Why an auto manufacture would choose a motto, “Le Juste Milieu,” that means “The Happy Mean,” will remain unanswered despite the research done for this article or by the two museums who, together, own three of the very rare French cars – two sedans and a particularly rare coupe. It is possible that the motto describes the Hotchkiss cars that preceded the Hotchkiss-Gregoire, these cars are certainly not the “mean” of anything – they are far from average.
Before getting into the history of the company that manufactured the cars, which has nearly as many twists and turns as “The Tail of the Dragon,” it is appropriate to acknowledge the museums that made this and other profiles possible for Vintage Road & Racecar. There are two general categories of museums – those whose displays are meant to be viewed, and those whose displays are meant to be used. Not every museum can be like the Lane Motor Museum (https://www.lanemotormuseum.org/) and the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum (http://www.tbauto.org/). Nearly every vehicle on display can be taken out and used on the road. That is not even conceivable at many museums. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center (https://airandspace.si.edu/udvar-hazy-center), for example, is not likely to roll the Enola Gay out onto the runways of Dulles International Airport for someone to take it for a ride. At the Lane, the propeller cars you see are drivable. At Tampa Bay, the replica of the 1770 Fardier de Cugnot even has a Florida VIN and license plate. Thanks to these museums, Vintage Road & Racecar has access to an interesting variety of cars to profile, like the two Hotchkiss-Gregoires featured here.
S.A. Anciens Établisements Hotchkiss et Cie, Saint-Denis
Benjamin Beckley Hotchkiss was born in 1826. As a youngster, he was apprenticed to a machine shop. He excelled in his education and was hired by Sharpe’s Rifle as a machinist. Apparently, he was not only a good machinist, he was an innovator. Together with his brother, Andrew, they developed a new type of canon shot, which, in 1858, was bought and used by the “Liberals” fighting in “The War of Reform” in Mexico. Japan seems to have been impressed with the shells as well and began buying them from the brothers. Those successful sales put the brothers in the business of making artillery shells just in time for the American Civil War. They made a fortune selling the shells to the Union Army.
After the Civil War, sales of the brothers’ innovative armaments slowed in the United States, so Benjamin Hotchkiss traveled to France as the Franco-Prussian War broke out. In 1867, Louis Bonaparte Napoleon III invited Hotchkiss to open an arms factory in Saint-Denis. Hotchkiss continued to innovate and, in 1872, designed a gas-operated machine gun, the Hotchkiss Rapid-Firing Gun. The machine gun was adopted by the military in Great Britain, Russia, Chile, China, and the U.S. He also invented a rifle with a magazine which he sold to Winchester.
These successes allowed Hotchkiss to establish five factories, in five European countries by the 1880s, and the company continued to make improvements to the weaponry they were selling. Hotchkiss died suddenly in February 1885, and the company investors took over the firm. Laurence Vincent Benet, brother of the U.S. Army Chief of Ordnance, became the Managing Director. As the end of the century approached, there were few wars causing governments to spend on improved weaponry. As a result, Hotchkiss was in financial trouble by 1898. The company President, Charles Parsons, believed that the company could find profitability in the new field of automobiles. The company had considerable experience using special steels and in high quality machining, which already had auto companies coming to the firm for specialty engine parts. Parsons approached Benet about building an automobile, but Benet was cautious, so Hotchkiss increased their involvement in manufacturing engine parts and expanded into building entire engines. The company provided engine components to a number of French manufacturers, including Panhard et Lavassor and De Dion Bouton. By 1903, Hotchkiss was making complete engines for Clayette Fils. That year, the company became S.A. Anciens Établisements Hotchkiss et Cie, Saint-Denis, a name it would maintain until 1954.
Early in 1903, John James Mann (Mann and Overton, London) pressed Benet to make entire automobiles. Mann promised to buy all the cars Hotchkiss could build. Benet agreed this time, and the company hired Georges Terrasse away from Mors to design their first automobile. They started with a 1902 Mercedes Simplex that the company had bought, and the first Hotchkiss engine was a close copy of the Mercedes except for the use of roller bearings. The first Hotchkiss automobile, the 18 CV was shown at the Paris Salon in December 1903. One third of the production went to Mann, despite his offer, with the rest going to Henri Fournier in Paris.
