1904 Darracq “Genevieve”

    Darracq; when it comes to brand names this is one very few people bring to mind, which is strange when you know that they have held six world speed records, won the Vanderbuilt Cup in the USA twice and, for a decade or so one particular Darracq was the most famous car on the planet. The history of Darracq also contains, innovative ideas, some obstinate thinking and not a little financial intrigue. So why is it that Darracq has become so lost in the mists of time. 
    When it comes to complex layers of history that make a story hard to tell, then the history of Darracq is probably the example to prove it. Alexandre Darracq has the same mix of drive, ingenuity (both mechanical and financial) and awkwardness that seem to typify the many great designers and manufacturers in the history of motoring. Born in Bordeaux, France, on the 10th of November, 1855, Pierre-Alexandre Darracq was of Basque heritage. By the time he died in Monaco, 1931, Alexandre Darracq had proven himself a successful businessman having founded Gladiator bicycles (with all their own fame, records and race wins), designed an electric car, established his eponymous motor car company and manufactured his own design of cars in Suresnes, France and Coleman Street, London, Britain. 
    One quote used to describe Darracq is that he was “an engineer by temperament if not by qualification”. His training began as a draftsman in “the arsenal” in Tarbes, in the Hautes-Pyrénées département of France. This was actually established in 1871 when French army Colonel Verchère de Reffye decided to move the Paris Meudon experimental workshop (famed for being one of the places Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot trialled some of his automotive ideas in the early 1770s), lock, stock and many barrels, by train, to the working-class town of Tarbes in order to work on the design of artillery pieces. 
    Alexandre Darracq then moved on to the Hurtu factory. Auguste Jacques Hurtu started making sewing machines from 1860s and later, like Darracq, Hurtu made bicycles, cars, engines, and motorcycles. While working for Hurtu one of Darracq’s sewing machine designs was considered so good he was awarded a gold medal at the Paris exhibition of 1889. 
    An acquaintance called Jean Aucoc diverted Darracq to dabble in the world of wines selling “vintner's sundries”, but Alexandre Darracq, ever alive to business opportunities, was working on design ideas for bicycles, a form of transport which was booming the late 1800s. 
   In 1891 Alexandre Darracq founded “de Société des cycles Gladiator” (in English, the Gladiator Cycle Company), with one Paul Aucoq, in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, Seine, now a suburb of Paris itself. “Gladiator” bicycles soon gained a reputation for being reliable, although they most likely sold well because the very affordable prices. Gladiator also enjoyed an enviable record in track cycling, winning races and setting records in both, Europe and the U.S.A., which didn’t do any harm to the sales figures. 
Scratch built Model.
Built by Rod.

    Having sold his Gladiator bicycle firm, Alexandre Darracq launched a new business under the company name, “A. Darracq et Cie”, in 1896. This venture was to produce automobiles, which is a little strange as Alexandre Darracq didn’t like riding in a motor car and very seldomly drove one. Darracq’s plan was similar to that which had made Gladiator cycles successful. Mass produce affordable cars that are wholly reliable, in executing this Darracq became one of the earliest marques to mass produce motor vehicles, a la Ford with the Model ‘T’. The firm was listed as a société en commanditie, or limited partnership, in February 1897. 

   With the dawn of the new century in 1900 Alexandre Darracq was able to make use of several new technological advances. Having engaged the services of talented designer Paul Ribeyrolles who soon had a new vertical single cylinder 785cc engine producing 6.5hp on the bench. This started a line of engine designs by Ribeyrolles that would grow to include a twin-cylinder unit of 12hp output and a 20hp four-cylinder engine. Ribeyrolles and Darracqs engines included pioneer features like mechanical inlet valves and L-head designs while the power was transmitted to the rear wheels by a prop’ shaft, with bevel-driven rear axle and the car a three-speed gearbox activated by a column gear change. They proved to be reliable and the range of cars, run in new next generation pressed steel chassis from 1902, were to sell rather well. Darracq also pioneered the design of torque control arms and rear axle positioning, making the rear end more stable and better utilising the power from the prop’ shaft. The most remarkable feature was the system which allowed the engine speed to be varied between 100rpm and 2,000rpm; all previous engine designs had really been in a constant RPM mode with a manual advance and retard system. This notable innovation was achieved by regulating the engine's ignition and its inlet valves to advance the spark as the engine got faster and to allow more fuel air mixture inlet time to match. It sparked a new area of thinking which would allow us today to drive with a foot accelerator without ever having to think about the mechanical changes required under the bonnet to achieve this feat. 

