Émile Delahaye’s namesake company, Société des Automobiles Delahaye, was founded in 1894. Delahaye was born in 1843, much earlier than his contemporaries in the budding automotive industry, and attended the trade school Arts & Metiers in the French city of Angers. Decades later, this same school would be attended by fellow automotive pioneer Louis Delage. By the late 1870s, Delahaye took over a business that specialized in the manufacture of kilns and related equipment for the ceramics industry. At this time stationary engines were becoming more commonplace in industrial settings, and Delahaye was one of many who tinkered and experimented with both steam and internal combustion types. Delahaye’s interest was more than a hobby, and he would ultimately put this knowledge to practical use by converting part of his operation to the manufacturing of petrol engines.
After formally entering the automobile business, Delahaye’s first horseless carriage was displayed at the first Paris Motor Show, which took place the same year he founded his company. An early proponent of promotion and improvement through the crucible of racing, Delahaye himself raced one of the cars in the 1896 Paris-Marseilles-Paris road race. The founder’s involvement in the story of this amazing marque wanes shortly after this point; health problems would eventually force him to retire just after the turn of the century, and he would pass only a few years later.
If the brilliant industrialist had survived to play a larger role in the firm he founded, there is no telling the heights that the company might have scaled. It could be surmised that the firm would have survived past its glorious zenith in the late 1930s — and maybe to present day — but that is not the story that fortune had in store. Realizing his fate, Delahaye took on his brothers-in-law as partners before his retirement to the French Riviera. Shortly thereafter, they moved the company to Paris from the founder’s hometown of Tours, and their subsequent management ensured that the name and the legacy lived on. The early single and twin cylinder engines would give way to 4 and 6 cylinders in 1908. At this time the firm was producing a few automobiles, but that part of the business merely muddled along; Delahaye made a name for itself building trucks with well-designed 4 and 6 cylinder engines and sustained itself by doing so for the next several decades.
The firm’s first attempt at capturing part of the luxury car market was made in 1934 with the introduction of the model 134N, which had 12 taxable horsepower with a 4 cylinder engine, and the 138, which had an 18 horsepower six. Delahaye finally struck pay dirt with the introduction of the legendary 135 the following year at the Paris Auto Salon. Also known as the “Coupe des Alpes,” the 135 set the tone and style of the French automobile up through the 1950s. Sales literature for the 135 touted it as “a superlative machine built with great care and precision based on the fruits of long experience. It is designed to give its owner many thousands of miles of fast, trouble-free motoring.” The new chassis had independent front suspension with a transverse leaf spring, live rear axle and a smooth, silent 4-speed Cotal semi-automatic transmission.
The initial output of the 3.2-Liter six was approximately 95 horsepower with a triple-carbureted option raising that number to 110, which offered a top speed approaching 100 miles per hour. The 135 chassis received rave reviews from coachbuilders, who were inspired by its low, well-proportioned stance to build beautiful bodies never before possible. The press, public and motoring class immediately fell in love with the new model, and the list of coachbuilders who were commissioned to build bodies for it reads like a who’s who. Names like Henri Chapron, Figoni et Falaschi, Pourtout and Franay are just a few of the elite carrosseries whose names are associated with the Delahaye.
The 3.2-Liter overhead valve six was derived from the firm’s tried and true truck engines and eventually gave way to the 3.6-Liter of the 135M, which could now top out at over 100 miles per hour. In 1938 Delahaye introduced the 135MS that upped the horsepower to 130 by means of a larger head and valves. The increase in horsepower was also due to better aspiration provided by the triple Solex carburetors and a six-port exhaust manifold. The enthusiasm and momentum from which Delahaye profited was cut short when the clouds of war formed. Like all other European and eventually American manufacturers, automobile production stopped and was not resumed until after hostilities ceased and countries were rebuilt.
Offered at Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale is this historic Delahaye 135MS with prototype coachwork by Selborne, chassis 800518. It was a factory demonstrator for Selborne, who acted as the English concessionaires, exporters and shippers for Delahaye in the United Kingdom. Conceived in 1946 and completed in 1949, it was Alan Selborne’s dream to market a Delahaye that was a cross between a gentleman’s racing car that could also be used as a more practical road car. Built on a standard Delahaye 135MS chassis, the aluminum alloy body with its quintessentially British cycle fenders was intended for the English and American markets as a competitor to the Jaguar XK-120.
Although ordered right after the war, the chassis was not delivered to England by Delahaye until very late 1947 or early 1948, due to delays caused by English import restrictions that were in effect to protect the domestic automotive industry. The first registration number was JLT 99, a series first used in England in December of 1947, according to motor vehicle records. It was customary at that time to register the chassis at the moment of import even if the intended coachwork had not yet been produced. The engine mated to this chassis is similar to those installed in the factory 135MS race cars and was originally fitted with the desirable triple racing-type Solex side-draft HD44 “Siamese” carburetors that it retains to this day.
Selborne commissioned Guy Jason Henry of Craft Panels of Putney to build the coachwork. Interestingly the idea and design had been conceived prior to the start of the war, and with the delay in delivery of the chassis to the U.K., it was not delivered to the coachbuilder until 1949 and not completed until 1950. Selborne intended to build another two-seater prototype, but no others are known to have been constructed. After completion, the car is reported to have been shown by Selborne on the Delahaye stand at the Earls Court Auto Show in 1950. Alex Korda, a famous English film producer and automobile enthusiast, purchased the car from Selborne in the early 1950s and eventually passed it along to English actor Hubert Reece in the 1960s. It is also known that in its early ownership it competed in English club races and was featured on the cover of Delahaye’s English postwar owner’s manual. Reece sold the car to Carlton Coolidge of San Francisco in 1972. Marque specialist Richard Adatto bought 800518 in 1979, restored it in early 1980 and raced it on different vintage circuits including the 1981 and 1982 Monterey Historic Automobile Races, where it took second and sixth place respectively. Amazingly, the car was also shown at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1982 and placed second in the Delahaye class after being thrashed on the track.
It has been more recently cosmetically freshened and also performed flawlessly when driven on the Colorado Grand vintage tour. Mr. Adatto sold the car to Chuck Swimmer of The San Diego Collection who later sold it to Don Williams of the Blackhawk Collection. Says Williams, “I love the cross-pollination of bodies and chassis from different continents.” The pairing of the exotic French chassis with the lightweight British coachwork is extremely unique, and this may be the only such pairing. Unique also is the performance afforded this example, given that most of these chassis are weighted down by extremely beautiful yet heavy coachwork. The integrity of the performance of the 135MS chassis is the true gift bestowed by the talented engineers at Delahaye.
With its original chassis, engine, transmission and coachwork, the Delahaye 135MS Selborne Roadster is completely unique; it was the only one of its kind ever built and truly represents the swan song of the coach-built era. Selborne wanted to market something new and special in the form of a car that had performance and modern British styling. Since being restored by Richard Adatto, the Selborne Roadster has been exceptionally well maintained and freshened as needed. It is ready to show and enjoy; if its new owner happens to be a driving enthusiast familiar with the performance of the 135MS chassis, the thrill and quality of experience will be second to none.
— By Jonathan Sierakowski