Hotchkiss did everything possible to promote their cars. They tested their engines in boats and won the Gaston-Menier Cup in a race from Paris to the sea in August 1904. The cars were entered in some serious road races as well, although the results were not spectacular. The best result was a fourth in the 1905 Gordon Bennett Cup by American novice Fitz Shepard. His was the only one of the three Hotchkiss cars entered that finished. His car was a shaft-drive, L-Head, 16.3-liter beast. Shepard took cars to the U.S. for the Vanderbilt Cup but none finished the race. Shepard’s 1905 car continued in racing, and, in 1907, George Robertson won at Morris Park with the car.
Hotchkiss had a full range of cars by 1907 – Types L, M, O, R, and T. They were all big-engine cars. The smallest in displacement was the “T” which was a 16CV four-cylinder. The “L” and “O” were L-Head six-cylinder 30 and 35CV cars. These were difficult economic times in Europe, but Hotchkiss was known for producing quality automobiles. Many were bought by royalty, although the four-cylinder cars sold best.
Henry M. Ainsworth was hired as a draftsman in 1904, but he proved to be a significant asset to Hotchkiss. He became Chief Engineer in 1910 and remained in that position until the start of WWI. Under his direction, Hotchkiss automobiles continued to be modernized. In 1914, Ainsworth volunteered for service in the French Army. Instead of going to the front, he was sent to England with the goal of establishing a Hotchkiss factory in Coventry to make machine guns. The factory in Saint-Denis was also retooled to produce weaponry for the war effort. The combined production of the Hotchkiss factories was 4000 machine guns per month.
After the war, the Saint-Denis plant resumed building automobiles and sold every one they could produce. The factory in Coventry was converted to engine production for manufactures including Morris, BSA, Gilchrist, and Autocar. Ainsworth did his job very well. In fact, he did it so well that he helped Morris become very successful – successful enough that Morris began to acquire its suppliers. In the spring of 1923, Hotchkiss Coventry became the Engine Division of Morris Motor Cars Ltd., which resulted in Ainsworth moving back to France together with H.H. Wilde, one of Ainsworth’s principle associates. Back in France, Ainsworth became General Manager of the automobile division and Wilde the Chief Engineer.
The company began producing improved versions of its pre-war cars when auto production resumed. Some of the improvements were significant. The four-liter AF model now came with full pressure lubrication, an overhead valve engine, four-wheel brakes, full electrics, torque tube drive, and cantilever rear suspension. There was an attempt to compete with Hispano Suiza at the upper end of the market, and a 6.6-liter SOHC six-cylinder was developed, but it was never put into production. Instead, the company decided to focus on the middle of the market in 1926. The car that was built was the AM. It had a 2413-cc, L-Head, four-cylinder engine that produced 38 hp at 2400 rpm. The cars cost 36,500FF, quite a bit more than a comparable Peugeot, Mathis, or Citroën, but they were good handling, durable automobiles that could reach 60 mph. The company sold some 3,000 of the cars in three years. While that volume was smaller than its competitors, building only one model kept costs down and made Hotchkiss profitable. The purchase of a stamping plant, in 1926, so the company could produce its own bodywork probably helped with the bottom line.
Hotchkiss went away from its one-model strategy, in 1928, when it added the AM 80, a three-liter six-cylinder with a coil ignition and a seven-bearing crank with a vibration damper. This 70-hp model was good for 70-75 mph! Two wheelbase lengths allowed the company to build a wider variety of body styles – up to 18 in 1929. Marc Bosser, the manager of the body plant, began styling the various models, and the marketers decided to name them for French resorts:
Cabourg – basic coachwork
Deauville and Monaco – saloons
Hossegar – roadster
Basque – coupé
Biarritz – coupe
Vichy and Chantilly – limousines.