    The new range of cars, spearheaded by the 6½hp voiture legére, were a success. Just the small car alone taking over 100 sales. In 1902 Darracq signed another deal for an outside designer when he agreed with Adam Opel to build his cars under licence in Paris as "Opel Darracq". The 300 employees at the Suresnes works were surely had pressed to meet the production needs and it wasn’t long before Opel decided to go into production for himself. Opel would soon be producing the Darracq cars was under licence in Germany in reciprocation. 

    Financial problems started affecting the firm and a take-over bid Britain came to a head. Alexandre Darracq wanted to go to the stock exchange in order to raise further capital. However, the French process was so complicated he worked with the British financiers because the system in Britain was far simpler to complete. The British investors saw the opportunity to gain links with the French motor industry which was considered the technological standard setters of the time. Started on the 30th of September, 1902, and completed in 1903, A. Darracq and Company Limited became the British umbrella company for Darracq. Effectively, A. Darracq et Cie had been sold to the British but Alexandre took a large amount of the new stock himself and maintained a position of as managing director under the Chairmanship of J.S. Smith-Winby. American financiers saw this as a shrewd bit of off-loading by Darracq who had now isolated himself from any financial obligations on the French firm.   

    From 1904 the new pressed-steel frames replaced the wooden ones with a remarkable improvement in handling. With this new pressed steel technology, the new 3-ltr four-cylinder 'Flying Fifteen' was considered a “masterpiece of metal forming”. This car might not have had any new mechanicals but having shaft drive to the rear wheels it was certainly up to date. What made it special was the exceptional quality. It is said that "every part was in such perfect balance and harmony", so it was that the production model of the 1904 Darracq Flying Fifteen became ‘the’ outstanding Darracq model. 

    Nothing less than outstanding the 1904 "Famous Fifteen" boosted Darracq to a position amongst the world’s most successful car manufacturers’, selling 1600 vehicles gave the firm a 10% share of the French car market. Late in the year the company chairman reported to the directors that sales were up by 20%, around 3/4s of the cars being exported, but profits were only slowly rising as increased costs were taking effect. Part of the problem was that the firm had more orders than cars to sell and not enough space to increase production. So, the factory was enlarged by around a half to increase production. At the shareholders annual meeting of 1905 the Chairman reported the firm had purchased a new property in Lambeth which allowed for the “examining, adjusting and stocking of new cars” in preparation for an expected peak sales year. He could also boast that Darracq had held 6 speed records for over a year and that Kenelm Lee Guinness had just added yet another! 

    However, all the new expansion and building purchases took a toll on the company’s finances, but opposition to a new flotation of shares by some shareholders was causing a problem. In another piece of shrewd accounting the firm was again ‘sold’, this time "reconstituted" on the 17th of November, 1905, as A. Darracq Company (1905) Limited, the new firm raised £650,000 of new capital and had essentially forced the old shareholders to sell their shares, then buy back new shares; if they so desired. The resultant share flotation left Darracq having more than 80% of the company’s shares in British hands. Alexander Darracq remained managing director from his Paris address and one of the earliest British investors retired army officer, Colonel A Rawlinson took up the position of managing director in London for the British side of the business while J.S. Smith-Winby remained chairman. 

 “Genevieve”, the film. 

   The South African-born film producer, Henry Cornelius (at the time known for films like “Hue and Cry” and “Passport to Pimlico”), went to the Veteran Car Club in 1952 with a screen play for a story around a fictitious London-Brighton Run. The V.C.C. were hesitant to acquiesce to Cornelius’ request for help; they thought he was looking to poke fun at their hobby. Once the script was read and the story described the V.C.C. came to the conclusion it was a good idea and gave their assistance. 

   The 1953 film British comedy film ‘Genevieve’, film directed by Cornelius, is set against the backdrop of the historic rerunning of the “Emancipation” London to Brighton Veteran car run. Story wise it revolves around two couples, supposedly friends but displaying some less than admirable traits of mistrust, self-doubt and superiority that lead them to say and do things that would normally be out of character for them, and of course lead to mishaps and mayhem. All very British. 

   The McKims, Alan, a barrister and Wendy, played by John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan respectively, drive a 12hp, 1904 Darracq named Genevieve; really Alan McKim’s hobby which his wife puts up with. Driving a 1905 Spyker 12/16hp Double Phaeton is Ambrose Claverhouse, an advertising salesman, with his girlfriend Rosalind Peters (Kenneth More and Kay Kendall respectively) along for the ride with her St. Bernard dog. 

