semi-elliptic springs front and rear and stopped by external block-brakes, working on the rear wheels.
Alas, the company carrying Bardon’s name, like many other fledgling carmakers, only survived until 1903, making Salon Privé’s example extremely rare. The four-seat car is chassis number 5 and was acquired from Henri Malatre at the Museé de Rochetaileé-sur-Saone in Lyon in 1976 by one Dr. Thommen. Soon after, the car benefitted from a full restoration, during which a newly constructed body by Langenthal of Berne, Switzerland was fitted. After long-term ownership, the car was acquired by current owners David and Marion Martyr, who had the car recommissioned for use in 2016’s London to Brighton Veteran Car Run – the first time the car had ever been used in the world-famous event. On the day before the Run, it won the RAC Concours d’Equipe prize at the Regent Street Show, before successfully reaching Brighton on the Sunday. A further attempt at the Run in 2017 was dashed due to overheating, but the owners plan to re-enter the event, and possibly this year.
Salon Privé’s David Bagley is delighted to welcome both cars at this month’s concours: “Having both these French innovators in the Veterans & Pioneers class is a real coup for us. Both are important in their own right, and perfectly illustrate how the motor industry evolved so rapidly in the first years of the last century. They also show the contrast between a company that fell, almost at the first hurdle, versus one that went from strength to strength, and is still with us over 120 years later.”
Salon Privé Week 2023
- 30 August – Salon Privé Concours presented by Aviva
- 31 August – Salon Privé Concours presented by Aviva
- 1 September – Salon Privé Ladies’ Day presented by Boodles
- 2 September – Salon Privé Supercar Saturday & Club Trophy presented by Lockton
- Tickets can be purchased via the website: salonpriveconcours.com