While Ainsworth was not interested in racing, he was very happy to make note of successful private efforts. In 1931, Maurice Vasselle won the Monte Carlo Rally, which resulted in this comment from Ainsworth, “It was not because we had a freak car, but an entirely standard product, very carefully tuned up and skillfully handled.” There were many rally wins in the 1930s, in part because the cars were becoming more powerful. The AM 80S had 100 hp and could do 80-85 mph, then came the Paris-Nice model, in 1934, with 115 hp and a top speed of 115 mph; and, finally, there was the Grand Sport of 1936 with Bendix brakes and a short 110” wheelbase that got to 125-130 mph.
Politics – the French National Front government nationalized the armaments industry in 1936, promising to pay 71, 000,000FF for Hotchkiss, a sum that was actually not paid until 1944 and then only in part. Ainsworth took over what was left of the automobile part of the company, but, in 1940, he left for London before the fall of Paris, then on to Canada, where he worked for the British government supporting the war effort. Automobiles Peugeot took over Hotchkiss in 1942 and used the facilities as a repair shop for military vehicles.
Ainsworth returned to France in 1944, and to Hotchkiss in 1946, to produce some of the pre-war models plus a light truck and a tractor. It wasn’t easy, and Hotchkiss faced a number of challenges over which they had no control. During the war, the factories were used to repair German tanks, so the French government looked at the company as not having done enough to slow the repair of those enemy assets. The company was not seen to have collaborated, but nevertheless, they received no assistance to rebuild from the French government. The next blow came when the French government imposed a tax based on engine size. Hotchkiss suffered because it was only allowed to build 3.5-liter cars. One bright spot was that Ainsworth had secured the rights to build Jeep vehicles while he was in Canada. Light trucks and Jeep vehicles would help keep Hotchkiss afloat.
The company was finally allowed to build a 13CV four-cylinder car in 1948. Through 1951, Hotchkiss, now with Peugeot a 12% owner, built 2,705 cars, all but 429 of them 13CVs. At the same time, Citroën was building more than 30,000 cars for a worldwide market. The next hit the company took was the British export drive – British manufacturers dumped cars on the international market in order to boost production. It had a very negative affect on many small auto manufacturers. The only hope was the purchase of a front-wheel drive automobile design from Jean-Albert Grégoire.
Automotive historian Griffith Borgeson called Jean-Albert Grégoire the “Apostle of Front-Wheel Drive” in his Automobile Quarterly biography of him (“Monsieur Traction Avant,” Volume XIV, #1, First Quarter 1976). Grégoire was an interesting and multi-talented man. Born in 1899 and orphaned at 9, he was raised by an auto-loving uncle. He was athletic, a national champion in the 100 meter dash, and smart, studying at the Ecole Polytechnique. Rather than physics and mathematics, he decided to study law and became knowledgeable about international patent law. He became a radio and television personality, as well as an author of both technical books and murder mysteries. But his love of cars led him to open a garage in Versailles, even though he was not much of a mechanic. He was, though a skilled designer.
Grégoire had a wealthy partner in his garage, Pierre Fenaille, who thought it would be a good idea to build a racecar. He left the design to Grégoire, but insisted that it be front-wheel drive because he wanted something different. The result was the Tracta, in 1926, for which Fenaille designed a constant-velocity joint. Grégoire raced the Tracta and became a proponent of front-wheel drive. Initially, he used small-displacement SCAP engines, but he changed to American Continental engines when he discovered that they cost the same as the smaller engines. With the larger engines, he was able to build larger, more expensive cars, beginning with the Tracta E. Vintage Road & Racecar profiled a 1930 Tracta E Henri Lemoyne Coupe in January 2015 (https://sportscardigest.com//front-1930-tracta-e-henri-lemoyne-coupe/).
Racing the Tracta at Le Mans did not produce much in the way of results, but it did show the reliability of the Tracta joints. Sadly, on the way to the race in 1927, Grégoire and Fenaille had an accident in Fenaille’s Panhard. Grégoire had minor injuries, but Fenaille’s likely contributed to his death 10 years later. Later that year, when Grégoire applied for the French patent for the joint, he found that Fenaille had patented it late the year before. He redid the drawings and submitted them for patents in the U.S., England, and Germany. Grégoire then promoted the joint and received contracts with DKW and Adler Trumpf. Germany was a problem, though. There was already a patent for a similar, albeit inferior, joint in Germany. Grégoire received no remuneration for the use of his design for many years, especially during the time when he had to deal with the Nazi government. He finally received only a fraction of what he was owed.