   While the Spyker has a trouble-free run down to Brighton, ‘Genevieve’ is plagued by frequent break downs and the McKims’ arrive in the seaside town very late in the evening and have to find lodgings, Alan having previously cancelled their usual luxury accommodation, so they ended up staying a rather run-down old hotel. 

   They meet up for drinks with Wendy and Alan at odds, Rosalind drinks too much and Ambrose flirting with Wendy. Misunderstandings abound and Alan’s stubbornness leads him to go and work on ‘Genevieve’ in the garage. Enter Ambrose, at this point the hub of all Alan’s woes and who intern takes Alan to task. Their angry exchange results in a £100 bet going to the first to cross Westminster Bridge at the end of the next day’s return to London. 

   While both women are upset and their men folk stoop to ‘gamesmanship’ (a polite word for cheating). But eventually the Women persuade the men to see sense after both parties are pulled over by the police. While Alan and Ambrose wait outside a pub, their resentments resurface and the Bet is reinstated leading to the two cars race flat out into London. Ambrose is well ahead and approaching the bridge as Genevieve suffers another breakdown. It looks all over until the Spyker’s front wheel gets stuck in a tram line and steers the car away from the bridge as Genevieve's brakes then fail too and she rolls on to Westminster Bridge. 

   Original scripts apparently called for a Humber and a Locomobile car as the main focus of interest but director Henry Cornelius felt they ought to be British cars with Lanchester being suggested as the McKim’s car. However, while the V.C.C. members might have been happy to assist in the filming, they weren’t about to let anyone else drive their cars! Fortunately, Norman Reeves stepped up and offered his car 'Annie' to be the car that would boost the world of historic cars into a world-wide phenomenon. Reeves friend Frank Reese then offered his Dutch-built Spyker as the second car. Another of Reeves acquaintances, mechanic Charles Cadby, was persuaded to provide his services for the duration of the film; which was filmed September and November including footage of the actual real-life 1952 Brighton Run so as to add authenticity. 

   Finally, the movie could go ahead but only after Cornelius re-christened ‘Annie’ as ‘Genevieve’, after the French Sainte Geneviève who is the patron saint of Paris, where the Darracq cars were originally built. 

   The Movie is typically British and, despite being made on a modest budget, became a huge success. It opened during the “Coronation Year” on the 27th of May, 1953, in London at the Leicester Square Theatre. It was to win a Bafta award and be voted top comedy of Coronation Year. The British loved the gentle humour, the two protagonists and the crazy race back to London. Many other countries where the old British way still held some place in the minds of the post-war world, ‘Genevieve’ caught the public imagination. Everywhere the film was shown, people thronged to see it. 

   But the effect of the film was so much more than a good laugh on a night out. People all over the world started to take an interest in the vintage cars which were by now rapidly disappearing into junk yards and from thence to neverland. The ‘hobby’ of restoring old cars took off, and just as well too, or we should have precious few examples of our forefather’s ingenuity left to marvel at, let alone running examples. 

   When the real 1953 London to Brighton emancipation run was held, crowds such as had never been seen before came out to watch the cars go by; and this in truly appalling weather conditions! They watched the 1904 Darracq (originally named ‘Annie’ by her owner), now known universally as ‘Genevieve’, driven by her owner of the time, Norman Reeves, and one of the most famous rally drivers of the day, Maurice Gatsonides, fresh from his class win the 1953 Monte Carlo Rally. This particular Dutch gentleman is now much more infamous for his invention of the much-disliked road side "Gatso" speed camera. “Genevieve” continued to run in the annual event until she left Britain in 1958. Interestingly the 1905 Spyker was ineligible to take part in the Emancipation runs to Brighton, being too young! 

   Charles Cadby proved to be more important than anyone might have guessed do to another silly fact is that the actor John Gregson, who played Genevieve’s owner Alan McKim, couldn’t drive a car. Not that it really mattered; “Genevieve” was the star! Gregson was coached by Charlie, and his co-star Dinah Sheridan who recalled later: “I spent the whole film time trying not to be seen giving him instructive help out of the side of my mouth. At the end of the film, he could have taken his test on Genevieve, but he still couldn't drive a modern car.”           

 The real car.

    “Genevieve” the film made ‘Genevieve' the car the most famous car on the planet. Yet the car’s story is as bizarre, often  fortuitous and just as worthy of a film, as the film script itself was. 

