Delahaye automobiles were hand-built sheetmetal masterpieces.
When it comes to "classic luxury" makes, how many do you know? Most people could come up with Cadillac, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and maybe Duesenberg.
There were dozens of others, however, and among the pioneering automobile companies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Delahaye name is barely recognized.
When considering the sleekest and most desirable cars ever built, collectors and fans of classic cars regard Delahayes as some of the finest.
It's easy to see why. One glance at the 1947 175S model (featured here) and you know you're in the presence of something very special. It and others constructed throughout the so-called Golden Age that existed from the late 1920s to the beginning of the 1950s catered to buyers possessing extreme wealth, an audience that included most of the crowned heads of Europe plus assorted industrialists, moguls and movie stars. This group became particularly enamored, not only with the Delahaye (pronounced Del-uh-eye) marque, but with the custom coach builders who could sculpt chrome and sheetmetal masterpieces. Interestingly, these artisans helped the company survive long past its prime.
The company acquired its name, but very little of its impressive heritage, from Emile Delahaye, a mechanical engineer by trade. He began by making steam-powered equipment in Tours, France, in the 1880s, but soon switched to working on gasoline engines designed for use in ships as well as automobiles.
To prove their worth, Delahaye began competing in long-distance endurance races, winning several throughout Europe during the 1890s. Racing would become the cornerstone of Delahaye automobile development, but ill health forced the company's founder to sell his business.
Under new ownership, Delahaye relocated to Paris in 1898 where it flourished as a supplier of cars, trucks, firefighting equipment and agricultural machinery. Racing, both on land and in the water, also became a passion for the Morane family, Delahaye's new owner.
As the company's reputation for power and reliability grew, so did the business. However, by the 1920s, Renault and Citron, which had perfected mass-production techniques, were outselling Delahaye, which was still building cars by hand.
Rather than switch to more efficient methods, Delahaye focused on catering to the needs of more upscale clientele who demanded plenty of horsepower as well as the latest in modern conveniences, all wrapped up in a stylish and sophisticated design.
Fortunately, Delahaye's truck power plants proved ideal for its new-age model, the 1934 Type 135. Available in a variety of coupe, sedan and convertible layouts, these rolling fashion statements were a hit with the well-heeled and also formed the basis for some of the most flamboyant body creations ever seen. Figoni and Falashi, a popular coach constructor of that era, turned numerous Type 135 models into stunning works of art, with accentuated teardrop fenders and skirts that covered all four wheel openings. The cars looked as if they were floating over the pavement.
Cruella De Vil's ride in the Walt Disney movie "101 Dalmatians" is loosely based on the Type 135.
Delahayes also performed admirably in competition, taking first, second and fourth place at the 1938 Le Mans (France) 24-hour endurance race. A specially prepared 4.5-liter, 12-cylinder-engine version also managed to beat the much better financed German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union race teams at one of the Grand Prix (Formula One) events that year.
Production halted during World War II (1939-1945), but Delahaye resumed business afterward, albeit at a much slower pace. Perhaps surprisingly, custom bodies were still the order of the day, and the 175S, with its 12-cylinder engine, semi-automatic transmission and thickly padded leather upholstery, was a prime example of postwar opulence. Other more conservative styles were used in competition, especially on the European rally circuit where the car gained much notoriety.
As classy and quick as the 175 was, automobiles such as the Delahaye were falling out of favor with the public. The rapidly escalating expense of commissioning a separate custom body for each car meant owners had to wait months for their machine to be completed. In the meantime, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and others were capturing the carriage trade in ever-increasing numbers.
After 60 years in business, Delahaye was sold to Hotchkiss in 1954 and automobile production was canceled shortly thereafter.
Today, the few remaining Delahayes take the spotlight at automobile events such as the annual Pebble Beach (California) Concours d'Elegance auto show, where their multimillionaire owners lovingly tend to their every body panel, leather seat covering and wire-wheel spoke.
As highly coveted pieces of automotive art and a tribute to a bygone era of one-off construction, they deserve at least that much attention.
* Malcolm Gunn can be reached at www.theoctanelounge.com by using the contact link.