In 1932, Grégoire ceased producing the Tracta so he could concentrate on his CV joint. He had an agreement with Bendix, but sales of the joint were slow. Then came Citroën, and the ride was very bumpy.
Citroën was having financial troubles, and André Citroën decided to risk it all on a new model, the Traction Avant. Grégoire sold Citroën the Tracta joint, but they proved unreliable and were replaced by a different CV joint. Next, Grégoire entered a contest to design a small car and decided to build it using cast aluminum, Alpax. The car became the Amil Compound and was built in 1937 by Hotchkiss. Ainsworth somehow convinced Grégoire to work without a salary and only take royalties for the use of his Tracta joint. The end for the Amil Compound came in September 1939 without Grégoire receiving any royalties. Borgeson interviewed a member of the Peugeot management team, then part owner of Hotchkiss, about the Compound: “A disaster. The Alpax would not support vibration, and after ten to twenty thousand kilometers the things would begin cracking to pieces. It was impossible to repair them in any practical or economical way, and the few clients, of course, were beside themselves. Grégoire merits all the credit for having killed Amilcar.”
World War II would prove more lucrative for Grégoire. The use of his joints by the British, French, and the U.S. made him a tidy fortune from royalties. During the way, he was encouraged by a friend, Jean Dupin, the head of l’Aluminium Frances, to design a “French people’s car . . . something better than Porsche’s Volkswagen.” The first prototype of the Aluminum Frances- Grégoire (A-F-G) ran in 1942. Grégoire tried to market it to Citroën, Renault, Peugeot, and Simca, in that order, but all refused him. Panhard et Levassor did use the design for their Dyna, which became known as the “most expensive economy car of all time.”
Grégoire’s reputation was still good enough for the head of l’Aluminium Frances to ask him, in 1946, to design a fast new car and build two prototypes. The Grégoire R was aerodynamic, front-wheel drive, and, importantly, used cast aluminum.
The Hotchkiss Board of Directors bought the design of the Model R from Grégoire in 1948. It was a 2-liter, water-cooled, flat-four cylinder, front-wheel drive car with the engine mounted in front of the front axle. It was the most aerodynamic design that could hold six people at the time. Wind tunnel tests produced a coefficient of drag of only 0.20. It was designed to weigh 2,128 pounds and produce 60 hp. The top speed was claimed to be 85 mph with minimal wind noise and to get 26 mpg at 50 mph. It was a very attractive design, especially when compared to its competition. In final production form, the engine grew to 2.2-liters producing 70 hp. The car would weigh 2,421 pounds. The car was announced in 1949, but Hotchkiss did not have the resources to build it. A saloon and coupe were announced in 1950, and production began in June 1951. By that time, Ainsworth had retired and Paul Richard had taken over. Richard authorized a coupe designed by Henri Chapron. Only 247 Hotchkiss- Grégoire automobiles were produced before Richard stopped all production late in 1952. Only twelve of those cars were the Chapron-designed coupes.
Saloon and coupe
There are a lot of unusual vehicles to see at the Lane Motor Museum, but the usual reaction when people notice the Hotchkiss-Grégoire is a double take – not an unusual reaction, since only 247 of these cars were built. It’s a bit different than many of the other vehicles on display, and it is a bit difficult to identify the era from which it comes. There are Deco aspects to the car, it has a grille that spans several decades, its sweeping fastback and fenders could be from the ’30s or the ’50s. It’s not exactly beautiful, but it is attractive. Then there’s the badge – crossed canons? What’s that about?