    It starts with a 1904 Darracq motor car that served its owners well until finding itself spending its twilight years hidden and about to have a near death experience in a post WW2 junk yard. Then, late in 1945, a Court Bailiff by the name of Bill Bailey was walking along the Lea Bridge Road in East London on his way to serve a court order when he hit his shin on a bit of rusty metal sticking out from the hedge. After rubbing his shin and cursing his luck Mr. Bailey took a look at what his leg had hit; and he recognised it as the dumb-iron of an old car. Being a motorcycle collector, he decided to taking a look beyond the hedge. Mr. Bailey discovered it was builder's dump-cum- junkyard with piles of junk and building rubble strewn around without any organisation. 

    After a bit of digging around Bill Bailey discovered there was a number of car parts and he told two of his friends Bill Peacock and Jack Wadsworth what he had discovered. Veteran and vintage car collectors Peacock and Wadsworth tracked down the junk-yard owner and investigated the lot. The pair discovered up to 15 old cars in the yard and entered into negotiations to purchase them all. It took a lot of haggling but the cars, ranging from 1903 to the late 1920s, were bought for £45; a bargain even back then. Within the group was a 1903 four-cylinder chain drive Sunbeam and a 1903 Argyll-Aster, a Thorneycroft Tourer and a Whitlock-Aster, most importantly to our story is that there two, 2cyl’, 1904 Darracqs. Not many of the cars seemed have bodies but they were still worthy of being saved. 

    Peacock and Wadsworth, along with some willing friends, extricated all the automotive items and along with various chassis everything was taken to Jack Wadsworth's yard in Isleworth, Middlesex. The rescuers kept the most prized items for themselves but sold the rest to friends and acquaintances. One of them, Mr Peter Venning, purchased both the Darracq cars for £25 putting Peacock and Wadsworth well on the way to recouping their initial investment! 

    Peter Venning then set about the job of restoring a car from the two chassis and collective parts. Neither car had any bodywork, or front wheels, one had unsalvageable front dumb-irons but the rest of the chassis was in decent condition but had no engine. By disassembling all the parts and restoring the best items at a workshop near Kew Bridge, Mr. Venning was able to complete, more-or-less, one chassis. 

    Around this time what was later recognised as a strange coincidence occurred. The Darracq was still at the time in Wadsworth’s premises when another old car very decayed but still complete, was brought in on the back of a trailer. "Here's a rare one.” Called out the driver “It was behind Swan Motors in Brentford." off-loaded beside the two Darracqs was indeed a rarity, it was a Spyker. This car was later purchased by brothers, who ran a taxi fleet in Shepherds Bush. The Reece Brothers did a meticulous restoration of the Spyker. But at that moment in time, unbeknownst to anyone, the two cars from the world-famous film sat side by side in Jack Wadsworth's yard, waiting for someone to love them again. 

    Peter Venning got the engine running and restored the running-train to working order. He had back wheels and some new tyres but was still in need of front wheels. That was until he was passing a chicken farm around Dunstable Downs which had an old Ford model T sitting in plain view. The wooden front wheels looked in good order and Mr. Venning knew they were the correct size for the Darracq and paid a few shillings to the farmer for them. 

    Peter Venning then got married and moved to Bishops Stortford in 1949. He found his prize position a “nice dry shed in Cannons Farm at nearby Start Hill” and towed the Darracq there to continue the restorations at his leisure. When the chassis was sorted and running Peter registered the chassis with the authorities and it was issued the registration number, ‘HXR322’. 

    Still lacking a body Peter was talking to his landlord one day when the old farmer told him of a car he had owned many years hence and when the mechanicals gave out he turned the body into a gig; which in turn was retired to an old barn. Peter investigated the memories and found the two-seater gig body covered in muck but basically in sound condition. With the help of a few friends, he got the body out of the barn and off to the meet the Darracq chassis. As luck would have it, the body fitted perfectly on the chassis, from the dashboard to the body bearers it was perfect. 

    The same body remains on the car to this day, along with a later rear box boot and a higher backed rear seat. However, this was the point at which Peter Venning realised he didn’t have the facilities, money or time to complete a proper restoration. Putting the car up for sale in Motor Sport magazine as an incomplete restoration priced at £35. 

    An Uxbridge car dealer and owner of several classic cars, Norman Reeves bought the car, and carried on the restoration. Reeves found the original 1904 stack-tube radiator unsalvageable and instead fitted a 1904 Darracq "Flying Fifteen" style radiator even though it was the wrong pattern for the little 10/12hp car. By the end of 1949 Reeves had the car ready for rallies and planned the next years adventures. Having a proved very reliable car Reeves entered the car he nicknamed “Annie” in a 1950 veteran car rally on the continent and the 1950 London-to-Brighton run. 

