Here we have the story of ‘one of France’s fine cars’, to quote William Boddy. Louis Delage had an unpromising start in life, losing the sight of one eye at a young age, but he turned out to be a clever engineer and young entrepreneur, setting up his own company to build dependable, if unadventurous, light cars. He promoted his business by racing specially built cars, mostly in ‘Voiturette’ events, and by 1912 he was selling 1,000 road cars per year. After the Great War Delage produced some exciting racing cars and ever more expensive and exotic road cars. Sales of prestige luxury cars fell in the early 1930s, and two divorces cost him his personal fortune. Louis Delage turned to religion and the ascetic life, and in 1935 his company was taken over by Delahaye, previously a competitor. Both car ranges, Delage and Delahaye, struggled on in the later 1930s, and tried to recover their lost market position in the postwar years, hobbled by the French government’s punitive taxes on large cars. The last desperate move for survival was when Delahaye merged with Hotchkiss in 1954, but by 1957 the combined firm, and all three car marques, had been taken over by a white goods manufacturer, and had ceased making motor vehicles.
That is quite an accolade for a car manufacturer largely forgotten by most car enthusiasts in the 21st century. Hotchkiss started out in the 19th century as an arms manufacturer, making the fortune of its founder, Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss, through sales to the Union side in the US Civil War. He moved to France in time to sell munitions for use in the Franco-Prussian war, then he began to design revolving cannon and machine guns. He was succeeded in charge at Hotchkiss in Paris by another American, Laurence Vincent Benét, with an Englishman, Charles Parsons, as company chairman. The company diversified into car production and Benét was succeeded by Henry Ainsworth, who brought another Englishman to Hotchkiss in the 1920s. Alfred Wilde was an accomplished car designer, responsible for the 1909 Standard Nine. Juste Milieu was the advertising slogan used by Hotchkiss. Loosely translated it means ‘A happy medium’. This understatement appears to be more British than French, and indeed, the whole company ethos was very British.
Hotchkiss produced fine cars, some sporting, others more luxurious, whilst still producing guns and tanks. In 1936 the armaments side of the business was nationalised, so Ainsworth expanded car production with a new advanced design by J A Grégoire. Hotchkiss took over another car firm, Amilcar, so the new car, built in the Hotchkiss factory, was badged as the Amilcar Compound. The postwar years were difficult for Hotchkiss, forced to make only large cars which were subject to punitive taxation in France. A merger with Delahaye, licence-building of Jeeps and Ferguson tractors, and expansion into the commercial vehicle market did not really solve the long-term problems at Hotchkiss. In 1954, therefore, Hotchkiss-Delahaye was taken over by Brandt, and car production ceased. Trucks, tractors and armoured vehicles remained in production until 1 January 1971, when Automobiles Hotchkiss closed down.