At first glance, the Hotchkiss-Grégoire at the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum is much like the one at the Lane, especially from the front. A closer look shows that they are very different in several ways. Viewed from the front, the grille appears the same, but the windshield seems more raked. The differences are more obvious from the side. Most obvious is that the coupe has only two doors, but that car, thanks to Chapron, is much sexier than the saloon. The roofline curves sensuously into a continuous sweep to the rear bumper. In many ways, a more attractive design than the original. Sadly, only 12 of the coupes were made. The museum adds an interesting bit of information about this particular car: “There were very few Hotchkiss Gregoires ever exported to the United States, and even fewer were coupes. This exact car was exhibited at the New York show in 1953 and was sold to Ed Cole, who was the Chief Engineer of Chevrolet at the time.
Interestingly enough, the steering wheel features a logo of an orix, which is part of the impala family (whose image and name would later appear on a Chevrolet vehicle). This Hotchkiss coupe has been completely restored to original condition. A second Hotckiss Grégoire (a sedan) is also in our collection.” Having both a coupe and a saloon in their collection makes it easier to see all the differences in the two models.
The two cars are quite similar when being driven, so I’ll discuss them together. Interiors are quite alike – same controls, same gauges, similar steering wheels, same parking brake and pedals, including the odd gas pedal that is a ball on the end of a long rod. They both have the same radio – AM. Oddly, the saloon has a small tachometer on the very left of the dash. The coupe has no tach. Gauges include all the important information – fuel, ammeters, oil pressure, water temperature, and speed. The steering wheel is big, and it sits close to the driver’s thighs. But its size came in handy on the drive – the steering is heavy, so a big wheel helps. There is one unusual safety feature that must be kept in mind – when the inside door handle is pushed all the way forward, a pin drops into a hole in the door sill. This will keep the doors closed in an accident, but trying to close the door with the handle all the way forward, and the pin deployed, will damage the aluminum chassis. The front doors are suicide doors, providing easy access into the car but probably the major reason for the door pins.
Starting the cars is the same process for both of them – key on, pull the choke out when the engine is cold, set the timing (pulling the knob out advances the timing), then pull the starter knob to start the car. The shifter is a little odd, but the car is French, so that is to be expected. First through third are arranged in the standard “H” pattern, but there is a fourth gear that is an overdrive. To engage fourth gear, there is a lever on the shifter that you pull to allow the transmission to engage fourth when the shifter is returned to the second gear position. Reverse is not directly above first. To engage it, the shift lever is pulled toward you then up. While first gear is not synchronized, the shifter slides into first smoothly when the car is still.
This is a comfortable car to drive. The seat is supportive, and the controls are within easy reach, although the pedals are a bit close together. I hit both brake and gas once with my big foot. Clutch engagement on the two cars was different – the coupe clutch engaged fairly high up, so I had to remember that and not slip the clutch when starting out. The car is heavy and has a relatively small engine for its size, so it is not fast. The engine has good torque, and the revs come up nicely, so getting the car moving is easy. First gear provides decent acceleration, but second seems a bit high and is a bit slow. Third is actually a good gear for most uses, allowing the car to reach 80 kmph. Fourth is best for highway driving.
The ride is not sporty. The car is softly sprung, so the ride is very comfortable. The car does lean in corners, but it’s not disturbing. The suspension uses horizontal springs which don’t compress – they stretch, so there’s never any binding. Brakes were excellent, probably better than most cars of its era. As mentioned, the large diameter steering wheel is needed for turning this heavy car when moving slowly. At speed, the steering is very positive. The Chapron coupe is certainly the better looking of the cars, but both are a treat to drive. And it is an honor to drive car with so many unique design features.
Hotchkiss struggled for a number of years after Richard stopped production of the Hotchkiss- Grégoire automobiles. In 1954, the company merged with Delahaye, but all automobile production was ended in 1955. That company was absorbed by Brandt to produce Jeeps and trucks in 1956, then by Thomson-Houston in 1966 to build military vehicles. The last truck produced by what had been Hotchkiss left the factory in 1971.
Grégoire, in 1953, created the SOCEMA-Grégoire, France’s first turbine car. He then designed an electric car, but the poor battery technology kept it from being produced. Grégoire tried to market the Hotchkiss-Grégoire to American companies but was unsuccessful. He lived a long life and died in August 1992.