    Norman Reeves asked Charlie Cadby give the gig body a little more character which resulted in the aforementioned elaborate 'tulip' style seating and new rear box boot. The 10/12hp Darracq was now in the configuration which would make her the car the world fell in love with, and destined to feature in all manner of souvenirs. 

    After the huge success of the film the man now known as 'Mr. Genevieve' rather than Norman Reeves found the attention far too intrusive for him and he tried to sell the car. Firstly he asked Henry Cornelius and his wife to buy the car for £450, but they had no cash to part with having sank all their money into making the film and at that point the money wasn’t trickling back to them. Reeves then tried to sell the car to the town of Brighton, a town that had benefited greatly itself from the success of the film, but the Mayor of Brighton turned down the asking price reputed to be in the region of £1200. 

    Norman Reeves eventually found a way of removing himself from the publicity by loaning Genevieve to George Gilltrap, an enthusiast from New Zealand in 1958. Gilltrap entered the car in the Australian Blue Mountains Rally that year but when I tried to import it into his home land the New Zealand customs wanted to levy an enormous duty on the car. So much so that rather than bring the car from Australia to his museum in New Zealand, George Gilltrap moved his home, family and museum to Australia! Genevieve wouldn’t see Britain again for over 35 years. 

    Alexandre Darracq didn’t really like cars. He had some driving lessons in July 1896, as he was establishing his eponymous firm, but remained averse to driving, or even travelling in, an automobile. He was in the motor car industry for one reason only; to make money. His own design ability, and his drive to find new methods of construction and manufacture, were pioneering and pushed the boundaries for other manufacturers to emulate. 

    The advances in ignition and inlet valve timing control were a huge step forward by Paul Ribeyrolles. This work would be built upon by Ernest Henry and Laurence Pomeroy who forced through all the necessary work to create the low-capacity high-revving engines that made the motor car much more practical for the everyday driver, as well as pioneering specialist racing engines. 

    Darracq cars also pushed the boundaries of speed too, with great success in Land Speed Record attempts and on the racing circuit. Under the Darracq name, then again under the STD banner and yet again as Talbot-Lago, the cars from Suresnes always did France proud on the racing circuits of the world. 

    Until a certain celluloid spy driving an Aston Martin, Genevieve was the most famous car on the planet. She transformed the idea of owning old cars from the interest of strange men tinkering in the shed on out-of-date machinery into major international hobby which drove up the worth of these old cars and saved for the world a huge amount of historical information in through a tangible medium of the cars themselves. The passion that comes with the love of a car also secures that knowledge and shares it, often freely, to other enthusiasts and contribute greatly to the historic vehicle movement in all its various clubs and guises. 

    You don’t have to take our word for it though. The National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, England, declares 'Genevieve is the mascot of the old car movement.' What had been an endangered species prior the “Genevieve” suddenly became collectable treasures and the V.C.C.’s decision to support the film paid off for them too. That particular annual rally has continued to grow to this day. 

    This from a car which never left the factory looking like it does today, but champions the idea that automobiles, like people, evolve over time and it is a matter of discussion as to which period of appearance is the most authentic. 

    After “Genevieve” cemented the firm’s place in history with the wonderful film role, it is hard to fathom how Darracq has slipped away to being a Marque known only to historians and connoisseurs. Alexandre Darracq, his firm, the cars and the many engineers and artisans who have worked at Suresnes, deserve better. 

    This model was scratch built by Rod around 2016. While drawing up his 1/24th scale plans, using the Airfix 1/32nd Darracq as a guide and with dimensions from books and the internet, Rod found some rather large inaccuracies in the Airfix kit. Primarily it was too narrow, or too long depending upon with measurement you chose to use as a base line. The wheelbase is always the real place to start and Rod drew up a useable set of dimensions and plans from that. 

    With the plans done, diagrams and photos at hand Rod then set about the task of turning 2Dplans into 3D reality. In the end the only part of the model not scratch built is the chain that operates the exhaust pipe mounted warning whistle!

    Just like the Star of the film bearing the same name, this car has an appeal all of its own.

   Rod used Halfords acrylic spray primers and paints for the bodywork and major sub-assemblies. The smaller items, seats and details are painted with Humbrol enamel paints alongside acrylic paints from Citadel and Deco-Art; all of which were applied with a brush. 

   A fuller description of the scratch build process of this model can be found here. It is well worth a read to learn about scratch building.